HL Deb 02 October 2000 vol 616 cc1251-8

(" . It shall be the duty of the Social Services Inspectorate—(a) to inspect and report to the Secretary of State on the performance by the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, and the officers of the Service, of their functions, and (b) to discharge, in connection with those functions or with related functions of any other person, such functions as the Secretary of State may from time to time direct.").

The noble Earl said: This amendment stands also in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch.

It has already been the job of the Social Services Inspectorate to examine the work of guardians ad litem. SSI inspectors often have recognised social work qualifications and experience. They are certainly from a culture of social work or social work research. They are therefore well-equipped to judge whether the service is working in the interests of children and families. Their appointment as the inspectorate would signal clearly that the welfare of children and families is at the heart of CAFCASS's work. Indeed, I very much hope that the Government will use the expertise of the Social Services Inspectorate continually to elevate the standards of CAFCASS's work.

The magistrates' inspectorate, on the other hand, does not have expertise in the area of child and family welfare. Its focus is on administration and property management. Surely, it would he in the best interests of children and families if the SSI were charged with the inspection of CAFCASS and was then empowered to draw on the valuable experience of the magistrates' inspectorate as necessary. I beg to move.

Baroness Hanham

I support the noble Earl in his comments. The important point is that there should be an inspectorate of the service. We are dealing with the question of who should carry out the inspection. I agree with the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, that the Social Services Inspectorate is probably more appropriate. From the look on the Minister's face, I am not sure that he agrees with me. I support the amendment.

Lord Bach

The noble Baroness's use of the word "probably" caused me to look quizzically at her.

We have considered carefully all the options before deciding that our preference is for Her Majesty's Magistrates' Court Service Inspectorate to be the inspectors in this case. That body understands the courts, has established links with the Lord Chancellor and, importantly, covers both England and Wales. We are conscious that the inspectorate will need to supplement its existing knowledge in the first instance, so enabling it to become properly equipped to carry out the inspection function.

There is a Social Services Inspectorate for England and a Social Services Inspectorate for Wales. Therefore, there would be two inspectorate services inspecting one organisation. I remind the Committee that CAFCASS will cover both England and Wales. We believe that, rather than incorporate this cumbersome framework on the face of the Bill, it would be better to have one lead body responsible and encourage it to draw in expertise as and when necessary.

I acknowledge the concerns that noble Lords have raised. However, we believe that the MCSI will work closely with the Social Services Inspectorate and other bodies to develop its knowledge as regards children and family matters.

Undoubtedly Her Majesty's Magistrates' Court Service Inspectorate will need to work closely with those other organisations as well as the HMIP to gain experience in this field. There are pre-existing, clear reporting lines between the MCSI and the Lord Chancellor. As the inspectorate for CAFCASS, the MCSI has the potential to be very flexible thus enabling the inspectorate to develop expertise and keep up with any future developments of CAFCASS.

Therefore, although we recognise the real feeling behind the amendment, I am afraid that we must oppose it.

Baroness Blatch

It was not my intention to intervene on this amendment because my noble friend is more than ably coping with the subject. However, I have to express wry amusement at the arguments just deployed by the Minister. I have in mind his comments in relation to having two inspectorates—the Welsh inspectorate and the English inspectorate. My understanding is that the Welsh one would inspect Welsh interests and the English one would inspect English interests. Nevertheless, this is a very good example of not having very joined-up government.

We spent many hours in this Chamber arguing against the very point of having two inspectorates operating in the same field; namely, the adult learning inspectorate and Ofsted in education. We were not even talking about operating in two different countries; we were talking about operating and inspecting in the same establishments. We put forward all the arguments about how cumbersome and difficult that was and pointed out the problems that would arise as a result. The Minister actually used those arguments this evening in his response and said that it would not be advisable to have two inspectorates and that it would be better to have one. As I said, I have only spoken to express wry amusement.

Lord Bach

The noble Baroness will undoubtedly be pleased that we have come round to her point of view.

The Earl of Listowel

I thank the Minister for his reply, which I shall consider. The argument that England and Wales are separate in this context seems a little strange to me. Surely it is important to place the emphasis on the well-being of families and children in this new service. One must not lose that focus under the new arrangements. I shall, therefore, carefully consider what the noble Lord said, but I may well return to the matter. On that condition, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 17 agreed to.

Clause 18 [Definitions:

[Amendment No. 70 not moved.]

Lord Dholakia moved Amendment No. 71: Page 8, line 31, leave out ("local") and insert ("probation").

The noble Lord said: This amendment relates to definitions. I believe that the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, has repeatedly drawn our attention to this particular issue, so I do not need to labour the point any further. If one looks at the clause, it says: 'New Employer' means a local board or the Service".

However, the "Old Employer" is defined as a, local authority, [or] a probation committee".

The problem that I have is with the term "local board". There is ample confusion as it is about that term, without bringing the word "probation" into the equation. However, the Minister has already conceded that when the service is expanded in relation to local areas the geographical situation, together with the word "probation", will be included.

The Central Probation Council has been in touch with me about this particular confusion. There ought to be someone in the Civil Service who could sit down, look at the Bill and actually sort out the matter so that everyone who reads it will understand what it means. At the end of the day, the success of the probation committees in local areas will not depend on what you direct centrally; it will depend on the efforts of local people and the identity shared with local areas. If local people cannot even identify the matter in terms of their own concern, we shall be wasting our time.

Even at this late hour, perhaps I may suggest that if the Minister were to accept this very simple suggestion to identify not simply "local boards" but also "local probation boards", that would make a lot of sense. I beg to move.

Baroness Thornton

I wish to speak to Amendment No. 73 tabled in my name and that of the noble Lord, Lord Habgood. We share a concern regarding the future of family mediation which has prompted this amendment. I should declare an interest here as someone with a long association with NCH Action for Children, which, together with National Family Mediation, is a major voluntary-sector provider of family mediation support services, mainly through its partnership with the Probation Service at local level. There is a great danger that for want of adequate funding and transitional arrangements these services are now in jeopardy. The legislation that we are considering imposes a kind of planning blight on them, if I can put it that way. The purpose of the amendment is to enable assurances to be sought concerning the maintenance of adequate funding for family mediation and related services from the present time and through the period of transition until the new arrangements are fully implemented.

As I said on Second Reading, the problem—this situation has not yet improved—is that some of the probation partners who fund this service are either reducing their funding or making grants on a "spot" basis year on year. For example, in the case of NCH Action for Children, which provides seven services for areas including the whole of inner London, Manchester and most of Wales, the reduction in funding of £36,000 and not being able to plan beyond March 2001—because no contracts have been issued beyond that date—means that they will shortly find themselves unable to sustain services in some of these areas of great need.

These are not great sums. The problems involve administration, but the loss of these services would mean that the new CAFCASS—which is supported by many children's organisations—would have to recreate them. Instead of being able to build on and develop existing services, we would squander the work and skills of National Family Mediation and NCH Action for Children in this field. For want of attention to detail in the transition we could lose what already exists and engender more expense and more work as a result. Time is now short. I hope that my noble friend the Minister will be able to offer me some hope.

10.45 p.m.

Lord Habgood

I support what the noble Baroness has said. I declare an interest as patron of National Family Mediation. Our main concern is for the children who will suffer if these services collapse, as they will unless there is some firm assurance that funding will be available. We are talking about minuscule sums. I worked out that the sum involved would be enough to keep the Dome going for about eight hours.

Lord Dholakia

I have already spoken but I hope that the Minister will not object if I speak again.forgot to mention that Amendment No. 77, which stands in my name, concerns the commencement of the operation of the service. Is it not right and proper that no scheme should be made under Clauses 19 or 20 for the transfer to the service of any property or employee before April 2002, as stated in the amendment? I hope that the Minister will comment on that.

Lord Bach

Some government amendments are attached to the group we are discussing which I shall discuss first. I shall then discuss Amendments Nos. 71 and 77. Finally I shall deal with what many may consider to be the most important amendment of the group; namely, Amendment No. 73 spoken to by my noble friend Lady Thornton.

This group of amendments concerns matters relating to the transfer of property and liabilities and the creation of the national probation service and CAFCASS. Government Amendment No. 76 is a drafting amendment. The amendment makes the clause clearer with regard to the consultation procedures that may be required as part of a scheme to transfer staff from an "old employer" (such as a probation committee) to a "new employer" (that is, either a local board or CAFCASS).

The original clause refers simply to "prescribed requirements" of consultation. The new wording as applied by this amendment makes clear that any directions about consultation will be set out by the appropriate Minister (either my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor or my right honourable friend the Home Secretary).

Amendment No. 78 is a drafting amendment. The amendment makes the clause clearer with regard to the consultation procedures that may be required as part of a scheme to transfer staff from a local board of CAFCASS to a new employer, for example on the contracting out of a particular function of the board or service.

I referred to Amendment No. 79 earlier. This new clause will ensure that the Protection of Children Act 1999 will apply to CAFCASS and its officers. It will further ensure that those organisations which perform functions on behalf of CAFCASS will be governed by the Protection of Children Act 1999.

That Act is designed to afford greater protection to children who may be put at risk of harm. The Act places a duty on childcare organisations to refer to the Secretary of State individuals who have been employed in a childcare position where they have been dismissed on ground of misconduct which harmed a child or placed a child at risk. Individuals are still covered even if they retire or resign before they are dismissed. Childcare organisations which are intending to employ someone are placed under a duty to ensure that the proposed employee is not kept on the list held by the Secretary of State. If that person is found to be on the list then the childcare organisation is not to employ them.

As officers of CAFCASS, and those performing functions on behalf of CAFCASS, are likely Ito have unsupervised contact with children we think that it is important that these measures designed to protect children apply.

This new clause makes it explicit that CAFCASS and organisations performing CAFCASS functions will be regulated by the 1999 Act. In addition we want CAFCASS to be under a duty to refer individuals who are dismissed for misconduct which harmed a child or put a child at risk of harm. The effect of the amendment is that CAFCASS, its officers and organisations performing functions on behalf of CAFCASS will be governed by the Protection of Children Act 1999.

Amendment No. 80 is a consequential amendment relating to Amendment No. 49. In due course I shall move those government amendments.

I do not think that the noble Lord who moved Amendment No. 71 expects me to say much more about it. We covered the issue in detail earlier. Our response has not changed in what seems the many hours since that debate.

I do not think that the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, expects me to accept Amendment No. 77. We do not think that there is any reason to suggest that the proposed implementation date of 1st April next year cannot be met. We are consulting widely about the implications of the Government's intentions and response from staff at all levels has been positive bearing in mind that change is not always universally and instinctively welcomed.

I turn to Amendment No. 73. I thank my noble friend for raising the issue. At the same time I pay credit to the National Family Mediation and NCH Action for Children and other voluntary groups for the important work they do in the field of family mediation. The Government strongly support the principle of family mediation. We are keen to encourage its greater use to resolve family disputes. CAFCASS will have a continuing interest in supporting out of court alternative dispute resolution services. Out of court mediation has a valuable role to play in helping parents agree arrangements for their children following divorce and separation.

Clause 12 gives CAFCASS powers to make grants and Clause 13 allows CAFCASS to enter arrangements with other organisations and people to deliver its functions. We believe that this gives this service the full range of powers to continue to fund mediation work in the future. However, we appreciate that that does not address the real concerns that my noble friend Lady Thornton and the noble Lord, Lord Habgood, have raised about the genuine funding problems that providers are facing.

We want to ensure a smooth transfer of the existing partnership funding from the Probation Service to CAFCASS and to avoid money being withdrawn from current services. Clause 19(1)(b) makes provision for the transfer of liabilities to CAFCASS, which would include existing arrangements for funding mediation and support services. As noble Lords may know, the Home Office issued a circular in June asking probation committees to consider requests for new and future funding in much the same way as they have done to date. The guidance said that funding should continue beyond 31st March 2001 so that there is a smooth transfer to CAFCASS, using Clause 19(1)(b).

In the light of representations that we have received—including a meeting that I attended nearly two weeks ago with my noble friend Lady Thornton, the noble Lord, Lord Habgood, the noble Lord, Lord Bassam of Brighton and Jane Kennedy, the Minister in the Commons—Ministers at the Home Office and the Lord Chancellor's Department are writing to chief probation officers, reminding them of the importance of ensuring a smooth transfer of partnership funding to CAFCASS.

That letter has been signed by both the Ministers involved. It makes the position clear, saying: We want CAFCASS to be able to work with partnership organisations to develop a strategic view of need and availability of mediation of contact centre services to support its work. It will struggle to do this if contracts cease on 31 March 2001 or soon afterwards. We now urge you to ensure that funding is continued until 31 March 2002, applying the same tests as before—i.e. that services are needed, effective and provide value—to allow CAFCASS to take a strategic view about these services". I hope that my noble friend and the noble Lord will feel that that is a clear response to the concerns that they expressed to us in that meeting. We were impressed by what was said to us and have reacted accordingly. The Government are determined to overcome the real problems that were identified. We do not want any planning blight on those very useful services in the next few months.

I hope that my noble friend Lady Thornton, who raised the matter as a probing amendment, will be satisfied with my answer.

Lord Dholakia

I have listened carefully to the Minister and I accept his explanation. I did not expect any concessions from the noble Lord, Lord Bassam of Brighton, but I thought that my friend, the noble Lord, Lord Bach, might fall for it, but he did not. I thank him for his explanation. We may come back to the issue later. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Lord Habgood

I thank the Minister for the action that has been taken. We shall let him know the response of those to whom he has written. If need be, we shall come back to him for some further fallback action, should they not respond as we all hope that they will.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 72 not moved.]

Clause 18 agreed to.

Clause 19 [Property:

[Amendments Nos. 73 to 75 not moved.]

Clause 19 agreed to.

Schedule 3 agreed to.

Clause 20 [Transfer of staff:]

Lord Bach moved Amendment No. 76: Page 9, line 28, leave out from ("any") to ("have") in line 29 and insert ("directions about consultation given by the appropriate Minister").

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 20, as amended, agreed to.

[Amendment No. 77 not moved.]

Clauses 21 and 22 agreed to.

Clause 23 [Transfer of staff in consequence of arrangements under Part I]:

Lord Bach moved Amendment No. 78: Page 11, line 27, leave out from ("any") to ("have") in line 28 and insert ("directions about consultation given by the appropriate Minister").

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 23, as amended, agreed to.

Lord Bach moved Amendment No. 79: After Clause 23, insert the following new clause—