HL Deb 26 June 1997 vol 580 cc1654-8

4.7 p.m.

Baroness Jay of Paddington rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 9th June be approved [3rd Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, this order is made under Section 70 of the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994. It enables local authorities to contract out the provision of the guardian ad litem and reporting officer service for which they are responsible under the Guardians Ad Litem and Reporting Officers (Panels) Regulations 1991 as amended by the 1997 Panel Regulations. The order-making power is subject to affirmative resolution.

Guardians, or, as they are sometimes referred to, in what I must say is to my mind a rather cumbersome acronym, particularly on the basis of our previous discussion, GALROs, are appointed by courts in care and related proceedings under the Children Act 1989. Their functions are to report to the court on the child's wishes and feelings, to instruct a solicitor to act on behalf of the child and to examine which, if any, of the powers available to the court will best promote the child's welfare. In adoption proceedings under the Adoption Act 1976, there is a similar duty on guardians to report to the court on matters relating to the application. In freeing applications under the Adoption Act, the reporting officer's duties include ensuring that any part of any agreement to the making of the adoption order by the parent is given freely, unconditionally and with a full understanding of what is involved, and then witnessing such an agreement.

Under the 1991 regulations, a GALRO service is established by each local authority. There are 54 panels of GALROs in England, 25 of which are each provided by a single local authority. In many parts of the country, however, two or more local authorities have combined into consortia arrangements. That allows one of the authorities to administer the guardian service on behalf of the other authorities in the consortium. There are now 29 such arrangements, the largest being in London and covering 26 local authorities. Such an approach offers sensible economies of scale and can avoid unnecessary duplication of effort by a range of local authority, court and legal personnel.

Consortia arrangements are legally permissible under Section 101 of the Local Government Act 1972. In some parts of the country, the GALRO service is provided by a voluntary childcare organisation on behalf of the local authority. Those arrangements currently include four panels covering 32 local authorities. In Cornwall, the NSPCC administers the service; in Cheshire it is the Boys and Girls Welfare Society. The Inner and North London Panel is administered by the National Children's Bureau and that in the area formerly known as Humberside by the Children's Society. Barnardos administers one of the six panels covering Wales.

The 1997 order before your Lordships revokes an almost identical order approved 12 months ago. The new order has been brought forward to confirm that arrangements are acceptable and in accordance with the intentions of current legislation, including the Guardians Ad Litem and Reporting Officers (Panels) (Amendment) Regulations 1997. The regulations, which are shortly to be laid by negative resolution, make changes which are largely concerned with the handling of complaints within the guardian service and consequences arising from recent local government reorganisation.

The order also modifies the 1991 panel regulations as amended in 1997 so that, where the local authority has contracted out any of its functions under those regulations, the provision as to membership of the complaints board for that authority is modified so that the board cannot include the person to whom the function has been contracted out or an employee of that person. I stress that local authorities will retain the responsibility for ensuring that the GALRO service is provided, even where that service is contracted out, as in the examples I have given.

The order extends the choice available to local authorities in the discharge of their duty to provide the GALRO service. Three models will be available: a single authority panel of GALROs; a consortium between authorities where one agrees to administer the panel on behalf of the others; and a contracted-out panel serving one or more local authorities.

It will be entirely up to the local authority to decide which of the three types of arrangement it wishes to have in place. If it chooses a contracted-out approach, it may determine the extent to which some or all of the functions under the panel regulations are retained or contracted out. The order enables the local authority to contract out to a voluntary organisation or other organisation that the authority considers to be appropriate.

Local authorities are responsible for the costs of the GALRO service which are currently estimated at £20 million per year. Since 1992 there has been a specific grant administered by the Department of Health. That is £6.3 million in the current year. Any contracted-out arrangements will be paid for by the local authorities from within their existing financial resources.

Under the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994, the proposals have to be the subject of consultation. I am pleased to tell your Lordships that the Association of Directors of Social Services, and the Local Authority Associations have been consulted and have confirmed that they are content with the proposals as I have presented them to your Lordships. I commend the order to the House.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 9th June be approved.—(Baroness Jay of Paddington.)

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that very clear exposition of what is before us this afternoon. I am sure she will agree that this is a modest piece of legislation; it in no way changes the policy or the purpose of the original order. It actually clarifies the position to everybody's benefit.

In March last year when we were passing the original order, there were five local authorities or consortia which were contracting out services covering 30 local authorities in England and Wales. Today I believe that the noble Baroness said the number is about the same; it is about 29 local authorities. I ask the noble Baroness to confirm that.

This is important because the additional powers conferred on local authorities were very well thought out and it was hoped that more would make use of the increased flexibility that was offered. The intention was to ensure a greater degree of independence, because the essence of this service is that it should be independent of the local authority and at arm's length. I believe that when another organisation provides the service independence is more closely safeguarded. Perhaps the noble Baroness would be kind enough to clarify the position as to whether there has been an increase or a reduction in contracted-out services. I believe that the situation is a little more confused regarding England and Wales and that complicates it somewhat.

I would like to add that I am not in any way casting aspersions on the statutory childcare agencies. They have an extremely difficult job to do. However, sometimes Chinese walls are not quite as effective as one would hope and original intentions become blurred.

I also ask the noble Baroness whether there is still a shortage of guardians for these purposes. I know that three years ago there was concern that children were not being represented in court. I can think of one case in London where a child was placed under a secure accommodation order and liberty was denied to that child for nine weeks without the child having a guardian ad litem.

We very much support the situation before us, but there are some other points I would like to raise with the noble Baroness which concern standards. There was concern a year ago about standards. Perhaps she could tell us whether those fears were justified or whether they can now be put to rest. There was also concern about whether the machinery was working smoothly. Generally, without underestimating the difficulties of the jobs and the skills required, there was concern about the selection and performance of guardians, and I wish to ask her whether that is satisfactory and how often their appointments are now reviewed.

I appreciate that I have asked a number of detailed questions of the noble Baroness; if she wishes to write to me on them, of course I would be very happy for her to do so.

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her general support for what she rightly said is a relatively straightforward piece of legislation.

On the point about the number of authorities which are now covered by locally contracted out arrangements, as I understand it, there were five panels which covered 32 local authorities in 1996. This has now been changed to four panels because one of the children's societies in Cleveland, following the local government reorganisation, has now been absorbed into a different arrangement.

I agree with the noble Baroness that the ability to use the expertise of organisations such as the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and Barnados, which, as I said in my original remarks, operate some of the panels, is a guarantee of quality.

I gather that there is no general concern about the shortage of guardians, but I appreciate the tragic case which the noble Baroness drew to your Lordships' attention about the one child in London. It is something which we will need to keep a close eye on in those local authorities and in those places where the potential shortage is something which could cause problems.

On the whole, the detail about the questions of quality and of the arrangements for the individual panels is something about which, as the noble Baroness said, it would be more appropriate for me to write to her. Overall, I can give her the assurance that there is a feeling that, although some of the local authorities have contracted out the GALRO service, this has been done to organisations with a high quality reputation which can provide sufficient guardians across most of the country, although there may be some specific shortages.

The GALRO service enjoys a high reputation for skilled and effective work in the courts and for technical reasons, as I explained before, the proposed order revokes and replaces a similar one which was before your Lordships' House in 1996 but it does not in any way seek to undermine the system as it was in existence in 1996 or as we hope it will continue. I refer to what the noble Baroness said, quite rightly, about the monitoring of high standards and the provision to local authorities of professional input, which is sometimes effectively done by local voluntary organisations. We hope the new order will allow local authorities a continuing choice as to whether they wish to contract out any of the functions set out in the GALRO panel regulations, as we hope they will be amended. I commend the draft order to your Lordships.

On Question, Motion agreed to.