HL Deb 23 February 1995 vol 561 cc1287-98

5.47 p.m.

Baroness Denton of Wakefield rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 12th January be approved [6th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, in moving this order I shall speak also to the draft Children (Northern Ireland Consequential Amendments) Order 1995. Both orders were laid before this House on 12th January.

The Children (Northern Ireland) Order will provide Northern Ireland with a framework of childcare law which is broadly in line with that provided in England and Wales under the Children Act 1989. The consequential amendments order, which has been considered by the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, amends a number of enactments applying solely to Great Britain or to the United Kingdom as a whole as a result of changes introduced by the Children Act.

The new legislation will bring together most of the public and private law relating to children in Northern Ireland within a single statute. Its essential purpose is to promote and safeguard the welfare of children. It will have a major impact on a very wide range of services and on a large number of statutory and voluntary agencies in the delivery of those services. I will not attempt to describe all of the provisions in detail.

The order has been the subject of widespread consultation. However, your Lordships may find it useful if I comment briefly on the principles upon which it is based.

The foremost principle is that the welfare of the child is paramount. The order recognises parents as the best people to bring up their children and will establish that help must be provided both by health and social services boards and trusts for children in need and their families. In that regard, the new legislation will also give special recognition to the needs of disabled children, to the importance of working in partnership with parents and to the need for partnership between the voluntary and statutory agencies in the provision of help. It will also introduce the important concept of parental responsibility and will provide that parents will continue to have parental responsibility for their children, even if they are taken into care.

The order will ensure that, should it become necessary for the courts to become involved in issues regarding a child's future, the welfare of the child must remain the paramount consideration. It makes clear that courts should not make orders unless such a course is in the best interests of the child. Moreover, courts will be required to have regard to the particular needs of the child and to recognise that delay in proceedings is likely to be prejudicial to his or her welfare. They will also be required to have regard to the ascertainable wishes and feelings of the child and to help give effect to that.

The order will provide for the appointment, in most care and care-related proceedings, of a guardian ad litem. The guardian will be an independent social worker who will report to the court on what would be best for the child. In all family proceedings, courts will also be provided with a new flexible range of powers which will replace the current access and custody orders and which will govern such matters as the contact the child is to have with other persons and the arrangements as to the person with whom the child is to live.

There are, unfortunately, circumstances where children must be protected from danger and the order will provide powers for the courts to make emergency protection orders and child assessment orders. It will also provide for children to be taken into police protection in an emergency. Whenever children must be looked after away from home, whether as a result of a court order or under voluntary arrangements, the children order will provide that their welfare is safeguarded and promoted. The Department of Health and Social Services will be provided with wide regulation-making powers which will ensure that accommodation provided by health and social services boards and trusts, and that provided by voluntary and other children's homes, is of a high standard and subject to regular inspection. Extensive provision is also made, through detailed registration and inspection procedures, to secure the welfare of children looked after away from home for part of the day by those providing childminding and day-care services.

As I have noted, the draft children order has been the subject of extensive consultation. It was the subject of a debate in the Northern Ireland Committee in February last year and of subsequent discussions between myself and members of the committee with representatives of voluntary childcare organisations. I believe that I can safely say that anyone who wished to come and talk about such an important order was most certainly not refused the opportunity to do so.

I should like to draw your Lordships' attention to the changes which have been made following that consultation. The first relates to the registration requirements for those providing day care and childminding services. The requirement to register has been extended to those providing services for children under the age of 12. Again, in relation to childminding, the order will now require that only those providing such services for reward will be required to register. Further, in the light of concerns that it would be impracticable to require all those providing supervised activities to register as providers of day care, the order will now enable the Department of Health and Social Services to exempt certain supervised activities from registration. However, I can assure noble Lords that that will only be done with the greatest of care.

A change has also been made with regard to the powers and duties of health and social services boards and trusts to provide accommodation for children. The effect of that will be to ensure that all accommodation provided must be in a proper care setting. Some changes have also been made with regard to children's homes. First, in the light of concerns that homes accommodating fewer than four children would not have been required to register under the provisions set out in the proposal, a change has been made which will ensure that all children's homes must be registered regardless of the number of children accommodated. Secondly, it has been decided that, as the imposition of registration and inspection fees would place a burden on voluntary children's homes, the provision which would have enabled fees to be imposed on voluntary organisations has been dropped from the draft order. The provisions for fees to be imposed on those providing childminding and day-care services have also been dropped.

Other substantive changes include a change to the jurisdictional arrangements under which appeals from magistrates' courts will lie to the Country Court rather than the High Court. Additional provisions are also included to allow for the establishment of separate care units within training school complexes.

It was widely commented upon during consultation that no provision had been made for an annual report on the legislation. I am pleased to confirm that the order now includes such a requirement.

I am very hopeful that the greatest beneficiaries of peace will be our children, not only as the future generations but in the present. As the ceasefire removes stress from the whole community we must hope that children will be listened to more and protected. But the vulnerable will continue to need the protection offered by the orders. I hope that they will receive widespread support. They will, I believe, ensure that the children of Northern Ireland receive the care and upbringing that they deserve and which is their right. I commend the orders to the House.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 12th January be approved [6th Report from the Joint Committee].—(Baroness Denton of Wakefield.)

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, there are some questions which are quite serious —both general and particular—about this very bulky item of legislation. There are 185 articles, 261 pages and no fewer than 10 schedules, giving an enormous range of opportunity for altering the provisions for childcare. I know that several Members of your Lordships' House have particularly detailed questions to ask. Therefore, I shall confine myself to more general matters.

It seems to us to be rather disappointing that it has taken all this time after the Children Act 1989 covering England and Wales (which, by and large, has been a great success) for matters affecting Northern Ireland to be dealt with. One of the greatest successes of the Children Act has been the informed, concentrated training of designated judges. If I may say so, that has been a great success for the Lord Chancellor's Department and one which is very widely recognised. However, is it intended to introduce equivalent training, and funding for such training, for the judges and others who have to administer the new regime in Northern Ireland? That is a critical question and I should be most grateful if the Minister could assist in that respect.

Where is the identified extra funding to come from for such a wide ranging item of legislation containing all the articles to which I referred? I have in mind family support services, children with disabilities, child protection services, aftercare provision and court service provision. Further, will there be the provision of independent legal representation for children involved in parental disputes beyond the present provision of the guardian ad litem?

From these Benches, I should like to pay particular tribute to the Children Order Group which has carried out so much detailed work in the area. When I look at the order and the present absence of any reassurance about funding, I must say that I am concerned about the lack of a common strategy to deal with social services, education and housing services thus enabling them to work together. We have the experience of what has happened for some years now in England and Wales. That experience demonstrates irrefutably, I believe, that there has been a very substantial increase in local authority budgetary requirements to deal with the new provisions. Will that funding be made available in the Northern Ireland context?

I have with me a few statistics which are deeply significant. For example, 27 per cent. of the population is under 18 in Northern Ireland and 19 per cent. of families are lone-parent families. That means that there are 95,000 children. Moreover, there are 62,000 households with dependent children who rely on income support. It is notorious, I believe, that Northern Ireland has the lowest provision of pre-school places in the United Kingdom. These are all serious questions about which, as I said earlier, many in your Lordships' House are deeply concerned, and on which they would welcome specific reassurance from the Minister either this evening or in writing.

We are extremely glad to see the distinct improvement which the Minister mentioned; namely, the provision of the annual report, because our belief is that such an annual report is quite invaluable. It is a useful discipline within the 12-month period and it is an exceptionally valuable source of information at the end of the period. As the Minister has said, over the past 25 years children have suffered more than anyone in Northern Ireland. I believe that we in your Lordships' House certainly recognise the enormous stresses, strains and pressures put on childcare professionals in such circumstances over such a long period of time—professionals working in all disciplines to do with children.

Therefore there are serious concerns, not on any partisan basis, about what the future will hold. The magic wand will simply not do in the context of an order as detailed as this. I have one final question to ask, recognising that others have many more detailed questions. Why is it that social services are administered by trusts in Northern Ireland and are not so administered elsewhere in the United Kingdom? There is a feeling in Northern Ireland that sometimes the people there are used as guinea-pigs. Is there not a sensible case for having a single body in Northern Ireland to have overall responsibility for childcare in Northern Ireland?

I recognise, of course, that there is a significant democratic deficit in Northern Ireland for historic reasons that everyone recognises, but there is a strong feeling—which I believe to be legitimately based—that one should not have trusts, with all their deficiencies too numerous to specify, dealing with matters as important as the care of children by social services. We shall not, of course, vote against this order or anything of that kind, but there are these questions which I repeat do not derive from a partisan approach but derive from an approach which is motivated by serious concerns.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, we also welcome these new regulations on the care of children. It is, I believe, the case that in Northern Ireland there is a higher proportion of children living in poverty or suffering from disabilities than in any other part of the United Kingdom. Therefore provision of this kind is especially necessary and in many ways—perhaps to some extent we can understand this—it is overdue. But nonetheless it is extremely necessary. We welcome the fact that provision is now being made.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Williams, I, too, think that this is a big subject which cannot perhaps be suitably dealt with in a discussion on a regulation. I believe that many of us would like the opportunity to discuss it more fully on some other occasion. I see the noble Baroness nodding her head. I am sure she will be willing to give us that opportunity. There are several questions that I wish to raise with her.

In the account that she gave us of the plans it was plain that considerable emphasis was being put on the provision of residential care and on the standards to be provided in residential care. But I understand that there is within the overall schemes provision for family support—the attempt to build up care for children in their families by giving assistance to the family. I would not claim to be at all expert on this subject, but as I understand it most people would agree that if the child can be supported within its own family that is much to be preferred to support given in any kind of institution. However, where there is considerable poverty, where there is disability and where there has been turmoil, distress and the psychological disturbance which is inevitable in many families in Northern Ireland, it will not be easy to do that. The kind of support that families will need will inevitably be extensive and expensive.

Those who have talked to us about the hoped-for developments in Northern Ireland for family support have raised the whole question of funding. We all know that giving care inside the family is not cheap if it is done properly. It involves, for example, the provision—and the noble Baroness referred to this—of day care services. It requires a great deal of support and the provision of services to enable the families we are talking about who live with the degree of deprivation we are talking about, to cope and to be able to give the proper upbringing and support and care to those children who are so greatly in need of it. As we understand it, a considerable amount of money will be needed. Over a period of five years as much as an additional £45 million a year will be needed if the schemes are to be properly run.

I also wish to ask the noble Baroness how these schemes are to be controlled. What kind of plan is there for the development of a strategy to ensure that these new schemes are put into operation properly and are monitored so that we know that the desired results are being obtained? As the noble Baroness knows so much better than I—and I dare say other people in your Lordships' House—in Northern Ireland a remarkable amount of work has been done by voluntary organisations. Their contribution to the work that has gone on in Northern Ireland has been quite outstanding and very extensive. Will the noble Baroness assure us that in the planning and development of care for children and the implementation of all the schemes that they have in mind, the voluntary organisations will not merely be consulted but will be given an opportunity to take an active part in the development of those schemes? However good they may be officials cannot have the day-to-day intimate knowledge of what is involved in dealing with problems of this kind. The knowledge and experience of people who have long worked in these voluntary organisations surely needs to be used at the time of formulating policy and in the follow-up of the implementation of that policy, not just in a consultative capacity. They should be given the opportunity to take an active part in the formulation of the plans, the monitoring of the plans and the revision of the plans.

Baroness Faithfull

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend the Minister for presenting this order to the House today. It gives me particular pleasure to speak in this debate. Although I am half a Scot, half English and not Irish, nevertheless I have been delighted to be invited to the Province of Northern Ireland on four different occasions. I have met social workers in the Province and members of the voluntary organisations. I pay tribute to the work which they have done throughout these difficult years and to the high standard of that work.

I was interested to hear my noble friend the Minister say, first, that the welfare of the child is paramount and, secondly, that children are the responsibility first of parents. We must never forget that. The English Children Act 1989 lays down that all those responsible for the well-being of children should co-operate and work alongside one another. I wish to pay tribute to the Children Act 1989, remembering that when that Act was being thought about everyone in the country was consulted by the Department of Health. Meetings were called with social workers, probation officers, magistrates, doctors, lawyers and judges. That Act was well thought out and deep consultation took place at all levels so that when the Act was brought before your Lordships' House by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor, I dare to suggest that it went through easily without much acrimonious discussion, or rather disagreement, because there is rarely much acrimonious discussion in your Lordships' House as we are so polite.

I am glad to see the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, in her place because when the regulations and guidance for the Education Bill were issued, she and her civil servants consulted widely with the people involved in dealing with all handicapped children. I welcome the fact that she paid tribute to those people working in the field who helped to produce those regulations.

I should like to ask the Minister whether the position will be the same in Northern Ireland under the order. Will there be close contact between civil servants and others who are interested in the order? I had the privilege of meeting senior civil servants, as well as social workers, voluntary organisations, members of the Bar and judges. The success of the order will depend on their close co-operation.

Can my noble friend say whether senior civil servants will hold discussions and co-operate with social workers, voluntary organisations, lawyers and judges in formulating the regulations and guidance? I am given to understand that the guidelines produced for England are being looked at in the Province.

The noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, and the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, touched on the question of resources. I say with the utmost diffidence that there have been difficulties in England and Wales with the implementation of the 1989 Act due to lack of resources. I know that everyone is talking about lack of resources in every area in this country at present, and I admit that we have to cut back on public expenditure. However, I contend that if, as Lord Williams of Mostyn said, there are insufficient resources to implement the order as it should be implemented, we shall cause more trouble and lower expectations. In the end, having the right resources will be cost effective in this area. That should be recognised. Therefore, I plead with the Minister to look at the whole question of resources very carefully.

I am given to understand that estimates have been produced by civil servants and also by social workers and the voluntary organisations. I underline what the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, said. The voluntary organisations play an important part, and they are having great difficulty in raising money—as we all are. They have particular difficulties and I hope that their financial situation will be taken into account.

On the subject of monitoring and the annual report, can my noble friend the Minister say who will be responsible for producing the annual report? Will it be brought before this House? Will it be a public report? Will it be considered only in Northern Ireland, or will it be brought before the House?

Training is very important. I do not understand fully the question of the financial help that will be provided for the training of social workers in the Province. However, that is a matter which also has to be taken into account. We on this side of the water wish this order well. We believe that children, parents and particularly families in Northern Ireland require and deserve the best service that we can give them. I support the order.

6.15 p.m.

Lord Fitt

My Lords, I apologise for not having been present when the noble Baroness presented the order. I was otherwise detained.

I rise for only a few minutes to support fully the plea which has been made by the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, for the provision of adequate resources to implement the order.

The noble Lord, Lord Williams, said, as I entered the Chamber, that perhaps this House—and indeed the House at the other end of the building—is not the best centre to debate an order such as this. This order replaces the 1968 order. I recall vividly when that order was debated in the Northern Ireland Parliament. I suggest that the Northern Ireland Parliament, as it was then constructed, with Members who represented local communities and were close to the ground and aware of the needs of the Northern Ireland community, was far more in touch with the needs which gave rise to the 1968 order.

Everyone will recognise that over the past 25 years children and young people in Northern Ireland have been sadly affected by all forms of terrorism. There cannot be a higher priority for this House, or anywhere else, than to provide for the welfare of children in Northern Ireland. We all hope that the document which was produced yesterday and the signs of peace that are emerging in Northern Ireland will produce a peace dividend and that money will not have to be spent on the security forces and on barriers on roads. If surplus money is retrieved as a result of non-provision for those aspects of security, it could not be better spent than on the provision of welfare services for young people in Northern Ireland.

I hope that in the implementation of the order the Government will pay due regard to how children in Northern Ireland have suffered over the past 25 years, and take whatever steps are necessary to make certain that those children who will be the beneficiaries of the order will not have to suffer in the same way as young people have suffered in the past.

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have contributed to this very important debate on the Children (Northern Ireland) Order. As the noble Lord, Lord Fitt—who painted a picture of the situation in Northern Ireland as no one else could—said, there are special needs. We are determined to meet those needs.

I can reassure the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, that already we have been able to benefit from some of the limited reduction in spending on security by working with the long-term unemployed and directing some money towards educational buildings. I hope that there will be much more money available which we can redirect. We have the commitment of the Prime Minister that that money can be used in Northern Ireland.

As both the noble Lord, Lord Williams, and the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, pointed out, the number of children who are particularly disadvantaged and vulnerable is higher in Northern Ireland than elsewhere in Great Britain. That means that we must ensure the excellence of the programmes of support that we provide.

It was questioned why it had taken so long to bring the order forward. I have sympathy with that comment; but I point out that we have tried to ensure that we took on board the views of everyone concerned. The original consultation period was the usual one of three months. Owing to requests for more time, that was extended. In addition to the public consultation, the draft order was also the subject of debate in the Northern Ireland Grand Committee in February last year. That committee meeting resulted in many changes, which again went to consultation, and, as I said earlier this evening, were incorporated into the draft order. I hope that it will be recognised that the delay has been beneficial.

The noble Lord, Lord Williams, raised the question of pre-school support in Northern Ireland. One of the major areas of pre-school support in Northern Ireland is child minding. That is why we were especially concerned with ensuring that support would be available through the withdrawal of fees. He will, I know, be pleased to hear that an early years programme, which was announced by the Minister for Health and the Minister for Education earlier this year, brought forth another £1 million for the programme working in that area.

I had the great good fortune to be Minister for Health in Northern Ireland for the first term of my appointment there. I must say that I had some pangs on withdrawal from the portfolio. However, that appointment left me absolutely convinced that Northern Ireland is not a guinea pig as regards integrated health and social services; rather it is a leader. It is interesting that several areas in England are now studying the practice. It allows greater exchange of views and, I believe, strengthens the safety net in which people find themselves from time to time because the whole team works together. Having seen the commitment of trusts in Northern Ireland, I would argue, although perhaps on another occasion, about the deficiencies to which the noble Lord referred.

Of course, as the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, mentioned, family support is absolutely crucial. The great advantage of family support is that in many instances it can be in the format of preventive care so that we avoid the heavy cost involved in circumstances where we have not been able to help. Family support will be a major plank of our policy.

I am also delighted to tell the noble Baroness that we have already put in place, with funds, programmes for stress counselling in Northern Ireland. There is no doubt that, with the pressures of the ceasefire removed, the stresses have not gone away; they are different.

The noble Lord, Lord Williams, asked whether we shall train the judiciary in the way that has been implemented in Great Britain. At an early stage officials in Northern Ireland identified a need for a co-ordinated training programme to be implemented prior to the order coming into operation. Training will be made available, with the co-operation of a Judicial Studies Board, to members of the judiciary, a juvenile lay panel, and court staff who will be involved in applications under the order. Training of the lay panel has already commenced. There will be funds. In the 1995–96 budgets existing funds of up to £2 million will, in part, cover the new legislation training. The start-up of the guardian ad litem service also requires funds.

All noble Lords were concerned about the resource implications and the resource availabilities for the children order. The Government recognise the considerable implications for resources that the order will involve. The order will replace existing legislative framework and note needs to be taken of the resources already deployed, which will need to be redirected, and of the development of childcare services already in hand.

Nevertheless, although the figures vary between groups, it is recognised that additional resources will need to be deployed. They will be phased in. We cannot run with the order before we walk. It would be wrong to do so. Equally, it would be wrong for me to stand here and indicate that there are bottomless pits. Everyone in your Lordships' House knows that there are no bottomless pits of resources. However, I reassure noble Lords that we believe that it is one of the most important areas for the future of Northern Ireland.

I join with all noble Lords who paid tribute to the voluntary groups in Northern Ireland. I believe that one of the reasons that we are able to deliver such a high standard of care and support in areas of need is because of the great strength of the voluntary groups. As the noble Baroness, Lady Faithful', pointed out, they are always short of funds. Nevertheless, I doubt that there is a more generous nation than the people of Northern Ireland in contributing to those voluntary groups.

Perhaps I may assure your Lordships that officials recognise not only the value of consultation with voluntary groups and others involved in child care but also the absolute need to involve them. There is need to learn from their skills and to bring them on board. The order will not benefit children unless there is partnership and teamwork; and we most certainly recognise that factor.

The question of monitoring was raised. The management executive in Northern Ireland, assisted by the social services inspectorate, will monitor the implementation of the order, in particular Article 18 which requires boards and trusts to support families in need. The outcome will be reported in the annual report. The requirement is that the Department of Health and Social Services shall consult with the Lord Chancellor, the Department of Education and the Department of Finance and Personnel, before the report comes to publication. I am unable to ascertain whether it will be brought to the House. However, I shall find out and write to my noble friend.

The department is also funding a new research centre with Queen's University in Belfast specifically to undertake evaluation and research following commencement of the order.

Perhaps I may say to the noble Lord, Lord Williams, that there will be steps to provide legal representation in disputes between parents; and in the more difficult cases the Official Solicitor remains available to protect the interests of the child in the High Court.

I thank noble Lords for the support for the order and the recognition of why it is so important to Northern Ireland. It gives me great pleasure to commend the order.

On Question, Motion agreed to.