Adoption and Children Bill

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Clause 112

Care plans

Tim Loughton: I beg to move amendment No. 252, in page 63, line 11, at end insert

    'and reference should be made to all relevant departments within that authority.'.

This is a small, probing amendment, and I am sure that we can dispatch it more quickly than we did previous amendments. Care orders, which we support, should take into account all local authority departments and not assume that the only department involved is social services. Several briefings submitted to the Committee made that point, including that of Barnardo's.

The social services department is often regarded as the only department that deals with care orders, and it is considered that the remit of those care orders does not go beyond that department. However, the local authority as a whole has a corporate parenting responsibility for the child under a care order, so the effects of that care order should entail the education department of a local authority—[Interruption.] I think that we have the agreement of Labour Members. Such involvement is especially necessary when dealing with learning difficulties, which is why we seek to add the requirement that reference should be made to all relevant departments in the appropriate authority. That would mean going beyond the social services department to deal with education, and possibly housing and other matters. I believe that there is a requirement to define duties of local authorities across boundaries, when a cross-boundary placement is involved. That is the thrust of the amendment.

The British Association of Social Workers raised another consideration: apparently, the requirement for a care plan as worded in the clause will also apply if the local authority applies for a supervision order. In that circumstance, the local authority would not be responsible for the child's care. Will the Minister clear up that anomaly?

Jacqui Smith: The clause is concerned with making plans for a child while care proceedings are pending, when a care order is in force. Such planning is through the drawing up of a care plan by the responsible local authority in consultation with the child, his parents and other important agencies in his life. The purpose of the plan is to set out in writing how the child's welfare should be safeguarded and promoted. It is designed to prevent drift. It is designed to prevent drift—[Interruption.] The provision is very important, so I thought it was worth repeating. It

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should help to focus work with the families and child. The plan will set out objectives for the placement, how they will be met and in what time scales. The plan is then revisited and, if necessary, revised and updated at each of the child's statutory reviews to ensure that his or her needs are continually monitored, and that work with the child and family continues to meet those needs.

The requirement for the court to consider a care plan prepared by the local authority when making a care order is in effect already entrenched in local authority and court practices, through case law and guidance. However, a recent judgment by the Court of Appeal in the case of Re:W and W&B highlighted that children's fundamental human rights can be breached by the non-implementation of a care plan. As part of the Government's response to that judgment, and given that the making of a full care order is a fundamental intervention by the court into a child's article 8 rights—the respect for private and family life rights—we consider it desirable to ensure that care plans that provide for the future of such children have a basis in primary legislation.

The clause therefore amends section 31 of the Children Act 1989, to provide 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. It also inserts a new section 31A into the 1989 Act, to place a duty on the local authority to prepare a care plan within a time scale set by the court. The authority must also keep the plan under review while the application is pending and once an order has been made and remains in force. Regulations made under new section 31(3A) will set out how the plan is to be drawn up and the information to be included. The clause strengthens the requirement on local authorities, which will ensure that such significant intervention in a child's family life is the subject of proper planning that has a statutory basis and is regulated so that intervention is proper and proportionate.

The hon. Gentleman's amendment is aimed at ensuring joined-up working on care plans in councils with social services responsibilities. All hon. Members would agree that it is important that such working occurs, so I have some sympathy with the intention behind the amendment. Care planning is crucial in the preparation of a local authority's application to court for a care order under section 31 of the 1989 Act, because the care plan explains how the proposed care order will be implemented to achieve specific outcomes for the child.

Care planning is so important that local authority circular LAC(99)29 sets out clearly that the care plan presented by the local authority is

    ''intended to be an authoritative statement made in good faith about the child's needs, the best way of responding to those needs, and the detailed arrangements setting out how the local authority will provide services to promote and protect the child's welfare whilst he or she is the subject of the care order . . . That commitment may require input from a range of services and may have far-reaching resource implications. These will always include the social services but in many cases may also involve an input

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    from health and education. If this is the case, an agreement should have been reached with these agencies in respect of services included in the care plan.''

The Government obviously consider it extremely important for different departments in the local authority to work together in drawing up a care plan, which is why the guidance on the subject spells that out so clearly. However, it is equally clear that it may be as important to involve services and agencies outside the local authority, such as the relevant health service bodies or even another local authority. Such involvement would not be covered by the amendment, which might therefore inadvertently serve to weaken the expectations on bodies other than the local authority itself.

Primary legislation would not be the right place to impose requirements on different local authority departments to consult each other when drawing up a primary care plan. Instead, we shall issue guidance to councils with social services responsibilities. That will probably take the form of a circular to update LAC(99)29, setting out best practice and repeating the terms of LAC(99)29 on agreements with other agencies.

On the hon. Gentleman's point about supervision orders, the provision applies only to care orders. If he wants further information about why that is the case, I shall be willing to send it to him. In the light of that explanation, however, I hope that he will withdraw the amendment.

6.30 pm

Tim Loughton: I am grateful to the Minister for that detailed response, although had she been performing on ''Just a Minute'', the buzzers would have been red raw because of her deviation, hesitation and repetition.

I agree that the thrust of the amendment is to ensure joined-up working between the relevant departments. The Minister rightly said that joined-up working could go beyond the parameters of the departments in the responsible local authority, and that is certainly true of local health provision.

I said that the amendment was probing, and the Minister assured the Committee that the necessary requirements are spelled out extensively in guidance. On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 112 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

New Clause 9

Registration of private foster parents

    'For section 69 of the 1989 Act (Power to prohibit private fostering) there is substituted—

    69(1) Every local authority shall keep a register of persons who act as private foster parents within their area.

    (2) A local authority shall not register any person as a private foster parent unless it is satisfied that he is fit to act as a private foster parent.

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    (3) The Secretary of State shall by regulations make provision as to the considerations to which a local authority is to have regard in reaching a decision as to whether to register a person as a private foster parent.

    (4) A local authority shall cancel the registration of any person under subsection (1) if:

    (a) it appears to them that the circumstances of the case are such that they would be justified in refusing to register that person as a private foster parent;

    (b) the care provided by that person for any privately fostered child is, in the opinion of the authority, inadequate having regard to the needs of that child; or

    (c) the premises in which any privately fostered child is or would be accommodated are not suitable for that purpose.

    (5) No person shall act as a private foster parent unless he is registered under subsection (1).

    (6) A person who contravenes subsection (5) shall be guilty of an offence.

    (7) A person guilty of an offence under subsection (6) shall be liable on summary conviction to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 6 months, or to a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale, or to both.

    (8) A person aggrieved by the refusal of a local authority to register him as a private foster parent may appeal to the court in accordance with paragraph 8 of Schedule 8 to this Act.''.'.—[Mr. Shaw.]

    Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford): I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

New clause 9 is in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre and the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy. It would replace section 69 of the Children Act, which provides for the inspection of privately fostered children. It would provide better protection for a vulnerable group of children and allow parents to obtain information so that they could make informed choices about whom they placed their children with. I shall examine the current legislation, discuss why it needs replacing and detail what the new clause would do.

Section 69 relates to the private fostering of children up to 16 years old or, where they have special needs or are disabled, up to 18 years old. Such children are cared for by someone other than their relatives, which means their grandparents, siblings, step-parents, blood aunts and uncles or other persons with parental responsibility. The Act places a duty on the parent or the carer to notify the intention to place a child. The number of children that a private foster carer can look after is limited to three. Regulations require local authorities regularly to visit children and their private foster carers to satisfy themselves that the children's welfare is promoted and that they are safeguarded.

In the landmark report ''People Like Us'' on the review of safeguards for children who live away from home, Sir William Utting, chairman of the review said:

    ''It was plain to the review that private fostering was among the least controlled and the most open to abuse of all environments in which children lived away from home.''

We should think about the environments in which children live away from home—residential homes in the private and public sectors, private schools and foster care homes in the local authority and independent sectors. There are many scenarios, but for children who are privately fostered, such places are among the most dangerous. While there, they will be

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more open to abuse, because we know that determined abusers will seek out places where controls and external scrutiny are weak.

During his presentation of the social services White Paper, the then Secretary of State for Health, my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson), talked of our responsibility to protect children. We cannot blame local authorities or adoption agencies for past failings: we all have a responsibility. Whatever our position—as Members of Parliament, Governments of all political persuasions, councillors, the neighbour who chooses to turn his head and not report something—we share that responsibility. That is what the Bill is about. We are here today to promote the welfare of children, and to safeguard those who are vulnerable. The Department believes—it has had about 12 years to consider the matter—that the present law is sufficient to allow local authorities to inspect privately fostered children, and that it is the responsibility of local authorities to do so. I wonder whether local authorities have the tools properly to do that job.

My starting position is, of course, that the Government are right. My good colleague the Minister, too, is always right. However, occasionally—just once in a while—there might be a seed of doubt about a particular policy. Perhaps there is a seed of doubt about section 69 of the Children Act. I hope that there is a seed of doubt in my hon. Friend's mind, and I hope that it will grow during the next few minutes. Let us go back to 1871.

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