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Mr. Dawson: My hon. Friend has drawn a clear distinction between sections 17 and 20 of the Children Act 1989 and has acknowledged that practice differs around the country. Is not the point at which young people refer themselves to a local authority, which then decides what sort of service to offer them, the crucial point at which they need some independent advocacy?
Jacqui Smith: Given what I said about being sympathetic to the principle of independent advocacy, I agree with my hon. Friend that that may well be the time at which someone would need support and advocacy. My argument concerns whether my hon. Friend's amendmentsat this time, in relation to this Bill, and in this precise formare premature and insufficiently flexible to deliver what we need to deliver throughout the
Using the term "independent advocacy" in primary legislation might be too restrictive, given that we have not yet determined precisely what it means or the range of people who might be involved in it. For example, we would not necessarily want to limit advocacy to a legally or professionally qualified person. Officials in the Department have carried out extensive consultation, including, importantly, with young people's organisations, and feedback from those groups has told us repeatedly that flexibility is important and that young people want the choice of who provides advocacy. It could be a relative or a friend from the local community. Peer advocacy and mentoring is popular among many young people. More work is needed to define what sort of service would best meet young people's needs and to clarify the roles of the different professionals involved in complaints procedures. At the moment, a range of people can be involved, including independent persons, complaints officers, independent reviewing officers, independent visitors and "listening to children" officers. We must be careful that those roles are not confused, especially during the early stage of the procedure when we want complaints or concerns to be resolved informally, because confusion is all too prevalent for many young people.
The Government's determination to get all these issues right is shown by the work that has already started to consult advocacy providers, commissioners of services, and children and young people's organisations. A consultation is under way to consider the funding of advocacy services, definitions of the different professionals who provide advocacy and the introduction of national standards and training for advocates. Those are all key issues. Until that consultation is completed, we will not be in a position to define what we want local authorities to deliver and how we want them to deliver it. Before that is done, we will not be sure that the amendments would provide what is needed.
We need to promote the use of national advocacy standards. We are consulting on the standards that have been developed by the Department, the National Youth Advocacy Service and the advocacy consortium. That will help councils and children's organisations to arrive at a definition of independent advocacy and to set clear models of practice.
Mr. Bellingham: Has the Minister or the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department, the hon. Member for Doncaster, Central (Ms Winterton), liaised with the Law Society, which could certainly help in laying down guidelines or even in providing training and assistance?
Jacqui Smith: I do not close my doors to anybody who might be able to help us to develop our work on advocacy. Lawyers may often have an important role to play in the system of advocacy for young people, but perhaps not
Although we recognise the importance of the issues raised by the amendments, they are not necessarily the right way forward, especially in terms of timing. Work is already under way, but there is still more to be done before we can consider making the provision of independent advocacy services a statutory requirement. On that basis, I hope that my hon. Friend will feel able to withdraw his amendments.
I want to deal with a few points that hon. Members made about the new clauses. The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) asked about the nature of care plans and whether they always related to court orders. I can tell him that the provisions on care plans come from section 31 of the Children Act 1989 where they relate to court orders and from section 20 of the Act where children are voluntarily accommodated. The new clause ensures that the Bill and reviews of care plans cover both those forms of care plan.
Hon. Members asked for more guidance about how the system will work in practice. Production of a care plan would be necessary in respect of a care order before the court considered what order, if any, to make. The court would consider the care plan and would be under a duty to do so before making that decision. Subsequently, the role of the reviewing officer would be to review the extent to which the care plan was being implemented. We believe that strengthening the independent reviewing function is important to ensure accountability and the achievement of the important milestones in the care plan.
The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) asked about the position on independent reviewing officers. In guidance, we shall make it clear that the local authority can employ reviewing officers, or that other organisations with expertise or other local authorities can provide them. That will enable local authorities that have invested time and training in staff and already have independent reviewing structures up and running to maintain their arrangements. However, that does not prevent other organisations from offering their expertise when appropriate. I envisage several organisations offering such expertise. I am keen to avoid over-prescription, which will dislocate good practice and mean a move backwards.
When a local authority builds on existing arrangements, the guidance will clearly set out that the reviewing officers' independence must be established. They must be independent of the child's case, but not necessarily of the local authority.
Angela Watkinson (Upminster): In the light of the serious historic overspending of so many social services departments in local authorities, is the Minister confident that they can implement the care plans?
Jacqui Smith: I was about to deal with that point. First, let me finish the points on the guidance. The independent reviewing officer must be independent of the case management, the line management of the social workers who are conducting the assessment and perhaps social services departments. We have a precedent in the registration and inspection units being accountable to the chief executive. Under the new arrangements, that could be a part of the council's scrutiny function.
Tim Loughton: In the letter that the Minister sent us on 10 May, she said that the reviewing officer would be appointed by the local authority either from its staff or under an arrangement with another local authority or body. She also said that some local authorities already do that. I asked for some examples of the way in which that works, especially with regard to independence. Although the independent reviewing officers have to be independent of the case, they may work for the same local authority and be shy of criticising their employers' care plans.
Jacqui Smith: I am sorry that I have not been able to provide specific examples of the way in which the arrangements are working. Perhaps I can write to the hon. Gentleman. I was outlining the nature of the regulations and guidance if the new clause is accepted. He makes a fair point when he says that we must ensure the independence of the reviewing officer. It is not impossible to set up a structure in a local authority whereby employees can maintain their independence. It is vital that reviewing officers are independent of the case management and perhaps the social services department in the authority. We will make that clear in the regulations.
The hon. Members for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) and for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) asked about resources. Dare I say it, the Government have recognised the historicpre-1997underfunding of social services departments through considerable real-terms increases. Future increases may be even larger; they may reach 6 per cent. in real terms in the next three years. I am confident that although we need to do more to ensure that the money is spent as wisely as possible, the Government are ensuring the necessary resources to safeguard children through the care plans and procedures that the Bill establishes.
The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk asked specific questions about the use of section 17 of the 1989 Act. To be honest, it depends on the circumstances of the case. It may be used to obtain accommodation from private sources or registered social landlords. It could take any relevant form that would help children to be brought up in their own families and avoid the need to come into care. As I suggested earlier, its use will differ.
Some hon. Members have suggested that we should place a duty on local authorities to provide accommodation. Although I am pleased that the new clause makes it clear that local authorities have the power to provide accommodation, I do not believe that it is appropriate to impose a duty on them. We do not intend to supersede the responsibilities of housing departments, provide a method of jumping housing queues or place the provision of accommodation above all the other services that may be provided for children in need and their families.
I believe that we have struck the right balance in ensuring that local authorities are clear about their powers under section 17. I hope that we have reassured local authorities and, more important, ensured that vulnerable families have access to the safety net provision of section 17. That and our changes to the provisions on care planning mean that we shall ensure better planning for our children, better independent review processes and more opportunity for considering the rare cases when care plans are not implemented in the way that we all support. I hope that hon. Members will support the new clause.