§ 3.8 p.m.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills (Baroness Ashton of Upholland)
My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill be now further considered on Report.
§ Moved, That the Bill be further considered on Report.—(Baroness Ashton of Upholland.)
§ On Question, Motion agreed to.1014
§ Clause 7 [Arrangements to safeguard and promote welfare]:
§ [Amendment No. 43 not moved.]
§ Lord Dholakia moved Amendment No. 44:
Page 5, line 45, at end insert—
( ) the Youth Justice Board
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, Amendment No. 44 is grouped with Amendment No. 48A. The purpose of Amendment No. 44 is to amend Clause 7, which is designed to safeguard and promote welfare, so that it is supplemented by the addition of the words "the Youth Justice Board". For clarity, let me point out that Amendment No. 44 is in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, as well as mine.
§ Amendment No. 48A would create the same duty upon the Youth Justice Board as the duty conferred on other agencies under this clause, in relation to its statutory functions under the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 with regard to commissioning, purchasing and allocating placements in secure juvenile estate. The amendment would also ensure that decisions about the placement of children in custody are taken having regard to their needs for safeguarding and promoting their welfare.
§ Noble Lords may remember that, in Committee, amendments were laid by the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, and me to address the problem of the inappropriate placement of vulnerable children in prisons. The amendments would have placed a duty on courts to safeguard and promote the welfare of children and to ensure that children deemed to be vulnerable are not placed in Prison Service custody.
§ The debate itself and subsequent discussions with the Minister, the Children's Society and others have led us to the conclusion that, even if the courts were given new duties in this respect, they would have no control over the numbers, standards, management or availability of placements, with the result that children would still fail to get the appropriate placements. The responsibility sits squarely with the Youth Justice Board, and for that reason the amendments would include the board in the new duty in Clause 7.
§ The amendments also place an additional duty on the board to ensure that it makes appropriate placements having regard to the need to safeguard and promote welfare, and when children are placed inappropriately, to ensure that accurate records are kept of why the child is not placed in suitable accommodation and for how long the placement lasts. To speak of accommodation suggests that we are talking about providing housing for these children, but we should recognise that we are dealing with very vulnerable children and the risks inherent in sending them to prison.
§ I do not want to rehearse fully the background or arguments that were set out comprehensively in Committee, but it might assist the House if I set the amendments in context. Members of the House will be aware of my interest in the case of Joseph Scholes and his death in custody on 24 March 2002 when he was found hanged in his cell. Joseph's case highlights the 1015 current problem. He was clearly a very vulnerable young person with a history of self-harm and sexual abuse, yet he still found himself in Prison Service custody because of the lack of adequate placements in local authority secure accommodation that could have provided him with the care, supervision and more child-centred therapeutic regime that he desperately needed.
In 2002, the Government's Social Exclusion Unit reported that:
Too many young people remain in custody when they need inpatient mental healthcare. In most areas there appears to be no alternative/diversionary provision, and no system for identifying or dealing with mental health problems".
§ That is coupled with the lack of statutory provision for placement elsewhere. Any young male aged 15 or over being sentenced to a detention and training order will almost certainly serve it in prison despite any assessment of his vulnerabilities under the Youth Justice Board's ASSET assessment profile. In Committee, the Minister promised to investigate how many children assessed as vulnerable have been placed in a Prison Service young offender institution, and I am grateful for that promise. A recent Answer to a Parliamentary Question by a Home Office Minister makes depressing reading. The number of vulnerable children either remanded or sentenced to Prison Service custody in 2003–04 was 3,337, which is just over the estimated total population of children in custody at any one time. It is a massive increase on the number for 2000–01, which was just 432.
§ Of course, even one vulnerable child in prison is one too many. Prison is no place for children and I urge the Government to take urgent steps to stop the rot and to resolve the situation. The more delay that there is, the more risk that other children will end up like Joseph. I expect that the Minister will tell us that the problem cannot be solved in the Bill, but I ask her to consider the facts carefully. My amendment recognises the unique position of the Youth Justice Board in making critical welfare decisions on a day-to-day basis for individual children right across England and Wales. There is currently no statutory requirement upon it with respect to the safeguarding or welfare of children. My amendment would rectify that and put the Youth Justice Board under the same duties as other operational and strategic bodies in Clause 7.
§ 3.15 p.m.
§ The Youth Justice Board's critical role in commissioning and purchasing custodial placements for children in the youth justice system and for allocating each child remanded or sentenced to custody a place within the prison secure estate is recognised by the amendments. I believe that, over time, the duty would have a positive influence on the make-up of the secure juvenile estate. All those involved in the commissioning process would then be clear that complying with the duty is a priority for the Youth Justice Board that could not be disregarded or reprioritised. Other than that, there is a need to consider the placement options available to the Youth 1016 Justice Board which are currently extremely limited and I hope that the Minister will have something positive to say in that respect.
§ If the Minister is resistant to the amendments, will she explain to the House why the Youth Justice Board should not be included in the duties in Clause 7? In her response, will she assure the House that the Government recognise that there is a problem in the placement of vulnerable children in Prison Service accommodation; the Government agree that there is a need to take urgent action to address the problem, particularly in light of the numbers of children involved; the Government will further consider how the problem might be addressed in the Bill; and that any legislative change outside the Bill will have direct reference to the framework of the Children Bill and its measures to increase the safeguarding and promotion of children's welfare? I do not think that we are asking much. All we need is a positive assurance that these matters will be taken forward. I beg to move.
§ Lord Laming
My Lords, I speak in support of the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, who made such a powerful case that there is little that I could reasonably add. One of the strengths of the Green Paper consultation document, Every Child Matters, was its inclusiveness and concern for all young people. Surely, these young people are among the most vulnerable. The degree of self-harm and attempted suicide among this group of young people should cause us all concern. I hope that the Minister will give an encouraging response, at least in respect of links with the Youth Justice Board.
§ Lord Elton
My Lords, when I became Minister with responsibility for the Prison Service, I remember the great horror with which I discovered that a number of juveniles were kept in adult accommodation. We made strenuous efforts to bring that practice to an end and I am even more saddened to discover that this evil continues. It is essential that this statute is in place to limit it and bring it to an early conclusion. I will certainly support the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia.
§ Baroness Howe of Idlicote
My Lords, I will also be brief, because the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, has expertly expressed the concerns. I very much hope that this problem can be dealt with sympathetically. The rise in the numbers now in prison is appalling. All that is being asked is that a record is kept during the period of custody and a report made. Something of that nature would certainly keep our minds on the subject to make certain that the situation is reviewed regularly.
§ Lord Chan
My Lords, I rise to support the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, particularly in relation to the mental health service for children and adolescents. I know that that issue falls within the National Health Service mental health framework. However, as prison health is now part of 1017 the National Health Service, will the Minister assure us that such services will also be made available for those unfortunate children in custody?
§ Baroness Walmsley
My Lords, I rise to assure the House that the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, and the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, have the wholehearted support of these Benches in their amendment.
§ The Earl of Listowel
My Lords, I apologise for missing the opening statement of the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, but it may be helpful if I draw the House's attention to a recent Parliamentary Question by Paul Goggins. Apparently, in 2000–01 some 50 children were identified as vulnerable and placed in young offender institutions. Most recently, that number has risen to about 350 or so. That is more than a six-fold increase in vulnerable young people being placed in young offender institutions. I hope that that is appropriate to what is being discussed and that I have not missed the point that was being made.
§ Baroness Ashton of Upholland
My Lords, many noble Lords have spoken, rightly, with real passion about this issue. I was extremely grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, for coming to see me to talk through these issues in detail. As noble Lords will know from Committee stage, this is not an area in which I have great expertise. Indeed, it is an area in which our two departments—the Home Office and the Department for Education and Skills—are collaborating and co-operating. It was extremely important to have that discussion.
I share with the noble Baroness and with the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, a concern that the mother of Joseph Scholes, in particular, should feel that from that terrible tragedy something may come which would enable other children to be cared for more appropriately and ensure that such a tragedy never happens again. That should be the ambition of all of us for her sake. The noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, said in his closing remarks that he was looking for positive assurance. I shall try to give to him and to other noble Lords who have spoken that assurance about this area of policy.
We accept entirely the principle behind the amendment that young people in custody should be accommodated in the most appropriate setting, with full account taken of any issues that may make them particularly vulnerable. However, we are not persuaded that the Bill is the right way in which to achieve that. The noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, referred to the role give to the Youth Justice Board. We all recognise that, in fulfilling that obligation, the board has to consider many issues, including age, any special needs of the young person, closeness to home—which could be particularly important—and any risk of harm to the young person or to others. We believe, as I am sure do all noble Lords who have spoken, that good decisions will be made by taking account of all relevant factors.
My fear is that in taking decisions we would run the risk of seeing the issue discussed under the amendment in isolation. I am concerned that with Amendment No. 1018 48A that could be the case. For example, in the great majority of cases, closeness to home is very important and, indeed, conducive to a young person's welfare. But there may be other factors in particular cases which are important, and we want to ensure that those factors are taken into account. If there were a local authority secure children's home on the doorstep of a 17 year-old boy convicted of a serious offence of violence, but within that home there were vulnerable 12 and 13 year-olds, it might not be the most appropriate placement. Our consideration must be to ensure that all issues can be taken account of in determining not only the vulnerability of the young person—which, as noble Lords will know, is not a clear-cut issue—but also the vulnerability of other children and young people who may be affected.
We believe that it is important to ensure that secure accommodation is safe. The Bill already places a duty on young offender institutions and secure training centres—and, via local authorities, on local authority secure children's homes—to make arrangements for ensuring that their functions are discharged, having regard to the need to safeguard and promote the welfare of children. I do not believe that the amendments will add more to that. We have already captured a crucial part of what the noble Lord seeks.
What I can say to reassure the noble Lord is that not only have we captured the essence of that part of his concern but we are in constructive discussion with the Home Office, which is very keen to move forward on the matter. In the department's role of looking right across the agenda for children, we want to ensure that we do not do one thing in isolation but approach the matter appropriately, by looking across the needs of all our vulnerable children. Children within secure accommodation fall into a number of different categories.
I hope that I have reassured the noble Lord. It is my intention to continue discussing the matter with the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, and the noble Lord, and to keep both of them up to speed and up to date with what is happening in this area of policy. I can say categorically, however—and I was not in this position in Committee—that having talked to the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, and understood the issues, and having talked to colleagues in the Home Office and brought officials together, we shall make good progress on the matter and address the issues. In the spirit of wishing the matter to be taken forward appropriately, I hope that the noble Lord will withdraw the amendment.
§ Lord Dholakia
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords on all sides of the House for their support; I am most grateful to them. It is the least that we can do for vulnerable children.
I do not have much confidence in the way in which the Home Office deals with this matter. Following the coroner's request for a public inquiry into Joseph Scholes' death, I immediately wrote to the Home Office—in early May—and to this day I do not have an acknowledgement or a reply. That does not build much confidence in the promises that the Home Office 1019 is making in such matters. However, I shall discuss the Minister's response, which has been fairly positive, with the noble Baroness, Lady Stern. If need be, we shall return with the amendment on Report. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Baroness Byford moved Amendment No. 45:
Page 6, line 3, leave out from "discharged" to "the" in line 4 and insert "in a manner consistent with the objective of safeguarding and promoting
§ The noble Baroness said: My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 45, I shall speak to Amendment No. 47 as well as Amendments Nos. 87 and 89, which contain the Welsh equivalents of the proposals.
§ We had a long debate in Committee on the issue of safeguarding and promoting. The amendments that dealt with safeguarding and promoting children's well-being attracted a number of speakers, all of whom clearly considered that in some way or another the existing wording in the Bill was not strong enough. The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, stressed the need to separate administration from practice and ensure that safeguards were strong enough to protect children, as opposed to the sort of theory which might he subject to a series of tick-box questions. The noble Baroness, Lady Stern, who is not in her place, referred to those who work away from the public eye and who need strong unambiguous law to lean on in taking decisions affecting the treatment of children and thereby their welfare.
§ The noble Baroness, Lady Barker, made a most telling point when she alluded to the gap between the perception of authorities concerned with the provision of services to the elderly and the appalling standards actually achieved. It is that balance between what is perceived and what is achieved that brings me back to this group of amendments.
The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, quoted the training given to staff working with children in secure training centres and pointed out how little of it actually equips them to deal with,
very vulnerable, troubled and troubling children".—[Official Report, 20/5/04; col. 989.]
That was a point well made.
§ In her response the Minister seemed more concerned that safeguarding children might conflict with other duties of the agencies affected. I hope that I have not shorthanded her, but that is the impression that I got and I have reread her response again since. It was almost as though she felt that in many situations one can pursue only one course or another. She cited the conflict between the criminal system and the need to safeguard children's well-being where those convicted are parents. I would prefer to see it in terms that the parent has done wrong. In other words, the system demands punishment, but the system also demands that the needs of the affected child or children be given priority in determining how the prisoner will spend his or her time, and how visiting will be arranged and rehabilitation progressed.1020
§ Similarly, if agencies are compelled by law to prioritise children's well-being alongside their normal duties they will be more likely to succeed than if the duty of safeguarding is only something to which they must have regard. I am told of many walks of life in which a requirement to have regard to a particular set of circumstances means very little more than to discuss them at a meeting, agree that the arguments against are stronger and get on with ignoring them. That was expressed very clearly in Committee and concerned many noble Lords.
The Children's Society in its briefing highlighted its concerns about the issue. It felt that:
Creating a duty of 'having regard to' means that an administrative test is applied to the undertaking of functions. It does not provide the clear legal framework for a positive test as to whether actions taken are consistent with safeguarding of children and the promotion of welfare".
It goes on to state:
At the very least the Bill's provisions should provide that decisions and actions in the exercise of functions should not be detrimental to children's welfare and protection".
Indeed, those thoughts were also highlighted by other briefings that I have received, including briefing from the NHS Confederation, which stated:
We also have similar concerns for the arrangement to safeguard and promote welfare in Clause 7. As the contracts are nationally negotiated there would need to be direction to the national negotiators to include this in the new contracts. Otherwise PCTs may not be able to comply with the direction to make local alterations. We are also unsure how this will be built into the contracts given that the GMS contract for GPs, for example, has already been signed".
I shall not go over the ground that we have already covered, but I hope that bringing in some more up-to-date information strengthens the argument.
§ Many noble Lords were concerned about this issue in Committee. I read what the Minister said very carefully and, coming down on the train this morning, I tried to make more of it. But I could not. I found that her answer did not allay my fears. I beg to move.
§ 3.30 p.m.
§ Baroness Walmsley
My Lords, I shall not weary the House by repeating everything I said in Committee but I still support the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, and her amendment. I believe that the wording she has chosen is stronger and clearer about the objectives that people should have in mind when dealing with these issues. I shall not repeat the arguments but we still support her.
§ Earl Howe
My Lords, I shall speak to Amendment No. 49, which is grouped here. In Committee, I proposed that the Bill should contain a definition of what is meant by "safeguarding and promoting" the welfare of children to ensure that the full import of those two terms is fully understood.
The Minister will know that there is considerable concern about this among the voluntary agencies. If one does not have a clear idea of what safeguarding and promoting involves, or should involve, one is bound to get inconsistency of interpretation and therefore inconsistency of practice around the 1021 country. Precisely what activities are implicit in the word "safeguard" and what activities are presupposed by the word "promote"? That is the issue. For example, one important aspect of both safeguarding and promoting is partnership working in specific contexts.
The Minister said that the terms were widely understood, but then went on to say that guidance would be issued to set out the arrangements that agencies would need to put in place in order to implement these provisions. I thought that rather proved my point and it certainly bears out the representations I have received from the NSPCC and the NCB, among others, about the need for proper guidance in this area. I found the Minister's undertaking about guidance very reassuring and my amendment suggests that that undertaking might appropriately translate itself on to the face of the Bill.
I simply make a plea to the Minister that if she is faced with a decision on how to define and flesh out the word "safeguard" she should take her cue from the joint chief inspectors' report, which contains a very satisfactory and robust definition, rather than from the Framework for the Assessment of Children in Need and their Families 2000, which she referred to in Committee. As regards a definition of "promoting welfare", I would commend to her paragraph 1.17 of the assessment framework as the model on which to build. I hope I am not sounding too prescriptive, but I make both these recommendations advisedly.
§ Baroness Ashton of Upholland
My Lords, it is always a pleasure to receive recommendations. I always find them helpful, particularly from the noble Earl, and I am very grateful to him. Indeed, I shall go back and look at those issues again.
I start with a greater clarity than in Committee about what the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, is seeking to achieve. When we are debating some of the intricacies around legislation of this kind, I feel that we are in the same place but are simply arguing about whether the provision on the face of the Bill is the most appropriate measure and whether there are other means of achieving those ends.
The noble Baroness quite rightly reiterated what I said in Committee regarding the concern about agencies that have other responsibilities under criminal justice. I think that I gave an example in Committee of a case of a convicted parent where decisions would have to be taken in the criminal justice system. The noble Baroness did not necessarily see that as paramount and I understand her view that, in such circumstances, one might rightly be interested in arrangements for the children. However, our concern is that when one is looking to agencies to fulfil their obligations—and by agencies, we end up meaning people like us—we need clarity about where responsibilities ultimately lie.
When looking to people to carry out their functions, I still think that they must be clear about their primary function; but, in doing it, they should be mindful of the implications for an individual and his family. None the 1022 less, I stand by what I said earlier, that there is sometimes inconsistency if one tries to make two responsibilities of equal weight apply when trying to carry out functions. That is tricky in terms of how people would look at this.
As regards the most vulnerable children, I absolutely accept that all noble Lords participating in the Bill have constantly reminded us to focus in particular on the most vulnerable groups who need additional support. However, we should remind ourselves that there is already a very strong legislative framework that will sit alongside the Clause 7 and Clause 22 duties. I shall not spell out all the details but noble Lords will know about the role of local authorities under the Children Act, the duties of social services departments and local authority services, including education, housing and health services. I can confirm that the Secretary of State has the power to vary the GMS contract in response to new legislation. I think and hope that that addresses the particular issue.
The police have a legal duty to investigate criminal offences committed against children and to make sure that such investigations are carried out sensitively, thoroughly and professionally. The Children Act gives the police powers to take emergency action to protect children from suffering "significant harm".
So there are already a number of different ways in which, through existing legislation, we are seeking to ensure that children are safeguarded. We believe that what we have in Clause 7 and Clause 22 effectively builds upon that in the most appropriate way. There is a very strong and widely understood system for protecting the most vulnerable children. The report of noble Lord, Lord Laming, and the joint chief inspectors' report, which has been referred to, concluded that the legislative framework for protecting children is basically sound but that there are severe weaknesses in the way in which it is interpreted, resourced and implemented. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Laming, will correct me instantly if I am wrong. These are the problems that we seek to address not only through this legislation but also as set out in Every Child Matters and through the work that is going on across children's services to support them more effectively.
This legislation offers a framework. We hope that Clause 7 and Clause 22 add to the framework for safeguarding and promoting the welfare of children by ensuring that agencies take a more proactive approach in responding to the needs of children. The aim is not to compromise their ability to carry out their duties but to ensure that they consider and address the need to safeguard and promote the welfare of children. I hope that the noble Baroness will feel that she has had more information on this issue. We do not feel that it would be right to accept these amendments for the reasons that I have given about the nature of the work that agencies carry out and because we believe that the existing legislation, plus what we have within these two clauses, addresses the problem. As the noble Earl said, Amendment No. 49 allows the Secretary of State to issue guidance that will promote an understanding of the phrase "safeguard and promote the welfare of 1023 children". I have great sympathy with the amendment. It is right that we should ensure that the guidance issued to those agencies is clear about what it means by the phrase, "have regard to the need to safeguard and promote the welfare of children".
The noble Earl will know that that phrase is used in the Children Act 1989. Under Section 17, local authorities must "safeguard and promote the welfare" of children in need in their area. As I think the noble Earl said, the Government's Framework for the Assessment of Children in Need and their Families 2000 contains two elements: the duty to protect children from maltreatment and the duty to prevent impairment. It explains that those are two sides of the same coin. It states:Promoting welfare has a more positive, action centred approach … as well as ensuring they are growing up in circumstances consistent with the provision of safe and effective care".More recently, the joint chief inspectors' report Safeguarding Children gave a description of what the chief inspectors thought safeguarding meant in practice. It entails all agencies working together, ensuring that the risk of harm to children's welfare is minimised and, where there are concerns about the welfare of a child, to take all appropriate action to address such concerns. I have paraphrased the point for the purposes of this debate but it is spelt out more fully in the report.
Our intention is to build on previous guidance in the guidance that is made under Clause 7(4) to set out the kinds of arrangements that agencies will need to put in place to have regard to the need to safeguard and promote the welfare of children. The purpose of our additional guidance is to ensure that those arrangements are in place and that we are very clear about what is expected. There are some good examples of where the definition is already in place. It has stood the test of time and I believe that it will continue to do so. The Secretary of State has the power to issue guidance, and I have indicated the type of guidance that it will be. I therefore hope that the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw the amendment.
§ Baroness Byford
My Lords, before the noble Baroness sits down, I wonder whether she will return to the points dealt with in Amendment No. 45. I am very disappointed with the reply. Will she say which words in the amendment are unacceptable? I have listened very carefully, but I still do not understand the Minister's reluctance.
§ Baroness Ashton of Upholland
My Lords, I am always at pains not to be reluctant in your Lordships' House. As I understand it and tried to outline, the amendment would not assist agencies in examining their functions when those functions are seen as not always in the best interests of the child and the child's welfare. As the noble Baroness rightly said, I have given an example of that. That is my understanding and I have checked to ensure that it is right. I see that the noble Baroness does not feel that that explanation 1024 works, but I do not really know what else I can say. As she knows, I am always willing to re-examine a point. I can write to her or discuss the point with her to see whether I can say more or she can push the point further.
My understanding is that the amendment would create an inappropriate inconsistency; in other words, it would make things difficult. However, if the noble Baroness feels that the amendment would achieve quite the opposite, I would be very happy to discuss that with her. She will have the opportunity to come back on it if she is dissatisfied with what I say. I hope that that gives her some comfort.
§ Baroness Byford
My Lords, I am very grateful to the Minister for that response. I was getting to the stage of thinking that we will have to divide on the point, as it is such a basic one. I will carefully read Hansard and have talks with her before the next stage. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ [Amendments Nos. 46 and 47 not moved.]
§ [Amendment No. 48 had been withdrawn from the Marshalled List.]
§ [Amendments Nos. 48A and 49 not moved.]
§ Clause 9 [Establishment of LSCBs]:
§ Earl Howe moved Amendment No. 50:
Page 7, line 28, at end insert—
( ) The chairman of the Local Safeguarding Children Board shall be appointed by the children's services authority.
§ The noble Earl said: My Lords, I return to an issue I raised in Committee, which I did not feel we fully resolved; and that is the need to make sure that local safeguarding children boards are fully accountable to a children's services authority and fully bound in with the policies that the authority is pursuing.
§ When I spoke on this issue before, I took up the suggestion put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Laming, at Second Reading by proposing that the chairman of a LSCB should be the chief executive of a children's services authority. I did so because having the chief executive at the head of the table makes absolutely certain that the board cannot be some semidetached entity, merrily ploughing its own furrow, and that there is no possibility of a divergence of policy between it and the authority. It also sets an example for the grade of individual who sits around the board table. If the chief executive were in the chair it would be difficult for any board partner to send along someone of lowly status. It is in my view vital that these boards, which will be taking a strategic view of policy and procedures and monitoring activity, need to be populated by individuals of some standing and experience. Having the chief executive at the helm would, I think, ensure that that happened.
§ However, I do recognise that there are difficulties with this idea, one of the main ones being that the chief executive may simply not have enough hours in the day available to take on the role of chairman, important though that responsibility is. There is also a widespread feeling that there needs to be some 1025 flexibility in this area. I took note of the Minister's reservations, and I accept them because there is no doubt that not all local authorities are alike and that many want the freedom to choose how these boards are composed. One alternative, which would be to stipulate that the director of children's services should chair the board, would result in exactly the same problem, though this arrangement is certainly what many authorities currently have in mind.
§ At the very least there needs to be senior management commitment to the board. I think my main concern is that where there is a chair who is independent, this should happen only with the agreement of the children's services authority. I am distinctly nervous about the idea of an independent chairman, for the reasons I have already outlined, but I accept that in some area child protection committees having an independent chair has worked well. That is why my amendment is framed as it is. It is intended to ensure that the authority is fully bound in to the work of the board and that there is open accountability about the decision of who should chair it. But at the same time it allows for flexibility.
§ It would be helpful to have from the Minister an assurance that there will be guidance stating that it is expected that the director of children's services will be the chairman of most boards, unless there is a very good reason why not. I believe that that is what the Government have in mind; but it would certainly be valuable to have an explicit statement to that effect. I beg to move.
§ Lord Laming
My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Earl for giving such thought to a matter which I regard as very important. Clause 9 is fairly forthright in the language it uses. It begins by stating:Each children's services authority … must establish a Local Safeguarding Children Board…A board established under this section must include"—a whole series of people. These include:the chief officer of police…the governor of any secure training centre…the governor of any prison in the area",and so on.
There is a serious issue of principle here concerning accountability. I believe that two aspects of this issue are of overriding importance. First, the director of children's services should be accountable to the board, and therefore should not chair the board. Secondly, one of the local authority's premier responsibilities is to safeguard the vulnerable children in its area. If it is not too onerous to require the chief officer of the police service or a governor of a prison to be present at the board, in my view it is certainly not too demanding that the chief executive of the local authority should be required to do so.
I have spent a large part of my professional life in local government and I can think of no reason why a chief executive of a local authority should not be required to fulfil this function. I am grateful to the noble Earl for giving such thought to the matter. I hope that the Minister can give some reassurance on this point.
§ Baroness Ashton of Upholland
My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Howe, for raising this issue. I hope to be able to make our intentions on this subject as clear as I possibly can, unlike on the previous amendment where I did not achieve that despite my best endeavours.
It is a function of the children's services authority to establish a local safeguarding children board. As is stated in Clause 9, the board partners must co-operate in its establishment. We believe it is implicit in this that establishing a board must include the appointment of a suitable chairman. Not to do so would be to fail to establish the board properly as it will clearly need a chair in order to operate effectively. We do not believe that the amendment is necessary but I shall explain that further.
I understand the concern of the noble Lord, Lord Laming. He has spoken with great passion about this matter in your Lordships' House and, indeed, to myself and officials previously. It is a question of making sure that the accountability lines are clear. As regards the director of children's services, we have made it clear that someone is required who takes responsibility for these services across a local authority and ensures that the lines of accountability extend to an appropriate member of the council and to the chief executive. However, we are reluctant to be prescriptive in saying that a certain person must be made chairman. Although the noble Lord, Lord Laming, referred to his experience in this area and the noble Earl, Lord Howe, talked of the scenario that one would expect to arise, if I may put it that way, we know of independent members of boards who do a fantastic job chairing those boards.
We are trying to focus our attention on accountability. The children's services authority will appoint the board and, therefore, the chair but we are not completely prescriptive about how that is taken forward. We can within—
§ Baroness Howarth of Breckland
My Lords, the Minister spoke about variations in the way in which these roles are performed and said that there are excellent independent chairs. I have a fair amount of experience in this field and know that within area review committees there is wide variation in the performance of chairs. Limited research has been carried out on this matter. I am concerned that we might accept this structure simply because anecdotally we know that there are good examples of the role that we are discussing. I should like us to try to find out what it is that makes boards work well and what elements make that difficult because we could select personality rather than structure. On what evidential basis should we allow this very general acceptance of the way in which these chairs will be appointed?
§ Baroness Ashton of Upholland
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness. I am not talking about a general acceptance. I agree entirely with the noble Baroness as regards structures because they give a degree of certainty and one can evaluate them, whereas 1027 the cult of the personality is not one in which I have become embroiled as regards the kind of work that we are discussing. That would be deeply inappropriate.
It is critical to build on board structures that work effectively. First, one needs to make sure that individuals of the right level are involved in the boards. Subsection (4) of Clause 9 gives us the power to make regulations that can be used to ensure senior attendance. Clearly, there have to be people of the right level attending. Secondly, one needs to ensure that the accountability structure—that of the director of children's services to the council and that of each agency to the director of children's services—is absolutely clear, and that that forms part of the way in which we evaluate success. We need to be absolutely crystal clear about that. Thirdly, we need to ensure that the chief executive, in his function of overviewing all of the local authority's work, carries out that role appropriately.
I expect that in the majority of cases the director of children's services will perform the relevant function. The noble Lord, Lord Laming, said that the chief executive should fulfil the relevant function. I refer to effective safeguarding boards with senior people on them. An individual from a particular agency may be able to perform the role of chair extremely well. We are working with our colleagues in local government. We seek not to be so prescriptive that we do not allow them to ensure that their boards work well.
We need clear structures, a very clear level of involvement and very clear accountability through the director of children's services. We are discussing the person who chairs meetings. Noble Lords will know that fabulous chairmen exist who chair meetings well whereas others do not perform that function well. People attend meetings in part because there are clear outcomes, good agendas and so on. Noble Lords will know from their own experience that that can be a critical part of success. We should permit flexibility in that process.
We want to build on the successful arrangements deployed in the area child protection committees. It is important that we do not throw out the baby with the bath water. We need to ensure that we build on the successful structure of a good area child protection committee with the right kind of people involved in it. We need to build on that, not demolish it and start again.
We want to include flexibility in the guidance but the noble Baroness is absolutely right that we also need to be absolutely clear about the quality and the accountability of the people involved. We shall set that out clearly in the guidance. I hope that on that basis the noble Earl will consider that we have addressed the concerns that he raised. The guidance will be statutory. The chair will be appointed by the children's services authority. The views of other board partners will be taken into account. Flexibility is included in the arrangements.
§ Earl Howe
My Lords, this has been a very helpful debate. I am grateful in particular to the 1028 noble Lord, Lord Laming, for his remarks. Intellectually, I am still with him, but politically I recognise the need for flexibility in this area. As the noble Baroness rightly said, the key issue is accountability. I take comfort from what she said about what may appear in regulations and, indeed, statutory guidance on the subject.
If nothing else, the points that the noble Lord, Lord Laming, and I made on this subject have gone home. The debate has been useful from that perspective. With that it behoves me to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Baroness Ashton of Upholland moved Amendment No. 51:
Page 7, line 36, at end insert—
( ) a youth offending team for an area any part of which falls within the area of the authority;
§ On Question, amendment agreed to.
§ [Amendment No. 52 not moved.]
§ Clause 10 [Functions and procedure of LSCBs]:
§ [Amendment No. 53 not moved.]
§ Clause 11 [Funding of LSCBs]:
§ Baroness Ashton of Upholland moved Amendments Nos. 54 and 55:
Page 9, line 1, at end insert—
(1A) Any person or body specified in subsection (2) may provide staff, goods, services, accommodation or other resources for purposes connected with a Local Safeguarding Children Board established under section 9.
Page 9, line 2, leave out "subsection (1)" and insert "subsections (1) and (1A)
§ On Question, amendments agreed to.
§ 4 p.m.
§ Schedule 2 [Director of children's services: consequential amendments]:
Baroness Sharp of Guildford moved Amendment No. 56:
Page 36, line 29, at end insert—
§ "The Relevant Authorities (Standing Orders) Order 2001 (S.I. 2001/3384)
§ (1) The Relevant Authorities (Standing Orders) Order 2001 (S.I. 2001/3384) shall be amended as follows.
(2) The following shall be inserted in the appropriate place in paragraph 2 (interpretation)—
director of children's services" means the officer appointed under section 13 of the Children Act 2004".
(3) After every occurrence of "the head of the authority's paid service" in the rest of the Order, there shall be inserted—
( ) director of children's services".
§ The noble Baroness said: My Lords, this is not so much an amendment as a suggestion. As an amendment, it is probably very badly drafted. However, the central point is that three local authority statutory officers are currently accorded certain rights and privileges under the relevant standing orders of 2001. The question is whether the director of children's services should not also have those rights and privileges.1029
§ As the rights are enshrined in secondary legislation, the Government could choose to give them to the director of children's services outside the Bill-making process. The three local authority officers currently mentioned in the order are: the head of the authority's paid service, usually known as the chief executive, although some authorities use other titles such as executive director; the monitoring officer; and the chief finance officer. Those officers have to be appointed by the full council, and can be dismissed only by the full council. They have to be employees of the council.
§ Given the high profile that the director of children's services has in driving forward the Government's Every Child Matters agenda, the suggestion that we put to the Government in the amendment is that they should safeguard and promote the status of that post by giving the post-holder the same rights and privileges as the chief executive. That greater security will enhance the post. We make that as a suggestion, and I shall be interested to hear the Minister's response. I beg to move.
§ Baroness Andrews
My Lords, we take every amendment as a welcome suggestion. This one is particularly good and we can endorse it. I assure the noble Baroness that the Bill already provides for what she wants in the appointment, dismissal and disciplinary procedures that currently apply to other chief officers. The 2001 regulations also apply to the director of children's services, so the amendment is redundant but a welcome suggestion nevertheless.
A few hazards would be introduced by the amendment, including some unwelcome inconsistencies in the treatment of the director of children's services and the position of other chief officers. He would have to be involved along with the chief executive in selecting a person to deal with all disciplinary matters. He would have to be appointed or dismissed by the whole authority, which would make him different from other chief officers. That would be undesirable, if not inappropriate. However, the burden of the amendment is perfectly sensible and reflected in the legislation.
§ Baroness Sharp of Guildford
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for her reply. She said that the director of children's services was already included in the order. Has the order been amended in that way since it was passed in 2001? Is my amendment totally redundant in that sense?
§ Baroness Sharp of Guildford
My Lords, I therefore apologise to the House for tabling an unnecessary amendment. Nevertheless, it is an interesting point and worth our while having established it. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.1030
§ Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.