HL Deb 04 March 1996 vol 570 cc74-7

7.20 p.m.

Baroness Miller of Hendon

My Lords, I beg to move that the draft Contracting Out (Management Functions in relation to certain Community Homes) Order 1996, laid before the House on 16th January, be approved.

Your Lordships will recollect that the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 included powers of demonopolisation of the provision of secure accommodation in residential children's homes. That measure was brought forward after full consultation with local government and the voluntary and private sectors. The power was implemented in May last year. Also included in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act was a power to enable local authorities to contract out the management of existing secure accommodation in community homes and, with the consent of managers, in controlled community homes.

That power will be implemented shortly. The statutory instrument before us today relates to an order-making power included in the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994 and will enable local authorities to contract out the management of open (non-secure) accommodation in community homes. We have consulted on this measure with interested parties, including local government organisations.

All the powers that I have mentioned are interrelated. They support the Government's policy towards the child care system, which is to encourage a wide and diverse range of providers as in other aspects of social services. We believe that local authorities should be able to bring the philosophy and experience of the voluntary sector or the particular skills of the private sector to bear on the management of children's homes. Local authorities should also be able to choose from a range of options in their search for the most efficient and effective ways of providing accommodation for "looked after" children.

Residential care remains an important element in the options open to local authorities in placing looked after children. It represents a positive choice, not a last resort, and the quality of care should be of the highest order. This measure offers local authorities greater flexibility in making arrangements for such care.

I should like to reassure your Lordships that local authorities will continue to be responsible for decisions about the placement of children in their care and they will continue to have proper regard for the rights and welfare of young people.

I should also like to make it clear that, as soon as a legislative opportunity presents itself, the Government will bring in a power to enable local authorities to contract out open accommodation in controlled community homes. The lack of such provisions presents an anomaly which, because of parliamentary time constraints, we were unable to rectify when the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994 passed through this House.

This matter has already received consideration in the Standing Committee of the other place, where it was not opposed. Indeed, it was described by the Opposition as largely "uncontentious".

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 16th January be approved [6th Report from the Joint Committee].—(Baroness Miller of Hendon.)

Lord Carter

My Lords, the House will be grateful to the Minister for her very clear explanation of the order. I did not entirely understand one point. Paragraph 2(2) leaves out of the order the contracting out—or the privatisation—of secure homes. When the Minister replies, perhaps she will amplify the last point that she made about the new order which the Government intend to bring in. She referred to, open accommodation in controlled community homes". I presume that those are not homes which are secure homes. Perhaps she will clarify that point, because those are specifically left out of this order for reasons that I fully understand. If she will explain that, I shall be grateful.

From these Benches we are pleased to support the order. I have a few questions on clarification. What are the cost implications, if any, for the local authorities? Are they related to costs or efficiency? How will emergency referrals be handled? Will the contracts let be based on the number of places provided with some spare capacity allowed, or will the contracts be let on some other basis? I imagine that there are occasions when those homes are used for temporary accommodation while children are awaiting fostering. Presumably there will have to be some leeway in the contract to allow either for temporary use or for emergency referrals.

Will the Minister also tell the House what arrangements will be made for the education of the children where the management is contracted out? Will the contract have specific educational provisions or are those to be the responsibility of the relevant education authority? If there is an overlap between the two, how will it be handled?

Finally, and most crucially, what are the inspection and supervision arrangements for these contracts? Who will be finally responsible for ensuring that the requirements are met which we all accept? We have had some unfortunate episodes in children's homes in recent years. I am sure that the Minister is satisfied, but we should like it on the record that contracting out will not lead to a greater risk of such unfortunate incidents.

The children in these homes have come from disturbed and disadvantaged backgrounds. We should not add to the burdens on them. I am sure that that is not the intention of the order. If the Minister will explain those points, and, in particular, the open and controlled environment, I shall be grateful.

Baroness Miller of Hendon

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Carter, for his thoughtful contribution, and the questions that he posed. I shall do my best to deal with those anxieties. I shall leave his first concern until the end.

The first question that the noble Lord asked me was how local authorities will meet the cost of placing children. There should not be any costs. The revenue costs of running children's homes already fall on the local authorities, which may charge other authorities placing children. Central government also pays local authorities in respect of certain types of placement. That will continue. However, if there are cost implications regarding the management, those will be offset by savings in not having directly to manage the homes.

The noble Lord was concerned about emergency referrals and spare capacity. If the judgment of the local authority is such that some spare capacity is needed, there is no difference between allowing for spare capacity in local authority-run homes and those subject to contracted out management. They may all be part of the contract and one would expect it to be covered by the contracting out services within the home.

One would expect the education and question of where the authorities place the children to be arranged through the contracts. We are certainly not trying to change the regime in any way.

The noble Lord is right to bring attention to the importance of inspection. I am pleased to tell him that inspection arrangements for children's residential care are being considered as part of the 1995 review, which deals with all inspection and regulation arrangements. But in the meantime, as the purchasers, local authorities will wish to satisfy themselves about the level and quality of care service which is provided. The contract, in effect, will be a powerful tool that the local authority can exercise.

Section 70 of the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act does not allow secure homes to be contracted out but the Government intend to enable contracting out of secure and controlled community homes when the legislative time allows. As I understand it, the controlled homes are a historical anomaly; they were the old approved homes. They are not covered by the secure homes legislation to which I referred at the beginning of my speech.

I am sure that noble Lords will agree with me that the measure before the House today will allow local authorities greater flexibility in the delivery of an important service. Residential care remains a significant element in looking after those children who, for one reason or another, are in the public care. For, while the number of young people placed in residential care has reduced in recent years, those who are placed are often the most difficult and disturbed. We owe a duty to them to ensure that high quality services are available and that those services represent value for the taxpayers' money. The contracting out order achieves this by ensuring that all the safeguards currently in place will remain, added to which the wealth of experience of the voluntary and private sector can be brought to bear on this area of provision. I hope that I have managed to reassure the noble Lord on the matters that concerned him. I commend the order to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure until twenty minutes past eight.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The Sitting was suspended from 7.31 to 8.20 p.m.]