§ 4.54 p.m.
§ Further consideration of amendments on Report resumed.
Earl Howe moved Amendment No. 57:
After Clause 14, insert the following new clause—
§ "SINGLE CHILDREN'S SERVICES PLAN
Each children's services authority shall produce a single local children's plan setting out how the authority and relevant partners and the Local Safeguarding Children Board propose to fulfil their functions relating to improving the well-being of children in the authority's area, including their educational development, and safeguarding and promoting their welfare."
§ The noble Earl said: My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 57, I return to a proposal I made in Committee that the Bill should contain a requirement for every children's services authority to produce an overarching local children's plan.
§ Having a single plan of this kind is important. If we believe in the delivery of integrated services, which we do, that delivery will be immeasurably buttressed by planning for them in a co-ordinated way. It would force partners to prioritise and make decisions about how best to promote the well-being of children. One spin-off would be that the public sector would be relieved of the need to have individual statutory plans covering the various elements of service delivery. Of course, it would still be possible to develop more specific plans if that were thought necessary.
§ The Minister was good enough to say that she was sympathetic to the intentions of the amendment and that the Government were in the process of talking to 1044 partners about how to achieve the transition from a single education plan to a whole children's agenda plan. However, she felt that more time was needed to consult and that in any event the introduction of a single plan should be accompanied by the lifting of the existing planning arrangements. I understand that entirely. I have not attempted in my amendment to repeal any of the existing arrangements and I agree that that would need to be done if it were accepted.
§ However, I am not sure that I found the Minister's arguments for resisting the amendment all that convincing. If the Government believe that my amendment is in principle a good idea and they are working towards the objective that is set out, then surely something along these lines should be in the Bill? It is open to the Government to bring different parts of the Bill into force at different times, so the provision would not need to bite immediately.
§ I wonder whether the Minister could reflect further on this, because it seems to me that the Bill presents a golden opportunity for setting out the direction in which we want to go, over the medium as well as the short term, in the way that children's services are planned and delivered. I beg to move.
§ Lord Laming
My Lords, I support the thrust of the amendment as set out by the noble Earl. It seems to me that one of the tests of these new arrangements is how well the local services actually look at the needs and well-being of all children in their area. In recognising that each of the key services has a unique contribution to make to achieving that goal, one of the disciplines that we should consider very carefully imposing upon them is the requirement to produce such a plan. It is against that plan that their achievements, or lack of achievements, can be measured.
§ Baroness Andrews
My Lords, it is a pleasure to respond to this amendment. It is interesting how over the years we have moved, not least under the direction of the noble Lord, Lord Laming, to seeing children not as a bundle of problems but as young people who deserve to be treated as individuals and who need a coherent approach to all the services they require for their potential and aspirations as well as for their needs. We have every sympathy with the amendment, which would require the children's services authority to have a statutory plan for children's services. Coherent and joined-up planning is clearly essential to the well-being of children.
In Committee, we debated a similar amendment. I told your Lordships with conviction that we wanted to move forward with planning for children's services and that we were considering how best to do so. The current position, as I said, is that planning for education and social services for children is largely separate. In education, we are in the process of introducing a single education plan. Social services departments are required to have a children's services plan for children in need. We are very conscious of the need to move to a more unified position, taking into account planning across the whole agenda.
1045 The Bill repeals the requirement for a children's services plan because the provision specifically relates to children in need rather than to all children. I am delighted to be able to say that we have now also decided to introduce a requirement that local authorities have a statutory plan for children and young people which will include both education and social services as a minimum. That means that we will not be proceeding with a draft regulatory reform order, which was to have introduced the single education plan.
The only exception to the requirement is likely to be for those authorities given the freedom in 2002 from producing plans by virtue of their excellent performance and star rating for education and comprehensive performance assessments. That is well established and makes perfect sense because we know that those authorities with an excellent record are already thinking and acting in terms of planning strategically across the children's agenda. They are very much at the leading edge so we expect them to be in the forefront of those developments.
So at the same time as legislating for a plan for children and young people, we need to lift requirements for four statutory education plans that are linked, which we were planning to do under the draft regulatory reform order which would have introduced the single education plan. Those are the behaviour support plan, the early years development and childcare plan, the education development plan and the school organisation plan. As the noble Lord said, we have begun to share our thinking with local authorities and voluntary sector partners. It is gratifying to note that their response has been so warm. They see that as a positive proposal and have pledged their support as we take the next steps and see the children's agenda as holistic.
However, we need time. Having agreed the principle, this is complex stuff and needs time and careful thought about both the scope and timing of the children and young persons' plan. I will ensure that noble Lords are made aware of how we intend to proceed now that we have made the decision. Of course, it would be possible to achieve those purposes via a government amendment to the Bill in another place and we are considering that possibility.
So I hope that noble Lords accept that we agree on this issue and see a clear way forward. We have made progress and I hope that the noble Earl will feel able to withdraw his amendment.
§ Earl Howe
My Lords, what can I say, except how pleased I am that the Government have made such progress? I am grateful to the noble Baroness for explaining in detail the thinking behind recent deliberations and consultations. What she said certainly meets the point that I sought to convey. I am very pleased to hear that the Government are considering tabling an amendment in another place. I hope that they take this opportunity to do that, because the Bill is a golden opportunity. I reiterate my 1046 gratitude to the noble Baroness for giving me that extremely good news this afternoon. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Baroness Walmsley moved Amendment No. 58:
After Clause 14, insert the following new clause—
"PERSONAL SERVICE CO-ORDINATOR
(1) A children's services authority shall, where it considers appropriate for a particular child, designate a person to act as a personal service co-ordinator for that child.
(2) The function of the personal service co-ordinator will be to act as a lead worker to co-ordinate what is done by each person or body, for the purposes of safeguarding and promoting the welfare of the individual child, and to ensure that the appropriate service is delivered.
(3) The personal service co-ordinator can be any appropriate officer of the children's services authority or its partners, or any person the authority deems appropriate.
§ The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I trust that this amendment will receive a similar response from the Government as another good idea.
§ The rationale for the amendment is that effective co-ordination and exchange of information about a child between professionals simply will not happen spontaneously, even with a central database, as provided for by Clause 8. Someone must be responsible for it; I know that that course of thinking is what the Government have in mind. Thirty years of inquiries into child protection failures have shown lack of co-ordination to be the central failing of the system in case after case.
§ Someone must get to know the child. At the point of delivery to the user, there should be a human being and a human relationship—a relationship of trust, to cite the Minister on a previous occasion—between the service provider and the child and its carers. That will help to ensure that the service provided is really appropriate to the child. No single professional ever got to know Victoria Climbié that emerged from the report of the noble Lord, Lord Laming, who is in his place.
§ When introducing the Bill, the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, said that there would be reform of working practices, including the use of lead professionals, but that that would be done outside legislation. That sidelines what ought to be a crucial reform within the Bill. Instead of placing it at the core of the new system, it is perhaps to be done by guidelines—I am not quite sure; perhaps the Minister can tell us.
§ The Bill's proposals, such as the Children's Commissioner and local directors of children's services, partial mergers of agencies, a new database and a reformed inspection regime, do not directly address the lack of individual accountability for decisions about a particular child. It is not clear how those complex reorganisations will help the frontline deliverer of the service. That is why the amendment would place an identifiable human being in the lead position for each child, where the children services authority considers it appropriate, as the amendment provides. That is an appropriate caveat to include in the amendment because 1047 that is not needed for most children, but for some it is an approach that deserves careful consideration. I beg to move.
§ Baroness Andrews
My Lords, it is such a good idea that I can tell the noble Baroness that it is in the Green Paper. She made an excellent and eloquent case for that personal relationship. Perhaps I may explain in a little detail what we intend to do and how far we have reached in our thinking. That is one of the most positive and exciting parts of the new arrangement.
The role of the personal service co-ordinator—the noble Baroness is right to place the emphasis on co-ordination—is reflected in Every Child Matters with reference to the need for a lead professional. That lead professional is for every child who is in contact with more than one specialist agency. In that context, in view of our debates on Clause 8 and the need to share information, and so on, it is important to build in a personal and consistent relationship. So that is clearly already part of our forward thinking for the organisation of children's services. Some very good officials are considering how best to take that forward in operative terms.
By lead professional, we mean a professional responsible at a minimum for ensuring that all those working with a particular child are sharing information effectively; that there is a co-ordinated approach to meeting the child's needs; and that there are regular reviews of the effectiveness of that approach. So co-ordination, follow-through and monitoring is involved, undertaken by one consistent person. Where they have the appropriate skills and knowledge, they may also be expected to carry out case work themselves; we are not saying that case workers and lead professionals are exclusive and different.
The role of that professional has been designed to ensure that those children with additional support needs—that is important—and those children who are assessed under the common assessment framework as having complex needs requiring more specialist support but who do not currently meet the threshold for statutory intervention under Section 47 of the Children Act—those children who fall in the gap between a general assessment under Section 17 and the child protection assessment in Section 47—will now have access to a case management approach to meeting their needs with a responsible professional in charge. Currently, there is no framework to ensure an integrated approach to meeting the needs of children who fall below the formal child protection threshold. Those who work in the services will be pleased that we are filling that gap in that practical way.
The department has been working closely with several local authority areas that are being funded to test some models for that integrated support framework for children and their families. We are considering what practical ideas are emerging and how we can universalise them and tap into and develop best practice. At this stage, our thinking is that the lead professional function may emerge from and become a more formal part of the work of such people as 1048 educational welfare officers, social workers, family workers, learning mentors and Connexions personal advisers.
We intend to produce strong and specific guidance on the role of and best practice for the lead professional. The aim of that guidance will be to enable and encourage effective implementation of what we believe to be the most suitable way to ensure that those children with the need for additional support services gain access to an integrated service. That guidance will be based on the substantial evidence emerging from those trailblazing areas and will also draw on the extensive consultation for which we are planning.
My second reason for being unable to accept the amendment is that it is technically unnecessary. Children's services authorities already have the general powers that they need to appoint such lead professionals. They do not need new powers to do that. That will also be covered in the guidance, which will obviously be issued before the policy is rolled out. It will be facilitated by the development of the common assessment framework, on which we are working very hard.
The third difficulty, which I think the noble Baroness will accept, is that we do not want to create a single organisational model but one which is able to respond to the situation of individual service authorities and their populations. We do not want a single model to run across all authorities on a legislative level. We must give local authorities the opportunity to interpret guidance in line with their needs and be flexible and adaptable in that regard.
I recognise that subsection (1) of the proposed new clause recognises the need for flexibility by stating that it should be provided where appropriate. However, it would have the perverse effect of providing a loophole, which would ensure that the amendment would have more weight than guidance because it would allow people to opt out. The guidance is intended to address the issue in more detail.
I have given the noble Baroness three very good reasons for withdrawing her amendment, but I hope that she will do so on the understanding that we are very engaged with the process and want to see all the ideals that she has set out realised in practice.
§ Baroness Warnock
My Lords, before the noble Baroness sits down, perhaps I may seek clarification. Would it be envisaged that such a named person—which seems an absolutely excellent idea—should have a right of entry into the household of the child for whom he or she was responsible?
§ Baroness Andrews
My Lords, I cannot answer that question at present. It is a co-ordinating post, so the person would be responsible for ensuring that the other people involved in delivering services to the young person did their job properly. If those people had rights of entry, the co-ordinator would ensure that they were enforced. We do not know whether they would have in their job description any additional 1049 powers to secure that or anything else, but it is unlikely. We must wait to see how it will be worked out in practice and in the guidance.
§ Baroness Walmsley
My Lords, I thank the Minister for her response. It was because I was impressed by this idea in Every Child Matters that I was so surprised not to see it in the Bill. It is a central plank of the Government's thinking about the matter and the role of accountability and co-ordination. I was also most impressed by the co-ordination role described by the trailblazing authorities when they came to your Lordships' House to make their presentations. I have to say that this is clearly working without the benefit of Clause 8, and with the benefit of quite a lot of money.
However, I shall certainly look with great interest at the guidance when it comes in. I hope that it is tight enough to ensure that every child who needs the services of such a co-ordinator has them. It would be nice to feel that the resources for such people would be forthcoming, but we will have to wait and see. I am delighted that the noble Baroness and I appear to be thinking along the same lines in our admiration for the idea expressed in Every Child Matters. It is now a matter of seeing how it is implemented. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ The Deputy Speaker (Lord Lyell)
My Lords, we come to Amendment No. 59. If Amendment No. 62 were agreed to, I would not be able to call Amendments Nos. 62A to 64A.
§ 5.15 p.m.
Baroness Sharp of Guildford moved Amendment No. 59:
Before Clause 15, insert the following new clause—
"CHILDREN'S SERVICES INSPECTORATE
There shall be a body corporate called the Children's Services Inspectorate, the chief officer of which shall be known as the Chief Inspector of Children's Services and which shall otherwise be constituted in such manner and have such functions in addition to those conferred upon it by section 16 as the Secretary of State may by regulations prescribe.
§ The noble Baroness said: My Lords, in moving this amendment I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 61A, 62A, 63, 63A and 64A.
§ This group of amendments is probing, but the amendments relate to two slightly different issues. Amendments Nos. 59, 61A, 62A and 64A all suggest the substitution of a chief inspector for children's services in lieu of Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Schools. Clauses 15 and 16 make it clear that, while a whole range of agencies, including the Commission for Social Care Inspection, are to be involved in the joint area reviews, the co-ordinator of the reviews is to be the Chief Inspector of Schools. Clause 16 requires that he draw up the framework for inspection.
§ In the briefings that we all received before Second Reading, quite a number of doubts were raised about to what extent Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Schools should be given that role and whether his staff 1050 in Ofsted really had the right background, knowledge and experience to take it on. This is particularly important given the new role that the Government now seem to envisage for Ofsted, which is narrower in relation to schools. Can someone with a largely educational background really understand the social services framework and the issues involved?
§ In that regard, I was surprised that more amendments on inspection were not tabled in Committee. As there were no amendments on the issue, we did not get the chance to discuss the Government's intentions in regard to how they see the area reviews and the inspection framework working with all the different agencies and organisations listed in Clause 15(5), and how it is envisaged that Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Schools will set about drawing up a comprehensive framework of inspection. Amendment No. 59 is tabled as a probing measure because we would like to hear a little more about how it is proposed to set about all these tasks.
§ Amendments Nos. 63 and 63A are different because they take it as given that there will be an area review mechanism and raise two further questions regarding the mechanism. The aim of Amendment No. 63 is that the reviews should be conducted only after the framework envisaged in Clause 16(7) has been agreed. Therefore we would like to know more about how that framework might be developed. It is reasonable to ask that it should be in place before the area reviews take place.
Amendment No. 63A questions the timing of the reviews. As noble Lords may know, under the current Ofsted framework for area reviews of local educational authorities, the authorities are inspected over a four-year period. Amendment No. 63A would ensure that the inspectorate, while accepting the four-year cycle, reported annually to the Secretary of State. The current Ofsted LEA inspection regime aims for,
sharper, shorter inspections to assist LEAs in their task of supporting schools
and to ensure that the level of inspection will be,
commensurate with the local authority's performance, needs and plans, as indicated by the Comprehensive Performance Assessment (CPA) of its education services".
The number of days allocated for inspection fieldwork is determined by a formula based on the comprehensive performance assessment education scores and the overall grade for effectiveness given in the LEA's previous inspection. LEAs with the highest comprehensive performance assessment scores and with a good overall grade will be allocated "substantially less time" for inspection fieldwork.
§ For the highest performance LEAs, fieldwork could range from 20 to 30 inspector days. For weaker LEAs, inspection fieldwork could be allocated 45 days or even more. The remaining LEAs would receive inspections of between 30 and 45 days. Those local authorities graded "excellent" under the CPA get an inspection holiday, permitted under the Government's new freedoms and flexibilities for local government.
§ We ask the Government to tell us whether the variations in CPA achievement will be reflected in the new inspection regime for children's services; how far 1051 those proposals will have an impact down the line—for example, on schools—how far the framework under Clause 16(7) is to be developed and drawn up; and how far it will be applied. I beg to move.
§ Baroness Howarth of Breckland
My Lords, I have been wrong-footed on this probing amendment as the noble Baroness has made the case well against it. Nevertheless, I will make the points that I would have made if she had made the speech that I thought she might have made, simply to underline the issues that I feel are important.
I was deeply concerned about the suggestion that there should be one children's inspectorate. As noble Lords will know, we already have two inspection bodies, Ofsted and CSCI, which are responsible for the inspection of children's services. These two bodies bring experience and expertise that are invaluable in their respective fields of education and social care. Clauses 15 to 18 set out provisions for joint area reviews and inspection frameworks between the inspectorates, building on their expertise and developing proportionate inspections. Clause 17 sets out a duty on those in inspection bodies to co-operate. I know that CSCI and Ofsted have already developed proposals in this regard.
However, as was clearly outlined by the noble Baroness in the last part of her speech, these are very much linked to the education elements of inspection. I am concerned about the welfare aspects of inspection. Long experience has taught me that if education issues come to the fore it is seen as a political priority, often at the expense of children's social care. It is crucial that children's work has focus and emphasis. Far from improving this, a single inspectorate would be detrimental.
It would also cause further instability in the sector. I do not know who is pressing for this amendment—I gather no-one, now that I have heard that it is a probing amendment—but I know from having spoken to numerous people, providers, users and inspectors in social care, that yet another regime that inflicts new methodologies and ways of working would destabilise what is happening.
I emphasise that it is not only for boarding schools that a framework is being put together under the lead of Ofsted—whatever view one might have about that—but for foster care family centres, children's homes and adoption agencies, all with their own specialisms which crucially need to be developed in CSCI.
I was a member of the National Care Standards Commission when, 17 days after its inception, I was told that it was going to be CSCI. I worked for two years with that instability. I beg your Lordships not to re-inflict that in any form on the sector, which at the moment is developing extremely well.
§ Baroness Byford
My Lords, I rise to speak to Amendments Nos. 62 and 64, which are in this group. Again, they are very much probing amendments to seek clarification. With regard to Amendment No. 62, 1052 if the wording is to be taken to mean that the "arrangements" are simply the procedure by which the reviews are to be carried out, we have no objection, but I need that to be clarified. However, there is an implication in the Bill that the role of the chief inspector will be much stronger than that, and again I seek clarification.
Once again, the major problem is that there is a disparate body of people involved, and we are not satisfied that the Bill will establish a clear line of command. The chief inspector may be expected to command support, if not obedience, from those who work in education, except that he is the sole representative of the child and youth education listed. He has, perhaps, fairly strong ties to social services and the police, but where is his knowledge or understanding of the rest of his functions to be drawn from? Indeed, the noble Baroness, lady Howarth, was right to ask about the social care side. That obviously needs to be looked at.
Some of those working in the individual authorities charged with the provision of children's services are employed on contracts that have no reference to the type of activity envisaged by the Bill. Do the Government anticipate that they will provide their time and input in effect for free, and in accordance with the timetable set out by the chief inspector of schools? How do the Government expect a review to work? It may well follow the lines of existing reviews, but I would like clarification of that. Will the Minister address the timetable that is envisaged—that is, the frequency, the time allowed to set up the review, the time to carry out the review, and the time allowed for the report to be published following the review? It is not clear, but it may well be that this is tied up with other existing Acts or processes. Who will pay for the undoubted clerical, administrative and use of resources costs involved?
Finally on this amendment, will the Minister assure the House that the senior people listed here—several of them are in groups listed between paragraphs (a) and (i)—will have some form of indemnity to protect them from censure? For example, the chief inspector is listed as literally the "chief inspector". I presume that means one individual person. Will he have some form of indemnity to protect him from censure should the duties under this section interfere with other duties that he might have to undertake as a chief constable? It is not clear where the overlap does or does not occur. These are fairly minor points, but I would be glad of some clarification.
With regard to Amendment No. 64, I understand that the reviews will be carried out by a combination of designated job-holders and responsible bodies. In theory at least, it would be possible to have the Chief Inspector of Constabulary working with a social care inspector. Is the former senior to the latter, or are they all equal? If these reviews are to have value, they must be properly organised and run. They will need high-quality administrative and clerical support. Each review must be clearly staffed with the lead person identified by name and not by department or function, 1053 or not notified at all. A timetable should be laid down. I apologise to the Minister that there are quite a few questions, but I was not here for Committee stage.
§ Lord Laming
My Lords, I contribute to this debate with some diffidence, partly because the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, knows a great deal more about education and the working of Ofsted than I will ever know. In commenting on this amendment I need to declare two interests. The first is that I shall be quoting from the Victoria Climbié report. Noble Lords will recall that one of the firm conclusions reached in that inquiry was that each of the statutory services has a separate and distinctive contribution to make to the wellbeing and safeguarding of children. It is not possible to adequately provide that framework if any one of those services fails to carry out its particular responsibilities.
Clause 7 is one of the great achievements of the Bill because it places a duty of care on each one of the key services. That being so, it seems clear that the Government's inspectorates and the Audit Commission have a contribution to make that needs to mirror those functions of these key services. I declare an interest in that Members of your Lordships' House will probably know that the 10 inspectorates have produced a discussion document on this, which they have all signed up to. If there is anything good in this, I claim no credit for it, although I admit that I played a small part in it.
It is important to be clear what the inspectorates are doing to respond to the challenge that the Government have placed on them. Each inspectorate will continue to fulfil its distinctive core functions. In so doing, it will amass a huge amount of data relating to the wellbeing of children, both specifically and generally. In discussion, it seemed to the inspectorates that it would be helpful if that data could be brought together to produce a more comprehensive picture of children's needs and the way in which those needs are being met, and for the inspectorates to produce a protocol whereby collectively they could look at the way in which the co-ordinating machinery, as established by the Bill, is working for the benefit of children.
Therefore, in addition to their everyday responsibilities—to put it rather crudely—the inspectorates would produce a protocol whereby they could collectively work towards evaluating how well the arrangements under the Bill would work in the future. Because of that, they came together and produced this document, which I commend to your Lordships.
In those discussions, it was clear that one body would have to co-ordinate the activities. That is not to say that it would dominate, dictate or override other inspectorates, but would take on the duty of co-ordinating the task. The Government decided that Ofsted was best placed to do that for one overriding reason; namely, that Ofsted has an interest in the whole range of school-age children. Therefore, it would be the service that would have most contact with children as whole.
1054 I hope that I have not detained the House too long. I hope that noble Lords will feel that the progress that has been made in producing an almost unique way of working across 10 government inspectorates is something that should commend itself to the House. Therefore, I hope that the thrust of the thinking behind this amendment will be considered to have been addressed in that way.
§ Baroness Ashton of Upholland
My Lords, perhaps I may say to the noble Lord, Lord Laming, that not only has he allowed me to be briefer than I would have been, which is great, but also that he is being modest in saying he has played a very small role in this. The noble Lord has been incredibly helpful in ensuring that all of this was thought through properly. I should not think that other noble Lords underestimate for a moment the importance of that role.
I am pleased, too, that the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, said that this is a probing amendment. I can therefore skip everything that refers to what would happen if the amendment should be passed. I can see clearly now that the noble Baroness was looking for reassurance and wanting to discuss the overarching issues rather than either to create a brand new inspectorate umbrella or to subsume all the other inspectorates. I think that the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, addressed the problems that would be created were we to take that route. I shall therefore not spend too much time on that.
The critical element of this is within the discussion document. We have brought together 10 different inspectorates to consider how best their resources, services and inspections can focus on an area in order to consider outcomes for children as effectively as possible. Noble Lords who have had the opportunity to look at the discussion paper will know that these are proposals presented by all of them. It states that the proposals come from a steering group of commissions and inspectorates.
Members of the steering group fully recognise the benefits that a co-ordinated approach can bring and are committed to working together to meet the objectives of Every Child Matters, which states:Nothing can be more important than promoting the well-being of children and young people and we believe that inspection, assessment and review have a key part to play in evaluating and helping to improve the way services work together to improve outcomes".In seeking views from people, the inspectorates hope to be able to refine the work that they are doing and consider how best they can establish the framework. I think that noble Baroness, Lady Byford, was concerned about how the framework would work. They have already said that they want to see an integrated approach that will establish agreed sets of principles that underpin all inspection activity; they want to define the contributions to the outcomes for children and young people that different settings and different services may make; they want to identify an extent to which these will be evaluated in different inspections; and they want to develop a consistent approach to making judgments, which I think is important in that co-ordinated 1055 framework. By conducting joint area reviews, evidence from a range of different sources will be pooled so that it can be linked into a unified system of performance assessment.
That is the basis on which this discussion document has gone forward. Noble Lords who have seen it will know that it goes into much greater detail of the ways in which the inspections would operate, including having the experience of children and young people and the outcomes for them at its heart. Again, that is absolutely critical.
The reviews will work by being organised around the arrangements set up under Clause 15(6). The initial thoughts fall within the document that was published in May 2004. The ambition is that the inspectorates will reach a point where they can make fuller proposals on which there can be a full consultation later this year. This is their "first stab" at looking at what might be the right way to go forward. As I have said, that is based on what they have said about an integrated approach and what they hope to achieve by so doing. They hope to position this within a framework that is consistent and agreed between them all.
In terms of the resources available, two points are critical. The first is for the Government to ensure that resources are available. But I have always been a very strong believer that when one integrates different services, greater opportunities are provided for "better"—dare I use that word?—resources. I am not sure that there will be a resource implication in addition to those that currently exist. However, I accept that that is a critical part of the way in which we must approach the issue. If I am able to elaborate on that, I shall do so in correspondence, but it will be important to make sure that we have considered that.
As regards timing issues, we will ensure that inspection arrangements are differentiated between different authorities, which reflect their comprehensive performance assessment ratings. That may mean that some authorities will have less frequent inspections or, indeed, inspections with less fieldwork associated with them. The regulations being put in place under Clause 15(1) can set out the times or intervals for inspections. Currently, we intend that all authorities will receive an initial joint area review. We will assess the timings of follow-up reviews in the light of experience during that initial round.
That is the ambition. I have said that there will be an opportunity to look at the fuller ambitions of the joint inspectorate document later in the year when it comes into formal consultation and after there has been an opportunity to reflect on what is in the document. I recommend noble Lords to examine it. It demonstrates not only the commitment of the different inspectorates working together, but also the way in which they plan to go about it.
The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, spoke about the possible conflict of interests. The chief inspectors and inspectorates that are listed, as the noble Baroness said, in Clause 15(5) are all bodies and organisations that focus on inspections. The purpose of the joint area 1056 review is to ensure that the work on children's services takes place against a joint statement of principles, on which the inspectorates have done excellent work and have made great progress, some of which I have just indicated.
In a sense, this will embody the common purpose at the heart of the Bill. All the inspectorates are equal. The references to the chief inspector are to ensure accountability where needed, which brings me to the role of Ofsted. The noble Lord, Lord Laming, was very much party to these discussions and deliberations. As he said, the reason that Ofsted has been put in this position is twofold. First, it is the only inspectorate that deals solely with children: other inspectorates deal with adults and work in different ways. Secondly, it was thought very important that someone should take the final decision. We expect that this will be done through consultation. However, if a local authority has particular issues around certain aspects of its work, it may well be appropriate for that inspectorate to take the lead. The situation would be obvious. For example, if the issues were to surround social services, it would be appropriate for it to be the social care inspectorate and so forth.
Ultimately, we need a co-ordinator who can make the final decision in what I stress would be the collaborative sense, not in an overriding way. We feel it is important for one body to take final responsibility and we have chosen to achieve that in this way. As I have said, engagement and co-operation have been very encouraging so far, and we believe that the inspectorates are working together extremely well.
I hope, therefore, that I have been able to address the points raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, while deliberately not taking the route of explaining in detail what the effect of the amendment would be.
I return to a question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Byford. We are very clear that we expect the framework for inspections of services to be in place at the start of joint area reviews. While that is not stated explicitly in the Bill, that is the ambition and the timetable the inspectorates are working towards in the deliberations that form part of the discussion document.
I have already indicated why we think that Ofsted is the appropriate body to take forward the co-ordination role as I have described it. Amendment No. 64 asks for agreement on the most suitable inspectorate or commission to take the lead for each review. However, were no one to be available, should no agreement be reached? Ultimately, we are beholden to ensuring that there is a process in place should such a situation arise. It is not one that we anticipate, but we have to be clear about this.
We recognise that the arrangements under Clause 15(6) need to cover when the review would be scheduled, notification of the review, the formation of the review team, and who is to be the lead inspector. All of those details need to be in place to make sure that we fulfil our obligations, and we believe that these arrangements are appropriate for the inspectorates to determine.
1057 As I have also said, we do not intend in anything we do to compromise the independence or identity of the other inspectorates, but in order to run what will be a differentiated inspection process which will draw in the broad range of different expertise there has to be a named individual who will look across the programme and take on the co-ordination function. Clause 15(7) provides additional recognition that we value the range of inspectorates by providing that:Before making arrangements … the Chief Inspector of Schools must consult such of the other persons and bodies … as he considers appropriate".I understand, too, the underlying principle that the most suitable inspectorate or commission should lead a particular review. As I have indicated, we are clear that the arrangements for any joint review must include the forming of a review and the determination of who is to lead it. It is important to have a lead inspector to ensure that the initial fieldwork is co-ordinated and that the findings are drawn together in order to prepare the report. Of course the lead inspector could be drawn from any one of the participating inspectorates or commissions. Moreover, it is important that they should fit the circumstances of the particular inspection based on information and knowledge of the areas that perhaps need greater input than others. Clauses 15(6) and (7) allow for that to happen.
I hope that I have given a broad-brush explanation of what we are trying to achieve within the inspection framework, and of our recognition of the way in which the inspectors will work closely together, as well as the way in which the Chief Inspector of Schools would operate in a lead capacity, while recognising that for differential inspection the appropriate inspector will be determined by the needs of that particular inspection, and that it will be co-ordinated through Ofsted.
I hope that I have answered as many of the points as possible and that the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw her amendment.
§ 5.45 p.m.
§ Baroness Sharp of Guildford
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that full reply and other noble Lords for participating in this debate. I am sorry that I wrong-footed the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, but this was very much a probing amendment. Initially it was proposed by the National Union of Students and arose originally as a result of its suggestion that the Children's Commissioner should be the person to set the framework. Noble Lords on these Benches reacted firmly against that, but said that it would be useful to probe the thinking here. This series of amendments was tabled as a result.
I did not know about the joint report from the various inspectorates. Had I done so, I probably would not have bothered to raise the amendments because that report may well answer many of the questions raised. However, I think that it has been extremely useful to put on the record what is already going on and the reassurance that it is to remain a differentiated inspection process, but one 1058 with underlying collaboration. Many noble Lords will be reassured by the degree of engagement and co-operation that is taking place.
In terms of resources, a point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, it seems that the early process of getting together can cost much more in resource terms, but that the savings are made down the line. Sometimes a certain amount of seedcorn funding is needed to get such processes under way.
I thank the Minister, once again, for replying in such detail and, in view of the assurances that she has given, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Clause 15 [Joint area reviews]:
§ Baroness Sharp of Guildford moved Amendment No. 60:
Page 11, line 14, at end insert—
§ The noble Baroness said: My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 60 I shall speak at the same time to Amendment No. 61. They address many of the same issues that we have been considering. In the current process of inspecting LEAs, the joint area review is an outcome-driven model of assessing performance, with the outcome focused on the total experience of the child in the local authority area. The original purpose of Ofsted inspections of LEAs was to assess the effectiveness of each LEA's school improvement role. The current framework, set up in 2004, has enlarged this role to look at many other important factors such as compliance with statutory requirements and capacity to improve, as well as output indicators such as the quality of provision for children with special educational needs.
§ The aim of these amendments is to add an additional purpose; namely, that of an assessment which would be made of the extent to which the children's services authority had improved education and care settings in schools, domiciliary and day care services. The amendment probes the extent to which the joint area review will still assess the LEA in the school improvement role and how much wider that will be.
§ As I say, the amendments overlap somewhat with the issues already discussed, which the Minister will probably take into account in her reply. I beg to move.
§ Baroness Ashton of Upholland
My Lords, I should say, first, that I am very sorry that the noble Baroness did not receive a copy of the discussion document. I thought that I had covered everyone. I can confirm that it has been placed in the Library of the House, but I shall ensure that it is sent to all those interested. I apologise if the document was not made widely available, but I try to get everything out as quickly as possible. However, I think that our debate has been extremely useful because it covers an important subject.
1059 My first reaction to the amendments was to turn to a word that I have not used for a while in our debates; that is, "list". I am concerned that we should not find ourselves making another list of different purposes.
Clause 15(4) provides that:The purpose of the review … is to evaluate the extent to which, taken together, the children's services being reviewed will improve the well-being of children and relevant young persons".That is the key focus of the joint area reviews: outcomes for children and young people, and how the children's services being inspected improve their well-being. Clearly, within that, education and care are critical, but there are many bodies which contribute to them. Joint area reviews will look at the children's services authority function as an education authority and review children's social services. Therefore, we agree that the children's services authority has a key role in helping to secure improvement but, as I have indicated, other bodies contribute as well. We could, for example, also list in Clause 15(4) the support given by the relevant partners of the children's services authority, already listed in Clause 6(3).
We do not want to lose sight of the primary focus. We think it is very important that education and care are reviewed properly. Noble Lords will know that the impact on issues of education and care come from a broader range of services and require us to think much more holistically about the impact on a child. To take a purely educational stance for a moment, in terms of wanting improvements in the outcomes for children in educational achievement, we know that much of their ability to achieve comes from what else we can provide in additional support. I have already threatened your Lordships that I could talk about extended schools for hours, but I will not.
I do not think that we need this amendment. I would be concerned about starting another list. The noble Baroness can be reassured that the education authority and social care functions will be reviewed. However, we should be clear that those services are provided by a broader range of organisations. At last, we have the opportunity to review them, as a whole, and to test the outcomes for children.
§ Baroness Sharp of Guildford
My Lords, I thank the Minister and am reassured by what she has said. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ [Amendments Nos. 61 and 61A not moved.]
§ The Deputy Speaker (Viscount Allenby of Megiddo)
My Lords, I have to inform the House that if Amendment No. 62 were to be agreed, I would not be able to call Amendments Nos. 62A to 64 because of pre-emption.
§ [Amendment No. 62 not moved.]
§ [Amendments Nos. 62A to 64A not moved.]1060
Baroness Ashton of Upholland moved Amendment No. 65:
Page 11, line 42, at end insert "(including provision for the creation of criminal offences)
§ The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I believe that these amendments improve Clauses 15 to 18, the inspection clauses. As I have indicated, for the new purposes of joint area reviews, whenever possible we shall mirror the powers that inspectorates have for the purposes of their existing inspections, reviews, investigations and studies.
§ The principle that failing to provide information to inspectors or obstructing their entry to premises is an offence is well established in other enactments—for example, in Section 57 of the Learning and Skills Act 2000 and Sections 66 to 68 and 89 to 90 of the Health and Social Care (Community Health and Standards) Act 2003. It is our intention that regulations made under Clause 15(9) can replicate this principle for the purpose of joint area reviews.
§ Amendments Nos. 65 and 66 make it clear that under the regulation-making power of Clause 15(9), a criminal offence can be created where persons fail to comply with requirements under Clause 15(9)(a) or (b). That is where people fail to share or produce information for the purposes of a joint area review, or obstruct an inspector from entering premises for the purposes of a joint area review.
§ Amendment No. 68 shows that we intend to apply the existing powers of inspectorates and commissions to require information and enter premises, when making regulations under Clause 15(9)(a) or (b). So, where an inspectorate's existing powers of entry specifically exclude domestic premises, the same limitation will apply for the purposes of a joint area review.
§ Amendment No. 76 provides a definition of an "assessment" as being something which encompasses inspection, review, investigation or study. It adds the word "study" to the three words already in the Bill. Relevant existing enactments use each of these four words, and the intention behind the amendment is very straightforward—it is to ensure that all relevant assessments will be covered by the framework for inspection of children's services and can be drawn upon for the purposes of joint area reviews. In particular, we wish to ensure that evidence from Audit Commission "studies" under Section 33 of the Audit Commission Act 1998 can be drawn upon for the purposes of a joint area review.
§ Amendments Nos. 69 to 75 and Amendment No. 77 each replace the term "inspections, reviews or investigations" with the word "assessment", as defined by Amendment No. 76.
§ Clause 15(9)(e) provides that regulations may disapply the requirement for an inspectorate or commission to undertake an assessment. This is straightforwardly to avoid duplication in having the same service or function assessed twice, once for the purpose of a joint area review and, secondly, for another purpose.1061
In practice, an assessment may be undertaken under an existing enactment and also used for the purpose of a joint area review, with findings included in the report of the joint area review. Amendment No. 67 provides that regulations may also disapply a requirement to do,
anything in connection with an assessment".
Thus, for example, regulations could disapply the requirement to write a report or an action plan, so avoiding duplicating joint area review activity under another enactment. In other words, one does not have to write the report twice.
§ I believe that these amendments will improve the Bill. I beg to move.
§ On Question, amendment agreed to.
§ Baroness Ashton of Upholland moved Amendments Nos. 66 to 68:
§ Page 11, line 44, at end insert "(including provision for the creation of criminal offences)"
§ Page 12, line 6, leave out "a review, inspection or investigation" and insert "an assessment or to do anything in connection with an assessment"
Page 12, line 7, at end insert—
(10) Regulations under subsection (9)(a) and (b) may in particular make provision by applying enactments falling within subsection (11), with or without modification, for the purposes of reviews under this section.
(11) The enactments falling within this subsection are enactments relating to the powers of persons and bodies to which this section applies for the purposes of assessments other than reviews under this section.
§ On Question, amendments agreed to.
§ Clause 16 [Framework]:
Baroness Ashton of Upholland moved Amendments Nos. 69 to 72:
Page 12, line 13, leave out "inspection, review or investigation" and insert "assessment
Page 12, line 14, leave out "inspections, reviews and investigations" and insert "assessments
Page 12, line 20, leave out "inspection, review or investigation" and insert "assessment
Page 12, line 22, leave out "inspection, review or investigation is one" and insert "assessment is an assessment
§ On Question, amendments agreed to.
§ Clause 17 [Co-operation and delegation]:
Baroness Ashton of Upholland moved Amendments Nos. 73 to 75:
Page 12, line 37, leave out "inspections, reviews or investigations" and insert "assessments
Page 12, line 38, leave out "inspections, reviews or investigations" and insert "assessments
Page 12, line 41, leave out "inspections, reviews or investigations" and insert "assessments
§ On Question, amendments agreed to.1062
§ Clause 18 [Sections 15 to 17: interpretation]:
§ Baroness Ashton of Upholland moved Amendments Nos. 76 and 77:
Page 13, line 2, at end insert—
( ) "Assessment" includes an inspection, review, investigation or study.
Page 13, line 6, leave out from "of" to "is" in line 8 and insert "assessment, or secures that any kind of assessment
§ On Question, amendments agreed to.
Baroness Finlay of Llandaff moved Amendment No. 78:
Before Clause 20, insert the following new clause—
"CHILDREN'S SERVICES IN WALES: PRINCIPLES
In the delivery of children's services in Wales, Children's Services Authorities and their relevant partners in section 20(3)(a) to (e) shall have regard to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
§ The noble Baroness said: My Lords, the purpose of this amendment is to ensure consistency between all agencies working with and for children and young people in Wales. It is in accordance with Assembly policies that have been debated and were formally adopted on 14 January 2004, when the Assembly recorded that it formally adopted the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child as the basis of policy-making in this area.
§ The amendment is also consistent with the advice of the Carlile review into safeguards for children in the NHS in Wales. The Assembly wants this enshrined in primary legislation. This coherent policy framework is essential to realise a shared vision for services. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has praised the use of the convention as a framework for the Assembly's strategy for children and young people.
§ The Children's Commissioner for Wales and the national umbrella body, Children in Wales, want this amendment because they feel it would be helpful if there were a clear statutory requirement for all those providing children's services in Wales purchased by the Assembly, in line with its strategy, to have regard to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. It would give additional force to the commissioner's focus on promoting and safeguarding children's rights and welfare.
§ At present, the commissioner can recommend improvements, but an explicit instruction to providers of services to children would allow him to identify non-compliance.
§ The commissioner and the Welsh Assembly want to make Wales fully compliant with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. I beg to move.
§ 6 p.m.
§ Lord Prys-Davies
My Lords, I support the amendment which has been ably moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay of Llandaff. A weakness in the Bill is that the UNCRC has been treated as being of importance solely for the Children's Commissioner, whereas it is of equal importance to all the agencies which provide services for children and young people.
1063 The noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, indicated the principal benefit of this amendment. It will ensure greater consistency of practice between all the children's agencies in Wales. Two other benefits will also flow from the amendment. First, it will ensure that the commissioner and the children's authorities share the same philosophy and approach. Secondly, I believe that the role of the commissioner will be more effective because the children's authorities will be aware of their statutory duty to act in accordance with the UN convention. Therefore, the amendment would facilitate the implementation of the UNCRC in Wales.
When we discussed a similar amendment in Committee, my noble friend Lady Andrews, in replying, indicated that she was sympathetic to the principles of the amendment. I understood her to say that the department would be discussing the matter further with the Assembly. I very much hope that my noble friend will respond positively to the amendment. However, in fairness to my noble friend I also recall that, in replying to the debate, she mentioned the department's old friend—complex legal issues—that might stand in the way of reform. If the Government have decided to resurrect the complex legal issues argument, the children's charities in Wales would be grateful if the Minister would tell us precisely what those difficulties are so that leading counsel can be instructed to advise us on how they can be overcome.
§ Lord Thomas of Gresford
My Lords, I also welcome the amendment on behalf of these Benches. The United Nations committee has praised the National Assembly for Wales for setting out its priorities in this field and for commending the convention as a framework within which all service providers should work, as the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, said a moment ago. In Committee, we detected that the Minister showed some warmth towards the amendment and we had hoped that some work has been done on it since so that we could have a favourable reply. It would not go down well in Wales should it emerge that the principle has been accepted for the English commissioner and for the purposes of the Children Bill relating to English issues, but for some reason—to do with devolution or some legal problem—it will not be put into primary legislation for the Welsh people. I say Welsh people, but of course it is Welsh children who are our priority in this Bill.
§ Baroness Andrews
My Lords, we had a good debate on this issue in Committee and I am happy that we have another opportunity to revisit what has happened since then. The noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, has been assiduous in keeping us up to the mark on what she wants to achieve. She has spoken about the support in Wales for this change. We fully recognise what Wales has achieved—such a new Assembly giving priority to children—and the Assembly's commitment to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
The Assembly has adopted the convention as the basis for all its work with children and young people and it has translated the convention into seven core aims that are being developed as a basis both for setting priorities and 1064 for measuring the impact of services for children and young people in Wales. In practical terms, the Assembly already requires that the Children and Young People's Framework Partnerships in Wales set out in their plans their commitment to the convention. Those partnerships are unique to Wales and much can be expected from them. In addition, we know that the Assembly has established a Cabinet Sub-Committee on Children and Young People, the main aim of which is to oversee implementation.
Therefore, to an extent, we are considering something that is logical in terms of what Wales has achieved. I am happy to repeat the assurance that I gave in Committee. The Government are giving detailed consideration to this issue, in conjunction with the Assembly. Discussions to resolve the problems are continuing. I do not think that complex legal issues are an old friend of the Government. The Government would never seek refuge in such an excuse. We are trying to ensure that, if the measure is introduced, it has a practical effect, it adds value, does what it is intended to do and will make a material difference. It must serve the children of Wales in the specific ways intended.
These are not matters that can be lightly or superficially resolved or discussed because they go into the operation of different services in Wales, many of which are organised differently, particularly children's services. We must ensure that all services are treated consistently and will be able to respond consistently. There are serious issues to be resolved that will take time.
We have been asked to come back and keep noble Lords informed about how we are proceeding with those discussions. I must repeat that, because this is work in progress, we will have to wait until discussions are concluded before we can consider giving any commitment to introduce an amendment. This is a live issue and one that we are taking very seriously. We want to make a positive difference. I hope that, with those assurances, the noble Baroness will undertake to withdraw the amendment.
§ Lord Thomas of Gresford
My Lords, before the noble Baroness sits down, is she embarrassed to concede anything at this stage because there is to be a handout from the Secretary of State Mr Peter Hain in the House of Commons at some later time? What difficulties are there?
§ Baroness Andrews
No, my Lords, it is not a question of that at all. If we require services to develop consistently with the UN convention we have to ensure that they are in position to do so, that they have the capacity to do so and that they do so consistently. When they sign up to do that we must have some guarantee that it will happen. It is very important to have that certainty. It is important, not least for the children who are dependent on those services. These are practical measures. This is not political games play. Officials will be going through a serious process of discussion and review. I am afraid that that is all I can say to noble Lords. I am sincere in that analysis and I hope that we can come back to the House and inform the House in due course what has been achieved.
§ Baroness Finlay of Llandaff
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for her reply, although I remain a little unconvinced by what she said. I have a major concern that in parts of Wales there is not a huge choice of providers, and that the Assembly, the children's charities and the Children's Commissioner recognise that they need a lever to give them a little push.
The standards laid out in the convention act as an international benchmark against which services can be measured. It would therefore, as the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, said, increase the effectiveness of the commissioner to have some levers with those services. We must close the loop and ensure that everyone is working to a common philosophy and common aim. It is fine to state that the commissioner has to work to those standards; but then he must work with services, with which he has no lever, to ensure that they jack up in every single area. There is a real problem in some parts of Wales—if one took a service away, one would need to know that there was something coming in to fill its place.
At a personal level, I would like to see Wales delivering the best standard of care for children and young people anywhere in the UK. I want Wales to be an exemplar. I believe that the Assembly, the commissioner and the charities in Wales also want that as a common aim. Therefore, we must push on with this matter. I accept what the Minister said—that discussion is in progress and that she is asking for time to come back—but I fear that we cannot wait for ever.
Although at this stage it is appropriate to withdraw the amendment, I am really not convinced that this is something that can be let drop in the long term. As this Bill passes through Parliament, it must incorporate the issue, because there is a consistent call coming from Wales in that regard. I have not heard any voices from Wales saying that they did not want the provision that we are discussing in the Bill. That is a difficulty that I have with the legislation. However, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Clause 20 [Co-operation to improve well-being: Wales]:
§ [Amendment No. 79 not moved.]
Baroness Byford moved Amendment No. 80:
Page 14, line 5, leave out "and training" and insert ", training and recreation
§ On Question, amendment agreed to.
§ [Amendments Nos. 81 to 83 not moved.]
§ Baroness Ashton of Upholland moved Amendments Nos. 84 to 86:
Page 14, line 7, at end insert—
( ) In making arrangements under this section a children's services authority in Wales must have regard to the importance of parents and other persons caring for children in improving the well-being of children.
Page 14, line 13, at end insert—
( ) a youth offending team for an area any part of which falls within the area of the authority;
§ Page 14, line 22, after "section" insert—
- "(a) provide staff, goods, services, accommodation or other resources;
- (b) "
§ On Question, amendments agreed to.
§ Clause 22 [Arrangements to safeguard and promote welfare: Wales]:
§ [Amendments Nos. 87 to 89 not moved.]
§ Clause 24 [Establishment of LSCBs in Wales]:
§ Baroness Ashton of Upholland moved Amendment No. 90:
Page 17, line 31, 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.
§ Clause 25 [Functions and procedure of LSCBs in Wales]:
§ [Amendment No. 91 not moved.]
§ Clause 26 [Funding of LSCBs in Wales]:
§ Baroness Ashton of Upholland moved Amendments Nos. 92 and 93:
Page 18, line 37, 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 24.
§ Page 18, line 38, leave out "subsection (1)" and insert "subsections (1) and (1A)"
§ On Question, amendments agreed to.
§ Clause 36 [Amendments to notification scheme]:
§ 6.15 p.m.
§ Baroness Barker moved Amendment No. 94:
Page 23, line 25, at end insert—
( ) In subsection (2), after paragraph (b), insert—
(c) requiring any person who fosters a child privately within the local authority's area to be registered by the local authority."
§ The noble Baroness said: My Lords, how nice it is to be here. I apologise for my absence during earlier proceedings.
§ We return yet again to the issue of private fostering and, specifically, its registration. When we debated the matter in Committee, I used a sporting metaphor relating to cricket and bowling to highlight, somewhat lightheartedly, the completely contradictory stance taken by the Minister and her predecessor on this matter. Hence, too, the change of tactics from these Benches. There is perhaps danger of this becoming a classic sporting moment—because, yet again, we on these Benches have returned to the same issue with a slightly different tactic and slightly different form of bowling in an attempt to get through.
§ These amendments are largely similar to those moved at previous stages and to previous Bills. What has changed this time is that we have removed the restriction that the regulations should apply only to children up to 11. I still believe that it is right, when one 1067 has to prioritise on resources, as we are frequently told we must by the Government, that we should have a reasonable means of doing so. With our earlier amendments, we thought that children below the age of 11 would be likely to be less able to articulate, principally to professionals, that they were in a private fostering relationship that was unsatisfactory. However, we have taken on board what the Minister said on that matter in Committee and have changed our approach.
§ The first question that we might be asked is, "Why are you making such proposals yet again?" To put it bluntly, although the Minister gave the matter great consideration in her reply, as she always does, and on a fair basis, she was not compelling on the subject—in fact she was far from compelling. The way in which the Government turned the argument on its head, in discussing whether children below the ages of 16 or 11 should be included, was symptomatic of that. The tactic is not unsurprising, when one considers the history of legislation on matters of adoption and fostering. It happens all the time that a government can deploy completely contradictory arguments.
§ We believe that the Government's points, which they made in Committee, about the need to establish best practice and enable local authorities to have some degree of freedom in which to determine what is best practice, were good ones. However, we see no contradiction between those arguments and stating that there is a necessity for there to be a registration scheme. We on these Benches believe that there is significant evidence from studies such as the Holman study and from People Like Us by William Utting that the notification system does not work. It is ignored far more than it is advanced. When the noble Earl, Lord Howe, comes to speak to his amendments, he may extend that argument.
§ I reflected at some length on the Minister's remarks in Committee. I agree that there is a great need to enable best practice and to enable local authorities to be proactive in working with communities in which private fostering is more common than in others. At the end of my reflection, I was left with an unmistakeable impression that privately fostered children will remain the most vulnerable and most hidden in the land if we do not have a registration scheme. Although the Government are willing to expend a great deal of time, regulation, effort and expense in the Bill for the majority of children, this is the one area in which there could be the most effective targeting.
§ The basis for that effective targeting needs to be a registration scheme. The three amendments that stand in my name enable local authorities to do that. They add the power to have a regulation scheme to the Children Act 1989. They place a duty on local authorities to establish and maintain a register. It is inconsistent with practically every other aspect of childcare, not just childminding, about which we spoke on an earlier occasion, but also with fostering, adoption and other forms of childcare. To leave unregistered and unregulated the placing of children with strangers— 1068 maybe for the best of reasons—is wrong. Much of what the Government have put forward to date has been based on the misapprehension that it is possible and comparatively easy to change a bad private fostering arrangement once it has started and that that is better than having a scheme that is proactive, in which private fosterers have to be assessed and show that they come up to standard in advance and in which the arrangements are then monitored. Parents, children and private fosters, all of whom have experience of the current situation, have said to researchers that they believe that a system of registration would be beneficial to all concerned.
§ The Bill is framed around reactions to the worst care of children. The amendment is a proactive way of ensuring that some of the most vulnerable children receive good and adequate care. Since we discussed this matter during proceedings on the Adoption and Children Bill, I have not understood why the Government are so resistant to this measure. It is a measure that will not affect many children but it will have a demonstrably beneficial effect for a very small number of children. That is why we are back at the crease today. I beg to move.
§ Earl Howe
My Lords, before expanding on the noble Baroness's very wise words, with which I fully agree, I shall speak to two other amendments in this group. In Committee, I argued through Amendment No. 94A for a refinement to the provision in Clause 36(6), such that instead of a local authority simply having someone to monitor the discharge of its private fostering duties it would appoint someone responsible for the delivery of the entire service.
The Minister kindly wrote to me about what the monitoring role might involve and I am grateful to her for that. However, the description that she gave in her letter did not really seem to amount to more than a back office job. It did not seem to involve a co-ordinating role for an authority's private fostering activities, including support for carers, which is what my amendment proposes.
If the Minister does not feel able to agree to the amendment, I wonder whether, as a substitute, she might be in a position to reassure me that the national minimum standards for private fostering will include a recommendation that local authorities should appoint a private fostering officer to perform a co-ordinating role, not just a clerical, recording role.
Amendment No. 98 is designed to ask a very simple question. Clause 37(4) sets out the circumstances in which someone may be disqualified from being registered as a private foster carer under the scheme that Ministers will have the power to introduce. Subsection (4)(d) provides that a person will be so disqualified where he has been convicted of a relevant criminal offence, or is on probation for such an offence or, and these are the crucial words,he has been discharged absolutely or conditionally for any such offence".It is this last part that concerns me.
I can understand the reason why a conditional discharge for a certain type of offence might render a person unsuitable to foster a child. But if that person 1069 has been discharged absolutely by a court, what possible grounds could there be for denying him the right to have his name on the register? I simply do not understand how this provision is consistent with natural justice or human rights. I hope that the Minister can explain.
Reverting to the main issue, the essence of the matter is whether we believe that an enhanced notification system on its own is capable of delivering the kind of tightening up of the private fostering system that we all know to be necessary. I am afraid that, like the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, this is one issue on which the Minister has so far failed to convince me. An increase in the number of notifications would be desirable if it could be achieved. But even if it were achieved, there is nothing in current law to enable social workers easily and quickly to stop a private fostering arrangement if they think that it is undesirable. Only a registration scheme would do that.
The Minister held up Gloucestershire as a shining example of why a registration scheme is not needed. It is true that Gloucestershire has actively promoted the current legal requirement for private foster carers to notify the local authority of placements and that that has led to a significant increase in notifications. But Gloucestershire County Council has publicly said that this is not enough. It says:We would welcome a requirement that private foster carers must be assessed, approved and registered as the most effective way of ensuring that children and young people are protected and that their needs are identified".Councillor Maureen Rutter, cabinet member for children and families, said that,we would welcome a strengthening of the law to ensure that privately fostered children are recognised as a potentially vulnerable group".That is the nub of the problem with the Government's proposals. They do not sufficiently address the vulnerability of privately fostered children as a group. All the work in Gloucestershire and elsewhere shows that local authorities rarely hear about placements until after the event, which is too late. Under current legal powers, it is extremely difficult to change an unsatisfactory private fostering arrangement at that stage. In fact, such prohibitions are rarely undertaken. This in turn encourages some carers to believe that they have been "approved" when actually they have not been. But it is a belief that can lead birth parents into a false sense of security that it is somehow officially "all right" to leave their children with those carers.
The Minister did not answer my question in Committee about the review of private fostering initiated by the DfES in 2002. Can she say what the result of that review was and whether it has been published? My information is that the review came out in favour of a registration scheme, as did the Social Care Institute for Excellence last year. I understand that the Thomas Coram Research Unit at the Institute of Education has also recently done some work in this area for the DfES. Can the Minister confirm that its research too overwhelmingly indicated a preference for a registration scheme?
1070 In Committee, I argued that a registration scheme would provide a seal of approval for private fosterers that they would value and that parents would also value as a means of accessing safe carers for their children. I still believe that those are very powerful points. If the Minister is unable to accept the arguments for introducing a registration scheme straightaway, at the very least I should be grateful if she would say something about the criteria the Government will use for deciding whether the enhanced notification scheme has been a success or not. What sort of improvement in the statistics would tend to persuade the Government that there was no need to introduce a registration system? Indeed, will their decision rest solely on statistics or will it consider the pros and cons of a registration scheme in the round?
I very much hope, however, that the Minister will recognise that the Government's proposals are unlikely to deliver what we all want. It would be very good if she felt able to tell her colleagues that the case had been made for them to think again on this whole question.
§ 6.30 p.m.
§ The Lord Bishop of Oxford
My Lords, I rise to support the amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, to which my name is attached, for reasons which were set out in Committee; therefore I shall speak only very briefly now. The fact is that an enhanced disclosure system will not bring forward foster parents with whom are placed the most vulnerable children. I agree with everything that the noble Earl said about the inferences that can and cannot be drawn from the Gloucestershire example. What they have done there is very good, but we really cannot generalise from that. As he pointed out, they themselves are calling for a registration scheme.
I am very impressed by the argument that parents who want to place children with foster parents should from the outset have confidence that the foster parent is registered. Surely it must be a benefit to society that once a foster parent is registered, he or she will be able to foster not only one child but a whole series of children, and parents can put children in such care with some degree of confidence.
I know that the argument about the relationship between foster parents and childminders was made previously, but it is still very compelling. It is not possible to put a child for even a few hours with a childminder, and up to 28 days, unless that childminder is registered, and yet at the moment we can put a child with a foster parent for longer than 28 days. That seem an extraordinary type of anomaly.
The arguments against having registration are not compelling. It is very difficult to understand why the Government continue to resist it. I hope that they might make some concessions even now at this stage.
§ Baroness Howe of Idlicote
My Lords, in Committee I put my name to a very similar amendment on private fostering. Having listened to what noble Lords have just 1071 said, I am completely puzzled why these amendments cannot be accepted. The right reverend Prelate has just mentioned the parallel with childminders that is there for all to see. We have been told that all the organisations involved with fostering, adoption and all these matters are in favour of moving to registration as opposed to the currently proposed voluntary arrangements. I should also have thought that parents who had to foster privately for whatever reason would be more reassured by the registration process. A check with local authorities would reveal whether anything known about potential foster carers made it undesirable for them to serve in that role.
I shall not repeat everything that has been said. I merely wanted to add my remarks to those of noble Lords who believe that the Government should move firmly towards a permanent registration system.
§ Baroness Howarth of Breckland
My Lords, I had not intended to speak to the amendment. However, I should like, if I may, to ask a few questions. I apologise that I missed the Committee stage. Although I have tried to catch up, I may have missed the answers to these questions.
Are the Government reluctant to put in place a registration scheme because of the resource implications? The Association of Directors of Social Services has occasionally raised the issue of the resource implications of registration schemes. Are the Government reluctant because minimum standards would have to be set, just as there are for childminders and other foster carers? The stringency of those standards vary. As some of these foster parents would not meet those standards, there would be a need to find alternatives.
Are the Government reluctant because of a worry about family placement, an issue which has been raised before? If so, I believe they could make exclusions for children placed with families. I successfully brought up my sister's children for five years. I would not have expected to be registered; but if I had to be, then I would have looked at it.
If it is not for those reasons, I would find it extraordinarily difficult to understand why these most vulnerable children should not receive the same care as childminded children and fostered children. I am just very sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Laming, is not here. I am sure that he would have had something similar to say.
§ Baroness Ashton of Upholland
My Lords, I am very grateful that we have had the opportunity to discuss this issue again—although I am always sorry when I have not been compelling in my arguments. However, this is a very important debate. I am very glad to see the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, in her place despite her undoubted jetlag. We will forgive her if that has some effect later.
If I may, I should like to deal with Amendment No. 94A before turning to the substance of the group. I believe that the noble Earl wanted me to say something about the national minimum standards in this context.
1072 We think it very important that local authorities ensure that those who carry out the functions around private fostering on behalf of the local authority understand the private fostering issues, have the right kind of access to support and training and provide the co-ordination function for which the noble Earl was looking, and which I clearly failed to address earlier. However, other issues such as monitoring, and so on, are also important. It is quite important to cede those to the local safeguarding bodies.
I take the noble Earl's point that the job is broader and perhaps bigger than that. We will look at addressing that in the forthcoming national minimum standards, which I hope will answer that point. I may expand on that in correspondence with the noble Earl after I reflect on it. I wanted to say that straightaway, however, as I think it may sufficiently deal with the point.
I turn to Amendments Nos. 94, 95 and 96. The noble Baroness, Lady Barker, and other noble Lords have put the case very strongly and passionately for moving directly to a private foster carer scheme. We have taken a different view—by the very nature of the way in which we set out our objectives for the enhanced scheme and the sunset clause—but I hope that we have indicated that we take the case seriously. We may disagree about how we get there, but we recognise the vulnerability of children and young people in this context. We have thought very carefully about it.
It is just that we are not convinced that a registration scheme will work better than the Bill's provisions to enhance the existing notification scheme. That is partly because we believe that the existing scheme provides a robust framework of safeguards and that the Bill's provisions will make it even stronger. So we start from the principle of saying, "We think that it is robust. We recognise it could be strengthened. We have tried to do that in the Bill. If it does not work we will take action". Within the department I have discussed and deliberated on why we do not want to make such a direct move. The main reason is that it is very difficult to generalise about privately fostered children. As we discussed in Committee, there are many different types of privately fostered children and we need to be aware of that. Noble Lords expressed great concern about those who come from abroad perhaps to enhance their educational opportunities. Some children are in language schools—a category that has been looked at—for more than four weeks. Some of them are young people on exchange holidays, and some may have fallen out with their parents; that is, teenagers who need to go and live with someone else while the situation cools down. For some, a parent may have been taken suddenly into hospital and close friends or godparents are staying with the family during that period.
We seek to find a way of safeguarding all these children in different circumstances, some of which are purely commercial arrangements in which the people involved might be loving and caring, but the motivation is at least in part a commercial one and in arrangements where the motivation is purely one of support for the family. In the latter case emergency 1073 circumstances may arise which could last for some time and someone may take in the children of a family with whom he or she is very close but to whom they are not necessarily related. I can think of circumstances—as I am sure can noble Lords—in which should an emergency arise, heaven forbid, I would take in children whom I know well without hesitation for as long as that was necessary.
Given the range of circumstances that may arise, we wish to test out the enhanced notification scheme. We believe that it is worth giving it a chance to work. We believe that it could better engage local communities than a registration scheme. It might encourage people to notify the authorities of a much greater range of arrangements than would occur if the alternative was to register as a private foster carer.
We have talked about Gloucestershire where notification schemes have begun to work well. We want to test whether they could work well elsewhere. The requirement to raise awareness of the need to monitor—I am sure that some people are unaware that that is a requirement—closely the operation of schemes locally with a view to ensuring that they comply with all their duties in relation to privately fostered children is important. If people do not know that they should come forward, they simply will not do so. We have placed the onus on local authorities with regard to the enhanced scheme rather than on parents or individuals. We want to test that approach before we place the onus on the individual to come forward because of the range of different circumstances that I have outlined. We think that it is important to get our services working more fully before we place the onus elsewhere.
We have concerns—I hope that I have indicated them—that while a registration scheme might be appropriate for strictly commercial arrangements, it is more problematic where an extended family or friends offer to care for a child or help out in emergency situations. We are not yet convinced that they should need to register as private foster carers for what is to all intents and purposes informal and private arrangements made by parents who know the adults concerned extremely well, as, indeed, do the children. I am not convinced that families would expect or welcome such scrutiny of those private arrangements.
We are not sure that a dual system, which could cause confusion, is the best way forward. As I said on 27 May, we believe that we should have one system, whether that is enhanced notification or a registration scheme, which applies to all privately fostered children. We are approaching this matter with a degree of caution with regard to moving directly to another system without doing more to make the enhanced notification scheme work, and making sure that we consider very carefully the range of children involved in the matter.
The noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, asked whether resource implications were the reason that the Government do not want a registration scheme. That is not the case. It is a question not of minimum standards but of the matters that I have indicated. The 1074 noble Baroness was right to talk about exempting families from certain requirements. However, the difficulty arises when one tries to define a family. I mentioned the kind of arrangements in which I would look after the children whom I mentioned. I would not register myself formally as I would not expect that to be necessary in those circumstances. However, I would probably not be caught by the traditional definition of a family as I would not be a family member. We shall, of course, consider the case—the noble Baroness makes an important point in that regard—where parents make private arrangements for their children with people with whom they have strong relationships who are not family members. We have to ask whether we should get involved in or interfere with that. Making a registration scheme encompass them is a matter that we have to consider further.
The noble Earl, Lord Howe, asked me on what basis we would determine the evaluation criteria. I do not have the detail of all the evaluation criteria at the moment as we are still thinking about it. I think that the noble Earl would be surprised if that were not the case. However, it will certainly involve an increase in notifications. That will be a critical part of it. We shall assess the impact of the Bill on authorities to raise awareness locally. We shall measure that through the new annual data collection exercise on notification rates which came in in April 2004. We shall monitor compliance with the Children Act and associated regulation through inspection. Ultimately, we shall need to decide whether the new measures, along with the national minimum standards for private fostering, have addressed the problems with notification schemes that have been identified.
As I said in Committee, we have deliberately given ourselves a short timescale with a sunset clause in order to conduct an evaluation quickly. Since our debate on 27 May we have agreed that we shall during the lifetime of the registration provisions publish a report on the impact of the new measures in Clause 36, including an indication of whether, in the light of that, we are minded to move towards a registration scheme. A report will be available as quickly as possible on whether we think the measure is working and whether we think that we should move to a registration scheme.
We are searching not for different ends but for different means to that end. We want to encourage private foster carers to contact their local authorities. We are worried that moving directly to a registration scheme could make them more reluctant to do so. They may be worried about being considered suitable or fearful of being subjected to regular inspections.
Private foster carers would need to be checked. The measures that we are introducing through this Bill mean that under the existing notification scheme a local authority would need to check a private fostering arrangement before a child was placed in it. We are not entirely convinced that a registration scheme has great benefits over enhanced notification.
1075 Our ambition is to take the measure one step further with national minimum standards, enhanced notification, review and inspection and a careful consideration of categories of children. We need to be clear that we have one system but that we recognise different categories of children within that. In the course of reviewing the measure—as I say we have deliberately put in place a sunset clause—we would come forward with a registration scheme if we considered that that was necessary.
I hope that I have made a more compelling argument than I did previously as I consider that I owe it to my colleagues who have worked long and hard on the matter. As I say, we seek to take the measure a stage further with a view to introducing a registration scheme if that is considered necessary. We recognise that many of the arrangements we are discussing are made between families. The Government should become involved in that only if it is appropriate. On that basis I hope that the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw the amendment.
The noble Earl, Lord Howe, rightly asked a question about Amendment No. 98. We believe it is important, even in the circumstances that the noble Earl indicated; namely, that local authorities should be able to determine whether a person is appropriate in the context that we are discussing. For example, if a person has a conviction for an assault on a partner and the court gives an absolute discharge, we believe that the local authority should be able to take its own view on whether that person should foster privately. My understanding is that this is in line with existing provisions on persons being disqualified under Section 68 of the Children Act and provides a degree of flexibility.
The noble Earl raised a point about human rights and so on. If he will allow me, I am inclined to take it away again. Although I have the answers, we need to put in writing specifically how the matter is covered, as I can see that noble Lords are concerned and think that it is not addressed effectively. The Bill is in line with existing provisions, which will have taken into account issues such as human rights. I would like to come back with better examples on that. On that basis, I hope that he will not press the amendment.
§ Baroness Ashton of Upholland
My Lords, that is my interpretation—that the provision would be about discretion, taking into account all the factors.
§ Baroness Barker
My Lords, I find myself in some difficulty. I understand the sincerity with which the noble Baroness puts her case, but the slow way in which the Government have approached the issue does not give anyone who cares about it great comfort.
The context for the debate is that the bus has been well and truly missed once already. The provision should have been in the Adoption and Children Act, but it was not. Some of us drive around central London and see buses with exhortations on their backs for people to become foster parents, because there is an acute crisis in foster care about which we have talked before. The issue has been pushed further and further back. In that context, one has to doubt the sincerity of the Government to move forward on the issue.
Now is not the time to talk again about the Government's provisions on some sectors; we did that in Committee. However, there is no compelling argument in that either. Those in the field who care passionately about the subject and have argued for it—the ADSS, BAAF, the NSPCC—are yet again battered back and forth between arguments about whether such provisions should involve all kids or only children up to the age of 11.
It is entirely possible for there to be a registration scheme that is widely known about and promoted, into which people who may be engaged in informal care of the types explained by the noble Baroness understand that they fit. Anyone looking after a child by accident—in an emergency, for a minimal period—will see that it is to the benefit of that child and all children that that arrangement is known about and known to be safe. We spend so much time trying to make other children safe, in all other circumstances, and there really is discordance here on the part of the Government. It does not add up.
I take the argument that the matter is not about resources. I shall go away and look at what the noble Baroness said but, when more resources are going into the development of adoption and fostering services, the issue stands out a mile as a gaping hole.
The track record of another place on the matter is not one from which we should take any comfort. We in this House should determine the matter. For the moment, but with great reluctance, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.