Mr. Llwyd: I, too, support the amendments, bearing in mind the decisions in A v. London borough of Lambeth and W v. London borough of Lambeth, which were different. There was a clear need to plug the gap and I am pleased that the Government have moved quickly to do so.
The hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) tabled new clause 12, to which I was pleased to sign up. The proposal appears to be yet another triumph for him, as the purport of Government new clause 7 is the same as that of his new clause, although it is
I agree with the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham), who mentioned the issue of obligations as opposed to powers, that the Minister was careful to say that the new clause was intended to re-empower local government. She used the word "empower" several times. I would have preferred the word "obliged", but we will not go into the semantics now. In fact, this is about more than semantics. We had lengthy discussions about this in Committee, but there is no time to do the same today. I was mindful of the fact that the Minister was careful to use the word "empower" each time.
On amendments Nos. 132 and 133, I fully support what has been said by the hon. Members for Lancaster and Wyre and for North-West Norfolk about the need for independent advocacy. These are very helpful amendments, and I hope that, even if they are not accepted, the spirit of them will be, and that we shall see greater recognition of the importance of arm's-length, independent advocacy for youngsters in need. With those few words, I am pleased to support new clause 7.
Tim Loughton: I shall make just a few comments on the new clauses tabled by the Government, but first, I want to refer to the well-considered, well-put comments from the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson). He certainly need not cover his modesty, as the Minister exhorted earlier. The principles behind what he is saying are absolutely right, and his amendments would make useful, practical additions to the process. The suggestion of independent visitorsparticularly unpaid outsidersproviding an advocacy service has some interesting merits, and the Minister could consider the hon. Gentleman's suggestions in more detail. I would certainly like to speak to the noble Lords in the upper House when the Bill moves on for their scrutiny, to see whether they might be able to fashion these principles into amendments to improve the Bill, if the Minister is not minded to accept them. We do not know whether that is the case; she may well allow the hon. Gentleman to make another hit for which he could claim responsibility. He has certainly raised some interesting points.
We welcome much of what the Minister has outlined regarding new clauses 7 and 15. She has responded to some of the fruitful debates that we had in Committee by putting the care plans into a statutory process and making sure that that process is constantly reviewed. Obviously, there is uncertainty at the moment following the case of W v. London borough of Lambeth, and the Minister has had to be mindful of that. It is good that care plans should be given a statutory basis, providing written evidence that a local authority has considered the needs of the children involved, and that they should be reviewed.
Care plans are organic things. A local authority cannot simply draw up a care plan for a child at a particular time, lock it in a drawer and forget about it. Children going through the adoption process, including damaged children with special educational needs, behavioural difficulties and all sorts of other things that particularly affect adopted children, will react differently to new scenarios. What may be appropriate at the time of the adoption may turn
We also welcome the appointment of the new reviewing officers, and I look forward to seeing exactly how they will carry out their role. My understanding is that although they will be independent of the child's case and its management, they will not be independent of the local authority. Indeed, they will be appointed by it. I would like the Minister to tell us how they will maintain their independence, and to assure us that there will be no problem over vested interests from the authority that has appointed them.
I think that I read in the Minister's explanation in an earlier note that certain local authorities already operate the independent reviewing officer system. Although it has no basis in this legislation, it might be interesting to know where it operates and with what success. The principle certainly seems right, so if it has worked it would be appropriate to take a more uniform approach across local authorities which are obviously dealing with the same problem.
The Minister also said that the reviewing officer would have the power to refer a case to CAFCASS if that were merited. The point was raised in Committee, particularly by the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd), that CAFCASS has had problems and that there has been a haemorrhaging of its officers. One would need to be reassured again that, if a case is serious enough to merit referral to CAFCASS, the service will be in a position properly to deal with it, and that there will be sufficient officer-resource time to ensure that a suitable response is made and that suitable remedies are found.
In explanations that the Minister has given in correspondence on care plans, she has talked in terms of the need to protect children's human rights, which will be also a function of the reviewing officer. Of course that must be right, but such terms are very broad. One presumes that she is referring to something like article 8 of the convention for the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms, which states:
I do not want to be churlish; the new clauses reflect the Minister's work in response to concerns raised in Committee. Some serious, practical and new mechanisms are to be implemented. Subject to the relatively minor concerns that I have raised, we welcome the changes. At the same time, we ask the Minister to look charitably on the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre on the advocacy service.
Jacqui Smith: New clause 12, as my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) suggested, would have the effect of introducing an entitlement to after-care for a young person who is provided with accommodation under section 7 of the Children Act 1989, where that young person is not accompanied by an adult. My hon. Friend's speech rightly emphasised the importance of assessments for young people aged 16 and 17. I agree that proper assessment of young people is key.
All children in need who present to local authorities should receive a proper needs assessment along the lines set out in "The Framework for the Assessment of Children in Need and their Families". That guidance, as I am sure my hon. Friend knows, was jointly issued to local authorities in March 2000 by the Department of Health, the Home Office and the Department for Education and Employment under section 7 of the Local Authority Social Services Act 1970. It is therefore statutory guidance, and local authorities must follow it unless there are exceptional circumstances that justify a variation.
The guidance specifically mentions the special needs that unaccompanied asylum-seeking children may have and which the framework is structured to address. Local authorities have been reminded from time to time that the framework applies to those children as to all others, most recently in the practice guidance produced by British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering in consultation with the Department of Health and published last November as "Food, Shelter and Half a Chance", to which I contributed the foreword. That assessment, in the context of the Children Act 1989 itself, determines whether a young person needs the full range of support provided in the looked-after system or whether they need the less intensive help offered under section 17.
The guidance emphasises the importance of taking a child-centred approach throughout the process. Section 20(6) of the Children Act also obliges the local authority first to ascertain the child's wishes regarding the provision of accommodation and then to give due consideration to those wishes. It is not helpful to blur the line between the two forms of help available through the looked-after system and section 17, which is what the amendment would do.
However, I am as concerned as my hon. Friend that children seeking help without the support of an adult carer should receive first a proper needs assessment and then appropriate assistance from local authorities. I know that he and other hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker), have taken a close interest in the welfare of unaccompanied asylum seekers in particular. I welcomed the opportunity to meet my hon. Friends the other day to discuss that issue. As I said then, I shall continue to remind local authorities about their obligations to those young people under the Children Act.
I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre has read, if not contributed to, the recent Save the Children report, "Cold ComfortYoung Separated Refugees in England", which, among other things, highlights the fact that practice varies from authority to authority. The report found good practice as well as less good, which is why the Department of Health and the Home Office are jointly sponsoring a project on unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. That will give
I am not unsympathetic to the call to achieve the standard of care necessary to ensure that young people in those circumstances receive the proper assessment and the care that is necessary, but I disagree with my hon. Friend on whether conflating the needs dealt with by sections 17 and 20 is a satisfactory way to proceed. On the basis of those points, I hope that he feels able to withdraw his amendment.
My hon. Friend raised issues relating to amendments Nos. 132 and 133 and the use of independent advocacy in social services complaints procedures. Clause 112, which the amendments relate to, already amends sections 24 and 26 of the Children Act, which makes provision in respect of the Act's complaints procedure to respond to views expressed through the "Listening to People" consultation exercise.
On several occasions in Committee, we went through the improvements that that clause will make to the Children Act in correcting the anomaly in the complaints procedures for grievances involving children and ensuring that complaints about the discharge of local authority functions, including care supervision and child protection, are dealt with under the child-focused Children Act complaints procedure rather than the adult complaints procedure established under the 1970 Act. Clause 112 will enable regulations to be made to impose time limits and to introduce an informal resolution stage. All those provisions offer the potential to improve the complaints procedure in relation to children and young people.
Amendments Nos. 132 and 133 would make specific provision in respect of independent advocacy. As I said in Committee, the Government are very sympathetic to the issues that they raise. That is why we are engaging in consultation with providers, commissioners and users of advocacy services about the matters that we will need to deal with to make the provision of independent advocacy far more widely availablefor example, funding, standards and training. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre that children and young people can be especially vulnerable when they want to raise problems or concerns and that they need support at such times. However, it is important to introduce the changes when we have done the work that is necessary to be sure about what we mean by independent advocacy services and about how best to provide them.