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'In section 24(2) of the 1989 Act, there is inserted
"(f) provided with accommodation under section 17 in circumstances where he was unaccompanied by an adult.".'.
'(1B) Regulations may be made by the Secretary of State requiring the local authority to arrange for the appointment of an independent advocate on receiving representations under subsection (1).'.
'(3C) Regulations may be made by the Secretary of State requiring the local authority to provide independent advocacy to looked after children who make a complaint under the Children Act 1989.'.
The new clauses and amendments apply to powers under the Children Act 1989. In particular, they deal with the provision of accommodation, putting care plans on a statutory basis and ensuring their review. During the Special Standing Committee, concerns were raised about a problem that had arisen as a result of a recent judgment of the Court of AppealA v. London borough of Lambeth. The judgment meant that local authorities no longer had the power to provide accommodation to children in need and their families under section 17 of the Act, when accommodation was not available from any other source.
I said that I would review the situation and table a suitable amendment to deal with the problem, with the ultimate aim of safeguarding vulnerable children and their families without placing unacceptable burdens on the system. Since then, there has been a further Court of Appeal judgment in the case of W v. London borough of Lambeth, which appears to overturn the earlier judgment. The original case may still go to the other place, and their Lordships might uphold the original judgment. In the light of the continuing litigation and continuing uncertainty, Government new clauses 7 and 15 seem all the more important to provide clarity and certainty about the state of the law on such issues.
Historically, section 17 of the Children Act has been considered by the Government and local authorities to empower councils with social services responsibilities to assist children in need and their families by providing them with accommodation or, more often, help with the costs of accommodation, such as payment of a rent deposit or the first month's rent, where help was not available from other sources. That was considered to be an important safety net support mechanism for particularly vulnerable groups, including those families considered to be intentionally homeless, those needing emergency accommodation or older children who, while needing accommodation, do not need the more intensive support provided by foster care or institutions.
Under the new clause, we therefore aim to clarify the position and to confirm that local authorities have the power, which was thought to exist before the Lambeth judgment, to provide accommodation under section 17 of the 1989 Act. The new clause will do so by amending section 17(6) to make it clear that local authorities can provide assistance in kind, accommodation or, in exceptional circumstances, cash. As a consequence of amending section 17, section 22 of the 1989 Act, which deals with the general duties of local authorities to look after children, also requires amendment.
Subsection (1)(b) of section 22 defines a looked-after child as one who is provided with accommodation by a local authority. Should the new clause be accepted, section 17 will contain a power specifically for the provision of accommodation. It will be used to provide
Section 24 of the 1989 Act, which addresses the after care of former looked-after children, is also amended because it mirrors the wording of section 17. The new clause makes specific reference to the provision of accommodation for that group and serves to make the local authority's powers entirely clear. The local authority will have the power to provide accommodation, although not necessarily a duty to do so. That power provides a safety net for all care leavers who have been looked after at the age of 16 or 17both those who qualify for the support introduced by the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000 and those who do not. Amendment No. 238, which will be debated shortly, will enable the new clause to come into force as soon as the Bill receives Royal Assent. So new clause 7 enables us to remove the uncertainty caused by recent court cases and to ensure that local authorities are clear that they have the ability to provide accommodation in the cases that I have outlined.
New clause 15 makes provision in respect of care plans and the review of cases of looked-after children. Care plans are written evidence that the local authority has considered what must be done to ensure that a child's period in care properly addresses the needs of that child. After the assessment, care plans are put together and agreed with a range of agencies and servicesmost often education and health servicessetting out how the needs of the child should be met.
Clause 113 sets out the requirement that a court may not make a care order until a care plan has been prepared by the local authority and considered by the court. We have developed that in the new clause and the amendments on care plans, which are contained in the next group of amendments, to establish a robust system that includes the process for reviewing care plans and how recourse to court may be sought if the care plan is not properly implemented. The provisions apply both to children who are subject to care orders and to those who are accommodated by the local authority. In both cases, the care plan has to be written and reviewed at appropriate intervals, and modified where necessary. We need to be sure that, once prepared, care plans are implemented so that they are worth the paper they are printed on. The mechanisms to review the care plan therefore need to be suitably robust.
Subsection (1) of new clause 15 amends section 26 of the 1989 Act. It enables the Secretary of State to make regulations requiring local authorities to keep care plans for all children under review, whether they be section 31A care plans required in court proceedings, or care plans agreed in the case of children voluntarily looked after under section 20 of the 1989 Act. In addition, the regulations will require the appointment of a person to be a reviewing officer. Subsection (2) of new clause 15 enables regulations to be made setting out who should be appointed and the way in which the person will carry out their role. We have in mind a person who has the seniority required to have sufficient status to ensure that they can
Reviewing officers will be required to chair the review meetings and assure themselves of the implementation of the care plan by speaking to the child before the review takes place. The intention is to ensure that quality control is built into the system. Through their activity, reviewing officers will monitor the performance of the authority in each case. However, despite the best efforts and influencing skills of the reviewing officer, the local authority might fail to carry out key parts of the care plan in some cases. The amendment is being introduced because of concern that sometimes care plans are not implemented. We therefore need to ensure that there is a remedy when there is still a failure. Subsection (2)(c) of new clause 15 will enable the reviewing officer to refer a case to CAFCASS when the situation demands it. It allows the Lord Chancellor to make regulations to extend the functions of CAFCASS officers in respect of family proceedings.
When a child has no family or carer to act on their behalf, or is unable to challenge the local authority's handling of the care plan, CAFCASS will be able to take proceedings on behalf of the child. CAFCASS will be able to use existing remedies under the Children Actfor example, it can apply for the discharge of the care order or for contact between the child and another person. Under the Human Rights Act 1998, it can seek to injunct the local authority from taking a particular stepfor example, removing the child from an established placement. It can also seek a declaration that the local authority's plans are contrary to the child's human rights, which would require those plans to be rethought.
The amendments respond effectively to the issues raised in the case known as Re S & Re W, on which judgment was recently given in the House of Lords. The judgment identified that, currently, a young child in respect of whom a care plan has been made, but with no parent or guardian to act for them, has no effective means of bringing before the court any breach of their convention rights as a result of a local authority's inaction in implementing the care plan. By putting care plans on a statutory footing, establishing a review process that allows for that to happen and providing for the reviewing officer to refer cases to CAFCASS, we are ensuring that this gap in the law is properly filled and that children's needs will be met as effectively as possible through the systems provided under the Children Act.