HL Deb 12 March 1996 vol 570 cc808-12

7.40 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Baroness Cumberlege) rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 12th February be approved [10th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, if noble Lords will allow me, I should like to express my concern and sympathy, I feel sure supported by your Lordships, for my noble friend Lady Faithfull who has been taken ill today. She is in hospital, and, I hope, being well looked after by the NHS. I hope that she will make a speedy recovery. The order is a subject close to my noble friend's heart and I know she would have wished to have been here had she been able.

The order is under Section 17(4) of the Children Act 1989. It amends Schedule 2 to the Act to make it mandatory on local authorities to plan children's services; consult a wide range of agencies; publish the resulting plans.

The services referred to are those provided by local authorities under Part III of the Children Act. They are some of the most important. They are for children who are deemed to be "in need". The Act defines children "in need" as those who without local authority services would be "unlikely to achieve or maintain … a reasonable standard of health or development",

or whose health or development is likely to be significantly impaired, or further impaired",

or who are disabled.

In other words, those are children who must have that extra bit of help if they are to be given a fair chance in life. These are children whose families need support, or children whose parents—for whatever reason—cannot look after them. They are truly personal services aimed at individual children and families and a challenge for local authorities who have to plan and provide them.

The Children Act has always required local authorities to provide services to children "in need" and to publicise them. But in 1991 Sir William Utting in his report Children in the Public Care recommended that: The Secretary of State issue a direction requiring local authorities to produce and publish plans for children's services; the Department of Health to issue guidance on the content of plans and monitor their implementation.

The following year, local authorities were advised that they should produce and publish children's services plans. Two studies subsequently undertaken by the Social Services Inspectorate showed that in 1993 the majority of local authorities were heeding this advice and intended to produce plans; in 1994 many authorities had addressed the task with much thought, thoroughness and creativity, but that the standard varied and the picture was not uniform.

The Audit Commission report Seen But Not Heard published in 1994 represents the second "big push" to establish planning for children's services. It drew attention to the overlap, yet lack of co-ordination, between health, education and social services. It promoted joint planning as a means to make resources go further. The report recommended that the Government should take the lead in raising the status of children's services plans by ensuring that they were joint, mandatory and published.

In response to that call, we announced in June last year that we intended to make an order to make the planning of children's services and the publication of the resulting plans a social services function by amending Part I of Schedule 2 to the Children Act 1989.

A draft circular and guidance were issued for consultation last year. I am happy to be able to report that there was strong support for our proposals from local authority organisations, social services departments and the voluntary sector. Not one voice opposed the proposal.

We are issuing guidance to explain the order and to suggest what local authorities could think about when planning services. It will not be "Section 7" guidance, as we do not want to be prescriptive. We recognise that those plans must meet local needs, solve local problems and reflect local patterns of inter-agency co-operation.

Inter-agency co-operation is vital. The order requires local authorities to consult health and education authorities, NHS trusts, certain voluntary organisations, the police, the probation service and other relevant bodies. This is a wide range. But they have a core common interest—the sound development of children. Children's services planning is about forging alliances between those agencies. The way they work together is crucial for children and families. They will have different perspectives and different priorities, but that core common interest should underpin their willing co-operation in planning children's services.

We are not making inter-agency co-operation mandatory. We know that good partnerships exist, not because legislation demands it, but because all the agencies involved realise that it is the only way to deliver good quality, efficient and economic services to children and their families. We want to encourage others to that realisation.

The Government are setting a modest example. The guidance on children's services planning will be issued jointly by the Department of Health and the Department for Education and Employment and will be distributed by the NHS Executive and the Home Office.

The voluntary sector is also recognised as a key player. It has a distinguished history of providing services for children and families and its contribution has always been acknowledged.

While the order specifies consultation with statutory and voluntary agencies, they should not be the only ones involved in the planning process. The Children Act stresses the importance of working with children, parents, family and carers. Children's services are not something "done" to the people who use them. They must be designed to suit children and families and not vice versa. So the guidance encourages local authorities to listen to users, involve them in planning and take their views seriously.

Today people expect to be more involved in the services they receive. Thanks to the Citizen's Charter, there are now, quite rightly, higher expectations of public service. Citizen's Charter principles should underpin children's services planning, as should the principles of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, ratified by the UK in 1991.

This order offers a real opportunity for all agencies concerned with children to sit down and plan services which are effective, efficient and meet their needs, and those of their parents and families. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 12th February be approved [10th Report from the Joint Committee].—(Baroness Cumberlege.)

Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, first, I echo the Minister in wishing the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, well, and say how sad on we on these Benches were to hear of her sudden illness.

We on these Benches welcome this important amendment to the Children Act. As the Minister has explained, there was wide consultation on the proposals contained in it. We do not intend to be the lone voice opposing them. As she said, it attracted universal support.

The order will provide a secure basis upon which children's services can be jointly planned and executed. In many areas of course the statutory and voluntary agencies which are now explicitly included in the order already work together to provide a co-operative approach to the needs of each child. Their best practice will now become a mandatory requirement for all local authorities, and that is greatly to be welcomed.

We are especially delighted that the Government have decided—perhaps one can say somewhat uncharacteristically—to create a national gold standard, because too often in our view they are content to leave the detailed administration of the social policy entirely to local discretion. That (what we see as an abrogation of central responsibility) has often led to unfair discrepancies between services in different places.

It is therefore particularly significant that the Department of Health has decided to take a proactive lead to ensure universal standards and procedures for children's services. We hope very much that the order will produce coherence and equality.

The Government were stimulated to act by the Audit Commission report Seen But Not Heard, as the Minister explained. At the time of that report only one-quarter of the authorities visited had developed a joint approach for planning for children in need. The Audit Commission noted the ambiguity between the roles of professionals and the fact that services were often unfocused on the specific needs of one individual child.

Disturbingly, the report spoke also of a lack of evaluation and stated that there was little information about the impact of the £2 billion a year that is spent on community health and social care for children. Sadly, there have been many tragic cases in recent years where children have been seriously abused or even murdered by members of their families. However, local agencies already knew they were at risk. So often a subsequent inquiry has cited lack of co-ordination between agencies as a primary cause of a child being inadequately protected. Perhaps schools did not keep in touch with social services or health visitors did not report their suspicions to the police. Or a child might be discharged from a casualty department with broken bones and then fall through any follow-up net in the provision of services. Now co-ordination will be obligatory and it is to be hoped there will be fewer disastrous cases to inquire into.

Co-ordination is equally important in considering less extreme circumstances involving children. Problems such as truancy, school exclusions, petty crime and drugs misuse should benefit from the joint approach which will be the result of the order. I am particularly pleased that the order includes voluntary agencies in the consortium approach. Local voluntary sector workers are so often able to gain the confidence of families in trouble, perhaps more quickly than statutory services. The voluntary sector should play a central role in an effective framework of children's services and it is right that they will be automatically included through the new legislation.

In 1994 the Audit Commission stated in summary that the Government could raise the status of joint children's service plans by making them mandatory between social services and health and education authorities and requiring them to be published. At last the Government have acted. We welcome this national approach to strategically planned and co-ordinated services for families and their children in need.

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, I welcome support from the noble Baroness. I am not surprised because it echoes the strong support that we have received from local authority associations, individual authorities, voluntary organisations and professional bodies. We believe that the order represents an important step forward for children. We know that careful planning in consultation with other agencies can result in a seamless approach to the provision of services. If families can receive the services and he supported at an early stage some of the most drastic interventions, which we believe are so traumatic, may be avoided. I commend the order to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.