HL Deb 24 May 2004 vol 661 cc1137-86

House again in Committee on Clause 8.

[Amendment No. 141 not moved.]

Earl Howe moved Amendment No. 142:

Page 6, line 37, at end insert—

The noble Earl said: In moving this amendment, I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 154, 213 and 218. I want to speak first to Amendment No. 154, which attempts to address a widely held concern about the clause; namely, that it ducks altogether the key question of the threshold of concern which should determine whether a doctor, teacher or another professional has a duty to flag up that fact on a database.

Subsection (7) appears to say that it does not matter what kind of concerns about a child you may choose to log on to a database—it does not matter how trivial the concerns or how tenuous the information may be on which it is based—you will be in the clear as regards the common law duty of confidentiality that might otherwise prevent you from acting.

That provision sounds all kinds of warning bells. First, we surely do not want to create a culture of over-cautiousness which bypasses both commonsense and professional judgment. The whole point of the databases, if they are to do any good, is that they should assist and bolster professional judgment, not supplant it. Anyone thinking of registering a flag of concern still needs to exercise judgment: he still needs to ask himself, "Am I really convinced, first, that this concern is well-founded and, secondly, that it is serious enough to warrant an entry on the database?".

Secondly, we cannot countenance a situation in which a multitude of minor and inconsequential concerns are flagged on to a database, thereby masking the smaller number of real and serious flags of concern which will justifiably have been created. If that happens, the whole purpose of the system will have been negated. We will get over-intervention and a skewing of resources in the wrong direction. That is why in Amendment No. 154 I suggest a rewording of subsection (7).

My first instinct was to strike out the subsection completely, but I came to the conclusion that that would be wrong. As the Climbié report demonstrated, there are circumstances in which we would want doctors, teachers and others to feel absolutely unconstrained in flagging up an issue which genuinely worried them and which other professionals had a need to know about. But what are those circumstances? I firmly believe that Ministers and officials have to address the issue not by going into prescriptive and exhaustive detail, but rather trying to define the kind of threshold which should apply here. Should there be some kind of a test? If so, what should that test be? The risk to a child of significant harm might be one kind of test, but what about situations where no such risk exists but where there is a concern about a child's state of health which may have wider repercussions; for example, where the child has special needs? How will a database distinguish between these very different grades of concern?

Professional judgment is indispensable in these circumstances, but it is not reasonable to leave professionals without any sort of statutory framework for decision-making within which to exercise judgment. We can no more be prescriptive in what we tell professionals to do than we can proceed as the Bill proposes which is to adopt a completely laissez-faire attitude. There has to be a broad consistency in the way the system operates everywhere. There has to be a threshold to ensure that children are quite clear about when confidentiality would and would not be broken. If you do not have that clear delineation, you would give children no legal recourse if information were ever to be shared inappropriately. More importantly, though, you would risk children not disclosing things to professionals at all. The consequences of that could in some circumstances be extremely serious. I hope the Minister will see the force of this important point.

I should like finally to cover Amendment No. 142 which proposes that there should be an explicit time limit laid down in regulations for all information about children that is logged into a database. There can be no reason for retaining information on someone after he or she has passed their 18th birthday. If that is done, then we really will have identity cards by the back door.

Secondly, I am troubled by the thought that if a flag of concern about a child leads to court proceedings against a parent or carer, but then the concerns are disproved and that person is exonerated, should these flags of concern legally remain in place? I am aware of several cases in which a local authority, having tried and failed to secure a care order on a child and having had its application comprehensively dismissed by a court, continues to harry away at the family. In these situations, families never feel that they are off the hook and never cease feeling threatened. If a court rejects an allegation that a child is at risk of harm and refuses to split up a family, what right should a social services department have to keep its flag of concern in place as though nothing had happened? We need to think this issue through. I was pleased to note Amendment No. 144 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, though I am not sure this is precisely the kind of situation she had in mind. I beg to move.

Baroness Barker

I rise to speak to Amendments Nos. 144, 145, 153 and 156. My arguments very much follow on from those concerns expressed by the noble Earl. It is important to start by noting that in the background to our deliberations is the Bichard inquiry and all the concerns that have arisen about disclosure of information on individuals who work with children. I do not seek to dismiss in any way the concerns which have led to that inquiry, but to ignore the fact that it is happening during our deliberations is perhaps to look at half the story. Quite rightly, the noble Earl pointed to our Amendment No. 144 which seeks to impose restrictions about information held relating to individuals about whom there have been allegations of improper conduct made, but not proven.

The noble Earl will no doubt remember, as I do, the passing of the Care Standards Act, when we trod very similar ground. There, I believe that the threshold of concern at which people employed in social care agencies were put on to the registers operated by the social care agencies was a great deal lower than would be the case within the courts. There was a great deal of concern about that because we know that malicious or vexatious complaints against people who work with children are commonplace.

The reason for tabling this amendment is to probe the Government's intentions in relation to the transfer of information from, for example, police records or the Criminal Records Bureau. I return to the noble Baroness's earlier comments about the database being used more widely than simply for child protection. I am afraid that I shall have to continue to press her about exactly what that means.

No one involved in children's social care, education or health would willingly do anything that enabled people who should not work with children to do so. That said, there are cases where people find themselves the victims of allegations which are not proven. One would be very concerned if there was any interplay between those types of records and those proposed here. I think, in particular, of what I believe is known in the world of children's care as "List 99". Recently I heard from some people who have been on the receiving end of difficult allegations concerning children, none of which has ever been proven. They spoke of something called "List 98"—that is, the collection and retention of what is very much more circumstantial evidence. It seems to me that they, too, have a legitimate concern.

Amendment No. 145 is perhaps one of the most important in this group because it proposes the imposition of penalties for the misuse of information contained on the database. It seems to me that that is an absolute requirement within this legislation. We are, I believe by common agreement, going to gather together information which, in and of itself and in its pieces, may be factual but, taken together, has immense power as a body of reference. Were it to be misused or disclosed wrongly, I believe that potentially it would be a very grave weapon.

I do not wish to spend a great deal of time on my Amendment No. 153 solely because the noble Earl spoke at length to his Amendment No. 154 and, as is often the way, his amendment is far more elegant than mine. It seeks to test exactly the same point: what are the thresholds of concern?

Finally, Amendment No. 156 seeks, as does that of the noble Earl, to ensure that, when a child reaches the age of 18, the records are destroyed. I choose my words carefully: they should be destroyed and not held somewhere else.

The Earl of Northesk

I rise to make a few observations about various amendments in this group. In respect of Amendments Nos. 156 and 219, to which my name is attached, I reinforce the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Barker. I add that, without an appropriate provision for the deletion of data—not only those held within any database but also, as in the noble Baroness's proposed new subsection (11). those held as back-up, whether on paper or other media—once they have reached their "sell-by date", there is a huge risk that any database established under Clause 8 would, over time, be subject to "function creep".

An underlying principle of Clause 8 must be the ambition of the Government to harness IT for the benefit of children. Accordingly, as a generality it would be wholly inappropriate and antipathetic to the terms of the data protection legislation for their data to be retained once they have reached adulthood. Indeed, it is my understanding that to an extent this is a matter that is causing voluble concern to both the human rights and constitution committees.

I am mindful of Amendment No. 79 moved earlier in Committee by the noble Lord, Lord Elton. Quite rightly he suggested that, The question of who, exactly, children are is therefore of some importance"—[Official Report, 20/5/04; col. 885.] Undoubtedly, there will be circumstances where the retention of data beyond the age of 18 would be appropriate, for example in respect of those with learning difficulties. That is why the amendment expressly allows for exceptions to the deletion of data at the age of 18 at subsection (12). My noble friend Lord Howe, addresses that in Amendments Nos. 142 and 213 by requiring that it be attended to in regulations. That would, in all probability, suffice although my preference—here, I echo some of the earlier comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley—would be that the overarching statement of principle be on the face of the Bill.

In respect of Amendment No. 144 I would merely refer the Committee to my comments on Amendment No. 143. On the hack of those it is enough for me here to say that I support the intentions of the noble Baroness. Amendment No. 145 highlights a serious and perennial problem. Too often IT legislation tends to be somewhat acquiescent about the risk of legitimate users of IT systems exceeding their thresholds of access. Where data about children are concerned that becomes an especially relevant issue if only because of the innate deviousness and technological savvy of those who prey on children. It is crucial that effective sanctions should be in place to prevent any misuse of data.

As to Amendments Nos. 153 and 217, the Minister went to great lengths, throughout our deliberations on the Bill, to emphasise the Government's wish that it be child centred. Its drafting and terms should be a true reflection, as appropriate, of what children perceive to be the best means of securing their welfare and protection. The concept of confidentiality is of huge importance to children. It often defines whether they will take their problems and difficulties to those who can assist or help them.

Accordingly, it strikes me as somewhat crass that Clause 8(7) expressly diminishes common law duties of confidentiality, the more so because the Minister prayed it in aid with such frequency during our earlier debates. Viewed objectively, let alone from the perspective of a child, this is likely to do more harm than good, and I will be intrigued to hear how the Minister justifies the inclusion of the provision.

All in all, this is an extremely useful group of amendments and I very much hope that the Minister will be able to respond to them sympathetically.

8.45 p.m.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

Again, I am grateful to noble Lords for expressing their concerns so concisely and I shall attempt to address the amendments in this group in turn.

As the noble Earl indicated, Amendments Nos. 142 and 213 would provide for regulations about the length of time information might be retained on the database. I recognise the concerns that there should be provision to limit the time of removal of records relating to the provision of specialist services to a child and the recording of a concern.

I am sure that noble Lords recognise that this is not an easy issue. The question is of striking a balance between compliance with the Data Protection Act, which says that records should be kept for no longer than is necessary and ensuring that practitioners are aware of the full picture of the needs of children whom they are working with.

We will want information to be retained for as long as it makes sense to do so. It may well be appropriate to be able for some time to see that a practitioner had in the past had some contact with, had been involved with, or had a concern about a child. In contrast—I hope this is some reassurance—if a practitioner had indicated a concern, and the noble Earl gave a good example, but subsequently it was decided that it was groundless, that should be removed straightaway from the record. I think that addresses that concern specifically. So we are working closely with the trailblazer pilots on the subject. In the light of its experience on the retention of information in the pilots currently under way, we are considering how that needs to be covered properly in guidance and directions.

Amendments Nos. 156 and 219 would provide for the destruction of records, including any archive or backup, when the child reaches the age of 18. Noble Lords will have seen the policy statement that commits the Government to making regulations on when a record is to be removed in its entirety from the database—after the child has become an adult or, sadly, after the child has died.

We are clear that the information databases in this clause are about children; they are not about holding or sharing information about adults. The databases will hold information on all children up to their 18th birthday. We are considering whether special arrangements—as noble Lords indicated—might be put in place to hold records past the 18th birthday for certain vulnerable groups of children, with consent. We need to ensure that appropriate arrangements are in place for the transition to adulthood, particularly for some children with profound disabilities, for example, or children with learning disabilities. The "with consent" is critical. We want to make sure that we have that in place and are looking to see how to achieve it. We propose that that would be covered in guidance for those managing the databases.

We are further considering whether—and if so for how long—information would be kept on a backup system. That would be done bearing in mind the fifth Data Protection Act principle that data processed for any purpose should not be kept for longer than is necessary. We will consider that alongside the related issue of how long information should be kept before the child reaches the age of 18—apart from the instance I have already indicated to the noble Earl about removal of data where a concern is found to be groundless—a matter which I hope I have made clear.

Regulations, subject to the affirmative resolution procedure, and, in the case of the Assembly, Assembly Standing Orders, will provide for circumstances where records should be removed. Proposals on that will take into account comments made by noble Lords today and at Second Reading to ensure that we pursue this appropriately. I look forward to any further discussions on that.

Amendment No. 144, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, would provide regulations specifically about information held that related to an unproven allegation of improper conduct. A false allegation of improper conduct in relation to a child is, as we all agree, a very serious issue. I want to assure the noble Baroness that the Government are fully aware of the distress caused to those individuals falsely accused of sexual offences or child abuse and the effect that it can have on lives and careers.

The noble Baroness referred to List 99 and the Bichard inquiry. The databases described under Clause 8 will only hold basic information about children, together with the fact that a practitioner may be providing a specialist service to a child or may have a concern. There will be no information about the nature of that concern and—I must stress this—no direct links to any further details about a case. There will be no information held identifying individual adults against whom allegations may have been made in respect of a child. So we are watching very carefully the results of Sir Michael Bichard's inquiry, which is very important as the noble Baroness indicated. We do not believe that the issue directly concerns this database, although I am happy to discuss the matter further if it would be of assistance.

I appreciate the concern underlying Amendment No. 145 about penalties for misusing the databases, again a matter raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Barker. I agree that great importance is to be attached to making sure we properly address these issues.

We think that it is through local accountability through the management of the agencies involved that any potential misuse should be patrolled and dealt with. We would not want to interfere with that. There are measures in criminal law which impose penalties for misuse of data or unauthorised access to computer records. For example, the Data Protection Act provides that a serious offence, with a penalty of a fine not exceeding the statutory maximum, will be committed where personal data is unlawfully obtained or disclosed without the consent of the data controller. And the Computer Misuse Act 1990 provides that unauthorised access, or attempted unauthorised access, to a program or data held on a computer may be punishable by imprisonment.

The amendment does, none the less, raise important issues about who should and should not have access to the database. The Government are clear that access to the database should be restricted to designated officials, as I indicated in our previous discussions. The databases will be set up in such a way so as to prevent trawling of children's records, and authorised practitioners need to have sufficient information.

However, as I indicated in my remarks to the amendment before we adjourned this evening, I can tell the noble Baroness that our commitment to bringing forward a package of amendments will include amendments to address noble Lords' concern that important issues relating to access to the database are to be dealt with in guidance or directions not subject to parliamentary scrutiny. We therefore propose to table a government amendment at Report to remove the power of the Secretary of State in subsection (9)(a) to determine the conditions of access in guidance or directions, and instead set them out in regulations to be approved by the affirmative procedure.

In determining access, the types of professionals and the types of organisations in which they work will be set out in regulations—again, subject to affirmative resolution by both Houses. But there clearly needs to be sensible interpretation at local level because of the differences in children's services across the country; and there need to be clear local arrangements. The regulations will therefore require an appropriate person to put in place a protocol with the heads of agencies involved, giving them responsibility through a nominated senior officer for deciding who in that agency should be given access, and at what level.

There will be no blanket access; only access to those named individuals who need access to do their job. As I said, they must meet minimum requirements, including Criminal Records Bureau clearance; having signed a relevant practitioner-level protocol; and undertaking training.

I turn to the common law duty of confidentiality, which is an important issue raised by Amendments Nos. 153 and 217, which would remove this subsection, and Amendments Nos. 154 and 218, which would provide regulations to specify the circumstances in which a person would act lawfully. As Members of the Committee will know, the common law relating to confidentiality is a sensitive and difficult area and we know that there is doubt about when practitioners can share information. The duty of confidentiality can be seen as an additional concern. As Members of the Committee have said, it is not absolute and disclosure of information with appropriate persons can be justified in some circumstances.

The hard judgment for practitioners includes that difficult balancing act of the duty of confidentiality towards someone—for example, the doctor towards their patients—against the wider public interest, and may not be the same as acting in the child's best interest. So, for example, although it may be in the child's best interest for a doctor to notify a social worker about the child's mother's depression, the doctor may consider that the grounds are not sufficiently overriding to overcome his duty towards the mother.

For that reason we have taken the power in subsection (7) to allow practitioners when exercising functions under the regulations to exercise those functions notwithstanding their duty of confidentiality. Clause 8(7) will enable regulations that would allow a professional—when, for example, placing a flag of concern—to breach his or her common law duty of confidentiality in that respect. It also attempts to give professionals confidence to participate in the database.

However, we recognise the concerns of the Committee and the Select Committee on Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform about the matter and I therefore assure the Committee that, as part of the package of amendments that I shall table on Report, I will propose to delete the two references to "must" in subsection (7) so that the regulations made under that subsection cannot require practitioners to do anything. That will mean that where practitioners have a power under the regulations to disclose certain information, they may exercise that power notwithstanding the rule of common law which they might consider prohibits or restricts the disclosure of information. However, the subsection will not apply to duties under the regulations, only to powers.

I would like to ensure that Members of the Committee are aware that the common law duty in the context that we are discussing concerns only putting information on the database—that is, flagging concern—or if the practitioner is in contact with the child. The moment that the practitioner is in contact with another service by telephone or meeting, the common law duty is in play as it would normally be. In other words, it applies not to the whole contact about the child but only to their being able to place on the database the fact that they are in contact and that they have a concern.

I underline that because, when I was learning about it, it look me a little while to understand properly. This part of the Bill does not apply when the practitioner moves beyond putting something on the database. I hope that that clarification, together with what I said about the deletion of the references to "must", will reassure noble Lords about its concerns.

I hope that noble Lords will feel reassured by what I have said about our intentions for the operation of the database. I have listened carefully to the concerns raised and. as I said, I will reflect further on them before Report. I have also described further changes in the package that we propose to bring forward and hope that, on that basis, the noble Earl will feel able to withdraw the amendment.

9 p.m.

The Earl of Listowel

The Minister referred to mothers with young children suffering from post-natal depression. I apologise if the matter was raised in the previous debate on the issue, but it is a considerable cause of concern if such mothers are less likely to seek medical help because of concern that their child might be seen as being at risk and notified as such. The deletions she described are reassuring to some extent. Either now or later, could she give a further reassurance on this area?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

It is important that we place the database in context. If, for example, a doctor had concerns about a mother with post-natal depression and felt that the mother was in need of additional support, it is possible that the doctor could talk to the health visitor in any case within the common law duty of confidentiality. We would not want them not to do anything. The simple question would be whether in the doctor's judgment that reflected a concern that should be placed on the record so that other professionals working with the family were aware and could find that information if that were appropriate. It is about helping the mother.

The Earl of Listowel

I can see that. I hope that the Minister will forgive me if I am being a little slow in taking up the issue, but when the Bill comes to be law the public will be aware of it—it is a controversial issue. For people who are worried about approaching a doctor, perhaps for the reason I gave, even if nothing much has changed, the perception may be that things have changed. That is the point on which I would appreciate reassurance later in the course of these discussions.

Earl Howe

I am once again grateful to the Minister for reassuring me on a number of concerns. I welcome her undertaking to remove the reference to "must" in subsection (7), although the force and effect of that removal are not quite clear to me. If regulations referring to subsection (4) require the disclosure of information, I am not sure to what extent a practitioner or professional would need to pray in aid or refer to the common law duty of confidentiality. It seems to me that if it is a legal requirement to disclose information the word "must" should remain in the subsection, but perhaps I have misunderstood the concession or alteration that the Minister has proposed and I may follow it up with her.

I welcomed the useful clarification she gave about how the common law duty of confidentiality bites outside the context of the regulations. That is not a point on which I had focused, but it is helpful. Nevertheless, it seems that the way in which subsection (7) will look after it has been amended will still give carte blanche exemption to doctors and others for anything that they choose to do citing the regulations as their legal basis. I am still uneasy about that.

It would be better if the Government felt able to bite the bullet and define rather more closely the circumstances in which practitioners could feel comfortable in disclosing information and be sure that in doing so they were following a set of guidelines that had gained common acceptance and been subject to debate. As it is, they have no handle to hold on to here. I am not sure that that is very fair on them.

I was grateful for the remarks of my noble friend Lord Northesk in relation to Amendment No. 156. I agree with him: that is a better amendment than my Amendment No. 142. Quite a lot of these are issues to which we will want to come back on Report when we have reflected carefully on what the Minister has told us today. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 143 to 147 not moved]

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Brougham and Vaux)

I should advise the Committee that if Amendment No. 148 or 148A is agreed to, I cannot call Amendments Nos. 149 to 151.

Baroness Barker moved Amendment No. 148:

Page 6, line 43, leave out paragraph (b) and insert—

  1. "(b) information which gives reasonable cause to suspect that a child is suffering or is likely to suffer significant harm"

The noble Baroness said: I realise that at this late hour there is a risk of trying the patience of the Committee as we return to issues that have cropped up in various amendments throughout our discussions today. I am only slightly apologetic about that. I believe that we have discussed, and that we shall continue to discuss, some fundamentally important issues.

These amendments return again to the issue of what will cause a flag of concern to be registered on the database, which we have recognised is one of the key concerns. The purpose of Amendments Nos. 148 and 148A is to try to establish a commonly recognised and commonly agreed level of concern across agencies. Currently, there is no definition of any cause for concern in Clause 8(5)(b); nor is there any threshold that would apply in order to trigger one agency to notify or share its information with another.

Today, Members of the Committee have been striving for a way in which to convey meaning via a means that we know is necessarily limited. I have to say to the Minister that, currently, agencies tend not to co-operate simply because they have different perspectives on what constitutes a serious issue. They come to appreciate or not appreciate each other's sensibilities regarding children. It could be that in attempts to communicate electronically, very rapidly communications from one agency might suddenly become ignored. An agency might be known to put up flags of concern all the time. Therefore, other agencies might not pay much attention to them.

At Second Reading, I tried to convey that I believe that the power and the value of the database is determinable only to the extent to which it triggers action on the part of another agency. On talking to professionals about the existing system, they have two sources of frustration. It is not that they do not know who else is working with children: they do. They just do not know what the other agencies are doing or, worse still, they are repeatedly registering concerns about children, but there is no response or power on the part of such an agency to compel another agency to respond.

Within best practice as determined not only by the Data Protection Act 1998 but also by the Human Rights Act 1998—I refer in particular to Article 8(2) of the ECHR—the amendments seek to tie issues back to the Children Act and the provisions of Section 47. They set a framework, a common understanding, about what can be deemed to be cause for concern about a child being at risk of harm. One can construct any kind of system of communication that one likes, but if there is not a commonly agreed threshold about basic terms, that system will inevitably be flawed in action.

Our suggestion is that if the Government proceed with the very woolly phrase "any cause for concern" to trigger disclosure of information between agencies, it simply will not be understood and acted upon. Therefore, we have thought to tie this back to the more commonly understood terms of Sections 47 and 17 of the Children Act. At least if all agencies are talking the same language, then there is a possibility that they might continue to talk to each other.

At this late hour, I do not intend to talk at length to Amendments Nos. 150 and 151. They are, in their own way, attempts to try to achieve a workable definition of the harm or danger that a child may be in before any agency uses this database. I beg to move.

Lord Northbourne

At this late hour, I am very nervous about introducing a red herring, but it will be a very brief one. Why do we bother about having flags at all? Let us assume that child XYZ lives in area A and is registered in that area. Child XYZ then moves to area B and a professional in area B finds concerns. The professional in area B will simply want to know whether there is any history to this child; he will look on the computer and find that she comes from area A. He can then send a call to area A asking whether anyone there has any comments to make on child XYZ. There is no need for a flag to signal that someone has a concern because they will anyway want to go to all the people in area A to find out whether they have any concerns.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

This group of amendments gives me the chance to explain, albeit briefly, more about how we are considering the issue of indicating concerns about a child. I hear what the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, says, although I do not know whether one can have a brief red herring. Part of the work of trailblazers is looking at flags of concern.

The noble Lord answered the question himself when he talked about someone in area B ringing up everyone in area A to see whether they had any concerns. There is an issue which came out very strongly in the case of Victoria Climbié and others. We are considering how one would know whether there was a concern, notwithstanding all the comments that the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, has quite rightly made about thresholds, and so on. But if you have seven or eight agencies in a child's life, which is quite possible, you might be in a position to make progress, as I hope to do this evening, by doing that.

Lord Northbourne

Surely the great advantage of email is that you can call them all at once.

9.15 p.m.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

Oh, the joys of e-mail—I could talk about it for hours. One makes an assumption that every agency and organisation would be involved. The noble Lord is right if that were the case. The best method of communication is one of the considerations of trailblazers.

I am perhaps less fearful than others about the potential saying that there is a concern about a child and enabling that to trigger contact. Of course, I would say to the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, that that is not the only reason to trigger contact. The point about knowing which other professionals are involved is that it gives an opportunity for people to talk appropriately as professionals and support children and their families more effectively by doing so. There are many cases, as we know, of children being involved with many different agencies—nine, 10 or 11 perhaps—all working with the family but, dare I say, not necessarily working in a concerted way. That was certainly my experience when I was working in the health service. We can do more about that kind of working together.

We also mentioned that the purpose of the database is to help us move towards early intervention and prevention. That is one way in which practitioners can signal to others that they have a concern about a child. We do not wish to constrain that only to circumstances where there is a risk of significant harm to the child, because we are moving towards a preventive and much earlier intervention. We want to see whether we can address the needs of children long before crisis point is reached.

Amendment No. 148A would establish a lower threshold for recording a concern. It would use the definition of a child in need in the Children Act 1989. Although that would enable concerns to be recorded at an earlier stage than would Amendments Nos. 148 and 149, I am not persuaded that specifying this threshold would be the right way to be clear about the circumstances under which we require practitioners to record a concern. We are relying on professionals and we expect professionals to use professional judgment when recording concerns. I do not want professionals to feel restricted and not record a concern just because it does not strictly fit within Section 17. If this amendment were agreed, any matter relating to disabled children must be recorded, because all disabled children meet the Section 17 definition, which I know is not what the noble Baroness would want.

Having said all that, we are aware that we need to convey our intentions clearly. The decision about whether or not a concern exists and should be recorded remains ultimately one for professional judgment, but I agree with the noble Baroness that this is about us setting the context in which practitioners operate. That is why the different trailblazers are considering different approaches. We want to consider what they are doing along with comments made at Second Reading and by noble Lords today. I intend to do that before concluding whether there might be a need for any amendment at Report or clarification about how we will provide for recording of concerns through regulations.

Amendments Nos. 150 and 151 also relate to the scope for recording concerns. They would restrict the subject matter that practitioners may place on the database. The amendments refer to only three of the five areas of a child's wellbeing set out in Clause 6 (2), which means that we could not record a concern that relates to a child's education, nor whether a child is making a positive contribution to society—if a child is at risk of getting involved in crime, for example. We would not want to see a narrowing of the provision through that amendment.

I hope that in relation to Amendments Nos. 148 and 149 noble Lords will see that we are looking for a broader focus than only children at risk of significant harm. We aim to use the database to help with preventive and early intervention programmes. We want to do that responsibly. I have undertaken to think carefully and examine noble Lords' comments to see what further might be done. However, noble Lords should understand my reluctance to establish a threshold because of what I have said. I am keen to examine the way in which we can set out the parameters for the database.

I hope that, with regard to Amendments Nos. 150 and 151, the worth of retaining all five aspects of a child's wellbeing will be recognised. On the basis of what I said about considering this topic further before Report, I hope that noble Lords will feel able to withdraw their amendments.

Baroness Barker

I thank the Minister for that considered answer. I am not yet convinced that we are in agreement about the underlying basis for whatever system of communication exists. This is a matter to which we may well return. However, at this point, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 148A to 156 not moved.]

The Earl of Northesk moved Amendment No. 157:

Page 7, line 16, at end insert — (11) If each House of Parliament passes a resolution that regulations passed under this section shall have effect with a specified amendment, the regulations shall have effect as amended, with effect from—

  1. (a) such time, after the passing of the resolutions, as may be specified in them, or
  2. (b) if no time is specified in the resolutions, the beginning of the day after that on which the resolutions are passed (or, if they are passed on different days the beginning of the day after that on which the second resolution is passed)."

The noble Earl said: In moving Amendment No. 157, I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 158, 200 and 221. Our debates thus far on Clause 8—indeed on the whole issue of information sharing—have demonstrated that there is considerable disquiet on all sides of the Committee about the skeletal nature of the provision on the face of the Bill. Needless to say—my noble friend Lord Howe has already alluded to it—this chimes with the anxieties and concerns expressed by the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee at paragraph 23 of its 12th report. The Minister has thus far been generous in her recognition of these concerns. To be fair, it is much to her credit that her responses to our Second Reading debate, her letter of 29 April and her replies to earlier amendments have gone some way towards allaying them. For my part, I particularly welcome the fact that active consideration is being given to government amendments at Report to attend to many of the anxieties that have been expressed thus far.

Against that background, it could be said that, up to a point, the motivation for Amendment No. 157 has been undermined. Of course, we are all intensely aware of the cleft stick in which our procedures in respect of secondary legislation place us. Both convention and the near impossibility of amending regulations impose upon us an all-or-nothing approach. It was with that in mind, together with an assumption that the content of the relevant regulations will be both complex and deeply contentious, that I felt that it would be useful to afford Parliament the opportunity, somewhat in defiance of current practice, to amend the regulations if necessary. That is what the amendment seeks to do.

I repeat that, in my judgment, we have already made good progress in drawing some of the sting out of the original drafting of Clause 8, not least because of the talent and good offices of the Minister. No doubt there will be an opportunity at Report to take the matter even further forward. Despite that, there remains a legitimate argument for suggesting that this amendment, or something like it, remains necessary. The concept of information sharing is so critical in the context of child welfare and protection that it is absolutely essential that it be got right, not only on the face of the Bill but also in the detail of the relevant regulations where the devil lies. That being so, I very much hope that the Minister is in a receptive frame of mind; I know she is.

Amendment No. 158 approaches the problem from a different angle. It seeks to "sunset" the regulation-making powers contained in Clause 8 by imposing a time limit of two years for their implementation. The underlying purpose here is to focus the minds of the department. As I have already said, drafting of the regulations will be, in my judgment, hugely complex, not only technologically but also in terms of reads across to the Human Rights Act and the Data Protection Act. If the experience of, for example, drafting of the Voluntary Code of Practice for Retention of Communications Data is anything to go by, it could drag on interminably. I trust that the Minister would agree that that would be undesirable.

In passing, I make the point that, with hindsight, it might have been more sensible to borrow the form of drafting of Clause 39 to achieve this objective. Be that as it may, I merely note that the Government themselves have seen the wisdom of "sunsetting" Clauses 37 and 38 in respect of registration schemes for private fostering. Databases and information sharing may be of a different order from that issue but nonetheless the Government are admitting, in terms, that "sunsetting" does have a role to play.

Amendments Nos. 220 and 221 are intended to achieve the same effect as Amendments Nos. 157 and 158 but apply to the grant to the Welsh Assembly of powers to make regulations in respect of databases and information sharing contained in Clause 23. I look forward to the Minister's reply. I beg to move.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

I am very grateful to the noble Earl for his kind comments. I fear that I am only going to disappoint him. However, I hope to do so only for good reasons and that he will nevertheless feel reassured by what I say.

It is interesting that Amendments Nos. 157 and 220 are very similar to provisions in the Civil Contingencies Bill, which I think was probably the model. The noble Earl will not be surprised to hear me say that I think the circumstances surrounding that Bill are very different and that that very different approach does not apply to this Bill. So I do not see them as at all comparable.

Like the noble Earl I understand how important it is, as he said, to get the regulations right and to ensure that the House debates them properly and effectively. My experience as a Minister is that the affirmative resolution procedure in both Houses provides that opportunity. I can recommend it as a way of ensuring that noble Lords have an opportunity to go through the matters in great detail. Either House may decide that it disagrees with the regulations and determine not to pass them. In that case we would present a revised set of regulations to Parliament. On the basis that we have an established procedure that has served us well, the noble Earl may not be surprised if I resist his amendment while understanding the motivation behind it.

Amendments Nos. 151 and 221 deal with the sunset clause. I am very grateful for the noble Earl's desire to ensure that officials get on with it; I wholeheartedly support that. However, I should say that they are working incredibly hard, as are the trailblazers and the authorities who are helping us develop what we want. Nevertheless, I can envisage circumstances where we might find ourselves slipping off that timetable, although that is not the intention. For example, I would not dream of pre-empting the decisions of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State on the spending review or on what resources will be available at a given time to roll this out. Noble Lords will be very well aware that we have to take that issue into consideration.

As a consequence of the way in which the amendment is framed, if Parliament or either House determined that it is not happy with these amendments we would have to bring forward new proposals using the affirmative procedure. That could take time. So although we intend to fit well within the time scale that the noble Earl has indicated, I can envisage circumstances in which, particularly with the national roll out, we might want to do this in a more measured way, not least to allow local authorities the chance to be ready, to learn from the trailblazers, to ensure that the resources are available and to allow time for Parliament to decide that it wishes to think again about some aspects of the regulations.

So I hope that the noble Earl will understand that, on that basis and not because we intend to drag our feet, I would be compelled to resist the temptation of his amendment.

Lord Norton of Louth

Just on Amendment No. 158, which I very much support in principle since I think sunset provisions should be the norm rather than the exception, the Minister has made a case perhaps for extending the period embodied in the amendment, saying that that is too short a period of time, but not made a compelling case for the order-making power to remain in essence in perpetuity. There is an important discipline if a time limit is imposed. So is there not a case for thinking of a sunset clause even if it is not in terms of the time stipulated in my noble friend's amendment?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

It would not be for me to propose such an amendment. Based on my experience as a Minister, which I accept is not long, I have not seen much evidence of sunset clauses. However, I have seen them used in very specific circumstances. Because of the points I have indicated, one would wish to consider very carefully whether these were the appropriate circumstances. We do not want to drag our feet. However, as noble Lords have indicated, it is incredibly important to get this right, and there is a sort of national basis to it. As noble Lords will know, the point at which one brings forward regulations must be when all our discussions and deliberations have got us to the point where we believe there is at least a degree of support for the regulations.

So I think it is for noble Lords to determine whether they wish to bring back another amendment and for me to consult those more worthy than I, and who understand these matters much better than I, on whether we would wish to consider that.

9.30 p.m.

The Earl of Northesk

I am, of course, extremely grateful to the Minister for her response. She is absolutely correct that the model for the amendment was the Civil Contingencies Bill.

I found her explanation in respect of resistance on the basis of cost somewhat spurious. One of the things that intrigues me about our debates on Clause 8 thus far is that the question has not yet been asked of the Minister how much the database scheme will cost. I shall reserve that question until we discuss whether Clause 8 should stand part of the Bill.

I am grateful for the observation of my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth. My experience thus far of the Merits of Statutory Instruments Committee on which I serve is that affirmative instruments do not have an unqualified right of correctness. A great deal of the drafting of affirmative instruments is incorrect, but incorrect on the margins. Ultimately it is important that the detail of the regulations is made correct.

I understand what the noble Baroness is saying, which is that we can sort out this matter through consultation, and that therefore by a process of elimination almost the regulations will be made correct. None the less, I remain concerned about this issue. I am not entirely certain whether it is best solved by seeking powers of amendment or powers of sunsetting. However, I suspect that, one way or another, after I have read carefully what the noble Baroness had to say, I may well return to the issue on Report. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 158 to 158A not moved.]

On Question, Whether Clause 8 shall stand part of the Bill?

Earl Howe

I think that it is probably helpful before we leave Clause 8 to look at the whole clause in the round because of the very important policy issues that it raises.

No one, I think, would wish to argue with the conclusion reached by the noble Lord, Lord Laming, that better information sharing between professionals is vital if we are to improve the systems that we have for safeguarding and protecting children. I for one accept that point completely. However, in accepting that proposition, it is, I think, still open to us to ask whether the proposals for a series of databases, as set out in Clause 8, are the best way of delivering such an improvement. The onus has to be on the Government to show that these proposals are workable and better than any alternative. So far, I have to say, I remain to be convinced completely.

The noble Lord, Lord Laming, will be able to correct me if what I am about to say is wrong when he reads Hansard, but the main reason why Victoria Climbié was not saved from suffering a terrible death was not primarily the fact that information was not shared between doctors, the local authority and the NSPCC; it was that none of those persons or bodies once in possession of information that should have aroused suspicion actually took the initiative to do anything which would have saved her. Had any single one of those bodies with whom Victoria came into contact taken appropriate action, she might still be alive today.

Of course, a system of information sharing might have encouraged everyone collectively to take action, but are we to say that a database would have been the best and most effective way of bringing that about? Some might say that better training in knowing when to pick up the telephone to the police would have achieved the same objective.

We have here what is potentially a very large-scale system of data recording by the state on its citizens. The system is to be set up in the name of improving the welfare of all children. The names and key personal details of all 11 million children in England are to be recorded for access by professionals from a wide variety of disciplines. The vast majority of children so recorded will not be at risk of suffering significant harm or anything approaching it.

The human rights aspect of that point is a question in itself which perhaps the Minister would be kind enough to comment on. But even if we set the human rights issue aside, how can we not regard this mammoth information gathering and information sharing exercise as anything other than grossly intrusive on the privacy of families?

The ends are worthy, but do they really justify the means. I have grave doubts on that score. The word "disproportionate" comes to mind. I do not know what these databases are going to cost to set up and run, but we do have to talk about it. I am not averse to spending money when that is necessary, but there is always a choice about how to spend it. Some might say that the money would be far better spent recruiting social workers, teachers and doctors and training them in child protection. Over and above any need for databases we want trained professionals with judgment and common sense. We do not want professionals who regard the recording of a concern on a database as a substitute for sound judgment or for taking action. But if we are not careful that is what we will get. It is worth at least asking the question whether setting up these databases may just be missing the point.

Lord Northbourne

I support what the noble Earl is saying. I believe that there is a case to answer. It may be that the cost of these proposals is miniscule compared to the cost of employing an adequate number of quality social workers and training them properly. I ask the noble Baroness, either now or later, to let us have the figures so that we can be convinced that that is the case. If the cost is anything like parity we would be much better served by having a full complement of social workers of the quality we need and well trained.

The Earl of Northesk

The Minister is only too well aware of my antipathy towards the clause. Indeed, I regret to say that, despite her best intentions, a number of her comments today have increased my fears about the proposal rather than diminished them.

My objections are that I have consistently argued that as regards the recent cases of Victoria Climbié, the Soham murders and Toni-Ann Byfield, it was not the absence of information as to the vulnerability of those poor children which contributed to their tragedies, but rather the failure of the various agencies with responsibility for their care and welfare to communicate properly and effectively between and among themselves. That is something to which the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, earlier referred as a failure in practice.

Fundamentally, therefore, the data and information required to offer protection for children at risk is already recorded. What is missing is an appropriate culture of inter and intra-agency information sharing. Accordingly, the Government's apparent leap of faith in imagining that centralising all this information in a database and flagging it will magically solve the problem, is misplaced. It will not.

Indeed, it may well be counter productive. First, there is a huge risk that by holding all the data centrally it will make it that much easier for predators, particularly paedophiles, to gain access to it. As the Committee will be only too well aware, one of the perverse effects of the development of the Internet is that those who prey on children have recognised its usefulness to their vile practices. On the back of that they have developed considerable technological expertise to take advantage of the medium. Accordingly, any centralised database, even if it is based simply on flaggings of concern, will be vulnerable to their attention.

Secondly, even if it were possible to secure the system from external intrusion, which is at best highly questionable, the enemy within, for want of a better term, will still constitute a huge threat. If the underlying purpose of the centralised database is to facilitate information sharing, one of its necessary features would be the huge number of authorised users granted access. As ARCH—Action on Rights for Children—has put it: The greater the number of agencies involved, the greater the risk of corrupt use or disclosure of children's data". Indeed, as I revealed earlier, that is evident from the protocols of the RYOGENS pilots. It is well known in computer circles that the biggest risk to a database system is from internal hackers—all legitimate users—who exceed their authority. In that context, it is worth noting that, for example, the Inland Revenue investigated 1,369 cases of computer misuse between 1997 and 2003, with 1,174 of those resulting in disciplinary action. I am unconvinced that this is a good advertisement for the prospects of a children's database.

Thirdly, there is a real danger that the sheer volume of data thrown up by a centralised system will distract practitioners from the most urgent cases. Echoing a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, earlier, it is generally acknowledged that many of the agencies involved are already overstretched. That being the case, it is entirely feasible that those working in the field would be tempted to flag every minor concern, rather than risk any accusation of negligence. As I suggested at Second Reading, it could give rise to a "tick box mentality", whereby the process of data recording acts as a substitute for proper and effective human intervention. I doubt that that sort of development would work in the interests of children.

I suspect that part of' the problem is that the Government are attempting to cohere two related, but quite distinct, functions. There is something to be said for a database system that seeks to use anonymised data to guide and inform the development of child welfare policy. But that is quite distinct from using sensitive personal data as a mechanism for identifying individual children at risk. In effect, by melding those two disparate functions, the Government are inviting the possibility of entrenching the worst of all worlds—an unresponsive system that implodes under its own weight.

I have considerable concerns regarding the costs involved in the principle—to which my noble friend Lord Howe has referred. Industry insiders have suggested that the establishment of a database system could require as much money as the NHS IT programme—some £2.3 billion, which has risen recently, by some curious alchemy, to £4 billion, if press reports are correct. I would be grateful if the Minister could give the Committee the Government's best estimate of the costs involved. In addition will it he funded from central or local government? Evidently, local authority budgets are under a great deal of pressure at the moment. So, if the database is to be locally funded, how are councils going to be able to afford it? Bearing in mind that we could be talking about £4 billion, have the Government conducted a cost benefit analysis? Is it not at least possible—and again, I refer to the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne—that the sum of money could be more productively used on the front line, especially given how overstretched practitioners in the field are? In the same vein, has the Office of Government Commerce initiated a gateway review of the proposal? As I understand it, this is required to assess the aims and cost benefits of the proposed system with the intention of circumventing yet another IT disaster.

Was the Information Commissioner consulted about the policy in advance of its development? If so, what was his response? If he was not consulted, why not? What will be the effect on public availability of recorded data as a result of the coming into force of the Freedom of Information Act provisions early next year? What will happen to the existing databases and record systems? Will the envisaged centralised system substitute for them or will they be maintained as an unnecessary duplication?

The Committee is aware that I have already identified the RYOGENS pilots as the probable template for what the Government wish of a database. That being so, how legal are those pilots? What precisely are the business rules and risk scoring logic that drive them? What protocols exist within the pilots for full Data Protection Act compliance? In an age of spam and viruses, is it not foolish to rely on e-mail notifications to senior management of immediate causes for concern?

9.45 p.m.

The system may use 128 hit secure sockets layer—I apologise for technology, but never mind—but why have not client-side digital certificates been built in? What consideration has been given to an access requirement of at least two digital signatures from senior professionals as a means of enhancing system security?

I have a host of other concerns, some of which I have alluded to in the context of earlier amendments. I have also presented the Minister with a raft of questions for which, in truth, I apologise. I would have preferred to have been able to give her advance notice of them in order to make it easier to collate proper responses. It therefore goes without saying that, should it be more convenient, written responses to my queries will suffice.

Be that as it may, I will weigh her responses with interest, although I do not envy her the task. On the evidence of our debates so far on Clause 8, my scepticism about both its viability and desirability remains undimmed.

Baroness Barker

Believe it or not, there are a few questions yet to ask! How much is the system going to cost to build? How much is it going to cost to run? Who is going to build it? Are they going to be people responsible for the many other central government contracted IT projects? If so, why? And why are we constructing a database which will consist of data held elsewhere in order to enable people who ought already to be talking to each other and co-operating to do so? In many cases, it is their legal duty to do so. Why, when a child moves from one local authority or PCT area to another cannot a simple mechanism be established for them to advise one other person in the area that the child has moved, the same as inter-country ones?

At this stage, I will not comment on children who enter this country from abroad. However, taking into account that many of them will not enter the system because they will not have gone through all the channels about which the Minister has spoken all afternoon, is it worth it?

The Earl of Listowel

Is the Minister aware of such a programme being used in another country? If so, can she tell us a little about it or write to me on it? France, for instance, is so technologically minded that it introduced such a system.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

First, the answer to the question, "Is it worth it?", posed by the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, is yes, I believe it is. The provision comes out of the inquiry conducted by the noble Lord, Lord Laming, into the tragic death of Victoria Climbié and the support he has given to my department, my honourable friend the Minister for Children and my right honourable friend the Secretary of State in thinking further about what ought to be done.

I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Laming, will be back with us on Report and I look forward to him being able to speak for himself. But Members of the Committee should be under no doubt that this comes from his report and from a recognition that it is important to provide the tools to practitioners to enable them to support children more effectively.

Members of the Committee will have their own views and they have been clearly expressed. I am grateful to them as regards all the issues and technicalities they have raised, but I believe that it is important to understand the issue of principle. This is about supporting our professionals. They need that support in helping our children and their families.

This is not about a substitute for cultural change or all the other things that noble Lords have indicated to be so important. It is not an either/or; it is a both/and. It is about making sure that we provide the kind of training, support, recruitment, retention and all the other issues that noble Lords have quite rightly indicated not only in our deliberations on this Bill but on many other occasions to be absolutely critical to supporting families. It is important not to lose sight of these other issues but to see this as part and parcel of what we want to do to support them. I look forward to noble Lords talking to senior practitioners. It is interesting that the trailblazers already say that establishing the trailblazer database has been really useful in helping professionals from different backgrounds to reach a common understanding about how to address the needs of children. This is certainly what they indicated to me when I met some of them.

I am extremely grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Northesk, for not asking me to answer all those technical questions. I understood most of them but not all of them. I will say that these are critically important questions. I can answer a couple of them. The OGC will do a gateway review which will provide us with the necessary checks and assurances to proceed, taking full account of the risks involved, which is important. The RYOGENS project is not the template for this. It is quite different and no conclusions can be drawn at all from it about any future use of our database.

I can tell the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, that I do not know of any other countries but it is a point that I shall pick up. I am sure we have checked, I just do not have the answer to hand. We have commissioned independent technical advice to look at the cost benefit analysis and to give us costs based on which route we intend to go down. The noble Earl will not be surprised to hear me say that but as the Trailblazer project is developed, it is important that we establish how we would go about that. The noble Baroness, Lady Barker, asked about dealing with issues like a child moving and whether it is appropriate to indicate this fact to just one other person. I see nothing wrong with that in principle. But all these issues mean that we need to get the right kind of competent technical advice and to look at the cost. These costs will determine, in part, whether we go ahead with this and if so, how far and how quickly. I cannot pre-empt my right honourable friend the Secretary of State's spending review decision.

The Earl of Northesk

That is one of my major objections. The Minister is saying that Parliament is being asked to consider a piece of legislation that actually is unformed. The Government are making it up on the hoof. This is why I am so concerned about tabling a "sunset" amendment for these regulations. It is the height of folly for Parliament to sanction a Government to reserve powers for a rainy day. What the Minister is saying is that at the moment the whole thing is ill-formed. There is something wishy-washy we want to do but we do not know quite what shape it is or what it will end up being. I am sorry. Bluntly, this is not the way to legislate. Either the Government ought to come forward with fully-formed ideas or they should wait until they are ready to present fully-formed ideas to Parliament.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

All I can say to the noble Earl is that I disagree with his interpretation of what we are doing. This is not about being wishy-washy. This is about setting out that which is appropriate for the face of the Bill and bringing forward affirmative resolution regulations to your Lordships' House and another place in order to fill in the detail based on a combination of what noble Lords have indicated are critical issues. We also will take account of discussions with organisations that have a great interest in this issue and most importantly what the trailblazer local authorities tell us in order to ensure that we frame this correctly. That is the way government should behave. It is the way to legislate. It is the way to ensure that the system we put in place deals with all of the checks and balances that noble Lords wish us to have and also, if it is appropriate, provides the right kind of system. I have to put this database in context. It is not a substitute for all of the issues that noble Lords have rightly said are critical to ensuring that we provide for children, both in a preventive way and in a child protection way. It is not about substituting for all those. I could go on but I shall not do so because it is important that we have the opportunity to discuss this matter both between now and Report stage and again on Report. I hope that during our debates I have been able to reassure noble Lords that we have listened to what they have said today—I am grateful for all the contributions, which have been extremely helpful and constructive—and that we shall bring forward a package of amendments that take on board the delegated powers concerns as well. I look forward to that. I propose to write to noble Lords with more detailed information about the Trailblazer projects.

I know that the noble Earl, Lord Northesk, has a raft of important technical questions. I shall be delighted to respond to them properly if he can provide me with a list. I believe he said that he had many more questions which he could not raise this evening. I shall be very happy to take those on board and shall try to give him as much reassurance as possible. I know that he speaks with great authority and expertise on these matters.

My ambition is that noble Lords will be reassured on the issues raised and that they will recognise the Government's good intent in taking back these issues and reflecting on them further. We shall fill in some of the details where noble Lords feel that that is important. I also hope that they will be assured of our principle behind this measure—that is, the tool that I described at the beginning of our discussions which will enable practitioners to do their jobs more effectively and prevent them spending time and energy which is better spent in supporting families, in Finding out who is involved.

I recognise all that has been said in that respect. We shall try to ensure that when a child presents himself to a practitioner, who may feel a little concerned or worried, the relevant people can be contacted as quickly as possible. I believe that this system might have helped Victoria Climbié. It might have saved her life. For that reason, I believe that the clause should stand part of the Bill.

Earl Howe

Among the debates that we have had on this clause, this one has unfortunately left rather a lot of points unresolved. I regret having to say that because I know that the noble Baroness has been keen to reassure Members of the Committee on their concerns.

We are dealing here with one main question, which was echoed throughout the contributions—that is, the value for money of this giant scheme. As the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, asked: is it worth it? I am still not clear about that. While the Minister obviously has faith in the Government's policy, as one would expect, I am not at all clear that the cost-benefit analysis referred to by my noble friend Lord Northesk has been conducted with the kind of rigour which he, and I believe Members of this Committee, would expect.

The noble Baroness stated that the concept of databases emerged from the report of the noble Lord, Lord Laming. I wonder whether she would like to correct that. My understanding is that, while the noble Lord, Lord Laming, advocated more rigorous information-sharing, I do not recall that he advocated the setting up of databases. I could be wrong about that, but I think that the proposals for databases that were said to emerge from the noble Lord, Lord Laming, perhaps emerged in a somewhat looser sense than the Minister indicated. I am not sure that they were flagged up, to coin a phrase, by the noble Lord, Lord Laming.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

The noble Earl is absolutely correct. My opening remarks were garbled; I tend to talk too quickly on occasion. I was trying to indicate, as the noble Earl said, that the proposals emerged from information and also from consequential discussions with the noble Lord, Lord Laming. I would not say that he was the author of the proposal for databases, but that has been part of our discussions with him in trying to implement effectively what should be done. I have a note here which says that Recommendation 17 is to explore actively a children's database on all children. Therefore, the idea has arisen from a combination of conversations with the noble Lord, but I hesitate to put words in his mouth when he is not here.

The Earl of Northesk

To clarify that point further, the noble Baroness is quite correct in the interpretation that the Box has given her. Amendment No. 17 refers specifically to a database. However, as I said in respect of Amendment No. 50, a raft of recommendations arise out of the report of the noble Lord, Lord Laming, which refer to the issue of sharing information. That is a different matter from setting up a database. The focus here—to an extent the Minister referred to this—should be on the issue of sharing of information, not on the establishment of a database.

10 p.m.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

I do not agree with the noble Earl. When one looks at how to share information one has then to look at the mechanisms for doing that. The database is part of that mechanistic approach at that level. I do not think we are at odds on that.

I take on board what has been said about the value for money aspects. I shall reflect on that and see what further information I can provide on this important issue. This is a very important debate and I am grateful for it.

The Earl of Northesk

On that very precise point, the Minister has frequently admitted throughout our proceedings on Clauses 7 and 8 that the data are already there. I singly fail to understand the justification for creating yet another database to complement the databases that already exist.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

I hesitate to keep jumping up and down because I am not sure that I make things any clearer for the noble Earl. Lots of information already exists, as I have indicated. I referred to children being on different databases, and the like. The issue that often arises is that those databases are silent and information about who else is working with a child or involved with a child is not available. I am trying to reassure noble Lords that lots of information is kept about children in a positive way and it is not an issue that, in the main, people worry about, with good reason.

I understand where the concerns come from. I am trying to indicate that because the information is held in different places it is not always possible to understand who is involved with a child. I gave the example of an educational welfare officer, who would not know from a school database whether children are simply not in school at all. However, they might know if there was information about children living in the area who were in contact with primary care, for example.

Clause 8 agreed to.

Clause 9 [Establishment of LSCBs]:

Earl Howe moved Amendment No. 159:

Page 7, line 20, at end insert—

"( ) The chairman of each Local Safeguarding Children Board shall be the chief executive of a children's services authority."

The noble Earl said: In moving Amendment No. 159 I shall speak also to Amendment Nos. 160, 161, 165A, 222 and 223.

Amendment No. 159 brings us to the key issue raised by the noble Lord, Lord Laming, on Second Reading of the accountability of local safeguarding children boards, which are to be the statutory replacements for area child protection committees. Their function is to co-ordinate the arrangements that are in place locally to safeguard children and to ensure that those arrangements are effective. To do that the boards will take an overview, propose improvements, commission specific services, and consider matters such as staff training.

They will also work hand in glove with all the local partners on children's wellbeing, a relationship that is in the fullest sense mutually dependent. The boards and the local partners must feed off each other if the system is to work. They therefore cannot have lines of accountability that look in two directions at once. A local safeguarding children board needs to be tied 100 per cent to the policies, thinking and working of the children's services authority to which it relates.

The Green Paper, Every Child Matters: Next Steps, suggested that it should be up to each board to decide who should be its chairman and that that person could be either the director of children's services or someone independent. I believe that approach is fundamentally wrong. There is only one person who should chair a local safeguarding children board. That is the person who takes ultimate responsibility for everything that goes on in a children's services authority—its chief executive. To allow someone independent to chair the board makes no sense at all. To have the director of children's services has more logic to it, but it is still not right. The proper role of the director of children's services is to report to the board and to inform it; not, I suggest, to take charge of it.

The Bill deliberately steers clear of being prescriptive on who should chair boards. On one level I applaud that. But, in doing so, it is laying a bear trap. We really have to be clear about whether giving local authorities and their partners the freedom to fall into this bear trap is something important to us, or whether at the outset we should save them from it. After all, we want the system to work. There are times when Parliament needs to say, "This is how we envisage it working".

After all, when we look at the clause we are allowing the Secretary of State to specify in regulations who should represent the local authority and each of its partners on the board. I have no objection to that because again what you ought not to have—and I hope the regulations will proscribe—are a whole lot of junior, untrained, badly briefed individuals turning up purportedly to represented their respective organisations. We need senior responsible people around the board table. So I hope the Minister will take time to consider the amendment.

Finally, I turn to the other amendments in the group. I shall leave the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, to speak to Amendment No. 160. Amendment No. 161 refers back to our debates last week in relation to Clause 7. I do not propose to repeat what I said then, apart from reiterating that I believe all the bodies and persons listed in the amendment have a crucial role in the safeguarding of children, and there is no logical reason why any of them should not be a full board partner.

On Amendment No. 165A it seems to me there is a difference between those bodies and individuals who might find themselves being partners under Clause 6, with overarching strategic responsibilities of co-operation; and, on the other hand, those bodies and individuals who are given very specific safeguarding duties and responsibilities under Clause 7.

Potentially the distinction between the two could be harmful and confusing. It might also increase the risk of poor attention to safeguarding by some agencies. My Amendment No. 165A tries to bring all the agencies, bodies and partners involved in children's services into a clear and mutually dependent relationship, so as to ensure that safeguarding activity is part and parcel of strategic and operational services and not separate from it. I would just say that this amendment is supported by the Local Government Association, the NSPCC and the NHS Confederation. I beg to move.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood

My name is associated with Amendments Nos. 161 and 165A, to which the noble Earl has already spoken. I have nothing to add, except that I await the Minister's response with interest.

I shall speak to Amendments Nos. 160 and 162. Like the noble Earl's amendment, their purpose is to add agencies and persons with duties which affect, or could affect, the well-being of children to the list of members of local safeguarding children boards.

As the Minister has already discovered, where some persons or organisations are specified for particular roles or duties in the clauses of the Bill, the absence of others is of legitimate concern to groups or individuals with an interest in the matter. The noble Baroness has expressed her dislike of "lists", but the structure of the Bill encourages people to add more names to them. Thus Amendment No. 160 suggests that the Crown Prosecution Service and those concerned with the administration of justice—that is, at a local level—should be added to the board.

On the one hand, through the decisions as to whether or not to prosecute the CPS does sometimes have a vital role in child protection. On the other hand, recent research has shown that courts do not always treat cases against parents for non-attendance at school with the seriousness they deserve and are rather reluctant to meet LEA staff for discussion or joint training.

Both the CPS and the local magistrates or Crown Court staff might benefit from a better understanding of the collaborative approach that the Bill requires of all those whose activities impinge on the safety and well-being of young people.

Amendment No. 162 proposes to insert, the youth offending team providing services within the local area", which we feel is a little more precise than the phraseology in the noble Earl's Amendment No. 159. I look forward to the Minister's response.

The Earl of Listowel

I rise to speak to Amendment No. 161. I will endeavour to be brief, but I am concerned about the performance of the National Asylum Support Service with regard to families with children. On 1 May families were given short notice that they had to move from their homes and they were no longer eligible for housing benefit or any benefit. They were somehow expected by 2 May to have found employment and a house.

Think of the normal problems that any of us face when we try to move and find new accommodation. Those people have to find a new job and a new home at the same time. That decision was subject to judicial review. The judge was scathing in his assessment of how the process was introduced and the Government have had to put back their deadline so that there is proper time to assess those people.

One recognises the extremely difficult job that the National Asylum Support Service is trying to do and the difficulties with the issue, but one has to have serious concerns about whether that institution has the interests of the children in question at the front of its mind, especially when one considers that we are shortly to introduce Clause 8 of the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Bill, which will give powers to remove housing benefit and all benefits from families.

There are all sorts of downsides to that. One risks losing touch with those families altogether. There will probably be many appeals to the judicial process at great cost. There is the danger of other problems and burdens on our social system. I strongly support the amendment.

Baroness Walmsley

I rise to speak to Amendment No. 163, the purpose of which is to ensure that services dealing with refugee children of families are partners to the children's services authority for the purposes of local safeguarding children boards and to ensure that such services are involved in the co-ordination and effectiveness of the safeguarding and promotion of welfare set out in Clause 10 and thus provide greater protection for refugee children.

We moved a similar amendment to add the same list of organisations to the arrangements to safeguard and promote welfare in Clause 7 in our discussions last Thursday, so I shall say little, but it is of concern that the critical services responsible for the welfare and support of refugee children and their families are not included on the boards. It means that that must be contrary to the Government's intentions as set out in Every Child Matters.

Refugee children are children first and foremost and should be afforded the same rights and protection as any other children in the UK. It therefore seems to us imperative that those three agencies responsible for providing support and accommodation for refugee children are included in the arrangements for the board. The importance of ensuring that children's welfare is safeguarded at ports of entry and beyond is a significant consideration. It has been highlighted most recently in relation to the growing problem of trafficking.

We are aware that the Immigration Service is not a child protection agency, but it has a key role in relation to the safeguarding of children, including the contribution to join inter-agency profiling of victims and potential victims and many other functions. It would therefore seem imperative that the service is included in the new local safeguarding children boards.

10.15 p.m.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

I am grateful to Members of the Committee for this group of amendments, not least because they are not on Clause 8. As noble Lords have indicated, they deal with essential issues. I shall try to speak briefly because most of what I have to say is rather positive.

However, my comments are not quite so positive in respect of Amendment No. 159. I recognise the importance indicated by the noble Earl about the role of the chief executive. We considered very carefully whether we should specify who should chair the local safeguarding children board and whether the chief executive should be required to chair the board.

However, we concluded that chairing the board required knowledge at a level of detail that perhaps was not consistent with the work of the chief executive who, necessarily, needs to have a strategic overview. As noble Lords will know, in Every Child Matters we proposed that the board should be chaired by the director of children's services.

Since then we have received strong recommendations from both local government groups and voluntary organisations that under some circumstances, and in some areas, it might be appropriate for the local safeguarding children boards to be independently chaired because of good experiences. It has been noted that some of the area child protection committees have found it helpful to have a board member other than the DSS chairing them. That has helped them to make it clear that safeguarding is not purely a local authority function in some areas.

I accept that chairing is not the same as being accountable for the work. We are absolutely clear that whoever chairs the board, the accountability rests with the director of children's services, through him or her to the chief executive, and thence to the council. There will be no blurring of the "clear line of accountability" recommended by the noble Lord, Lord Laming. We have decided that it would not be appropriate to prescribe the arrangements, but that it should be left to local discretion. On that basis, I hope that the noble Earl will feel reassured.

As regards Amendment No. 410, the reciprocal duty—

A noble Lord

Which amendment number?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

I beg noble Lords' pardon. There are different numbers, which I have mixed up. I apologise for that. The noble Earl raised the issue of senior people, which is the critical factor. I could not agree more with the noble Earl that it is critical to have senior people. I shall ensure that it is spelt out in guidance that that should be the case, for all the reasons that the noble Earl indicated, which I feel no need to repeat.

I hope that I shall get the numbers right this time. I have some sympathy with Amendment No. 160 which seeks to add the Crown Prosecution Service and others with responsibility for administering justice. However, I do not believe that it is necessary. We have identified the core members as those organisations which have responsibilities to provide services to children and who would generally be considered to have a key role in safeguarding them.

While the Crown Prosecution Service has a role in bringing offenders to justice, including those who have offended against children, the safeguarding of children cannot be seen as absolutely central to its role. Perhaps full involvement could compromise its independence. But we accept that the Crown Prosecution Service may often have something to offer to the work of the boards. We will therefore set out in guidance that the CPS should be considered as another agency which might, at local discretion, be invited to attend by the relevant local authority.

In terms of those whose responsibility it is to administer justice, I do not believe that it is necessary or, indeed, appropriate. It is essential that those exercising judicial functions are, and are seen to be, wholly independent from those responsible for administrative functions, in particular as the latter will be applicants to the courts for the range of orders that relate to the protection of children.

I do not believe that requiring "any" court official, regardless of whether his or her role in the administration of justice involves him in cases relating to children, to attend the local safeguarding children board would be either appropriate or, dare I say, practicable, in terms of the numbers of judges and magistrates that that would involve. Instead, local areas already operate a variety of arrangements, such as family court business committees, to ensure that the users of the family courts are able to reflect their views. It would be unwise to seek to supplant those arrangements, which are about to be modernised through the establishment and commencement of a new advisory non-departmental public body, the Family Justice Council, on which a director of social services, a paediatrician and other relevant non-judicial members are to serve. I hope that that will reassure the noble Baroness.

The Immigration Service (IS) and the National Asylum Support Service (NASS) are covered by Amendments Nos. 163 and, in part, 161. Both NASS and the Immigration Service recognise the importance of local safeguarding children boards and will be fully involved in the boards where appropriate. But we do not think that it is necessarily appropriate for either the Immigration Service or the NASS to be required to be represented. Immigration issues tend to be geographically focused. We think it would be better for these organisations to be invited to join the local safeguarding boards as non-core members in areas where such issues are very important and relevant—obvious examples are Hillingdon and Kent—rather than being required to sit on the boards.

Both the Immigration Service and NASS have well established liaison arrangements with other agencies that could link into the new boards. I hope that on that basis, noble Lords will feel that the amendment is unnecessary.

As I have said in other debates, it has always been our intention that youth offending teams are covered, as mentioned in Amendment No. 161 and, in part, Amendment No. 162. They should play a full part in local safeguarding children boards. Since youth offending teams are partnerships established by local authorities, and since those partners are already covered by Clause 9(3), we originally took the view that it was not necessary for them to be regarded as separate items. However, members of the Committee have again raised good points, and we recognise that they have a statutory role in relation to youth offenders and might therefore be seen as having a separate interest from the local authority. We therefore accept that there is a case for listing them separately; we will look again at the clause and return to the issue on Report.

I cannot accept the amendment as drafted because we must be clear that we have provided for those authorities, for example, where there is more than one youth offending team. I hope that the noble Baroness will understand.

Finally, Amendment No. 161 would add the operator of a database established under Clause 8 for an area of England. In seeking to include the operator, the amendment is inappropriate as it pre-judges the outcome of a decision on whether a database should be established at local, regional or national level. Clause 8(1) provides the Secretary of State with flexibility to make the best decision.

The operator of a database, should the Secretary of State decide that they should be established in children's services authority areas, will be covered by virtue of the fact that local authorities are covered. Therefore, the amendment is unnecessary.

I hope it is felt that what I have said, at some speed, is helpful, and that the noble Earl will feel able to withdraw the amendment.

The Earl of Listowel

Just to be quite clear, did the noble Baroness say that she would expect that the National Asylum Support Service would join the local safeguarding children board in any area in which it was caring for children? Did I understand her correctly?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

I said that they will be fully involved in the boards where it is appropriate.

Earl Howe

I am extremely grateful, as I am sure all other members of the Committee are, for that very helpful reply, not least in relation to the Crown Prosecution Service, youth offending teams, NASS and the fact that the guidance would reflect some of the concerns I raised about the grade of representatives around the table of a local safeguarding children board.

I am still worried by the thought of having an independent chair of the board. It is not without its advantages for obvious reasons, but I think that there are dangers as well. The point I was seeking to make was that we cannot have local safeguarding children boards making policies and reaching decisions that may be totally at odds with those of the children's services authority. They cannot be semi-detached entities—the whole system has to work as one. I know that the noble Baroness recognised that, and I noted her points about the feedback she is getting from around the country. One has to take account of that. We may return to these issues on Report. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 160 to 164 not moved.]

Earl Howe moved Amendment No. 165:

Page 8, line 3, after "persons" insert "(including in particular presentatives of disabled persons)"

The noble Earl said: I hope that I can dispose of this group of amendments fairly quickly. Some relate to an issue that we have debated a number of times—the focus on the special needs of the disabled. Children with disabilities face higher barriers to their well-being than the majority of children who do not carry such a handicap. I know that the noble Baroness is fully aware of these issues. Amendment No. 170 addresses an issue that is of concern to many local authorities and voluntary agencies—the need to look at the work of local safeguarding children boards in a national context.

Many of the issues that the boards will find themselves dealing with are cross-boundary in nature. One needs only to look at London, where there are 32 authorities working within a short distance of each other. It follows that different boards will need to work together. To do that in an effective manner, they will clearly need to adhere to a similar set of operating standards and procedures.

One particular example of how such nationally-agreed procedures might prove effective has been given to me by the NSPCC, which believes that there should be uniform standards for the review of all child deaths so that the public health lessons from such reviews can he drawn out and so that there are agreed protocols for investigating child deaths in a fair and effective way. The lessons learnt from such investigations could then be disseminated nationally. I have a great deal of sympathy for that idea. The NSPCC has developed the proposal by suggesting that the system might be developed in conjunction with the new systems being established for the coroner service.

There is quite a different aspect to this issue that relates to our emerging knowledge of rare childhood conditions which can, if insufficient care is taken, be mistaken for the signs of deliberate abuse. As I was saying earlier, the procedures in these circumstances need to be standardised. There is a whole range of hard-to-diagnose conditions in children that manifest themselves in behavioural abnormalities. I listed some earlier. An untrained eye sees a dysfunctional child. It is all too easy, in those circumstances, for the spotlight of suspicion to fall on parents, and to do so unjustly. These are children with special needs.

This is difficult and specialist territory, but it must be got right. However, all too often I hear of cases where it is not being got right. Indeed, families with special needs children are not receiving the attention from local authorities that they should. Unless there are national standards to ensure that boards are not only aware of these issues but tackle them as they should be tackled, we will not make progress. My amendment therefore proposes that the Secretary of State should be given the responsibility for drawing up a set of uniform standards by which the boards will be expected to operate and against which their performance can be judged.

Finally, I hope that Amendment No. 171 in this group is self-explanatory. It picks up two particular concerns that I know are widely shared in relation to local safeguarding children boards and how they will operate. Regulations will set out the procedures that the board will be required to follow. There is a worry that, because not all board partners will have co-terminous boundaries, the expectations placed on some bodies may be unduly onerous. Strategic health authorities, PCTs and NHS trusts are almost never going to be co-terminous with a children's services authority, yet all are required to be board partners; so that we will get the representative of a particular trust or PCT having to participate in one, two or sometimes more board proceedings. If we are not careful, this will lead to very substantial commitments of time and energy on the part of certain NHS personnel.

If we take the example of the South London and Maudsley NHS Trust, the children and young people who receive mental health services there come from all over the country. How many local safeguarding children boards will the trust have to attend? The amendment also argues the case for uniform standards. If a single trust is expected to participate in several local safeguarding children boards, it would be bewildering if each board operated to different policies and procedures and pursued different activities. There needs to be more clarity around these issues, as regards the expectations to be placed on NHS staff to attend meetings.

The other aspect of the amendment relates to information sharing. By what rules will the boards be bound? Information about individual children and families should be shared only on a need-to-know basis. It is not acceptable, in my judgment, for such data to pass freely around the table from agency to agency without regard for normal confidentiality principles. I hope that the Minister can reassure me on that point. I beg to move.

10.30 p.m.

Lord Rix

I shall be brief; I can hear sighs of relief all round. I support Amendments Nos. 165, 169, 226 and 229. Many disability organisations, including Mencap, of which I am the president, believe that local safeguarding children hoards hold the key to whether disabled child abuse is taken seriously and tackled effectively. While looking forward to hearing further details about the general functions and procedures of these boards, I was hoping that, at this stage, the Minister might be able to provide an assurance that there will be a representative with specialist knowledge of disabled children's issues on every children board and that the subsequent guidance will reflect this; in other words, that there will be a disabled children's champion, as it were.

In addition, as with the Children's Commissioner, can the Minister provide assurances that all board members will have undergone disability equality training? Without such commitments, I, and I am sure many other noble Lords—well a few other noble Lords—who are in the Chamber would be deeply concerned about the boards' likely effectiveness in tackling disabled child abuse.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

I am grateful to noble Lords for raising these issues. Amendments Nos. 165 and 226 would prescribe persons who must be represented on the boards. Noble Lords will know that I have an aversion to lists: I have raised it many times. I fear that we may be going back into the realm of lists any moment now. The amendment would have little effect as the existing power already allows us to do this but we do not intend to use it to prescribe the representation of disabled people on these boards. We think that it is right for the decision about who should be co-opted to be left to local safeguarding children boards, in consultation with their partners, so that they can meet the specific needs of their area. It would be possible for boards to co-opt representatives of disabled people if they felt that that was appropriate. There may be other ways in which they wish to seek the views of disabled people. Local boards can already do this, if they so wish. We think that that is a better approach than prescribing it. I hear what the noble Lord says about making sure that members are appropriately trained and I will reflect on that and come back to him.

On Amendments Nos. 169 and 229, as I have already said, we are opposed to singling out one group of children for particular attention because it immediately begs the question of why we are not naming other groups of children. This is about all children. That is very important. If time permitted, I could talk at greater length about the work that we are undertaking but I fear that that would not be right at this hour. But I do not wish to give the impression that we do not consider these issues to be very important.

We will be making sure that guidance that we issue to local safeguarding boards indicates that disabled children are a very vulnerable group and that they should have clear policies in place to safeguard all such groups. The policies should build on specialist advice, including the training strategies to ensure that child protection workers have the necessary skills in working with disabled children. The guidance will also set out that local safeguarding boards should seek the views of those affected by their services, including, where appropriate, disabled children. We believe that that is the way to approach this issue.

Amendment No. 170 deals with the issue of having regard to national standards. The Secretary of State and the Assembly already have the power to issue regulations on the functions and procedures of local safeguarding boards and their objective is set out on the face of the Bill. The regulation and guidance on local safeguarding children boards will in practice set out standards for boards that will be used by inspectorates, both individually and jointly, in assessing performance. The guidance can also be used internally by the boards when assessing their own performance. I hope that the noble Earl will be reassured by that and will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

In line with the principle to regulate as lightly as possible and to avoid prescription where it is unnecessary, we do not want to set up procedures, even to the extent of Amendments Nos. 171 and 231. We are not yet convinced that we need to set up such procedures. It is important that we consult stakeholders and take note of emerging practice within the safeguarding boards before we decide what procedures might be needed. We and the Assembly propose to issue guidance on information sharing under the provisions of Clauses 6 and 20 which will support practitioners in enabling them to share information effectively and appropriately, as the noble Earl has indicated.

I am not sure that that gives the noble Earl as much as he would like. I therefore undertake to write to him further on those issues. I think that that will provide further clarification. On that basis, I hope that he will be able to withdraw his amendment.

Earl Howe

I am grateful once again for a very helpful reply and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 165A not moved.]

The Deputy Chairman of Committees

Before calling Amendment No. 166, I have to tell the Committee that if it is agreed to I shall not be able to call Amendment No. 167.

Earl Howe moved Amendment No. 166:

Page 8, line 17, leave out subsection (8).

The noble Earl said: In moving Amendment No. 166 I shall speak also to Amendment No. 227. This is a straightforward probing amendment designed to point up a feature of this clause that has generated considerable bemusement if not some alarm, and that is the suggestion that two or even more children's services authorities may discharge their duties under the clause by establishing a local safeguarding children board for their combined area.

On the face of it this seems an extraordinary proposal. These are supposed to be local safeguarding children boards. How can you possibly expect a board to provide effective and locally relevant safeguarding services over an extensive geographic area? There would almost certainly be complex challenges relating to the overlapping boundaries of various partners. We come back to accountability. How could you have an arrangement that was properly accountable if several local authorities were involved? I do not see how anyone could assess the effectiveness of these combined arrangements in any meaningful way.

Perhaps the Minister could say a little about what is envisaged here. I said that the amendment was a probing one, which it is, as I am certainly prepared to be convinced. However, I have to say that there are some real concerns that lie at the root of it. What sort of scale of operation do the Government consider to be manageable and practical? There is no indication of that. The Minister may well talk about economies of scale or use words to that effect, but I actually think that there is the potential for a dilution of emphasis on safeguarding if responsibilities are spread across too wide a geographical area. That would clearly not be desirable and would send out confusing messages both to professionals and members of the public.

I hope that the Minister can provide some reassurance on this issue. I beg to move.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood

Our Amendment No. 167 is grouped with Amendment No. 166. I am not going to add to what the noble Earl has just said because he has made my case for me; it is just a different way of approaching the same thing. I would like to ask the Minister whether this is looking forward to a time when, for example, the Isle of Wight, Southampton and Hampshire might once again be joined together in happy harmony as they have been in the past, or whether in fact it has some totally different objective such as working toward regional government.

Baroness Andrews

Noble Lords have very grand impressions of this clause. I shall try to put minds at rest. The noble Earl talked about fears of dilution and accountability. Subsection (8) of Clauses 9 and 24 allows two or more local authorities to form a single local safeguarding children board. The provision is simply providing flexibility, particularly for the smaller children's services authorities such as the Isles of Scilly. If we were to remove this subsection we would remove an important aspect of flexibility.

Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, for example, have shared an area child protection committee for some time, and it would, in our view, be unnecessarily bureaucratic to force them apart. We also know that other local authorities have made similar arrangements in the past, including Rutland, Leicestershire and Leicester. Where such arrangements work well, we do not wish to disrupt them. Therefore, we are looking at what works locally. It is simply enabling.

Amendment No. 167 also seeks to temper that flexibility by requiring the Secretary of State to authorise its use; we refer to him again, my Lords. Where local authorities are already sharing an ACPC—for example, in London—they do so because that is what works locally. We do not want the Secretary of State to be involved in this and I am sure that he does not want to be involved in it either. It would be unnecessarily bureaucratic. We want to keep these arrangements available.

On accountability, the subsection does not allow children's services authorities to delegate their duty to another authority. Where a joint LSCB is established, each participating children's services authority will retain its functions in relation to that board and will participate fully. Should it turn out that one of the authorities that has made the partnership is attempting to reduce its participation, I believe we can safely rely on the local authority partner or partners to ensure that that does not happen, or that the arrangement is brought to an end. Therefore, there is a powerful element of self-regulation.

Should a joint safeguarding board be failing in some way it might be necessary to use the intervention powers in the Bill. In that case they would be used to intervene in each local authority as both would be considered to be failing to exercise their functions effectively. I hope that noble Lords are reassured about the practicality and the flexibility of the measure and about the arrangements for accountability.

Earl Howe

I am considerably enlightened. I am grateful to the Minister for that comprehensive reply. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 167 not moved.]

Clause 9 agreed to.

Clause 10 [Functions and procedure of LSCBs]:

[Amendment No. 168 not moved.]

Baroness Walmsley moved Amendment No. 168A:

Page 8, line 32, leave out from "prescribe" to end of line 33 and insert "(which shall in particular include functions of review or investigation of all child deaths in the area of the authority, funded by the Secretary of State)"

The noble Baroness said: This amendment would mean that the powers of local safeguarding children boards would be strengthened so that they could properly investigate and review all child deaths in their local area and collate and disseminate the local learning about child deaths nationally by using an agreed multi-agency investigation protocol.

This system should be developed in close conjunction with the new systems being established for the coroner service that the noble Earl, Lord Howe, mentioned earlier in relation to the group of amendments that began with Amendment No. 165, although I do not believe that he had an amendment in that group to achieve that objective.

Unless specific funding is provided, it is likely to be very difficult to create the thorough review and investigation systems that are required. This amendment would ensure that LSCBs have a duty to investigate all child deaths in their local area and that central government have a duty to provide the necessary funding to do so. Guidance should then be produced to establish how the information is collated and the learning disseminated.

The amendment was suggested to us by the NSPCC that has long campaigned for all child deaths to be properly reviewed and the lessons learnt and disseminated. I hope that it will meet with some sympathy from the Government. I beg to move.

Earl Howe

In this group of amendments there are several that hark back to debates we had earlier under Clause 6. I shall not repeat the points that were made at that time. These amendments suggest that everyone participating around the table in a local safeguarding children board really should contribute in some way or other to the funding of' the board whether that is in money terms or in kind. It is the latter aspect that some of these amendments seek to flesh out because clearly where you have voluntary agencies who are brought into the fold, so to speak, very often they will not have hard cash to contribute but they will have a great deal of expertise, time and person power. The Minister might consider allowing the Bill to reflect that aspect. It is a contribution or a commitment in as real a sense as any that will be supplied by the larger players on the children board. It is an important aspect of the commitment that each player has to contribute.

10.45 p.m.

Baroness Andrews

This is an important group of amendments. I want to explain how we are strengthening the provisions for investigating a child's death. They take us very much to the heart of the Bill and its intention.

The LSCBs will have a wider remit than the ACPCs. They are intended to be more pro-active and to co-ordinate and monitor. Crucially, they will also be regularly assessed by the relevant inspectorates which will monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of the contribution they are making to the welfare of children.

Under Clause 10(2) the Bill may in particular include functions of review or investigation to attach to the LSCBs. The noble Baroness wishes to add to that by committing the Secretary of State to giving the board functions of review or investigation and committing the Secretary of State to funding these reviews. As the noble Baroness knows, ACPCs are already required to carry out serious case reviews into the deaths and serious injury of children where abuse or neglect are known or suspected to have been a factor, in accordance with Chapter 8 of our guidance Working Together to Safeguard Children.

We know how important these serious case reviews are and they will continue to occur. We intend to make this a function of the LSCBs under the regulations made in the Bill. The innovative aspect addresses many of the concerns of the noble Baroness. Local screening teams will add to the specific function of review. We envisage that they will investigate all unexpected child deaths and report to the LSCB. They may recommend to it that a serious case review is carried out. Essentially, their purpose is to have a better understanding of the causes of unexpected child death. We have to be sensible and careful about this because they will be dealing with grieving parents whom they will also want to support.

I am sure that the noble Baroness will agree when I say that we do not believe that all unexpected child deaths will require a serious case review. I cannot say very much more about the role of the screening teams because it is very much a question of work in progress and under development and consultation.

The challenge we have to face is to make sure that we are not duplicating efforts in this area because there are many different types of review and investigation—by coroners, by the Prison Service, by the ombudsman, and so on. It is going to be extremely important to coordinate properly, which is why we have to take the time to get it right. We may need to pilot the proposals to ensure that they meet the desired objectives and that they are sufficiently flexible. We want to make the appointment of local screening teams a function of the LSCBs via the regulations made under the Bill.

As regards funding, we believe it is inappropriate for the Secretary of State directly to fund reviews. First, it means ring fencing resources for local government. We are moving away from that. The policy can be delivered without ring fencing. We strongly believe that it should be for the LSCBs and their constituent agencies to decide how much of the money they receive from central government should be spent on reviews or investigations of child death. The ACPCs already pay for serious case reviews out of their existing budgets. So it is not a new cost.

It is too early to say how much the screening teams will cost. Under the new burdens procedure the Government have agreed that where a department places a new burden on local and national agencies funded by government, it provides the funding to cover the cost. I hope that Members of the Committee will be reassured about that.

As regards the amendment moved by the noble Earl, the essential change is that partners are required rather than permitted to make payments towards expenditure. We understand the concern. Under Clause 9 we wish to see a duty to co-operate and to have regard to protecting the welfare of the child. We believe that the duties which are expressed and which will be delivered through guidance will bind partner agencies into the LSCB very effectively.

I have rather a lot of detail as to how we believe that would work. I would like to write to Members of the Committee about how it will be implemented and how we will aim to achieve national, cultural change. As regards Amendment No. 173A I recall accepting a similar amendment on Clause 6. I hope that I am not making this up. We want that commitment extended to cover this clause. Given the time of night and the degree of detail, which is descriptive and does not change policy or assumptions, I should like to write to the noble Earl about it. I hope that with those assurances the noble Baroness will be prepared to withdraw the amendment.

Baroness Walmsley

I thank the Minister for her reply; what she said sounded like a strengthening of the review of unexpected child deaths. We look forward to seeing the whole system in operation. Of course, that depends on adequate funding for the local safeguarding children boards and I trust that that will be sufficient. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 169 to 171 not moved.]

Clause 10 agreed to.

Clause 11 [Funding of LSCBs]:

[Amendments Nos. 172 to 174 not moved.]

Clause 11 agreed to.

Clause 12 [LSCBs: supplementary]:

On Question, Whether Clause 12 shall stand part of the Bill?

Baroness Walmsley

I object to Clause 12, which gives the Secretary of State power by regulations to, make provision as to the functions of children's services authorities in England relating to Local Safeguarding Children Boards". I do so for a simple reason—that I believe that it is otiose. Clause 10(3) allows the Secretary of State by regulation to, make provision as to the procedures to be followed", by LSCBs. Therefore, Clause 12 is a duplicate of that power. If it is not, will the Minister explain?

Earl Howe

I agree with the noble Baroness. It may well be that the clause contains necessary provisions, but, at the very least, it appears to be untidy. Clause 6(7) refers to guidance to children's services authorities and their partners. Clause 7(4) refers to more guidance to the parties listed in Clause 7(1); then Clause 10(3) refers to regulations relating to the procedures to be followed by LSCBs; and, finally, Clause 12 speaks of yet more regulations and guidance relating to children's services authorities. I cannot help feeling that somehow those provisions could be condensed into a neater package.

Baroness Andrews

I understand noble Lords' concerns. The purpose of Clause 12 is to enable the Secretary of State to make regulations about the functions of children's services authorities in relation to LSCBs and to issue guidance. I understand the concern expressed by the noble Baroness that the Secretary of State is already able to issue guidance to local authorities under Section 7 of the Local Authority Social Services Act 1970. However, the point of this clause is that it will allow statutory guidance to be issued to other agencies as well, in addition to allowing regulations to be made about the functions of local authorities in relation to LSCBs.

Each LSCB is a body made up of representatives of partner agencies and does not have a legal personality of its own—it cannot employ its own staff. Therefore, we need to be able to give children's services authorities the ability to do that on behalf of the LSCB. The general duty imposed on the children's services authority to establish LSCBs would involve doing what was necessary to enable the LSCB to perform its functions. So to some extent those matters can he covered in guidance. However, there are limits to the use of guidance, which is why we have included Clause 12(1) in the Bill.

The sort of matters that we envisage including in the regulations are administrative support, other support services and appointing a screening team, which I mentioned earlier. Clause 12(1) ensures that we can make those regulations and that they have the necessary support. It is thus essential that it stands as part of the Bill.

Clause 12(2) provides that, in exercising their functions, board partners, including the children's services authorities, must have regard to any guidance issued by the Secretary of State. So the guidance supports the LSCBs in enabling them to fulfil their functions. The guidance issued under Clause 12(2) will be largely based on Working Together to Safeguard Children, the 1999 statutory guidance, and it will enable agencies to work together more effectively. I hope that that addresses some of the fears expressed by noble Lords. It will build on and replace the information in Working Together, so it is very much a consolidation. Guidance on children's services could be issued under Section 7 of the 1970 Act, but we have no powers to issue statutory guidance to any other forward partner. The clause is therefore important in ensuring that we have that capacity and I hope that I have satisfied the noble Baroness.

Baroness Walmsley

I am.

Clause 12 agreed to.

Clause 13 [Director of children's services]:

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood moved Amendment No. 174A:

Page 9, line 17, leave out "the appointed day must" and insert "a time agreed by the children's services authority"

The noble Baroness said: With Clause 13, we arrive at the appointment of the director of children's services. Our Amendments Nos. 174A and 175 would alter Clause 13(1) to read: A children's services authority in England may, and with effect from a time agreed by the children's services authority must, appoint a fit officer for the purposes or, the various functions of the children's services authority. Amendment No. 176 repeats the need to pay attention to guidance on appointing a fit person for the purposes of the clause. Amendment No. 175D requires a local authority, after the appointment of a director of children's services, to secure the provision of adequate staff for the exercise of his functions. The amendments reflect a lack of confidence on the part of some people about what will happen on the merger of two services which have had a long and distinguished but totally separate existence.

The Minister may say that that unease is not justified and to some extent I would agree with her. I have a great deal of confidence in the ability of local government to do difficult things well. In the local authority that I know best, there is a clear recognition of the need to blend the professional attitudes, ethos and aptitudes of two erstwhile separate services acting in response to different legislation in a new joint approach to taking the Bill forward. But can the Minister assure people beyond these walls that the Government do not intend professionals or professionalism to be downgraded by the Bill, but on the contrary confidently expect both of them to be used to their utmost? I beg to move.

Earl Howe

Amendment No. 177 is in the group. As with the similar provision in Clause 9(8), I have some difficulty with the idea that a single individual might be thought capable of acting as director of children's services for two or even several authorities at the same time. The job is onerous enough—in fact, some people have said to me that it is too much responsibility to place on the shoulders of one person.

I am prepared to be convinced that that is not necessarily so, provided that the director has sufficient support staff, but we have to be realistic. The function is extremely sizeable. I should therefore be pleased if the Minister could comment on why the provision is included and in what circumstances the Government see it being brought into play.

Baroness Andrews

The amendments relate to the appointment of the director of children's services, which sends a key signal to enable a cultural change. But the changes have to be fully owned by the local authorities. The appointment of the director of children's services is vital to what we need to achieve. We need to get the balance right and I believe that Clause 13 strikes the right balance between central direction and local flexibility. It is important to maintain that flexibility for reasons I shall explain.

Amendment No. 174A would let local authorities alone decide when to impose the duty to appoint a director. While we want to give as much flexibility as possible, we must build in some safeguards.

The Government have already reflected such an approach in the provisions on the appointments of directors of children's services and in the proposals for commencing the requirements for appointments to be made. So when the clause is brought into effect, children's services authorities will have the power to appoint a director of children's services and once they have made that appointment they will also be under an obligation to appoint a director of adult social services.

11 p.m.

However, the point of the flexibility we have built in is not only in terms of timing. Significantly, they will not need to retain the statutory posts of chief education officer and director of social services, which they have to do at present. Authorities will be under a duty to appoint a DCS and a DASS once the Secretary of State has made an order under Clause 13(10) appointing the day in which it becomes a duty. We do not envisage that the appointed day order will be made immediately after commencement of the clause. The Secretary of State will be monitoring local authorities' progress but we are clear—which is why we cannot agree with the amendment—that there will come a stage when this must become a duty for all authorities. I am pleased to be able to say that local authorities are making very good progress and more than half are now giving active consideration to making a DCS appointment. We understand that some authorities will wish to make other organisational change first. This is why both we and the Local Government Association are keen to build in flexibility. However, we must have the power to set a deadline in order to ensure that we have a director of children's services in all authorities within a sensible timescale. We think a sensible timescale is 2006 for most authorities and 2008 for all authorities.

I turn to Amendment No. 175. Yes, of course, fit and suitable. We are absolutely determined that this should not be a downgrading of professionalism. The amendment reflects the wording used in relation to the appointment of a chief education officer, but the wording used in relation to the appointment of a director of social services under Section 6 of the Local Authority Social Services Act, simply refers to the appointment of "an officer". It is that form of words which we have taken. But it in no way implies that unfit people will be appointed or that professionalism will be downgraded. I believe we can trust local authorities to make appropriate DCS appointments and we are determined to ensure that they do.

I turn to Amendment No. 175D which deals with adequate staff. I completely understand and share the noble Lord's desire to ensure that this is provided. But again we are following the Local Government Act provisions. Under Section 112(1) of the 1972 Act local authorities are under a duty to appoint, such officers as they think necessary". I believe that with that provision we are in a position to say that we have every expectation that there will be adequate staff.

Let me turn to Amendment No. 176. Again, I completely share the noble Lord's wish that a fit person should be appointed. I have given my assurances on that. This amendment aims to ensure that the scope of the guidance is wide enough to include guidance on the qualities of those to be appointed as DCS. This is already the case. Subsection (7) allows guidance to be issued on any aspect of Clause 13 including appointing a fit person to the post. I refer the noble Baroness to our policy statement on Clause 13 which has been placed in the Library of the House.

I turn now to Amendment No. 177. The flexibility about a joint appointment is there as a matter of flexibility and necessity. We thought it was important to incorporate flexibility. We do not expect there to be wide use of the power. There is the safeguard in that any authority using this provision would need to be satisfied that the same person could efficiently discharge such responsibilities. We are confident that local authorities will use the power appropriately and after due consideration. And it will be appropriate where they jointly deliver services. This is a replication of Section 6(2) of the Local Authorities Social Services Act 1970 which already allows authorities jointly to appoint a single director of social services.

I come finally to Amendment No. 178. I have already explained the provenance of this clause and the reasons why it is included. To address the specific intention of Amendment No. 178, that authorities could only appoint a joint DCS with the permission of the Secretary of State, I should explain that since Section 6(4) of the 1970 Local Authority Social Services Act was repealed they have been able to make appointments to the post of director of social services without the prior approval of the Secretary of State.

I have gone through that at a considerable rate. However, the amendments raise important issues, and I hope that the assurances that I have given are sufficient to enable the noble Baroness to withdraw her amendment with confidence.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood

I thank the noble Baroness for her extremely full answer, which I believe people will find very reassuring. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 175 not moved.]

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood moved Amendment No. 175A:

Page 9, line 22, at end insert "; and

The noble Baroness said: I am becoming a little confused as time whizzes on. The series of amendments in this group concern the functions of the director of children's services and the functions that he will oversee. Amendment No. 175A would insert at the end of' Clause 13(1)(b) the words, such functions in addition to those specified in subsection (2) that the authority wishes to delegate to the director of children's services'.

Amendment No. 175B would similarly extend those functions to, any functions and duties exercisable under section 38 of the Crime and Disorder Act…within the meaning of Part III of the Act, in so far as those functions relate to 'youth justice services'". The issue of youth justice services has been raised in a number of different contexts, and this is simply one more.

Amendment No. 175C would leave out paragraph (e) of Clause 13(3) because it seems to duplicate a number of other paragraphs, and we are not sure why it is there at all. I see the Minister nodding—that may not be the case, but at least she understands what I am saying, which is a step in the right direction.

Finally, Amendment No. 175E would add the need for the director of children's services appointed by a children's services authority to produce a plan setting out how he will exercise his existing responsibilities for children with special needs. This amendment was brought to us with a reference to a single group of children. Could we add a requirement that the director should continue to exercise responsibilities already given to social services in respect of a certain group of children? We thought that, rather than add all kinds of different groups of children, we would probe the Government's intentions to ensure that, in the words of the amendment, the director would produce a plan or, at any rate, would continue to exercise all the responsibilities relating to children's special needs which already exist in legislation. I beg to move.

Baroness Andrews

The noble Baroness has been very understanding of the pressures of time, and I shall try to meet her points with a degree of detail.

I believe that the provisions in Clause 13 allow for a great deal of flexibility in relation to the functions of the DCS, which is what she was concerned about. At the same time, we have set out some key functions that we believe are core and must be included within the remit. There will, of course, be other functions which noble Lords may feel should be the responsibility of the DCS, but I believe that, other than the functions already set out, we must allow local authorities the freedom to determine those for themselves.

Amendment No. 175A seeks to ensure that local authorities have the flexibility to add to the remit of the director's functions not included in the list. Indeed, that flexibility already exists under Clause 13 as it stands. Clause 13(5) states that the director of children's services, may also have responsibilities relating to such functions…in addition to those specified in subsection (1)". That flexibility is even extended under subsection (6) to enable individual authorities, if they so wish, to add functions to the remit that have been specifically excluded from the statutory core. So, I think we have met that in two quite different ways.

Amendment No. 175B seeks to add functions and duties that relate to youth justice services tinder Section 38 of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. That is a very important set of functions and duties. I share the noble Lord's desire to ensure that the youth justice system attracts local priority and that all partners act together. Youth offending teams will be key partners in the local co-operation arrangements. While the clause as it stands does not expressly include these functions and duties in the statutory core, neither does it exclude them.

Because the clause affords a very wide degree of flexibility, individual authorities are free to acid to these functions so they could, if they so wished, include the powers and duties relating to youth justice services. We chose not to prescribe those functions on the statutory core because they go much further than children's services. They extend into local authority services and adult services. There is, indeed, a mixture of functions and different levels of functionality. So, our intention of not bringing these together was just to enable local authorities to decide for themselves how they wanted to organise it. The chief executive will continue to have a very clear role in that. I hope the noble Baroness will accept that.

Amendment No. 175C seeks to remove the Secretary of State's power to make regulations to exclude some LEA functions as well as those we have put on the face of the Bill in subsections (3)(a) to (d). Subsection (3) excludes four sets of LEA functions. For example, subsection (3)(e) will allow the Secretary of State to remove from the statutory remit any other functions which in the light of experience it appears could be left outside the core remit. We need that provision quite simply so that we have flexibility to respond, where appropriate, to representations from local authorities when certain responsibilities have been caught up with adverse consequences as a result of the power of the clause. For example, we have excluded from the DCS core responsibilities local authorities' functions for student awards but there may be other functions which have been caught up and could be better linked with student awards. So, we need to have that flexibility to respond in the future to correct any accident or unintended consequences.

I should make clear that certain functions are excluded from the core remit under subsection (3), including those which might be excluded via regulations. But even those functions could be allocated to the director of children's services if they so choose, under subsections (5) and (6).

Amendment No. 175E attempts to add a duty on the director of children's services to produce a plan for children with special needs. We all agree, not least my noble friend, how very important these functions are. However, we believe that it is unnecessary to add a duty to produce a specific plan to the existing duties in relation to the recent developments that local authorities are already making in planning for children with special needs.

We are trying to remove the burden of onerous planning requirements from local authorities. The amendment goes in the opposite direction. I am not sure that it would be very welcome, in practice, by local authorities. We believe also that the requirement of children with special needs are currently addressed within the educational development plan. We want to remove the majority of existing statutory and planning requirements and to introduce a single education plan. We are already consulting on removing requirements for 13 of the plans, including the educational development plan (EDP), to be rationalised. In fact, we ran a pilot.

Given what is In process and bearing in mind that the single education plan, which will cover a period of three years, must be reviewed annually and will give us the scope to respond and develop if things are not given the priority we want to see, we hope that that will help to meet some of the fears of the noble Baroness, particularly in relation to special educational needs.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood

I thank the Minister for that reply, which I think will reassure people that the maximum flexibility is being retained and that local authorities, in constructing their new services, will not be artificially constrained one way or the other. That was very helpful.

I am also grateful to the Minister for explaining the rather peculiar situation of Clause 13(3)(e). Amendment No. 175C would deal with that, but I think the situation has now become much clearer. I also thank her for her reassuring comments regarding my Amendment No. 175E. With that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 175B to 178 not moved.]

Clause 13 agreed to.

Schedule 2 agreed to.

Clause 14 [Lead member for children's services]:

11.15 p.m.

Earl Howe moved Amendment No. 179:

Page 10, line 36, after first "their" insert "elected"

The noble Earl said: In moving Amendment No. 179, I shall speak also to Amendment No. 198. The simple purpose of the amendments is to make it absolutely clear that the lead member for children's services should be an elected member. That is implicit in the clause and in the Explanatory Notes. The point is significant in another sense because it bears upon the question of accountability. If a children's trust is working across a variety of agencies, including a PCT or a strategic health authority, who exactly bears ultimate operational responsibility for that trust's activities?

If children's services authorities are the governing body, how will clinical governance over health staff and professional development among health staff be addressed? There is a lot of confusion about children's trusts and how professional lines of accountability will be preserved while ensuring that the general concept of the trust is realised. The issues of reporting lines cannot be ducked. A number of people have asked me to table the amendment as a means of eliciting a response from the Minister. I hope that she has a response.

I should just add that the amendment itself is not in any way a probe; it is a substantive amendment. I beg to move.

Baroness Andrews

I can give the noble Earl a substantial answer. Indeed, it does. "Member" means an elected member. There are precedents in law. For example, Section 79(1) of the Local Government Act 1972 describes qualifications for election and holding office as a member of a local authority.

The noble Earl is right to raise concerns relating to children's trusts because they are new organisations and it is important to know how those lines of accountability will work. There is no doubt. I hope that with those assurances he will be able to withdraw the amendment.

Earl Howe

I am very glad to do so. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 14 agreed to.

[Amendment No. 179A not moved.]

Clause 15 [Joint area reviews]:

[Amendments Nos. 180 and 180A not moved.]

Lord Northbourne moved Amendment No. 181:

Page 11, line 40, at end insert—

  1. (i) the Children's Commissioner;
  2. (ii) children;
  3. (iii) parents or others who have parental responsibility for a child or children in the relevant area;"

The noble Lord said: The provisions in Clauses 15 to 17 are largely bureaucratic. My Amendment No. 181 aims simply to insist that the clients, that is to say the children and their responsible parents, are consulted in any inspection, and, if relevant, that the Children's Commissioner should, if he wishes to, have the opportunity to make representations as part of the inspection process. I beg to move.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

I make it quite clear to the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, that outcomes for children and consulting with children, parents and others with parental responsibility is central to our plans for the inspection of children's services. A joint area review will focus on the children in the area and will be undertaken within the framework for inspection of children's services provided by Clause 16. Clause 16(3) will ensure that all relevant inspections focus on the wellbeing of children and relevant young persons.

We would expect the framework to reflect the template for inspections set out in the Prime Minister's office of public service reform document published in July 2003, which includes the provision that inspections should take a user perspective and have a clear focus on the experience of those for whom the service is provided. One of the functions of the Children's Commissioner will be to promote the views and interests of children. We do not believe that the commissioner would generally be able to provide the local insight that would assist inspectors of joint area reviews, but we anticipate that the commissioner would have close links with the review process and the chief inspector of schools as a source of information for his reviews of issues affecting children.

I assure the Committee that inspectors, when contributing to joint area reviews, will, as they will during other inspection activity under the framework, consult children, parents and others with parental responsibility. Indeed, it will be necessary for them to do so to meet the principle of the framework and, as I said, the Children's Commissioner will be working at a strategic, national level. I hope that, on that basis, the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Northbourne

I am grateful to the noble Baroness for that helpful and encouraging reply. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 15 agreed to.

Clause 16 [Framework]:

[Amendment No. 182 not moved.]

Clause 16 agreed to.

Clause 17 agreed to.

Clause 18 [Sections 15 to 17: interpretation]:

Lord Northbourne moved Amendment No. 183:

Page 13, line 6, at end insert—

"( ) Notwithstanding subsection (2) above, 'children's services' does not include services provided in a child's home by parents or other persons who have parental responsibility for that child."

The noble Lord said: I regret to say that I find Clause 17 completely incomprehensible and have tabled this amendment simply to ensure that inspectors would not feel it necessary to inspect children in their own homes. I recognise that that may be wholly unnecessary, but I beg to move.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

Any service provided by anyone with parental responsibility for a child that is provided in the child's home, where the child's home is a private residence, will not be inspected and the framework and joint area reviews will not alter that. Children's services as determined in the regulations under Clause 18(2)(b) can only be services that are inspected. I hope that I have given the noble Lord the reassurance that he seeks and that he is able to withdraw the amendment.

Lord Northbourne

I am most grateful to the noble Baroness. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 18 agreed to.

Clause 19 agreed to.

[Amendment No. 184 not moved.]

Baroness Andrews

I beg to move that the House do now resume.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

House resumed.

House adjourned at twenty-three minutes past eleven o'clock.