Children Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): I tabled amendments Nos. 130 and 131 because I wanted to introduce exactly the kind of additional clarity that the hon. Lady mentioned. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham that the clause is quite wide. I also broadly agree with the Minister: she says that there are additional means of redress for individuals in such circumstances, and there certainly may be. The problem, of course, is that such means of redress are sometimes not very quick. For example, taking a local authority to an ombudsman does not necessarily provide a remedy. In my constituency, an ombudsman case against the local authority was won by my constituents in the last century, and has still not been resolved by the local authority to the satisfaction of those residents.

We are talking about children having access to an additional means of legal redress, but—and this is my concern—parents and professionals have a difficult job as it is, and I do not wish to see that job made more difficult. That is why I have tabled the amendments in such a form. Amendment No. 131 would prevent assistance being given in actions against individuals, while permitting actions against authorities—a

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reasonable balance to draw. Amendment No. 130 states that the child has to be desirous of the course of action pursued, which is also a reasonable requirement.

Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe) (Lab): I want to express some sympathy with the general objectives of the clause as it stands, although I plan to vote for the amendment. The difficulty seems to be that if we open the possibility of the commissioner intervening in individual cases in this way, we will not get the rapid response to which the hon. Gentleman referred. On the contrary, we will have to equip the commissioner with a large staff to deal with cases in a way that will duplicate the methods of other bodies, which would probably not be in the child's interests.

I would have some sympathy with the provision of some kind of opportunity for the commissioner to intervene in cases where he or she considers it to be in the public interest and feels that there has been a systemic breakdown. However, I do not see that in the clause as it stands, and I plan to support the amendment.

Margaret Hodge: Let me deal with what the commissioner can do, because I hope that that will give some comfort to my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Dr. Palmer) and others. The commissioner can and will look at complaints systems, so that if, in the course of his work, he finds that a particular system is not working in the interests of children in general—that will come out of specific cases—he can make appropriate recommendations. Where there is systemic failure, one would expect him to review the workings of a particular complaints mechanism.

Listening hard to the views expressed by Members in the House of Lords, we introduced clause 4, which will give the commissioner the power to pursue an individual case where he believes that that case has wider public policy ramifications and to pursue it would not be duplicating work done elsewhere. In such particular instances, there are sufficient safeguards in the system so that if systems are failing, or a case emerges with wider public interests, the commissioner will be able to intervene.

I come to the issues raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre and the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke). The matter goes to the heart of where we may disagree. We are establishing a commissioner whose prime purpose will be not the policing of individual complaints but to consider all areas of interest to children across the public, private and voluntary sectors, and central and local government, to see whether children's interests are promoted in relation to the five outcomes that we have translated into a legislative form in the Bill.

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The commissioner is not a repository of last resort. We deliberately set the Bill up so that he or she did not fulfil that function. Again, I will take the hon. Lady's example of the suicide cases. The Bill's purpose is to provide what I describe as the legislative spine to ensure that those working with children work better

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together around the needs of the child and intervene earlier. Time will tell how well the Bill and other reforms work, but if we are successful, one result will be fewer suicides and tragedies such as those that have occurred in the past. That is the purpose of what we are doing. It is a question not of investigating or acting when there have been suicides but of providing the infrastructure to ensure that they do not occur.

I want now to deal with the issues raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre. I recently visited Feltham because of a discussion about whether an additional service should be provided to the young offenders held there. The thing that struck me in my visit was that many of the young people there have a huge range of professionals concerned with them. Each young person probably has an educational welfare officer, because they have probably truanted. They may have a drug problem so someone from a drug action team may be working with them. Someone from the youth justice system will certainly work them, as might someone from the education service. They probably also have a social worker because they are in care or at risk or there is a potential for harm.

It is not a question of there not being sufficient professionals already working with such children with the purpose of protecting them and promoting their best interests. Adding yet another layer and yet another individual with those responsibilities will not improve the quality of the work that is undertaken by the existing professionals working with those young people. We should put our focus on the existing professionals to ensure that tragedies do not occur, not simply add another layer.

Mr. Dawson: I accept everything that my right hon. Friend says. Of course a wide variety of professionals work with young people in young offenders institutions. However, as she could check today with the chair of the Youth Justice Board, the fact is that some young people within the youth justice system fall into the gaps between the Prison Service, the health service and social services. There are exceptionally needy children in those situations, and they are precisely the children whose sometimes extremely complex needs are not met. That is why we need a power in the Bill as expressed in subsection (7).

Margaret Hodge: I have huge respect for my hon. Friend, but I disagree with that. The purpose of the powers that we are putting in clauses 7 and 8 is precisely to strengthen the co-operation between all the professionals working with children and young people and to strengthen the duties placed on them. It is that that should better prevent young people from falling through the net. It will not always do that, but it will work better than simply saying that there is final recourse to yet another system.

Mr. Turner: Is not the problem that so many professionals are involved but no individual takes responsibility? Is the right hon. Lady clear that an individual professional is taking lead responsibility for a child in such circumstances?

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Margaret Hodge: There appears to be a consensus here. One problem is that in many past instances there has not been a lead professional. There are several elements of the reforms, and two are relevant in this case. First, we should try to develop a common assessment framework so that all professionals who work with a child or young person do so within the same context and with the same information—specialist information if necessary. Secondly, there ought to be a lead professional for each child or young person with needs. Those are two elements of our reform agenda that are not necessarily encompassed in legislation but that I have often spoken about in the past.

We are discussing with local authorities and other agencies situations in which, as the hon. Gentleman said, it would be better to have a lead professional. I always give the example of a recent case when I visited in her home an eight or nine-year-old girl with severe physical disabilities. She was being educated in a mainstream school, and much of the system was working well for her, but her mother told me that she had had 18 separate assessments—18 different people had come to see her in the previous three months. The mother, who was her main carer, was spending more time managing the assessments and the professionals than focusing on the most important thing, which is supporting her young child.

Mr. Turner: I am very grateful for that response, but one problem is that that leadership role of a single individual is not, as the Minister says, in the Bill.

Margaret Hodge: It does not need to be.

Mr. Turner: I am clear that an individual can take responsibility despite the fact that it is not a legal requirement, but I am not sure how they can be required to do so.

Margaret Hodge: We are placing in the framework of the Bill duties to co-operate and to protect and safeguard. The Bill will also require local authorities to establish the new post of director of children's services to bring together services in local government that meet children's needs. We are developing a common assessment framework for those who work with children to use. When we—

The Chairman: Order. I suggest to the Minister that we are moving into the territory of social services. Can I try and bring the debate back to subsection (7)?

Margaret Hodge: You are absolutely correct, Mr. Benton. I will be happy to pursue that conversation with the hon. Gentleman outside the Committee if he shows an interest.

May I deal with the issue of vexatious complaints? One cannot assess what is a legitimate or a vexatious complaint until it has been made and considered. As hon. Members will be aware, if a complaint proves to be vexatious, it can be struck out during the complaints process or legal and judicial processes. There is no way of legislating to prevent vexatious complaints without intervening in the right of individuals to pursue complaints that could be

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legitimate. In all instances, we are trying to find proper and appropriate support for professionals involved and to speed up the system so that distress and anxiety are mitigated as much as possible. It is difficult to balance the right of individuals to pursue complaints with the fact that a few individuals will abuse that right and pursue vexatious complaints.

I hope that the Government amendment can be agreed and the others can be left.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 14, Noes 3.

Division No. 3]

Coaker, Mr. Vernon
Fitzsimons, Mrs. Lorna
Hodge, Margaret
Irranca-Davies, Huw
Ladyman, Dr. Stephen
Loughton, Tim
McDonagh, Siobhain
Mole, Chris
Munn, Ms Meg
Palmer, Dr. Nick
Tami, Mark
Taylor, Ms Dari
Touhig, Mr. Don
Turner, Mr. Andrew

Brooke, Annette
Dawson, Mr. Hilton
Williams, Mr. Roger

Question accordingly agreed to.

Amendment made: No. 173, in

    clause 2, page 2, line 36, leave out 'rights and'.—[Margaret Hodge.]

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