HL Deb 08 November 1989 vol 512 cc770-2

132 Clause 35, page 30, line 44, leave out 'variation or'.

133 Page 30, line 45, after 'or', insert 'the variation or discharge of a'.

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do agree with the Commons in their Amendments Nos. 132 and 133. I spoke to these amendments when I moved Amendment No. 127.

Moved, That the House do agree with the Commons in the said amendments. —(The Lord Chancellor.)

Lord Prys-Davies

My Lords, perhaps it would be for the convenience of the House and of the noble and learned Lord if I were to raise some anxieties about the guardians ad litem, because Amendments Nos. 132 and 133 relate to Clause 35 which in turn relates to these guardians. There has been a long running debate over the independence of the panels of guardians ad litem. The issue of the independence and status of such panels has been raised at almost every stage of the Bill's proceedings.

As I understand it, there remain three anxieties. First, it is regretted that the Bill does not provide for a separate and independent administration of funding of the panels. We appreciate that the Government have put forward the concept of an area panel which would embrace more than one local authority. However, I am told that there is very little support for the concept, and that it has in general been received with some dismay. Therefore I wonder whether the Government are prepared to think again on the issue and provide in the regulations for a truly independent structure.

The second anxiety arises out of recent speeches, including one made on 24th October at a family law conference by Her Honour Judge Bracewell QC, who is advising on the judicial administration necessary to ensure the best possible transition for new procedures. She said there will be considerable problems in having children represented by solicitors where guardians ad litem had been appointed and where there is no conflict of interest between the guardian and the child.

I understand that this situation has caused a great deal of concern among guardians ad litem. They believe that the independent representation of children cannot best be achieved if they are called upon to act as advocates, as well as being investigators and expert witnesses. I wonder whether the noble and learned Lord is able to elaborate upon the difficulties envisaged by Her Honour Judge Bracewell.

The third anxiety is the need to emphasise the importance of collecting statistics on the non-appointment of guardians. In Clause 63 the Bill empowers the Secretary of State to call upon the clerks of the court to submit information about proceedings relating to children. I wonder whether the noble and learned Lord is in a position to confirm that the Secretary of State will require the clerk of each court to submit information about the number of non-appointments of guardians and the reasons therefor.

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I am happy to address these matters which are of fundamental importance in relation to the implementation of the Bill. As noble Lords will be aware, the making of major changes in structure is difficult to accomplish while the structure is serving its current needs. We must try to deal with what we have and build upon it. That is the idea behind the panel system: trying to amalgamate local authorities so as to give a greater independence to the panel than it would have if it was connected only with a single local authority.

I am not surprised to hear that the idea has not been received with the most tremendous enthusiasm. But, on the other hand, trying to construct a national service would perhaps be received with even less enthusiasm, at least in some quarters. Therefore this is a step in the right direction and one which the Secretary of State will be pursuing.

Mention was made of the statement made by Her Honour Judge Bracewell. I do not know the precise context of the remark. However, my understanding is that the present arrangement for the guardian ad litem to instruct a representative remains. That is my understanding of the situation at present.

Another important issue was raised in this House when the Bill was before this Chamber on a previous occasion. It concerns the funding of guardians ad litem. As your Lordships know, an amendment was put forward to deal with the matter. The important consideration is that the local authorities concerned with guardians ad litem should make sufficient funds available to ensure that there is a proper arrangement for the necessary guardians. The amendment was withdrawn after I indicated that we would consider the matter further.

I am glad to say that I can now tell your Lordships that the Government propose to look for an early legislative opportunity to take a reserve power to enable the Secretary of State, with the consent of the Treasury, to make a specific grant in respect of expenditure for the setting up of the administration of panels established under regulations made under Clause 35(7); for the corresponding provisions to be added to the Adoption Act by way of Amendment No. 372; and for training fees and other expenses for panel members.

This is an important reserve power which we hope to put into legislation at an early opportunity. However, we must bear in mind all the problems we have with the legislative programme. It would be a reserve power to be used only if it proved necessary to do so in order to secure improvements to this important service for children in need.

So far as concerns the collection of information, the situation is that information from the courts is referred to in sufficiently general phrases to enable us to collect the information. Obviously anything that prevents a case being expeditiously and properly disposed of will be a matter upon which we shall wish to have information. I believe that the information-gathering machinery is adequate to ensure that matter. I hope that those remarks will reassure the noble Lord on the matters that he raised.

6.00 p.m.

Lord Prys-Davies

My Lords, we are grateful to the noble and learned Lord for the information that he has given us. I am sure that those who are concerned about the independence and effectiveness of the panel will welcome the news that the Government propose to secure a reserve power. That is moving in the right direction.

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, we have departed slightly from the subject matter that I was moving. I believe that we had reached Amendments Nos. 132 and 133.

On Question, Motion agreed to.