Adoption and Children Bill

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Tim Loughton: We remain to be convinced of that and await the Parliamentary Secretary's comments on what remarkable metamorphosis has taken place in the past six weeks, although she did not claim that in response to a question earlier this afternoon. Then, she admitted that the consultation that should have happened in the first place was now taking place, as many hon. Members would agree.

I spoke to members of a local social services department about the Bill and the problems of CAFCASS. They commented that CAFCASS had shown no sense of commitment in engaging with the guardians. They said also that the Government wanted an employed service and by doing so risked getting inexperienced people from local authorities to take over the positions as a lot of experienced people were in the process of heading out of the door. No doubt training can be provided to bring those people towards a position approaching the experience of their predecessors, but it seems a great loss and an event that could have been avoided with a little more sensitivity from the Lord Chancellor's Department. It is a double blow, because people from local authority social services departments who are desperately needed to deal with other parts of the Bill will now have to make up the shortfall in CAFCASS.

We received many submissions on the subject, and I will quote a letter from a children's guardian. She said:

    ''As a group of Guardians, we are concerned that we were not fully involved in the consultation process that preceded the inception of Cafcass. We were shocked when we were informed in July that we had two weeks to sign a contract of employment that would effectively mean that we could not undertake our duties to the Courts and children . . . It surely is an inauspicious start for an organisation set up to advise and support the Courts, that within its first few months, it ends up on the wrong side of the judicial process, found to have acted unlawfully in relation to practitioners, whose service it needs to meet its obligations to children. This is hardly likely to inspire confidence in CAFCASS and its practitioners, or in the Family Justice system as a whole. It may not be coincidental that the only member of the Judiciary on the CAFCASS board has now resigned his position . . . To what extent is CAFCASS publicly accountable for its actions? What is to be made of it defending itself by arguing that it is not bound by promises of its predecessor or by statements of the Lord Chancellor to Members of Parliament . . . What is worrying to anyone who has a concern about parliamentary democracy, is that a public body should take the view that the Lord Chancellor's promises to an MP on its behalf, places no obligations upon it''—

witness the written answer that was quoted earlier. The letter continues:

    ''What then is the point of MPs writing to the Lord Chancellor and the ministers concerned, if CAFCASS considers itself unfettered by the response?''

That is pretty strong stuff from someone who wanted to get on with her job of being a guardian of the court and, to all accounts, did it rather well. She and many of her colleagues are now exceedingly disillusioned.

In the New Law Journal this week—it may or may not be hot off the press—an article on CAFCASS by a contributor, Richard White, reinforces the depth of the problems. He says that the chief executive of CAFCASS has taken the rap for the chaos and has been suspended from her post, as the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy said earlier. The Times quoted a probation service official saying

    ''She can be quite formidable and has a reputation for leaving a bit of a trail of destruction behind her.''

The article says that there is a large budget deficit, that start-up costs were high and that CAFCASS had gone backwards since its inception six months ago. CAFCASS is not a happy ship and, as the hon. Gentleman said, if it is not working, large parts of the Bill are doomed to the same fate, which will not be good for any of the people whom we are discussing. It is vital that the Bill is well financed and that the mechanisms and the processes of the law can be carried out by the existing systems. In the case of CAFCASS, there is a serious question mark over whether that can be achieved.

The hon. Gentleman is not asking for CAFCASS to be disbanded and for the whole edifice to be reconstructed in another guise; he is not asking for heads to roll large scale, or for it to be reorganised. We take comfort from the changes, and from the consultation that is taking place at long last. We remain to be convinced that the metamorphosis has been quite so complete in the past six weeks, and we ask the Minister to respond to the points made by the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre. Amendment No. 136 simply puts a duty on the service to lay before Parliament an annual report on its performance, staffing and matters related to the functions that the Bill bestows upon it. That sounds sensible to me, even without CAFCASS's problems. Given those problems, it sounds particularly sensible.

This morning, I drew analogies with the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000, which set up a new, powerful organisation to regulate the large and important financial services industry, because adoption is a large and important subject. There are safeguards within the FSA, although many of us thought that it had been given too much power. A reporting mechanism to the Chancellor, to Parliament and to other bodies in the House was identified but we would like it to have been clearer. Clear reporting mechanisms have been identified. It seems strange that the Bill should not automatically place on the service that is essential to the adoption functions that we are trying to institute a requirement to report its progress or lack of progress and its record to date to Parliament each year.

5.30 pm

The Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee reports annually, I believe, to the Treasury Select Committee. We set up reporting mechanisms for other important institutions, so it is only sensible that we should place a requirement on CAFCASS to lay an annual report before Parliament. It should not be provided unofficially to the Lord Chancellor's Department, with no publication requirement. The report should be no holds barred, with nothing taken out and nothing kept secret.

Surely it is right that we in this place should have the opportunity to debate such a report, especially if there are serious shortcomings in it. Producing an annual report and laying it before Parliament would give the House an opportunity to debate it if it saw fit to do so. Currently, CAFCASS is not required to report on the progress that it has made, certainly as regards its obligations and requirements in the Bill.

It would be wholly reasonable for CAFCASS to have to produce such a report; that would not be an enormous burden on the service. I am sure that the Lord Chancellor's Department requires it to report on progress in any case, so it is only right that the whole House should have the opportunity to judge whether that progress is sufficiently swift and substantial. An annual report to the House would be by far the best way of providing such an opportunity. On that basis, I very much hope that we can score a hat trick and that the Minister will agree that this reasonable amendment is needed.

The Chairman: Before the Parliamentary Secretary responds, I should point out that this has been a pretty wide-ranging debate. Only when the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham spoke was the term ''annual report'' mentioned twice. No other Member mentioned such a report, although it was the subject of the amendment. I allowed that because the points made were relevant, but I inform the Parliamentary Secretary that when the clause stand part debate is called, I shall be listening carefully for repetition. I hope that hon. Members will assist me in that regard.

Ms Rosie Winterton: I am glad that you said that, Mr. Stevenson.

Obviously, this has been a wide-ranging debate on the amendment. I understand hon. Members' concerns about CAFCASS, but the principle of bringing services together is right. That goes back to points made by my hon. Friends the Members for Lancaster and Wyre and for Sheffield, Heeley. Consultation carried out before the formation of CAFCASS pointed firmly in that direction.

I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley made a point about the advantages of being able to manage one service. We can bring together best practice, institute training that applies in all regions and bring in the benefits of information technology. Running a proper service that focuses on children is an important principle, in which most children's guardians, as well as many other professionals in the field, believe. We should accept that, and I am glad that the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy began by saying that he felt that that was probably the right way to go. It is important to ensure that the service works. It would be foolish of me to say that CAFCASS has had an easy first eight months. It has not, but we must remember that during that time it has brought together 114 separate local arrangements. At the same time, it has continued to provide existing services and to build up the new national service.

There is also no doubt that the continuing dispute with self-employed guardians has taken up much of the management's and board's time. It would be foolish not to admit that. The management and the board have some difficult decisions to make. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is aware that some difficulties have arisen because of the previous arrangements in which self-employed guardians could be employed by several different local authorities and work on an hourly basis.

There were strong indications that, when the service was brought together and there was, in effect, one employer, that would prove difficult. The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy is right in saying that that dispute, which to an extent is still unresolved, has dogged the first eight months. I hope that he will also recognise that, following the judicial review, the Lord Chancellor gave a statutory direction to CAFCASS to start consultation on the option of self-employment for guardians on 10 October.

That consultation will continue, and I may reassure the hon. Gentleman if I give some idea of how that will work. Self-employed guardians will have received a letter that invites their views on self-employment. CAFCASS has also accepted the proposals made by NAGALRO, which, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows, is the National Association of Guardians Ad Litem and Reporting Officers. NAGALRO proposes that an independent facilitator chair the consultation. That facilitator has been agreed, meetings have already taken place and more meetings have been diaried to ensure that the process keeps moving. The results of the consultation will be independently assessed. That has also been agreed with NAGALRO.

It must be restated that CAFCASS must reach an agreement that will meet Inland Revenue requirements, and it would be foolish to pretend otherwise. It is also important to stress that there are many employed guardians who would feel strongly if there were any suggestion that they had not acted independently or in the best interests of children because of their employment status. I urge hon. Members to bear that in mind when they consider whether children's guardians can continue to be independent if they are employed. We must remember that self-employed and other guardians were appointed by local authority panels. They may later have had to represent the children in situations of conflict with the local authority. In future, whether employed or self-employed, they will be given cases by a completely independent body. That is an important principle. As I said, employed guardians might have had strong feelings in the past about indications that they had not done their job properly; that should not happen in the future. Those committed people have worked in the best interests of children and will do so in the future, no matter what their employment status is.

I regularly meet the chairman of CAFCASS and receive weekly progress reports from him. I assure members of the Committee that we are determined to make the service work. We are convinced that it is the right answer and that it will be in the best interests of children. It is easy to look at past problems, but we want to look to the future. We are working closely with the board, and the management and board of CAFCASS are consulting the self-employed guardians. We must do all that we can to assist in developing a service that goes forward.

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