HL Deb 27 May 2004 vol 661 cc1507-24

3.38 p.m.

House again in Committee on Clause 43.

Baroness Walmsley moved Amendment No. 243A Page 27, line 41, at end insert "whether or not the child is in receipt of education at a school maintained by that authority

The noble Baroness said: Amendment No. 243A seeks to raise the cross-border issues relating to looked-after children. Clause 43 places a duty on the local authority to promote the child's educational achievement. But it is not clear whether that duty is limited to children looked after by the authority. What about other children in care that the authority has contact with, but who have been placed there by another authority?

It is my understanding that where the child is resident—irrespective of where the parents live and which social services department is paying—determines who holds professional responsibility for the education of the child, as distinct from the financial responsibility. The admissions code recommends that looked-after children are given top priority in an admission's authority criteria.

The purpose of the amendment is to ask the Government what, under Clause 43, the implications are for looked-after children who live outside the LEA. I beg to move.

Baroness Andrews

I am very happy to clarify this point for noble Lords because there is clear evidence that young people placed in care away from home, and thus educated in an authority which is other than the "corporate parent", tend to do less well in school. Obviously we want to minimise that. That is why the duty we propose to introduce on local authorities under Clause 43—to promote the educational achievement of looked-after children—will apply to all the children whom the authority has a legal responsibility to look after, no matter where they happen to be educated. In other words, the duty will fall on the authority as corporate parent rather than as education authority.

One of the fundamental purposes of Clause 43 is to make clear to local authorities that their responsibilities for ensuring that their looked-after children are well educated extend to those placed in schools outside as well as inside their borders. For example, the duty will mean that local authorities must ensure that they organise a suitable school placement at the same time as arranging a new care placement. Where the school is in another authority, the corporate parent authority will have to discuss the child's educational needs with the authority which maintains the school. All too often, as we know, that does not happen at the moment.

Getting the legislative structure right is only part of the answer. The recent Social Exclusion Unit report reaffirmed the Government's commitment to working with local authorities to ensure that "out of authority placements" should be restricted to those cases where it is clearly in the child's best interests. Wherever possible, we want the child to remain in the local authority in which he has been brought up. That is why, under the choice Protects programme, we are looking hard at how best to ensure that children's needs are always central to the process of placement planning and commissioning. We are about to consult on a new strategic framework which will lay down the key principles on which all authorities should base their placement planning and commissioning strategies.

This is a key issue for the Government. I believe that my remarks have covered the points raised by the noble Baroness and I hope that she will feel able to withdraw her amendment.

Baroness Walmsley

I thank the Minister for that response. I am usually of the opinion that if you make something easier for people, they are more likely to do it. It strikes me that the Government have made the position more difficult by doing it this way around. It will not be easy for local authorities to reach out to schools outside their own areas to where they happen to have placed a child and ensure that that child's educational attainment is being well addressed. Would it not have been easier to ensure that the relevant education authority is responsible for the educational attainment of looked-after children placed in its schools? I wonder why the Government made the decision to arrange the responsibility that way around. What was the reason for it, because it seems more difficult like this? Can the Minister explain it?

Baroness Andrews

As I understand it, the notion of the "corporate parent" is the role that we want to develop, and that role is played by the local authority. This focuses on the corporate parent, ensuring that the local authority in that role addresses all the issues and responsibilities for the looked-after child. It involves delivering the range of support and care services that the young person needs. It is probably easier for the authority in the role of corporate parent to do that in relation to education outside its area than it would he for the education authority somehow to take on those wider responsibilities which, of course, it would not be able to do.

I do not know whether this will be more difficult, but I hope that it will not. However, these arrangements need to be done better and this is the way to do it.

Baroness Walmsley

I certainly agree that it needs to be done better. However, I think I find myself in disagreement with the noble Baroness that this is the easiest way, although I appreciate that the Government are trying to develop the role of the corporate parent. We shall have to disagree on the point. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 43 agreed to.

[Amendments Nos. 243B and 243C not moved.]

On Question, Whether Clause 44 shall stand part of the Bill?

Earl Howe

Clause 44 amends Section 83 of the Children Act 1989 and will enable local authorities and voluntary organisations to exchange information about an individual child.

There are obvious concerns about a provision of this sort. I do not propose to have a re-run of our debates on Clause 8 but I should be grateful if the Minister could say something about how these arrangements are expected to work. For a start, who in local authorities and voluntary agencies will be able to access this type of information? Even basic information such as a child's name, age and address should not be made freely available and should be passed across only when there is a compelling need for that to happen. What confidentiality protocols will apply across the agencies and what legal standing will those protocols have? What sanctions will there be if the protocols are infringed?

I have in mind a case that I have come across this week of a gross breach of confidentiality within a certain local authority. Given that, it worries me that this kind of information has a habit of leaking to where it should not be. We have to bear in mind the practical consequences of irresponsible or inappropriate disclosure. In some cases, such as in domestic violence, for example, being able to identify a particular child could put that child at risk. Readily accessible information identifying children living in refuges—I am told that around 23,000 children do so each year—makes the mothers of such children vulnerable to being traced and often attacked, or sometimes even killed by former partners who have been known to trace women through school records, court records, postcodes and the like.

The provision raises a further issue. In so far as the information is needed by the Secretary of State for statistical analysis purposes, which is what is stated in the Explanatory Notes on the clause, I do not understand why that should require the details of named children to be made known to him.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

I am grateful to the noble Earl for giving me a chance to explain what we are seeking to do here and, I hope, to allay his fears as far as possible.

Noble Lords may know that at present social services departments in local authorities provide education data on looked-after children as part of their returns to central government, while local education authorities provide data on individual children as part of theirs. That is ridiculous. It is a relic of the previous machinery of government arrangements before we took over responsibility for children's services generally at the department. We are seeking to remove this kind of duplication wherever we can.

The Social Exclusion Unit report, A Better Education for Children in Care, which was referred to in our earlier discussions, included a specific commitment that the Government would, harmonise the timetable and requirements for Government data collection, so that only one set of data is collected on the education of children in care". This clause honours that commitment and reduces the amount of data that local authorities have to provide to the centre, consequently lightening the burden on local authorities.

The report also committed the Government to using data from the National Pupil Database in order to improve our understanding of outcomes, in particular for young people from ethnic minority backgrounds and children with disabilities, and to review the relevant policies so that we can target support better—where it is needed—and learn more about which practices make a real difference. As the Minister responsible for children with special educational needs, I can say to the noble Earl that a critical element of improving outcomes is to know what works well, to support it and to grow those practices wherever we can.

The linkage of these sets of data will enable us to carry out more sophisticated analyses. As the noble Earl indicated, the type of information here is the young person's name, a unique pupil reference number and a postcode. That information will then be linked centrally by the Department for Education and Skills. We can then feed back to the authorities that supplied the information for the purposes of monitoring and reviewing performance. Moreover, noble Lords know that Clause 43 introduces a duty on local authorities to promote the educational achievement of looked-after children. So we hope that this clause will ensure that local practitioners have all the relevant and accurate information they need to fulfil that duty, in the light of the guidance that we shall provide.

There are strict disclosure procedures to ensure that published data does not identify individual children, and there are secure IT systems to ensure that only a limited number of staff can access the database. In a sense, we seek to merge information here. Statistics teams work under the National Statistics Code of Practice, a copy of which I do not have with me, but which I shall be happy to locate for the noble Earl. There will also be strict procedures governing release of any data, and security arrangements will always be in compliance with the Data Protection Act.

I shall he happy to supply further information about any other issues surrounding the circumstances described by the noble Earl where information leaks out. However, this measure is primarily about not duplicating information and being able to support children better by understanding where there have been achievements and where there have not.

Earl Howe

I am grateful to the Minister for that helpful and largely reassuring reply. I am pleased to note that this is, in part at least, a deregulatory measure applicable to local government.

I am sure that I am not alone in thinking that if those who access and exchange this kind of information are first of all covered by the duty to safeguard the welfare of children and then, perhaps, also subject to CRB checks, that would at least provide some sense that access to information on individual children is being controlled in a codified way.

What the Minister has said is of great interest. I shall consider her reply between now and Report stage.

Clause 44 agreed to.

Clause 45 [Miscellaneous amendments for Parts 2 and 3]

[Amendment No. 244 not moved.]

Clause 45 agreed to.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford moved Amendment No. 244ZA: After Clause 45, insert the following new clause—

"ROLE OF TEACHER TRAINING AGENCY (1) The Education Act 1994 (c. 30) is amended as follows. (2) In section 1(4) (the teacher training agency), at end insert "and having regard to the functions to be performed by children's services authorities in their capacity as local education authorities by or under the Children Act 2004".

The noble Baroness said: The amendment seeks to probe the Government's intentions as to the role of the Teacher Training Agency and the provision of high-quality training for those involved in the delivery of frontline services for children and their families.

At the launch of the Teacher Training Agency's corporate plan on 29 March this year, the Secretary of State said that the Teacher Training Agency will be taking on a larger remit to cover teaching assistants and support staff, and also that it will form part of a wider network that the Government are building to train and support all staff working with children, as outlined in Every child Matters.

Similarly, the Next Steps document states: The Teacher Training Agency will build on its success in recruiting and training high-quality teachers by becoming the main agency for training and developing school support staff. This will build on the TTA's work in relation to Higher Level Teaching Assistants and strengthen the focus on delivery of occupational skills for other support staff roles. It opens up the prospect of the TTA taking on a more strategic role, closer to that of a sector skills council, for the whole school workforce. An enhanced Teacher Training Agency will be a key partner in the new strategic network representing all staff working with children and young people".

The Next Steps document also states: Local authority employers and other signatories to the National Agreement on School Workforce Reform will be closely involved in the development of these new arrangements".

How far will these reforms go and will other groups be involved in these consultations?

It is to be hoped that by extending the role of the TTA in this way the Government intend to enhance the number of qualified staff working in children's services across the board. Sadly, one of the features of the care services for children in the past has been the employment in care homes and other institutions related to children of ancillary helpers with few, if any, qualifications. The hope is that the development of the children service authorities will bring forward high-quality, fully funded and readily available continuing professional development for teachers, and opportunities for teachers to undergo continuing professional development with other professionals.

Whether the TTA will be able to rise to such a challenge is something of a moot point. It will take more than simply paying an ad agency a hefty sum to come up with a name change. What is needed is the development of trust in partnerships across different agencies and the fostering of a shared understanding of each other's roles and priorities. Such matters are not easy, nor will they develop without a huge investment in professional training and support. We shall be interested to hear the Minister's views on how the Government envisage these developments moving forward. I beg to move.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

I wish that we were having an hour-long debate on the way in which the Teacher Training Agency could develop, but I can tell from the faces of noble Lords that they would not wish to do so at this time. So I shall very briefly address the well made points of the noble Baroness about what we are seeking to do.

As she indicated, this is about the Teacher Training Agency helping us to achieve greater integration in the delivery of services to children and young people. We have debated before the scaffold approach and seeking opportunities for people to develop their skills. We want the TTA to have regard not only to what is happening in the field of children's services but also to make a positive contribution to it.

As the noble Baroness said, on 29 March my right honourable friend announced what he thought the new remit of the TTA might be—that is, to be responsible for the training and development of the whole school workforce. This will include the continuing professional development of teachers and the training of classroom support staff.

We know the importance of these activities if the new children's services authorities are to be successful, so we are looking to the TTA to develop very close links with the directors of children's services and others in the field. The noble Baroness was particularly keen that I should indicate a partnership approach, which is absolutely critical, as is talking to others in the field, most notably the sector skills council for social care, children and young people. She is right to say that we need the TTA to be—and it is—in dialogue and discussion with a whole range of partners to ensure that they are working closely together.

I think the TTA will rise to the challenge. Apart from its success in advertising—which has done wonders to recruit teachers and trainee teachers we know that it has a good and solid record in the work that it does and I pay tribute to it for that. The TTA is very excited by the new challenge ahead, which fits very well with the development role it wants. It knows that it has a lot of work to do; it knows that it is very critical to engage with children's services, and it is in the middle of preparing to do so.

I should make it clear that if because of the TTA's new remit it becomes desirable to make any changes to the 1994 Act, we would bring them forward to Parliament at a suitable time. We do not yet know whether that will be necessary.

The spirit of the amendment commands our support, but it is not necessary and I do not believe the noble Baroness will press it in any event. It is important to acknowledge the enhanced role of the TTA and the noble Baroness's points about working in partnership are well taken and well made.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford

I thank the Minister for that reply. It is a probing amendment designed to flush out the department's thinking about the way in which the Teacher Training Agency would be used. Her answer has helped us to understand a little more about the way in which matters are expected to develop. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 46 agreed to.

Clause 47 [Power to give financial assistance]:

Earl Howe moved Amendment No. 244A: Page 28, line 30, at end insert— ( ) The powers under this section are exercisable with the consent of the Treasury.

The noble Earl said: Clause 47 gives the Secretary of State powers to provide financial assistance for purposes related to education or childcare. This extends the powers contained in the Education Act 2002 for the purposes of promoting the welfare of children and their parents and for provision to support parenting, including prospective parents.

I have two concerns about this. The first is whether the provision is necessary. The Secretary of State can ensure that any financial assistance is given to local authorities under Section 31 of the Local Government Act. This enables the Secretary of State, with Treasury consent, to make a grant for any purpose, both capital and revenue, to any local authority. This achieves a more flexible deployment of resources which can be used to address local needs and engage with a range of service providers.

My second concern is that the power given to the Secretary of State appears to bypass the children's services authority in determining the needs and priorities of children locally. A number of us have said at various junctures in the Committee's proceedings that we question that idea, and I should be glad of the Minister's comments.

If the power for the Secretary of State to provide financial assistance to organisations other than local authorities is to be retained, it would be consistent with other legislation for Treasury consent to be required. That is the specific purpose of my amendment, which has been suggested to me by the Local Government Association. I beg to move.

4 p.m.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

I hope that I can allay not only the concerns of the noble Earl but also those of the Local Government Association. I had a suspicion that it might have been concerned about this issue. We continue to talk to it, however, and I hope that it is less concerned.

As the noble Earl has indicated, our intention is to expand the Secretary of State's existing powers under Section 14 of the Education Act 2002. Those powers allow payments to local authorities as well as schools, individuals and organisations, not requiring Treasury consent. Section 14 provides a clear prescriptive list of the only purposes for which such financial assistance can be given. They are limited by the legislation to purposes related to education and childcare.

The source of these funds is the money that has been given to the Secretary of State for Education and Skills by the Treasury as part of the spending review. As the noble Earl will know, it is at the point of giving the money that the Treasury can—and. I have to say, does—attach conditions to its use. Within those conditions and subject to Parliament's approval of the expenditure through the Vote procedure, the Secretary of State can decide how to use the money.

We believe that the amendment is unnecessary as the Treasury has already decided that the money shall be given to the Secretary of State for his use and he can use it only for the purposes specified by Section 14, to do with education and childcare. We are adding to that list a specification for the new responsibilities of the Secretary of State and the National Assembly for Wales for children's services.

This is very different from the much wider power under Section 31 of the Local Government Act 2003. Those grants can be given by any Secretary of State only to local authorities, for any purpose. There may not, therefore, have been any prior agreement with the Treasury in the spending review that the money will be used for a particular purpose. We think that it is appropriate that the Treasury should have the right to give consent when the grant is made, not least to ensure that there is no duplication of funding. Moreover, some of the grant can have an impact on local authorities' need to raise council tax, in which the Treasury has a strong interest. As I have already explained, the purposes for which financial assistance can be provided under Section 14 are limited by legislation and the amount of grant that can be paid would have been limited by the spending review. Therefore, we do not believe that further Treasury approval is necessary.

The amendment would require Treasury consent for the smallest amount of assistance. We are trying to cut down on red tape and bureaucracy and we think that that would fly in the face of our efforts. It would also prevent small payments being made to schools without Treasury approval being obtained every time such assistance was provided.

We have broadened these powers as the amended section would allow payments to voluntary sector parenting programmes by a voluntary sector fundholder on our behalf. The model draws on the unique experience of the voluntary sector fundholder in deciding which projects to fund. The amendment would require all grant payments made by the fundholder to be cleared with the Treasury. Again, I believe that this would be counter to the kind of funding decisions that we want to make.

I am sure that the noble Earl is not planning to introduce more administrative procedures. It is about funding providers, not local authorities, so it does not bypass the children's services authority. We would expect those receiving any such funding to be part of working in co-operation and collaboration.

I hope that that explanation allays the noble Earl's fears and also those of the Local Government Association.

Earl Howe

That is a very helpful reply. I feel sure that the Local Government Association will want to read it with care. No doubt it will let me know if it has any residual concerns. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

On Question, Whether Clause 47 shall stand part of the Bill?

Baroness Sharp of Guildford

We gave notice of our intention to oppose Clause 47 on behalf of the Local Government Association, in order to probe the meaning of the clause. We have had a very adequate answer, which perhaps goes to show that the Local Government Association still has some way to go in learning how to promote co-operation among relevant partners.

Clause 47 agreed to.

Clause 48 agreed to.

Earl Howe moved Amendment No. 245: After Clause 48, insert the following new clause—

"FAMILY COURT PROCEEDINGS: EXEMPTIONS FROM RULES OF CONFIDENTIALITY (1) Section 97 of the Children Act 1989 (c. 41) (privacy for children involved in certain proceedings) is amended as follows. (2) After subsection (8) there is inserted (9) No offence shall be committed under this section where information relating to a child or another individual who is or has been the subject of proceedings before a magistrates' court is disclosed to a Member of either House of Parliament."

The noble Earl said: I should like to raise a matter which has caused me, and others, considerable concern in recent months. I refer to the strict rules of confidentiality which apply to proceedings in the family courts.

We all understand the reason for such confidentiality. The matters considered by the family courts are very often highly sensitive and relate in one form or another to individual children whose welfare and interests must be paramount. I fully recognise that the court needs to be able to insist that no part of its proceedings should be reported or referred to outside the court in a way which might serve to identify the child involved to the wider public. This principle was debated and agreed upon when the Children Act 1989 went through Parliament. As a generality, the principle is sound.

However—and there is a big however—I believe with increasing conviction that there should be certain limited exceptions to this rule. When a family is laced with care or custody proceedings, the parents, or sometimes perhaps one of the parents, will wish to seek advice and help. They will do this, naturally, by talking to a solicitor, but very often their distress is such that they will also talk to their Member of Parliament. But if a child's case is sub judice, or has at some point in the past been sub judice, the very act of disclosing details of it, even to a Member of Parliament, is contrary to the law.

MPs, as well as Members of your Lordships' House, are frequently asked to intervene with the police or social services in family problems involving access, custody or domestic violence. Strictly speaking, no parliamentarian may do so and remain within the law.

Earlier this year, the Solicitor-General found herself in contempt of court, having been in possession of confidential material relating to a particular case, the details of which had been disclosed to her on an anonymised basis. The lawyer concerned believed that the case was relevant to the review of family court judgments announced by Mrs Margaret Hodge. No harm was intended by the disclosure. The Solicitor-General was not aware of the names of those concerned in the case. She did not publicise the matter and she acted throughout in perfectly good faith. But even so, both she and the lawyer concerned were acting unlawfully.

The purpose of the confidentiality rules in the family courts is to protect children—no more, no less. When a Member of Parliament acts in good faith as a facilitator or go-between on behalf of a family—much as a lawyer does—or when a parliamentarian, in the course of his or her duties, is made aware of a case history that is otherwise subject to the confidentiality rules, such a disclosure should not fall foul of the law. In no way do I suggest that, by exempting parliamentarians from the scope of the confidentiality rules, they should be able to make free with the information that they receive. On the contrary, parliamentarians should themselves be bound by those rules as tightly as if they were the lawyers, principals or witnesses directly involved in the case. Provided that they obey those rules, they should not find themselves in breach of the law.

I should be exceedingly grateful if the Minister would take this proposal away and give it serious consideration. I realise that it may have implications that need to be thought through. One potential difficulty concerns secretarial and other staff who may innocently but of necessity become privy to confidential data as a consequence of them being disclosed to a parliamentarian. That must be taken into account. There may be other individuals and groups to consider in this context. However, I hope that the Minister will be sympathetic to the point in broad terms. I beg to move.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

I am grateful to the noble Earl for raising this issue. I will set out the current position because it would do no harm to be clear for noble Lords who may read this debate.

Section 97 of the Children Act 1989 prohibits and makes it a criminal offence for any person to publish any material that would identify a child as being involved in family proceedings unless the court has decided that the welfare of the child requires the disclosure of specified material. Section 12(1)(a) of the Administration of Justice Act 1960 has the effect of making it a contempt of court to publish information relating to a children case before any court sitting in private. As the noble Earl indicated, we all recognise the importance of protecting children involved in court proceedings. But in protecting children we must also be sure that others involved in the justice system are able to gain access to the information that they need to protect children and support their parents—I am thinking not only of Members of Parliament, but of others such as the police, the Crown Prosecution Service, parents, litigants in person and organisations that work to assist them.

When the police are called to an incident or are considering a prosecution with the Crown Prosecution Service, it would seem only right that they have access to relevant court information—so that bail conditions can be decided in the light of all the relevant circumstances, for example. When someone does not have access to legal representation, they may want to seek the assistance of voluntary organisations.

The issue of disclosure behind the noble Earl's amendment has been brought sharply into focus by the judgment handed down by Mr Justice Munby on 19 March. This makes it very clear that publication of a wide range of information about a child's case, whether or not it would identify the child concerned, is almost always prohibited without the direct permission of the court, which can be given only if the welfare of the child requires it. The judgment held that "publication" covered almost all forms of communication, whether oral or in writing. I believe that that judgment prompted the tabling of this amendment by the noble Earl, who is concerned that members of the public who consult a Member of this House or of another place may leave those Members open to court proceedings.

I fully understand the concerns and I agree with the noble Earl that we must think beyond amending the law in respect of disclosure to Members of Parliament without considering others—both inside and outside the justice system—who have concerns. However, there are several issues that must be teased out a little more. Although the amendment would exclude those involved in court proceedings who pass information to Members of either House of Parliament from the criminal offence created by Section 97 of the Children Act 1989, it does not cover the fact that they might still be committing a contempt of court under Section 12 of the Administration of Justice Act 1960.

The amendment also refers only to proceedings in magistrates' courts. Section 97 was amended by the Administration of Justice Act 1999 and now covers proceedings in county courts and the High Court. Noble Lords will be aware that many proceedings involving children are heard in county courts. That means that members of the public who pass information about any proceedings in county courts would still be open to prosecution under Section 97, as well as contempt proceedings under Section 12. I am also concerned that, although the amendment would offer protection to members of the public who pass details of court proceedings to Members of both Houses of Parliament, it offers no protection to Members if they wish to make an onward disclosure, for example to a government department. Finally, there are also inconsistencies in the wording of the amendment, about which I am sure the noble Earl is aware.

The amendment as it stands would be very difficult for the courts to interpret. For that reason, I cannot accept it. However, as I hope I have indicated, we have sympathy with the intention behind the amendment. I recognise the difficulties faced by constituents, Members of this House and the other place and others involved in the process, including the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and parents. Therefore, I hope that the noble Earl, Lord Howe, will accept my commitment and reassurance that, in consultation with my noble friend Lord Filkin, who is responsible for disclosure of information in family proceedings, and others, we shall consider these matters carefully and come back with something suitable during the Bill's passage in another place.

4.15 p.m.

Earl Howe

I very much welcome that commitment and thank the Minister for the full response that she has given. Since I tabled the amendment, I realised that there were deficiencies in it, but I let it stand as a means of raising the topic, which I am very glad to have done. I am sure that the Minister is right to take a little time to consider the issue, to ensure that all those who need to be brought within the scope of the exemption—if I can call it that—are brought within it, and that all interested parties are consulted.

I am extremely glad that the idea has found favour. I shall not retable the amendment on Report, on the understanding that the matter will be raised in another place in due course. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 246 not moved.]

Baroness Walmsley moved Amendment No. 246A: After Clause 48, insert the following new clause—

"CONTACT WITH SIBLINGS FOR CHILDREN IN CARE At the end of section 34(1) of the Children Act 1989 (c. 41) (parental contact etc with children in care) insert— (e) any sibling of his".

The noble Baroness said: The purpose of the amendment is to ensure that there is an assumption of reasonable contact between siblings who may be separated while in public care. The amendment comes to us from the NSPCC, in which I declare a non-remunerated interest. It is based on the findings of the Your Shout survey of the views of 735 children and young people in public care, which formed part of the NSPCC's review of legislation relating to children in family proceedings.

One third of the children who responded said that they did not see enough of their brothers and sisters, and expressed in very distressing terms their experience of loss, isolation and anxiety, suffered as a result of that lack of contact. Naturally they had a strong bond of affection with brothers and sisters and other family members, and they found the situation very distressing. I shall quote two of the cases. One child said: I have only seen my mum once since I was four, and I only found out I had three brothers when I was ten". Another said: The second of the things that should have been done differently was separating us from our loved and cherished brothers".

That is very sad, and it gives an idea of the isolation of those children.

Section 44 of the Children Act 1989 deals with parental contact with children in care and lists those with whom the child should be allowed reasonable contact: parents, guardians and anyone in the same position as a guardian. The amendment would add siblings to this list. I am aware that the Children Act guidance and regulations emphasised the importance of maintaining contact between a child and family members, unless of course that is clearly contrary to the child's interest. There is nothing in my proposed amendment that would detract from the overriding duty of the court and local authority to protect the child from anything that might put him at risk.

However, the sheer numbers of children involved in the survey and the situation that they described do not indicate that contact was being restricted because of any potential risk to the child. It is happening because this is an area of practice that appears to be very poor. The guidance does not appear to be being followed properly. The children's graphic statements in relation to the lack of sibling contact were endorsed by the findings of the adult inter-disciplinary consultation on the same subject.

It is in response to the sad and isolated position of many of these children—and bearing in mind the fact that the majority of them will eventually return to their families of birth—that the NSPCC asked us to table this amendment for discussion by the Committee, so as to respect the core links between siblings wherever possible and make it much easier for children to reintegrate themselves into the families of birth when, it is hoped, that eventually happens. I beg to move.

The Earl of Listowel

I rise briefly to support the amendment, which also stands in my name. I draw the Committee's attention to Start with the Child, Stay with the Child, which is a blueprint for a child-centred approach to children and young people in public care, undertaken by Voice for the Child in Care and the National Children's Bureau. I am a patron of Voice for the Child in Care. The document has considerable relevance to this question. The report says: Feeling connected to brothers and sisters throughout their time in care, even when it was recognised that they might not get on well at that particular time, was also of special importance for children". It says, of black families: Birth families were of vital importance to black children. Unlike for white children who are cared for in a predominately white society with endless white role models to draw upon, black families were often the 'gateway' and sometimes the only gateway, to other black people and a sense of ethnic and racial identity. Families were loved in their own right, but had a particular emotional importance for children and young people cared for in settings not reflective of their colour or ethnic or religious background. Maintaining links with brothers and sisters was important and the role of the extended family was often felt to be misunderstood". As the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, said, this is a complex issue. That may be one reason why it has as been overlooked in times past. I do not wish to take any more of your Lordships' time on this issue but. I hope that in her response the Minister can give us some assurances about what is being done in this area.

Earl Howe

Although my name is not attached to this amendment, I would like to say how much I support what has been said about it. I think it is an extremely sensitive and important issue that has been unduly neglected over the years. I hope that the Minister will be sympathetic to it.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

I am hugely sympathetic to what noble Lords are seeking to do. The question for me is always how best to achieve what noble Lords are seeking. As the noble Baroness has said, Section 34 of the Children Act already requires local authorities to allow reasonable contact to a child under a care order, unless the authority has the permission of the court not to do so. I checked the guidance that goes with the 1989 Act. The Care of Children: Principles and Practice in Regulations and Guidance says: Siblings should not be separated when in care or when being looked after under voluntary arrangements, unless this is part of a well thought out plan based on each child's needs". I think that is important in terms of thinking through how we approach this. Local authorities have a general duty, which applies to all looked after children, not just those subject to care orders. Paragraph 15 of Schedule 2 to the Children Act requires a local authority to promote contact between the child and his parents, friends and relatives, which, of course, includes siblings.

There are groups that are very concerned about the relationship between looked-after children and grandparents, for example, as well. There are wider issues than siblings, although I completely accept that they are critical, as are parents, who I should not exclude for a second. There is a general principle here. Section 8 of the Children Act empowers the courts to make orders regarding contact where a child is looked after by voluntary agreement.

The difficulty with the amendment is that it creates a different legal position for contact between siblings depending upon whether the child is looked after under a care order or under a voluntary agreement. I do not expect that that is what the noble Baroness and the noble Earl were seeking to do. We think that that is a problem and would create confusion in practice. The question for us is whether we have enough legislation to do this or whether something else is needed. Having looked at it very carefully, we believe that the existing legal framework achieves this but we accept that there is a need to improve practice in this area.

Although existing guidance already stresses the need to maintain contact between siblings, when we revise the Children Act guidance we will look at how we might best strengthen the messages about the importance of this as a step toward achieving what the noble Baroness wants. So, on the grounds that the amendment itself would cause confusion, it is our view, having looked at it, that creating more law is not the essence of the problem. We will endeavour to try and make sure that in practice it works better through the guidance.

Baroness Walmsley

I thank the Minister for her answer. What we are trying to achieve is to make it happen. I do not think that any noble Lord is too worried about whether it is done this way or that way, as long as it happens for the children. I am very reassured by the Minister's suggestion that the guidance will be strengthened and perhaps her department will monitor how well it is being implemented; I have no doubt that the NSPCC will do so. We look forward to seeing if there is any improvement a little further down the track when the guidance has been strengthened. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 49 [Interpretation]:

[Amendment No. 247 not moved.]

Lord Lucas moved Amendment No. 247A: Page 29, line 19, at end insert ( ) the Ministry of Defence; ( ) the Foreign and Commonwealth office

The noble Lord said: This is, of course, a totally ridiculous amendment. There is no good reason why these two bodies should be added to the list. However, it seems to me equally ridiculous that we should endure the current situation where we sit in this House passing and adding to child protection legislation—like this Bill, basically thoroughly good legislation—and then the MoD in particular does nothing about it, or very little about it, or does something extremely late—10 years late in many cases—to implement it in respect of the children for whom it has charge who are abroad with their families who are serving in Her Majesty's forces. It clearly is not right to attempt to include these bodies in this clause, but what is? I beg to move.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

I am not sure how to respond to the mover of an amendment who describes the amendment as completely ridiculous. However, I shall certainly try as I understand what the noble Lord is trying to achieve, or at least I think I do.

Noble Lords will recall that when we considered this matter earlier, I said that children who lived on military bases in England would be covered by the Bill and would receive the same service as other children in local areas. We shall make clear in guidance that in those areas where there are bases we expect the children's services authority to involve them in co-operation and safeguarding arrangements.

Armed Forces bases are already involved in area child protection committees where it is relevant. We shall make clear that we expect them to continue to be involved in local safeguarding children boards when they are set up. Of course, UK legislation, as it applies only in the UK, does not cover bases abroad. However, it is my understanding that the Ministry of Defence seeks to ensure that children living on overseas bases receive the same level of services as those living in the UK. Similarly, we intend that children of people working abroad in the service of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will have access to the same range of services as they would receive at home.

I said that we would seek to make it clear that children on bases overseas would come within the remit of the commissioner, but obviously it does not follow that the relevant provisions can be applied for reasons that the noble Lord understands, and I shall not go into, about creating a children's services authority to operate overseas.

I hope that I have reassured the noble Lord about the way in which we shall cover the needs of these children and that he will feel able to withdraw the amendment.

Lord Lucas

I look forward to a provision emerging on this matter. My understanding is that something will be produced by way of a Statement or by way of an amendment to make it clear that children on bases abroad are covered by the remit of the commissioner. I believe that a measure is yet to come on that. I shall await it with great interest. What the noble Baroness said today about these bodies being expected to reach a certain standard in the area we are discussing is of immense help. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 49 agreed to.

Clause 50 agreed to.

Clause 51 [Commencement]

Baroness Barker moved Amendment No. 247B: Page 30, line 38, at end insert "at the end of the period of two months beginning with the day on which this Act is passed

The noble Baroness said: It really does feel like the last period before the school holidays start and I shall do my best not to make it feel like double maths.

Commencement of the Bill is an issue to which we have returned from time to time throughout our deliberations. The Minister in her very fulsome replies has sometimes given very good reasons why certain parts of the Bill cannot commence at certain times. However, she has been less convincing regarding other parts of the Bill.

This amendment concerns child safety orders under Clause 48 which do not appear to have a given date for their commencement on the face of the Bill. The aim of this amendment is simply to ask why they have not been given a date of commencement. It is as simple as that. I beg to move.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

It certainly does not feel like double maths. I am sorry if I have been less convincing on some matters and I have a whole speech that I could give about the reason that we are bringing forward the change in child safety orders, which is what I thought we would he discussing.

However, regarding the specific question raised by the noble Baroness, we simply need a little flexibility in implementing these changes. Noble Lords who spent far longer than I did considering those orders in previous legislation will know that we have sought to make changes to put the threshold in the right place and to extend the timescales of the orders so that they could be used better and more fully than they are now.

We want to consult on the proposed changes to the guidance on the child safety orders to make sure that people understand what we are trying to achieve. Because we want the guidance to be taken into account by the stakeholders who are involved with this, it is necessary to have a little flexibility in the timing of the commencement. It is no more than that. It is simply to allow time for those discussions to take place, the guidance to be received by people and then the orders to commence. That is an appropriate way forward, rather than trying to commence the Act when people are not sure what we are trying to do. That is our logic.

Baroness Barker

I thank the Minister for that explanation. She will know that behind the simple question about timetabling there is a serious issue about which many noble Lords have expressed a great deal of concern. In such matters it is always possible to read the absence of a commencement date as a lack of commitment. I understand from the Minister's comments that that is not the case, but I hope that she will take from this discussion a strong hint that should there fail to be evidence of that process corning on stream within sufficient time, she will have a problem and people will be back at her door to ask her, "Why not?". But at this stage and with that explanation I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 51 agreed to.

Clauses 52 and 53 agreed to.

In the Title:

[Amendment No. 248 not moved.]

Title agreed to.

House resumed: Bill reported with amendments.

House adjourned at twenty-six minutes before five o'clock to Monday, 7 June at half-past two o'clock.