§ Baroness Ashton of Upholland
My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill be now further considered on Report.
§ Moved, That the Bill be further considered on Report.—(Baroness Ashton of Upholland.)
§ On Question, Motion agreed to.
§ Clause 36 [Amendments to notification scheme]:
§ [Amendment No. 94A not moved.]1209
§ Clause 37 [Power to establish registration scheme in England]:
§ [Amendments Nos. 95 and 96 not moved.]
§ Baroness Ashton of Upholland moved Amendment No. 97:
Page 24, line 34, at end insert—
( ) The provision which may be made under subsection (2)(a) includes provision that any person who, in an application for registration under the regulations, knowingly makes a statement which is false or misleading in a material particular is guilty of an offence and liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale.
§ The noble Baroness said: My Lords, Clause 37 already makes provision for a number of offences for private foster carers under a registration scheme. The amendment is proposed to deal with a situation where a person in an application for registration as a private foster carer knowingly makes a false or misleading statement in a material particular. By doing so, such a person would be guilty of an offence and liable, on summary conviction, to a fine of up to £5,000.
§ We believe that providing false or misleading information which could lead to the registration of someone who might otherwise have been considered unsuitable to be a registered private foster carer is a very serious matter and one that should carry a severe penalty. Although the amendment might be regarded as relatively minor, it is, none the less, important. It would improve the Bill. I beg to move.
§ On Question, amendment agreed to.
§ [Amendment No. 98 not moved.]
§ [Amendment No. 99 had been withdrawn from the Marshalled List.]
§ Baroness Sharp of Guildford moved Amendment No. 100:
§ Before Clause 41, insert the following new clause—
§ "DUTY OF SCHOOL GOVERNING BODY IN RELATION TO PUPILS WHO ARE IN PUBLIC CARE
The governing body of a community, foundation or voluntary school or a maintained nursery school shall secure that the teachers in the school are aware of the importance of identifying, and providing for, those registered pupils who are in public care."
§ The noble Baroness said: My Lords, the purpose of the amendment is to probe further the Government's reluctance to give in legislation a specific responsibility to school governing bodies for the education of children in public care. On the fifth day in Committee, we had a debate on the role of governing bodies in respect of children in public care. However, in her response to the various amendments, the Minister focused on who was the best person to have responsibility for promoting the education of children in care.
In summing up the reasons why children in care have unacceptably low levels of educational achievement, the Minister used the findings of the
Social Exclusion Unit's report, A better education for children in care. She concluded that the unit points to the,
need to place a duty on the corporate parent. I am not ruling out the importance of schools, but all five key findings lead to the local authority. The local authority, as corporate parent, can deal with the issues of instability, time out of school, lack of extra help, insufficient support and health".—[Official Report, 27/5/04; col. 1471.]
§ The Minister made a very good point. However, she did not address the role of the school in respect of children in public care. What can the school do to help those children most? Amendment No. 100 tackles that issue by saying that schools should ensure that all staff are aware of the educational needs of looked-after children in general and, where appropriate, staff should know which children are in public care. That is essentially a staff training issue. There is a need to appoint a senior member of staff—a designated teacher—who has responsibility for ensuring that staff know of the educational needs of looked-after children.
Support for that approach comes from the DfEE guidance (as it was in the year 2000 when it was issued), entitled Education of Young People in Public Care, which is still current. This quotation comes from the DfES website:
The Guidance states at paragraph 5.34
Schools should designate a teacher to act as a resource and advocate for children and young people in public care
The guidance goes on to ask that LEAs and social services departments co-ordinate suitable training for designated teachers and maintain an up-to-date list of them in schools in their area.
Those who have read the guidance will know that paragraph 5.34 is underlined. The underlining is explained on page iii of the introduction. It states that,
primary legislation will be needed to give statutory force to paragraph 5.34".
§ That indicates that someone at the DfEE, as it then was, recognised the importance of placing a statutory duty on schools in respect of the education of children and young people in care.
The Social Exclusion Unit's report, A better education for children in care says a lot about designated teachers. Where designated teachers are in place there have been positive results, but there have been problems in identifying the staff to take on this role. Paragraph 5.13 of the Social Exclusion Unit's report states:
Every school should have a designated teacher to act on behalf of children in care. The designated teacher role can be adapted to meet local needs. It could include advocating for children in care, monitoring their progress and performance, or providing coaching to other staff on the needs and experiences of children in care".
Problems of finding designated teachers of sufficient seniority and commitment could be overcome in part by placing an explicit duty on governing bodies to ensure that staff know about the educational needs of children in care. Clearly, a specific requirement to have a designated teacher is too specific for primary
legislation, but a more general duty on the governing body, as proposed in Amendment No. 100, is a way forward.
§ The Minister may not accept that Amendment No. 100 is the best formulation to ensure school staff are aware of the educational needs of children in public care and to meet the Government's stated commitment. However, the commitment has been given. Either the Government should take the opportunity to renege on that commitment or they should bring back a government amendment at Third Reading to support the education of children in care. I beg to move.
§ The Earl of Listowel
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp of Guildford, for stepping in at the last moment to introduce the amendment for me. I apologise to her for momentarily stepping out of the Chamber.
I strongly support the amendment. I welcome what the Government are doing in Clause 43 to promote the educational attainment of children. As the Minister said, the Social Exclusion Unit's report into the education of looked-after children emphasises the five different ways that local authorities need to raise their game in order to improve the educational attainment of those children.
I also welcome the assurance the Minister gave in Committee that there will be statutory guidance on the designated governor within the governing body. That is also a helpful step forward. In Committee, I raised concerns about the implementation of tools used in schools by the government to promote the educational attainment of looked-after children. First, the designated teacher is a specially trained senior teacher who can advise other teachers about how to work with looked-after children and has a responsibility to liaise with the social service department and the foster carer and ensure that the child is properly ensconced in school.
Secondly, I raised concerns about personal educational plans. Each child in care has a personal education plan. That is filled out by the child, the foster carer or the residential social worker and the teacher. It sets a number of goals for the child to attain. Both tools are good in principle but, regrettably, in practice they do not appear to work properly.
I asked the Minister about the matter in Committee. I felt that her response was a little complacent. She asked where the evidence was that these tools are not effective. In the chapter on schools in the Social Exclusion Unit's report on the education of looked-after children the Minister will see clear evidence that the designated teacher is not being used consistently. Certainly, her advisers—I am sure she has her scouts as I have mine—will tell her that in practice there is a great deal of inconsistency in the use of these tools.
Again, there is little research in this area, but some has recently been published and, having spoken to the researchers, they found that when they talked to the schools with which they were working, sadly, the 1212 personal education plan amounted to little more than a tick-box exercise. Even so, it was to some extent useful because it brought social workers and school teachers together, but it was underperforming its potential.
So my concern is that, although the steps that the Government have taken are welcome, they will not go far enough to ensure the proper implementation of the measures that we need. Although it is right that there should be a special duty on local authorities to promote the education of children in care, what happens in schools? Surely schools are vital to children's educational attainment and we need to ensure that what happens in school works, as well as what happens in local authorities.
I turn briefly to school governors. They have the strategic role in schools of ensuring that the right policies are in place. If there is a duty on school governors of the kind that we are describing, they may think, "Yes, we will have our designated governor", but when the designated governor comes to the governor's meeting, the school governors as a body corporate will be responsible for asking that person, "Well, what is going on with the looked-after children?" If there are no looked-after children in the school, they must say, "Are we ready to receive such children?"
It was made clear to me in the research that it is necessary for schools that do not have looked-after children to be ready for them when they arrive. The Minister will be well aware that currently, too often, the worst-performing schools are those that receive children in care. That is often because children in care move during the middle of the school year and the school with vacancies is a school that is underperforming and a school to which no one wants to send their child. We hope that the changes in the admissions policy recently made will begin to ease that problem but, as it begins to ease, we must ensure that schools that have not received looked-after children in the past are ready to do so.
I will not go on about the outcomes for those children, because I think that we know them pretty well. But let us consider what happens with teenage pregnancies. In the 1958 cohort of children who went through the care system, young women were found to be two-and-a-half times more likely to be pregnant in their teens when they came out of care. Also, a child born to a parent who has been looked-after is two-and-a-half times more likely to go into care. So we need to address that vicious circle. Education plays an important part in reducing the amount of teenage pregnancy. The Social Exclusion Unit report on teenage pregnancy mentioned that as one of its three key factors in reducing pregnancy rates. I look forward to hearing the Minister's response.
§ Baroness Howe of Idlicote
My Lords, I support the amendment, proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp and my noble friend Lord Listowel. One 1213 of the many figures concerning looked-after children makes especial sense in this context. About 27 per cent of looked-after children have special educational needs; compared with 3 per cent on average. That puts into perspective how important are the special arrangements and the fact that schools must be thoroughly involved in the whole process.
I have been impressed, not least by the pioneering group of local authorities which reported to a group of us the other day, all of which emphasised the need to work together to identify the specific needs of children. I say that because it was clearly difficult to get the different specialities to work together. There was a clear indication that they would prefer to be made to work together, for which the Bill clearly lays the groundwork.
I have been equally impressed by the number of initiatives that are already under way. We have heard about one of them. The Taking Care of Education project certainly indicated that successful pioneer schemes were under way. Everybody involved with the children, and the children themselves, were involved in working out a plan. Levels of self-esteem, how everybody worked together and the effect on the children seemed to indicate a step in the right direction. There is still a tremendously long way to go. I hope that the Government, having set up and backed the proposals, will do everything possible to ensure that everybody works together.
The General Teaching Council, with which I had a meeting, is very interested in getting its people to work together with the other specialists involved so that at least a core of each speciality is working in the same direction. I hope that this small amendment can be agreed to without too much difficulty. It would operate via governors of schools; there would be a designated teacher where necessary. Obviously, they will be prompted only once a year to see whether they have any looked-after children. It does not seem to be asking too much to have the amendment accepted.
§ Lord Hylton
My Lords, given the hour I shall say only that a distressingly large proportion of young people who have passed through care end up in conflict with the criminal justice system and very often in prisons and other custodial institutions. That is highly unsatisfactory and has been going on far too long. Therefore this is an important amendment; I urge the Government to accept it.
§ Baroness Ashton of Upholland
My Lords, I pay tribute to the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, for ensuring that the issue of looked-after children is brought to the forefront, certainly in all the work that I do in your Lordships' House. I am grateful to him for the time that he has spent in discussing the underlying issues with me.
In response to those who spoke on the amendment, we are discussing the means to an end, but I submit that we all seek the same outcomes. We believe firmly that a huge amount of work must be done to support looked-after children to ensure that they receive the 1214 kind of education that is appropriate for them and that they are successful in education, because it is such an important gateway to success in life.
The noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, was right to say that I focused on the Social Exclusion Unit report in dealing with the outcomes, and that I focused on those outcomes in the context of the corporate parent. What the report identified as lacking in the lives of looked-after young people relates very much to the role of the corporate parent. That applies especially to young people and children placed out of area, as they have additional problems. I make no apologies for placing the emphasis there, as it is very important.
I would be very upset if I had given the noble Earl any indication that I was complacent because that is not the case. I think that the work of designated teachers is going well, but that does not mean that I do not believe that we should continue to look at such teachers and consider some factors: first, the training and support that they might need; secondly, their level of seniority. We will continue to do that.
We have tried to address the question of admissions through admissions forums. We have made looked-after young people the priority in considering how schools need to support them. That has been done in terms of their arrival out of the normal turnover of children in schools and also more generally in enabling schools to identify that they have a role in ensuring that what we would consider good schools are available to support the education of looked-after children.
The difference between us is that we are moving as far as we possibly can in Every Child Matters, and in our work more generally with schools, to recognise that children arrive on a continuum of need. Looked-after children will fall into different categories of need. These children will sometimes have behavioural problems, special educational needs or disabilities, and the figures are probably understated for those children. They will also come with different reasons in their backgrounds for being in care. They will have different needs in terms of the continuation of their education and disruption of their education. In that sense, they are similar to other children who arrive in schools with different needs for different reasons.
What we are trying to say through Every Child Matters is literally that every child matters. In our education system we should be developing an individualised learning programme for children that enables them to get the best from the education system. This group of children should be able to achieve in schools, because we have put in place all of the measures that support all of our children. That includes looked-after children.
Inevitably, different schools have different communities of children. I have met with the head teachers of some schools that I have visited who have a large number of refugee children. Others, and this is my experience as a chair of governors, have a number of settled Traveller children, who come with needs of their own. Other noble Lords will have experience of 1215 different schools. It is important to allow governing bodies to develop the policies and strategies appropriate to the children in their care.
I hesitate to put a duty overall on schools, while recognising what has been said about making sure that schools that have children who are looked-after, and schools that may have looked-after children in the future, are able with ease to acquire the kind of support, training, advice and guidance that we have discussed in earlier stages of this Bill.
We seek the same ends, but in doing so our concern is to ensure that we recognise that looked-after children in schools need additional support; that they get the support appropriate to their needs, not their category; and that we support all of our schools in developing, for their own governing bodies, the kind of policies appropriate to the population of children that they have. I say this with no complacency. These children deserve our full support, and we hope that they will achieve it through this Bill. I hope that on that basis the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw her amendment.
§ Baroness Sharp of Guildford
My Lords, I thank the Minister for her reply. Yes, I understand well that in broad terms we are all talking exactly the same language. Nevertheless, in the amendment that we put forward we were asking the governing body of a school to secure that the teachers in the school are aware of the importance of identifying and providing for these registered pupils. While recognising that there is a need for statutory force behind this, the earlier commitment to think in terms of having a specified designated teacher for children in public care is clearly there in the guidance. The reason for it is still there, and the amendment is useful. This is an opportunity for us to give that statutory force. This is a fairly mild amendment.
I would like to read what the Minister has said in Hansard. We will think about it more, and we may find that we wish to come back with this amendment. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Clause 43 [Duty of local authorities to promote educational achievement]:
Earl Howe moved Amendment No. 101:
Leave out Clause 43.
§ The noble Earl said: My Lords, this is a probing amendment, designed to glean from the Minister what she believes are the practical consequences of this clause. We are all aware how the educational attainment of looked-after children often suffers badly, and how seriously this can affect their life chances. The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, was eloquent on that point. It is a matter of deep concern to many of us on all sides of the House. Not for a minute would I wish to belittle the desire to tackle the problem, both for the benefit of the children themselves and for the benefit of society as a whole.1216
§ The difficulty comes when we try to visualise what local authorities might actually need to do. Clause 43 is short and apparently simple. It confers a duty on local authorities to promote the educational achievement of looked-after children in their own areas. I should be very grateful if the Minister could say a little bit about how they are meant to do this and what the knock-on effect might be for those children who are not looked after.
§ Suppose, for the sake of argument, that we have a popular school. The local authority believes that this is the right school for a particular looked-after child. That child, let us also suppose, is competing for a single available place with a non-looked-after child who lives right next door to the school. That other child should, by every right, have a claim to the vacant school place. But what will actually happen? The local authority will be bound by its duty under Clause 43, and may therefore feel it has the legal responsibility to say to the governors of the school, "Look here, we have a duty towards this looked-after child. We believe he would benefit by going to this school. There isn't an adequate alternative, and we formally request you to agree to this".
§ A request couched in those terms would place the school governors in a very difficult dilemma indeed. Do they accept the child being, as it were, "parachuted in" by the local authority? Or do they do their duty by the child living next door? I should be genuinely interested to know whether the Clause 43 duty has the potential to land schools and local authorities in this sort of predicament. Once you say that a local authority has a particular duty towards one group of children, it means, by implication, that another group of children will, or could, be disadvantaged.
§ How are we to avoid disadvantaging non-looked-after children in hard cases, once this provision becomes law? I beg to move.
§ 9.15 p.m.
§ Baroness Ashton of Upholland
My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Howe, for raising this question because it allows me to talk a little bit about how we see this working.
As noble Lords know from our previous discussion, we identified, through the Social Exclusion Unit report, five key factors that underlie the poor performance of children who are looked after: instability; time out of school; lack of extra help with education; insufficient support and encouragement from home; and poor emotional, physical and mental health.
We believe that the key responsibility for tackling these issues lies with local authorities, recognising—as I hope I have in the earlier discussion—the important role played by schools and those who care for young people. Central government have an important role to play. We believe it is very important to transform the life chances of these young people and children, and implementing those recommendations is central to the plan. None the less, it is the local authority that crucially and critically takes on the role of parent on behalf of the state.
1217 I say to the noble Earl, with regard to the particular point he raises, we have real ambitions that, through the admissions forum, there will not be the kind of dilemma he quite rightly outlines. On the one hand, I think the noble Earl would agree with me that these children are probably among the most disadvantaged of children. On the other hand, in organising how best to support them, it is not the purpose of any local authority or government to disadvantage other children.
The reality is that these children have found it more difficult to find appropriate educational settings. There have been concerns that they do not get the additional support that is needed—hence, in a sense, why the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, and the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, raised their concerns about schools.
We have tried to say that it is not for us to force the local authorities to do what the noble Earl is fearful of. The purpose of the admission forum, in everything it does, is to make sure that these issues are debated, discussed and resolved.
In a sense, part of the discussion about admissions, both inside the normal school year and outside, which is another issue, is debated within that group. It is for the schools and their local education authority to sort that out and not for it to be seen as a competing priority.
However, we shall publish guidance on what the duty means in practice. It will cover a number of specific issues, such as ensuring that a suitable school placement is available at the same time as arranging a care placement. Again, there is an important synergy between those two aspects, which is very important for those children who are placed in a different authority. It will cover ensuring that all looked-after children have a personal education plan—the noble Earl identified that as being important—which will identify needs and clarify the expectation of those caring for the child or young person about educational support and will set clear educational targets.
The guidance will also cover monitoring of the admission and exclusion of looked-after children, appealing against non-admission and exclusion where appropriate and making immediate arrangements to provide appropriate alternative full-time education where that proves necessary for those children; ensuring that all staff with responsibility for looked-after children, including designated teachers, will receive appropriate induction training and ongoing developmental support; and prioritising looked-after children in local-authority-wide strategies for improving educational achievement and promoting the inclusion of vulnerable groups of children and young people.
In that guidance, we think that we will encompass what the Social Exclusion Unit has indicated are critical factors. These are among the most vulnerable children in our society. We owe it to them to ensure that they fulfil their educational potential, which, as I have already indicated briefly, is key to their life chances more generally. It is right to put that onus on 1218 local authorities as the child's corporate parent—they have the prime responsibility. That should be done in a way that is clear about roles and responsibilities but does not seek to undermine the needs of other children in organising and supporting these children in particular. That is why Clause 43 is important. I hope that the noble Earl feels that I have responded to his concerns and that he can withdraw his amendment.
§ Earl Howe
My Lords, as so often, I am grateful to the noble Baroness. Her remarks were very helpful. I would not say that my misgivings are completely assuaged, although they have certainly partly disappeared. I am glad to hear about the guidance. The practical implementation of this clause is of crucial importance to the way in which it is understood at a local level. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment at this stage.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Baroness Ashton of Upholland moved Amendment No. 101A:
After Clause 43, insert the following new clause—
"ASCERTAINING CHILDREN'S WISHES
In section 17 of the Children Act 1989 (c.41) (provision of services to children), after subsection (4) insert—
(4A) Before determining what (if any) services to provide for a particular child in need in the exercise of functions conferred on them by this section, a local authority shall, so far as is reasonably practicable and consistent with the child's welfare—
§ The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I beg to move Amendment No. 101 A, which would have the effect of amending Section 17 of the Children Act 1989. If the amendment is agreed, a local authority, in considering what services to provide for a child in need, will be required to ascertain and to take account of the wishes of the child, so far as is reasonably practicable and consistent with the child's welfare. The effect would be to extend what local authorities in England and Wales already must do in relation to the children for whom they are providing accommodation into a more general obligation in relation to children in need to whom they are providing services.
§ The need to listen to children and to take account of their wishes in making decisions about them is a fundamental element of the Children Act. It is already explicitly recognised in several places. Section 1 places a duty on the court in making decisions relating to the upbringing of a child. Section 20(6) requires that, before providing accommodation to a child in need, the local authority, so far as is reasonably practical and consistent with the child's welfare, should ascertain his or her wishes and give them due consideration having regard to the child's age and understanding. Section 22(5) imposes a similar obligation in relation to decisions about children who are looked after by the local authority.1219
§ Although there is no express requirement in Section 17 that concerns children in need, the guidance issued under Section 7 of the Local Authority Social Services Act 1970 in relation to Section 17 places considerable emphasis on listening to children and taking account of their wishes. That is good practice which we would all expect to occur, which I believe is followed.
§ The need to listen to children is at the heart of Every Child Matters and the present Bill. In Committee, the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, recognised the role of the statutory guidance, but nevertheless expressed her concern that without a statutory expression of the need to take account of children's wishes there was a risk of inconsistent response by different local social services departments, and other noble Lords supported that view.
§ I have reflected on this and I believe that the importance of the issue, along with the need for consistency with the other provisions to which I have already referred, are persuasive arguments. The government amendment now before the House will strengthen the statutory backing to the approach we already regard as good practice and re-emphasise that children really are at the heart of what we are trying to do. I beg to move.
Earl Howe moved, as an amendment to Amendment No. 101A, Amendment No. 101B:
Line 9, after "ascertain" insert "and record
§ The noble Earl said: My Lords, I begin by expressing a warm welcome to government Amendment No. 101A and thanking the Minister for having listened so constructively to the concerns expressed in Committee on the very important point it addresses. We left the Committee debate at the point at which I said I was unconvinced that the aim of my amendment at the time could be satisfactorily achieved by means of flexible guidance, but I said so in the belief that the Minister's resolve was firmly fixed. I am delighted that this belief has proved to be mistaken. It is very much to her credit that she felt able to have second thoughts on this important issue. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that this is one of the four or five most important issues of principle raised in the whole of the Committee stage.
§ So, against that backdrop, it probably seems the height of churlishness to suggest that the government amendment is not quite good enough, but I hope that the Minister will not mind considering the remaining point at issue one more time. The point is very simple. If a child's views and wishes are ascertained, they should be formally noted. This is not, as the Minister suggested in Committee, a bureaucratic burden or a recipe for delay. It is merely to transpose the current requirements of good practice into a legal requirement.
§ Recording a child's views is critical for several reasons: it is critical for professional accountability; it is critical because without it the child's preferences and views may be lost sight of, should there subsequently be, for example, a change of personnel. It is also 1220 particularly critical in order to improve practice with disabled and younger children who are the most vulnerable. Ascertaining the wishes of a disabled child can take time, but once that point is successfully reached, the result should be clearly logged for the benefit of all concerned. Equally, if for any reason it has not proved practicable to consult a child, the reason for that needs to be recorded, if only briefly. Local authorities will then be able to monitor the extent to which children are being included in decision making, allowing them to address any staff training needs that are identified.
§ On the last occasion the noble Baroness acknowledged how important proper recording was and mentioned the new resourcing materials and training packages available to social workers in that context, which ought to make the requirement to record second nature to the professional in the field. I do think it is reasonable to say to a social worker that if it proves reasonably practicable for him or her to ascertain the wishes of a child, those wishes should be formally noted on the file. It is a simple thing, but very important.
§ I turn briefly to Amendment No. 103. Having conceded the principle in relation to Section 17 of the Children Act 1989, the Government have no conceivable case for not making the same concession in relation to Section 47. The purpose of my amendment is to say that a child's wishes and feelings should be an integral part of any child protection inquiry. I believe and would hope that after the Climbié inquiry, we have moved past the stage of thinking that guidance alone is sufficient to ensure that children are listened to. It is not.
§ In Committee the Minister objected to this amendment by arguing that sometimes children's wishes can conflict with their safeguarding. I hope that she will not deploy the same argument today. Ascertaining the child's wishes and feelings and giving them due consideration does not mean that the child's views should override all other considerations, such as their immediate safety. Every day of the week professionals have to balance the child's right to have his views taken into account with his right to protection; but, at the same time, there is no doubt that listening to children is a vital part of making them feel safe. The guidance already lays great emphasis on this; all the amendment seeks to do is to transpose good practice requirements into a legal one.
§ This is not only my idea. The amendment is supported by the Association of Directors of Social Services and by the Local Government Association, the very bodies that represent those who have to carry out child protection investigations. Neither of those bodies believes that the amendment would fetter the discretion of social workers in a detrimental way. On the contrary, they regard it as a way of plugging a serious loophole in the law.
§ The TCS and the CRAE have particularly requested a meeting with the Minister before Third Reading. It would be very helpful if she felt able to open her door to them.1221
§ I hope that the Minister will do with this amendment as she did with the Section 17 amendment and agree that it should be accepted. I beg to move.
§ 9.30 p.m.
§ Baroness David
My Lords, I support most strongly Amendment No. 103, which stands in the name of the noble Earl. I also welcome very strongly the Government's new clause at Amendment No. 101A, which requires respect for the views of the child in relation to the provision of services. But I believe that the principle of gaining direct access to children and ascertaining their views is of far greater importance in the context of child protection.
In any case, here we are talking about a right which is clearly set out in Article 12 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. This makes it a legal obligation. It is not enough to hear reassurance that this is a matter of good practice, or a matter that is or can be covered in guidance. Surely we have all learnt enough from the many tragic investigations into child deaths from violence to know that gaining access to the children themselves and listening to them is completely fundamental to protection. The report of the noble Lord, Lord Laming, is just the latest of many to document adult failure to see and hear from the children who become tragedies.
We know that many children—a majority—who suffer serious abuse do so in silence because they fear that interventions will take no account of their views and will be out of their control. We have to create a child protection system that children have the confidence to use, and reflecting the obligation to hear their views in the law is a necessary part of that. Of course, sometimes children's views will have to be over-ridden in the interests of their safety, but they need to know that their views will be heard and carefully considered.
I very much hope the Minister will reassure us that she can accept the new clause. It is a very small step from where she has gone already and it would be quite simple to accept. The clause may need technical attention but it would be of great help. I hope that the Minister will accept it.
§ Baroness Walmsley
My Lords, I am sure that no one in the House would ever consider the noble Earl, Lord Howe, to be churlish. Certainly he was not churlish in the way in which he introduced his two amendments, which I absolutely support. I also welcome the Government's amendment and thank the Minister for it. I hope that she will not take offence when I say "More please" because it does not go quite far enough.
I shall not go through all the arguments again because they have been very ably laid out for your Lordships today. The noble Baroness, Lady David, made a very good point when she said that the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child requires signatories to do something about their laws, not only their best practice and guidance. That is what the 1222 amendments seek to do by amending and adding to the Government's welcome amendment. I support all three amendments.
§ Baroness Howe of Idlicote
My Lords, I also want to add my considerable thanks to the Government and the Minister for bringing forward this clause. I do not think that many of us were expecting it as a result of our conversation last time, so it is all the more welcome. However, I also support the welcome for the amendment to the amendment which was moved by the noble Earl, Lord Howe, and I support what the noble Baroness, Lady David, said. It is a very small step to add the word "record" and I cannot see any reason why the Minister should not accept that. I hope that she will.
§ The Lord Bishop of Liverpool
My Lords, I support both the government amendment and that moved by the noble Earl, Lord Howe, for two reasons. First, there is often a change of personnel. As personnel change, it is important that children are assured that the sentiments that they express at a given moment abide even when that person, who will have built a good relationship with them, has moved on. I draw attention to the Audit Commission report, Misspent Youth, which shows that, when it came to young offenders, the single most important aspect in restoring a young person to civil society was for an adult to believe them.
I know that great emphasis is laid on the building of a relationship. However, as we all know, there comes a time when a person moves on and the young person can then feel betrayed. They do not understand the niceties of a professional service. Therefore, it is important that there is consistency in the understanding of the young person's position.
Secondly, from my own experience of working with looked-after children, I know that low self-esteem is a real issue for them. It is difficult to get them to believe in themselves. One way of enabling young people to believe in themselves is that, when they speak, what they say is written down and recorded. For the sake of affirmation, to record is important, as well as for all the other good reasons that noble Lords have advanced this evening. I support both amendments.
§ Baroness Ashton of Upholland
My Lords, I am very grateful for the remarks made about the amendment in my name. We are united in our aims of putting the needs of children first and placing a real importance on listening to children in everything we do. In the government amendment we have sought to reinforce the good practice that exists and also send a clear message that ascertaining the child's wishes whenever we can is not an optional extra. That is important. I am grateful for what has been said. Having been told by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, that more is required and being talked to by the noble Baroness, Lady David, about the UNCRC, I am aware that I must respond as carefully as I can to those comments.
On Amendment No. 101B, noble Lords know that the statutory guidance that we have issued is comprehensive. I believe that practitioners at the sharp 1223 end will want to consult the guidance in their daily work rather than look for details in statute. The framework for the assessment of children in need and their families is very clear on the importance of recording information ascertained in the referral and throughout the initial and the core assessments. It includes standard forms for practitioners to use to record information. As I have said before, the guidance issued under Section 7 of the Local Authority Social Services Act 1970 is mandatory, so the amendment does not add to that requirement.
I believe that we have captured the spirit of what the noble Earl is looking for in his amendment. I am happy to clarify that further with the noble Earl, but we have statutory guidance that requires information to be recorded and the forms that allow that. I hope that the noble Earl will recognise that guidance for the front line is potentially of more benefit than asking them to look in statute. We are not far apart from the noble Earl in this matter and hope we have covered that point.
On Amendment No. 103, there are two reasons why we have not introduced an amendment of the type sought by noble Lords in terms of Section 47. I have already mentioned the first reason. Where there are urgent concerns we believe that the child's safety must remain the overriding and absolute consideration and social services, or whoever, need to act and act swiftly. We are concerned to ensure that that is paramount. Secondly, it is likely that many children in those situations will be found to meet the Children Act 1989 definition of "children in need", so the amended Section 17 would be applied to them in any case when immediate safety issues had been addressed.
Amendment No. 103 would remove a discretion in the existing Section 47(4) of the Act for local authorities not to seek access to a child if they are satisfied that they already have sufficient information with respect to that child. The two circumstances that we need to consider and pause on are, first, that when a child is in danger, going in to talk to that child may alert inappropriately those who are placing the child in danger. We need to be cautious in that regard. Secondly, occasionally and unfortunately there are those who make malicious allegations, which are quickly proved to be unfounded. In that situation, it might be more distressing to talk to a child when it is clear that the allegation is unfounded.
For those reasons and those reasons alone, we decided not to put the proposed responsibility into Section 47. In a case in which a child is made safe, we should clearly ascertain that child's wishes, as we would under Section 17. I am clear about that. As I said, most children would immediately be covered by that section anyway. But we need flexibility in such cases when it is clear that a malicious allegation has been made, which is dealt with by another professional who says that the allegation is not appropriate or true. It is clear that a child should not be bothered in such a case. Equally, we believe firmly that when a child is in danger, having to go in and talk to that child could alert those placing the child in danger. The danger must be addressed first.
1224 I do not believe that we are in different places on this matter. It is only the impact of the way in which the amendment would work that seems to put us in different places. As I told the noble Earl, I would be happy to meet any organisation or noble Lord who would like to pursue this issue between now and Third Reading. On that basis, I hope that the amendment will be withdrawn.
§ Earl Howe
My Lords, that was a very helpful and sympathetic reply for which I am grateful. I was particularly grateful for the powerful points made by the noble Baroness, Lady David, and for the support given by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley. The remarks of the right reverend Prelate on continuity and trust were extremely wise and helpful.
Nevertheless, as regards Amendment No. 101B within the context of statutory guidance, I recognise that the Minister has moved in my direction. In fact, I suspect that she may not have moved at all, and that the guidance would have contained the provision in any case. But I recognise the force of the point that she made—that the proposal is as near to being a legal requirement as it is possible for it to be, while remaining in the scope of some flexibility.
As for Amendment No. 103, my fear is that when a child protection process is under way, a Section 17 assessment is quite often not done—it is bypassed. In those circumstances, it would not be incumbent on a local authority to ascertain the wishes and views of a child. However, I shall reflect carefully on the Minister's remarks about malicious allegations, as it seems to me that she has a real point in that regard. I shall think the matter through. If need be, I may return to Amendment No. 103 on Third Reading. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment No. 101B, as an amendment to Amendment No. 101A, by leave, withdrawn.
§ On Question, Amendment No. 101A agreed to.
§ 9.45 p.m.
Baroness Walmsley: moved Amendment No. 102:
After Clause 43, insert the following new Clause—
§ "Duty of prison service to promote educational achievement
In section 562 of the Education Act 1996 at the end of subsection (1) insert "which includes a duty to promote the child's educational achievement"."
§ The noble Baroness said: My Lords, Amendment No. 102, is supported by Barnardo's, the Children's Society, the Howard League for Penal Reform, NACRO and the National Association for Youth Justice. The purpose of the amendment is two-fold. First, it is to ensure that the Prison Service is under a duty to provide education to children in the secure estate and, secondly, to ensure that the Prison Service is under a duty to promote the educational attainment of children in the secure estate.
§ Throughout the Bill, there is a very welcome emphasis on including children in the secure estate through the membership of the governor of any prison or secure training centre on the local safeguarding 1225 children board, the arrangements to safeguard and promote welfare and inspection, and now the inclusion of youth offending teams in Clauses 6 and 9, thanks to the Government's concession, which is most welcome. This new clause extends this to cover the education of children in the secure estate.
Children in the secure estate have very low levels of educational attainment. Recent research shows that children of school age had literacy and numeracy levels below the age of 11 and over a quarter of them had levels equivalent to or lower than those of the average 7 year-old. We also know that educational standards have an impact on rates of reoffending. Children who offend are often those who are truanting because they are totally disengaged from their schooling. Young offender institutions are required to provide 30 hours of purposeful activity a week, of which 15 must be education if the child is under school-leaving age. However, this is not enshrined in any legislation and does not have to conform to the national curriculum. A joint report by HM Chief Inspector of Prisons for England and Wales and the Office for Standards in Education, A Second Chance—A Review of Education and Supporting Arrangements within Units for Juveniles managed by HM Prison Service, found:
There is still a long way to go before the Prison Service is able to deliver effective education and training for the 3,000 children held in its care".
§ Let me also mention the Audit Commission report, Youth Justice 2004. This review of the reformed youth justice system found that the educational problems of serious and persistent young offenders are significant. Over half of the young people entering custody, most of whom are over 15, have a reading age of below the level of an average 11 year-old. Nine out of 10 young offenders in one particular secure training centre were found to have missed significant periods of education. The report also found that returning to full-time education can help young people to stop reoffending. According to one study, none of those who had full-time education immediately after they were released back into the community on a detention training order were reconvicted whereas one-third of those without such immediate provision were reconvicted. So this is obviously a very welcome development.
A Second Chance found that the establishments were struggling to meet even the bare minimum standards in education. My own conversations with prison education officers confirm this. The report particularly noted that tailored education plans and special educational provision were poor, although some patches of excellent practice showed that a huge difference can be made in the lives of these children through effective education. There are indeed many inspiring education officers in our prisons, to whom I pay great tribute. Over a quarter of the observed teaching sessions were deemed to be less than satisfactory. One in four is a very large proportion. Vocational training and so-called "friendly behaviour courses" were particularly poor and education staff rarely attended initial training plan conferences so,
As a consequence, recorded educational objectives were so general that they were almost meaningless".
§ Dyslexia screening was carried out in some, but not all, of the establishments. There was little other special educational input. We all know how commonplace dyslexia is. Years ago, nobody knew what it was. Now we know that a very large number of children suffer from it to some extent. Noble Lords will know how many young offenders have special needs or have been excluded from school.
§ Children have very limited opportunities to pursue higher level qualifications. The inspectorate was particularly concerned about the impoverished education of unsentenced children on remand and of those who are serving short sentences. The report found that the average spent on education for an under 18 year-old in a young offender institution was £1,810, compared with £16,000 for a child in a secure training centre. It is an enormous difference. In a survey conducted as part of the study, it was found that 73 per cent of surveyed children in custody described their educational achievements as nil, and that 42 and 36 per cent of the very large sample had, respectively, numeracy and reading abilities of a seven year-old child or younger. There is an enormous amount of evidence.
§ The report drew attention to a number of key issues including the need to ensure that, on sentence, young people are offered a regime of comparable quality to that of the sentenced population; the need to improve the quality of information on the asset form relating to educational background and prior attainment; and the need to improve the quality of initial educational needs assessment, to ensure that learners are placed in suitable provision. The report made six other very important and major recommendations but I shall not go into them at this late hour.
§ I conclude by mentioning the report on the application of the Children Act 1989 to children in young offender institutions—a report by the Association of Directors of Social Services, the Local Government Association and the Youth Justice Board backed up with the findings of the other reports I mentioned about poor levels of literacy and numeracy. It also found that between one quarter and one third of juvenile prisoners had no educational training available to them immediately prior to custody. In another survey, 84 per cent of young people interviewed claimed to have had periods of exclusion from school and 86 per cent to have truanted.
§ None of your Lordships will find any of those statistics new; they are all very common knowledge. But it is for those reasons that I recommend our amendment to your Lordships. I think that this amendment is vitally important for the sake of each young life that is ruined by finding itself in the secure estate. It is important, too, for the future life chances of these youngsters; and, of course, for those against whom they may commit more crimes in future if their educational attainment is not addressed. I think that this is a most important amendment. This Bill is a very suitable vehicle for it. I hope that the amendment will receive a fair wind by the Government. I beg to move.
§ Lord Hylton
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, and the noble Lord, 1227 Lord Dholakia, on devising and bringing forward this amendment. Experience clearly shows that the reason why a large proportion of young people become involved in crime is that they are virtually unemployable. They have missed out totally on the benefit they should have derived from the school system.
The noble Baroness mentioned special needs in this particular group of people and I am glad that she did. It seems to me that remedial education is what is needed while people are in custody rather than the national curriculum. There is also a real need for continuity of educational provision after people have served their sentences and been released. Could the Minister draw that to the attention of her department, and could she also encourage her department to be in touch with the Home Office so that educational provision, particularly for young people, is not the first thing to suffer when there is a financial shortage?
§ Baroness Howe of Idlicote
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, on the way in which she has presented the amendment; a more wide-ranging review of the inadequacies of current provision would be very hard to find. All the reports of which we have become aware over the years indicate how few of the resources that are needed in this area are available.
The right reverend Prelate mentioned self-esteem. If there is one thing that helps to improve the self-esteem of a young person in this situation it is acquiring an extra skill or attainment that he did not have before he attended the relevant institution. I well remember the many times I visited children's institutions and children's homes—but I am thinking more of the secure institutions, the Borstals of my day—and was struck by the children's talent. You have only to look at their paintings and drawings to see what is waiting to emerge in a rather more structured environment when they return to the community.
This is a very mild amendment. It does not attempt to do what I should like it to do; namely, to make it a positive requirement that the appropriate form of education is provided, particularly for those awaiting trial. I warmly support the amendment.
§ Earl Howe
My Lords, I add a few words of support from these Benches to the very powerful points put forward by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, and others. I very much share her concern for this group of children. I have no doubt that the Minister will feel the same way. I hope that she will warm to the amendment and, if she is not able to accept it, will find some way of delivering its intent by another means.
§ The Earl of Listowel
My Lords, I, too, support the amendment. I remind your Lordships that half of the children we are discussing will have experienced life in care before entering the criminal justice system. Only some 10 per cent will have been involved with the criminal justice system before being taken into care. This evening I heard Margaret Hodge talk of the 1228 success of SureStart. When one intervenes in an adequate manner, one can make such a difference to children's lives. One needs to take every opportunity when they fall through the net to try to catch them and turn them round. The amendment holds out better hope that those children and young people will be turned round. As I say, I support the amendment.
§ Baroness Ashton of Upholland
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, for bringing forward the amendment. The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, is right to point to the need for good working relationships between the Home Office and the Department for Education and Skills regarding children's issues. I am pleased to say that those relationships are working well. I have talked to officials in the Home Office who are very supportive of the work that we are trying to do.
I am also grateful to noble Lords who have made clear the link between the potential of education and what happens to young people when things go wrong. We all know that educational outcomes in terms of achievement are not just about economic opportunities but also mental and physical health and life chances in the broadest sense. I recognise completely what noble Lords have said about that.
Unfortunately, I have to point out—this is one of my purposes in life—that the amendment is technically defective because it places a duty upon a local education authority and not the Prison Service to promote the educational achievement of those in custody. I am always cautious when I explain why an amendment is technically defective, as I tell noble Lords how to change their amendments in order to bring them back. However, it is right and proper that I do so.
We accept the evidence put forward by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley. The work on that matter is now under way. I have a long brief which I intend to cull due to the lateness of the hour. However, I do not want noble Lords to consider that I have not addressed the matter properly. I therefore intend to expand my remarks, perhaps in correspondence with noble Lords, so that they have time to consider them.
My contention is primarily that we are in a process in which we have invested about £40 million over the past three years through the Youth Justice Board, and are making the kind of changes that will, we hope, enhance opportunities for young people. We want to make sure that they have a chance to work.
I checked, and there is already a statutory duty for arrangements for the participation of young people of compulsory school age through the Prison Service for at least 15 hours a week within the normal working week. The Youth Justice Board has developed a national specification for learning and skills that requires the Prison Service to deliver a full educational and vocational training programme, with a broad and balanced curriculum appropriate to the age of the young person. That has enabled additional resources 1229 to be provided. We recognise that the provision is not what it should be in all circumstances, although I accept what the noble Baroness said in paying tribute to many individuals' work. It is now improving, which is critical.
Our goal is increasingly to introduce national approaches and standards of learning into prisons and young offender institutions. We are developing a new integrated delivery service. Work is about to begin on testing new approaches to the delivery of education provision to those held in custody in the north-east, north-west and south-west of England, as pilot areas. Each of those regions includes an establishment holding juvenile offenders.
I indicated that we are working across government between our two departments, and we have announced our intention to replace existing prison education contracts with a new delivery partnership between the Learning and Skills Council, the Prison Service and, in time, the National Offender Management Service, together with other key players such as Jobcentre Plus that play an important role. Under those proposed new arrangements, in which the Learning and Skills Council will take responsibility for offender education, a new juvenile specification has been developed. The Government have published that specification in draft, and are currently consulting our partners. The outcomes will inform the delivery of the new service, in partnership with the Learning and Skills Council, from next year.
We believe that that will provide a much better basis for the delivery of education and training for juveniles in custody, and improve links between provision in custody and in the community. Shared accountability is envisaged between the Prison Service and the Learning and Skills Council for the provision made available, with prison governors having responsibility to ensure access to available educational provision.
I have briefly described what I think is a new system. I will expand on that. Our ambition is that the developing picture has a chance to work. We think that it will address the concerns rightly raised by the noble Baroness and echoed in the House for those young people. It is about working across government, as the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, indicated, and I am very happy to correspond on the subject and meet any noble Lord who wishes to address it. However, on the basis that we have addressed a number of points and want the system to have a chance to work, I hope that the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw the amendment.
§ Baroness Walmsley
My Lords, I thank the Minister for her reply. When she writes to those of us who contributed to this short debate, will she let us know how much of the amount that she mentioned near the beginning of her response—I am afraid that I do not recall the figure—is new money? Part of the problem is resources, as has been made very clear to me in my correspondence with prison education officers. I was very encouraged by the new arrangements that she outlined, particularly by the fact that the prison education contracts are to be revised, as they have been 1230 part of the problem. I look forward to hearing more about that. Meanwhile, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ [Amendment No. 103 not moved.]
Baroness Sharp of Guildford moved Amendment No. 104:
After Clause 45, insert the following new clause—
§ "ROLE OF TEACHER TRAINING AGENCY
The noble Baroness said: My Lords, the problem with tail-end amendments is that they are always tail-end amendments. On the previous occasion when we debated the matter, the Minister said:
I wish that we were having an hour-long debate".—[Official Report, 27/5/04; col. 1512.]
The amendment is probing and not really suitable for discussion at this hour. Perhaps the sensible thing is to explain to the Minister my two questions and ask that she write to me at greater length.
The reason that we have tabled the amendment again is because the issues around training and teacher training are extremely important and, thus far, we have not had sufficient time to debate them in the Chamber and we would like to know a little more about what is happening. The briefing provided by the General Teaching Council says:
The Bill has implications for the initial teacher training and continuing professional development for teachers. Programmes leading to the award of Qualified Teacher Status are already extensive, and so it is most appropriate for trainee teachers to be expected to have an awareness of their contribution to multi-agency working and to begin to develop the skills and knowledge base to support this role. The induction period should provide the opportunity to develop and demonstrate this capacity in practice. Thereafter, it will be important to consider expectations of teachers' general expertise in this area of their work, and to reflect those expectations in the general standards framework for teachers".
In her reply in Committee, the Minister said:
I should make it clear that if because of the TTA's new remit it becomes desirable to make any changes to the 1994 Act, we would bring them forward to Parliament at a suitable time".—[Official Report, 27/5/04; co1.1513.1]
In many senses the Bill provides a suitable time. Does the Minister yet know whether it will be necessary to make such changes and, if so, how the Government propose to bring them forward?
Secondly, we are concerned about continuing professional development. With school budgets as tight as they are, CPD is often—again—a casualty. Too often it is seen as something that can be sacrificed to more urgent needs. Carol Adams, the chief executive of the GTC, in an article last October, wrote:
At a time when the Government is advocating new approaches to pupils' learning, tailored to meet the needs of the individual, it is striking that access to continuous learning and professional development for all teachers continues to be a lottery, determined to an even greater extent by the vagaries of school budgets Why?".
Can the Minister outline the role that the TTA will play in the professional development programmes that will be needed across all services to ensure that frontline professionals can more effectively meet the needs of the children?
§ Therefore, the issues are: what changes does the Minister envisage in the TTA's induction programmes and so on; what about continuing professional development; and can we be assured that the developments that are needed to train teachers to accept the new integrated service will be there? I beg to move.
§ Baroness Ashton of Upholland
My Lords, I shall take the noble Baroness at her word. I should add that I have enormous respect for Carol Adams. She deserves a copy of the response. We are not quite clear yet about what changes will be needed. I stand by my comments in Committee that we would bring them forward at a suitable occasion. The noble Baroness knows that I cannot herald any more than that and I do not know when that suitable occasion will arise. I am clear that it is not now, because the matter needs further development.
As I said earlier, the TTA has rightly risen to the challenge and is looking at its broader remit regarding continuing professional development. However, the noble Baroness is seeking a written answer, detailing these matters properly, in addition to a meeting if she wishes, rather than discussing this matter at the tail end of the day. The noble Baroness is right—the matter is important. I shall address the matter properly and ensure that in doing so we discuss this with Carol Adams as well to allay any of her concerns. I hope that is what the noble Baroness seeks and that on that basis she will withdraw the amendment.
§ Baroness Sharp of Guildford
My Lords, I thank the Minister. That would be an excellent response and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ [Amendment No. 104 A had been withdrawn from the Marshalled List.]
Baroness Walmsley moved Amendment No. 105:
After Clause 48, insert the following new clause—
§ "PARENTAL, CARER AND SIBLING CONTACT WITH LOOKED AFTER CHILDREN
§ (2) After section 22 insert—
"22A PARENTAL, CARER AND SIBLING CONTACT WITH LOOKED AFTER CHILDREN
Where a child is looked after by a local authority, the authority shall allow the child reasonable contact with—
(3) In section 34(1) insert—
(e) any sibling of his".
The noble Baroness said: My Lords, this is a revised version of an amendment, tabled as Amendment No. 246A in Committee, proposed to us by the NSPCC. On that occasion, the Minister said:
The difficulty with the amendment is that it creates a different legal position for contact between siblings depending upon whether the child is looked after under a care order or under a voluntary agreement … We think that that is a problem and would create confusion in practice".—[Official Report, 27/5/04; col. 1521.]
§ Therefore, in retabling the amendment, we have tried to address the problem that the Minister has with it. I agree with the Minister that the assumption of contact with siblings should apply to looked-after children as well. There is currently a different legal position in relation to contact, depending on whether the child is looked after under a care order or under a voluntary agreement. Section 34 of the Children Act 1989 deals with parental contact, and so on, with children in care. We have dealt with that in the second part of our Amendment No. 105. But Sections 22 and 23 of the Act do not even mention contact with children who are looked after. That is why we have dealt with it in the first part of the amendment.
§ The NSPCC research, Your Shout, to which I referred in Committee, deals only with children in care, but the NSPCC working group has concluded that Section 22 of the Children Act 1989 should be amended at the same time as Section 34 to include looked-after children.
§ In Committee, the Minister said that the existing guidelines already stress the need to maintain contact between siblings. However, it is clear that the guidance is not always being followed. Given the number of children—735—who have expressed their distress on this point, there is a mandate, which comes from the children themselves, for explicit legislation rather than strengthened guidance to ensure that those children are not further isolated from the comfort they may receive from contact with their siblings.
§ This evening the Minister has already shown her understanding of the importance of listening to children. There are 735 children from whom I can quote, and I hope that she will be in a position to listen to them. I beg to move.
§ Baroness Ashton of Upholland
My Lords, as I explained when we considered these issues in Committee, I am hugely sympathetic to what the noble Baroness is seeking to do. The question that remains is simply: how do we best achieve what the noble Baroness seeks?
I agree completely that, for the majority of looked-after children, maintaining family links through contact with parents, siblings, relatives and other people with whom they are connected will be terribly important. Some children will want to have, and should have, regular contact with all those people, while others will want to be more selective. Given the sad circumstances facing many of the children who become looked after, contact with some, or indeed sometimes all, of their family members may not be appropriate—at least, in the short term and possibly, for some, altogether.
1233 We believe it is important that local authorities actively support contact between all looked-after children and their siblings where that is in their best interests. We believe that the existing legal framework achieves that, but we recognise the need for practice in this area to improve.
Through paragraph 15 of Schedule 2 to the Children Act 1989, local authorities already have a duty to promote contact between a looked-after child and his parents, friends and relatives. Of course, that includes siblings. Proposed Section 22A in the amendment mirrors Section 34(1) of the Children Act 1989 but without the safeguard of that section which allows the local authority to refuse to allow contact with the permission of the court. There is some overlap because Section 34(1) applies where a child is subject to a care order. It also cuts across the provision in paragraph 15 of Schedule 2.
I am not clear how this new duty would work alongside the two existing duties in practice. Therefore, the words which will inevitably be uttered by me this evening are that the amendment is defective. But I am sure that the noble Baroness will recognise that.
As I said, Section 34 already requires the local authority to allow reasonable contact between a child and his parent or guardian or someone in whose favour a residence order has been made, unless the authority has the permission of the court to refuse contact. Under that section, the child or other persons who have the leave of the court can apply to make an order for contact with any named person. That would allow the child to apply for contact with a sibling or for the sibling to apply for contact if the authority would not allow it.
While we agree wholeheartedly with the importance of contact between siblings, we are not sure that siblings should be treated differently from other relatives. We think that the consequence of the amendment would be to create a different legal position for contact between looked-after children and their siblings than exists, for example, with their grandparents, aunts and uncles.
So we recognise the need for practice to improve this area. Volume 3 of the Children Act 1989 guidance states that,contact arrangements should include those made in respect of relatives, sibling, grandparents and unmarried father; all those people with whom the child's contact should be preserved".I can say to the noble Baroness that when we revise the Children Act guidance we will consider whether we can strengthen the messages given about the importance of contact. We will also think further about what can be done to improve practice in this vital area. On the basis that we think it is important to do that rather than perhaps to go down the route the noble Baroness suggests, I hope she will feel able to withdraw her amendment.
§ Baroness Walmsley
My Lords, I thank the Minister for her commitment to review the guidelines and to look at practice to see that it measures up to our expectations.
Siblings are different. Young people get a certain kind of support from their own generation which they will never get from parents, guardians, other relatives or even grandparents. They obtain support from people whose language they speak. When we listen to younger generations, we do not always understand a word they say because they speak their own language. That is why I think siblings are different and should be specified.
On the idea of a child having to go to court to obtain the right to be in contact with siblings, it is inconceivable that most children in such a situation would have the strength to do such a thing. So I think that we need to make it a lot easier for them.
However, I was very encouraged by what the Minister said. I shall watch very carefully. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.