|Local Government Finance (England) Special Grant Reports (Nos. 102 and 104)
Mr. Wilshire: I have just heard a rather fascinating contradiction. Throughout two debates we have been told that everything must be spent this year. We now discover that the centre can roll out £6.5 million over several years. Why can the Department roll it forward, but the authorities cannot?
Jacqui Smith: The hon. Gentleman cannot be that keen to get to his barbecue if he is making—dare I say it—such silly points. Of course the same accounting rules apply to the £6.5 million allocated over three years and in-year spend as apply to local authorities. I was just clarifying for the benefit of the Committee where the resources come from for the centrally funded operations that help to improve adoption and permanence.
The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham asked how the authorities were selected. They were not selected on the basis that they were all failing, although some of them certainly had difficulties with their adoption service. Other local authorities in the list have an excellent service that they want to improve, and the taskforce will be able to work with them to share that good practice among other authorities. I will come to the taskforce's role in a moment. The authorities were selected according to a range of criteria, one of which was the ability to take part in that sort of activity.
As I said in my introduction—I recognise the point made by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham—more authorities want to benefit from those opportunities than have been able to participate so far. That is why in the autumn we shall evaluate success and reflect on how to develop further opportunities for more local authorities. The taskforce has already produced good practice guidance and handy hints on a variety of issues, so its expertise is being diffused more broadly than the number of councils directly involved would suggest.
I thought that I had answered the question about numbers in the taskforce. It has one full-time director and 33 members who work perhaps two or three days a month on a consultancy basis.
Tim Loughton: I shall return to one point because I am slightly confused about the selection criteria. The Minister says that not only failing authorities or those with problems, but authorities that already have quite good services and want to improve them, are selected. The list of 12 includes Dorset, a two-star authority, and Merton, which has a zero-star rating. At least 28 more authorities are interested. Is it fair that the failing zero-rated authorities requiring help do not have priority over those that want to improve services that are already good? At this stage when opportunities are rationed, why should not the additional resources and
Column Number: 035help of the taskforce be targeted at the failing authorities? Those who want to add to the excellent services that they already provide could be brought in later.
Jacqui Smith: The remaining 28 are not all failing authorities. The hon. Gentleman asked about the intervention role of the taskforce, but it was not set up as an intervention mechanism. That can be achieved in other ways. The taskforce was set up to work in partnership with local authorities either with weaknesses or a real commitment to improve. It is entirely appropriate that the taskforce works with both. Where authorities are clearly failing—as with the zero-star councils—we must do more. That is why we spelled out what would happen with zero-starred councils: direct contact with the chief inspector of the social services inspectorate; the production of a performance improvement plan; close monitoring by social services inspectors of the ability to translate that plan into effective action; and external assistance to effect the improvements. We also expected further improvement by November; otherwise, further action would be necessary. Both approaches have a rationale, but they are different and it benefits neither approach to confuse them.
The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham asked what the taskforce was attempting to do in its work with councils. It is invited in to councils and works in partnership to produce a development plan for adoption and permanence practice. The taskforce believes that key issues must be tackled to produce the maximum impact on the councils. In some cases, those criteria need to be in existence already. They include: the state of council readiness for working with the taskforce; the commitment of councillors and senior management; the extent to which planning for permanence features in the underlying attitudes of managers and practitioners; the quality and relevance of plans for children who may be in long-term placements but
Column Number: 036whose needs may not be sufficiently focused on; the quality and contents of information systems for tracking the progress of children; the way in which feedback is used to monitor and improve practice, including, for example, the way in which managers and members are involved in the process; the effectiveness of professional supervision and the quality assurance role of adoption panels at casework and systems level; and the recognition that adoption as an option is integral to the process of child care planning and practice. Those are some of the criteria, and perhaps attributes, of authorities that make it appropriate or useful for the taskforce to work with them.
The hon. Gentleman also asked about scrutiny and partially answered the question by mentioning the annual report produced by the taskforce. It is available for everyone to see the progress that has been made, and at the end of its work with phase 1 authorities, the taskforce left questionnaires asking what the authorities felt that the taskforce had contributed. Those were returned and evaluated, and have informed the work of the taskforce in the second phase. They will also inform our work to evaluate how we can use the taskforce further.
The important point is that the taskforce is part of the Government's push to ensure that we get better practice in adoption and the promotion of permanence for children. I hope that Committee members will feel able to support the special grant report and that this opportunity to debate it will mean that when they read the taskforce's annual report, they will be pleased about their part in ensuring that it was financed this year.
Question put and agreed to.
Committee rose at nineteen minutes to Seven o'clock.
The following Members attended the Committee:
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