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It is worrying that a duty already exists in law but is not being followed. What can we achieve through guidance that will ensure that that duty is met? If local authorities are already flouting the law, how will we ensure that consideration is given to placing children with family and friends? That relates to the previous point, because without clear duty guidance and monitoring, some local authorities—not all by any means—will find their way around the measures, which are intended to benefit the children and young people involved, and therefore the wider community as well.

I welcome many of the Government’s measures, and I look to my hon. Friend the Minister for further clarification on such points when she responds.

Siobhain McDonagh: Unlike my right hon. Friend, I am not so much impressed by the contributions from Members on the Committee as fearful about whether they will accept some comments from a complete novice in this regard.

I come to the matter after having my ears firmly bashed by Merton Mencap only last week about guidance and legislation from Government that is not fully implemented, or not implemented in the spirit intended, by local authorities. Like many hon. Members, I spent a long time as a councillor—in the London borough of Merton—before becoming an MP. London boroughs are particularly hard-pressed with regard to accommodation. My experience is that there is generally war between social services and housing about who gets access to what. Although new clause 19 rightly argues that every local authority

the devil is in the word “appropriate”. What is appropriate to social services is often not appropriate to housing.

My experience as a local MP is that those who wish to be foster carers, who might be friends or family members of the children concerned, are often prevented from doing so because their accommodation is not large enough to take on a number of siblings together, although, as a layperson, one would imagine that that might be the most appropriate option. In my local authority, the criteria for housing register and transfer applications do not take fostering issues into account at all, but are based only on current accommodation with current family and medical needs. A person’s desire to become a foster carer does not therefore raise them up the list, making it less likely that social services will consider that they might provide good foster care. In spite of the pleadings of social services to that end, most housing departments, because of the pressure on them, are unwilling to concede to further demands.

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I am also struck by the significance of the word “appropriate” in relation to housing for young people who have been in care, and the suggestion that most young people leave their foster homes at 16 or 17 to go into independent accommodation. I would argue that few 16 or 17-year-olds, whether they have been in foster care and had a difficult childhood and adolescence or whether they have had the most fantastic family background, would take well to independent accommodation on their own, especially on some of the large estates in which young people are housed in London. As for the one-bedroomed flats available in my borough where such young people are likely to be housed, one would not want to see them housed there at 30 or 40, let alone at 16 or 17.

While I quite understand that most 16 or 17-year-olds would love flats of their own, that is not necessarily the “appropriate” or the right route. It is, however, the answer that local authority housing departments often come up with, because it is easier than providing more spacious accommodation to enable young people to stay with their foster carers. I should like Ministers to establish, in the guidance that will be provided if the new clauses are passed, how we can beef up the word “appropriate” and ensure that young people are not given the least attractive and least wanted accommodation.

I should also like to know how we will finance that. All the foster carers I have known have been amazed at the amount of cash that is available to young people and not available to their own children. That too motivates the desire of young people who are being fostered to seek independent or separate accommodation, against their own long-term interests. I think that, when viewing local authorities as a corporate whole, we should appreciate that the departments that make up a local authority often have very different drivers and very different problems.

Mr. Edward Timpson (Crewe and Nantwich) (Con): Having served on the Committee, I continue to welcome the thrust of the Bill. It is certainly a step in the right direction.

I want to comment on two of the new clauses, beginning with new clause 24. There is still an anomaly that is failing vulnerable children. As recently as April 2005, Mr. Justice Munby said in a ruling that local authorities’ plans for looked-after children in prison were “little more than worthless”. We must think about the level at which we start, and what we need to do to achieve what such children deserve.

We know from speaking to children in custody—and I know from my experience of dealing with children in the youth justice system in Cheshire—that they value the relationship that they have with a social worker, particularly the individual meetings to discuss private issues that they cannot share with anyone else. Maintaining the stability of such support is essential.

At present there are two separate organisations, the Youth Justice Board and the looked-after children’s services, which are not working together in planning the future of children in care and in custody but working in parallel, and the youth justice system dominates the process. Those who speak to social workers will find that many are very confused about their role in relation to children in care and custody. We need to put that right, and to give social workers a key role in children’s
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lives while they are in custody. They need to fit seamlessly into the process, and to work along with the youth justice system to ensure positive outcomes for children in care and custody, rather than the poor outcomes that we are currently seeing. At present, we see placement breakdowns after custody, high reoffending rates and missed education and employment opportunities, often when children are at the most critical stage of their childhood.

I urge the Minister to consider that issue carefully. The new clause gives the Government a chance to put the anomaly right, and to ensure that the children who, in many respects, are perhaps the most vulnerable in the custody system have the support that they require and deserve as looked-after children, which is what they should be. The section 20 voluntary accommodation must be put into the same category for looked-after children in custody as for all other children who are placed under section 31 care orders. The children require that, and we need to deliver.

Mr. Kidney: I do not disagree with anything that the hon. Gentleman has said, but when I went to see the Staffordshire Safeguarding Children Board, I saw a seamless service between the child protection people from the social services of the local authority and the youth offending team members. Is that his experience in Cheshire?

Mr. Timpson: There are YOT teams and children's services teams that work well together, and Staffordshire is a good example. In Cheshire, there have been improvements in that regard but they have been achieved by the efforts of those services, rather than as a result of their being required to work together. It is the duty of the Government to ensure that those services work seamlessly in the best interests of the child, rather than the two agencies trying to work together off their own bats. I take what the hon. Gentleman says at face value. That good practice needs to be spread around all local authorities and the best way to do that is through this legislation.

4.30 pm

May I speak briefly on new clause 26 about support to families and friends? Despite the improvements made through the public law outline to involve families with children who are on the edge of care, there is still the problem of children who tip over into care before the family are involved in the process. In a case in which I was involved it was not until the guardian who had been appointed during care proceedings stepped in towards the end of those proceedings to call a family group conference that it became apparent that the extended family, working as a unit, could provide the necessary level of care and support for those children, who otherwise would have been taken into long-term fostering or into an adoptive placement.

We need to ensure that social workers work with families from an earlier stage to identify where the problems are, and to ensure that members of the extended family understand the nature of the problems within the family with which the local authority is dealing. In that way, we can act earlier and prevent a last-minute effort to bring about a family solution to the problem. Therefore, I support new clause 26 and urge the Minister
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to think carefully about how that will ensure that children who are on the edge of care do not tip over the edge unnecessarily.

Sarah McCarthy-Fry: We have heard a lot about this large and varied group of amendments. To respond to all the points will be quite a challenge, but I will do my best. As I said earlier, the amendments relate to three different groups of children, including those children placed in accommodation arranged under the health and education legislation. At the outset, I explained the package of measures that the Government are taking, including through amendments, to improve services for that vulnerable group. As I said, that package was developed with the Every Disabled Child Matters campaign, which has welcomed the Government's approach.

When we were discussing those amendments, the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) had a question about the notification of placements made by health and education bodies and how we were going to ensure that that happened properly. New guidance relating to that provision will set out the expectations on the authorities when children are placed outside their own responsible authority. The hon. Lady is right that we need to ensure that local authorities are aware of their new duties and that they happen on the ground. I look forward to working on the implementation plan because legislation is just the guidance and the start of improving practice on the ground.

Both the hon. Lady and the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) asked questions about visits by social workers. The hon. Lady asked whether the visits would be conducted by a qualified social worker with experience of working with disabled children. We want to ensure that those visitors have the right skills and experience to provide the support that children need. That is why the Bill lists a requirement that local authorities satisfy themselves that the individual who makes the visit has the necessary skills and experience. It is our policy intention that it should be qualified social workers who carry out those visits, but we accept that there may be circumstances where that is not possible, so we do not want to introduce regulations with which we know that local authorities will be unable to comply. That is an issue for guidance and I commit to consult interested parties before we finalise it. My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) also wanted the role of the visitor to be fleshed out, and I hope I can satisfy her that we will be able to do that in the guidance.

The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham spoke about the availability of professionals and the shortage of social workers and asked what we were going to do about that. We have commissioned the Children’s Workforce Development Council to address a number of measures that we hope will enable us to recruit social workers faster and to hold on to those we have.

On looked-after children and those living with family, friends and carers, the proposed amendments try to tackle issues of practice. I understand the concerns but I want to demonstrate that we plan to address them at a more practical level. I should also like to remind hon. Members that much of what is asked for in the amendments is already in the Bill. Amendment No. 13 relates to placement stability, which is essential if looked-after
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children are to thrive and achieve. It is particularly important that we minimise disruptions through the two years of key stage 4, especially if they also lead to changes of school. Most children who are looked after for more than a year stay in the same placement. However, we want to increase the proportion of children in long-term stable care placements because we know that these lead to the best outcomes. We also want to reduce further the minority of looked-after children who have more than three placements each year. Both of the measures are part of the national indicator set for local authorities.

Clause 9 sets out the key considerations in determining the most appropriate placement for the child and includes the specific requirement that the local authority must ensure, so far as is reasonably practical, in all circumstances of the case that the placement does not disrupt the child’s educational training at any stage in the child’s educational career. The provision goes much further than the proposed amendment as it is not limited to disruption in year 11. We are also taking powers to make regulations to require a local authority to take prescribed steps before making any decision concerning a child’s placement if he or she is at key stage 4, which includes years 10 and 11. We will use the power to require a full statutory review of the child’s care plan whenever any unplanned change is proposed that would have the effect of disrupting their education, including consultation with the designated teacher at those schools.

We will also make it clear in the new statutory guidance to independent reviewing officers that part of their new role will be to provide a real challenge to social workers’ placement decisions, including changes of placement, to ensure that they are made in the child’s best interests and that the child has been properly involved in the decision.

However, we must ensure that the target of no more than three placements in one year does not create perverse incentives. The absence of placement breakdown does not automatically mean that the child is happy and in the best placement. It may be important for some children to be moved into a short-term treatment programme as a means to enabling them to find permanence in the future. For other children, a placement move may be about a trial return home to parents while on a care order. Finally, placement changes are already required to be recorded within the child’s care plan. I do not accept that the requirement for a written explanation of placement moves as proposed in the amendment will add anything to the current requirements.

Amendment No. 14 is on a similar theme, as it seeks to increase the availability of foster care placements by ensuring that children’s services are working with their colleagues in housing services to develop a strategy to maximise the availability. Many hon. Members spoke about that link. A potential benefit of an authority having sufficient foster placements would be a reduced risk of needing to disrupt education or training. Local authorities need to think strategically about the need for placements in their area and how best to address any shortages. That is why we have included clause 10, which places a new general duty on local authorities to take steps to secure, so far as reasonably practical, sufficient accommodation within their area that meets the needs of the children they look after.

Let me take this opportunity to put on record the fact that the duty to secure sufficient accommodation applies
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to children’s homes, foster care placements and other arrangements, such as supported lodgings and semi-independent accommodation, an issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDongah). In order to discharge this new duty, local authorities will have to, among other things, conduct assessments of local need, both existing and potential, and establish the extent to which those needs can be met through existing placements. They must then take action to address shortages of any particular type of accommodation in their area. My hon. Friend also raised an issue about disabled facilities grants, and the child health strategy, which we will publish shortly, will recognise the importance of joint working and ensuring disabled facilities grants are seen as part of the overall resources for children, and not just in a housing department silo.

Helen Southworth: My hon. Friend made a very welcome statement about accommodation and the duty on local authorities to make other arrangements to ensure they have suitable and sufficient accommodation. Will she confirm that she will work on a national standards set for that accommodation so that local authorities can indeed ensure that other accommodation is suitable and adequate?

Sarah McCarthy-Fry: Our current consultation on guidance and regulations is in part addressing that particular issue about the suitability of accommodation and trying to set down what that means in practice.

As I have said, in order to discharge this new duty, local authorities will have to conduct assessments. We will provide statutory guidance on the steps required by local authorities that will in particular emphasise the need for children’s services to work with providers and all relevant partners, especially housing and planning services to maximise available accommodation within the area.

Mrs. Humble: For some small local authorities, such as Blackpool which is a unitary authority, it can be difficult to provide the range of accommodation they need for young people. Will my hon. Friend therefore look to ensure that local authorities work with their neighbouring authorities so that if they cannot provide the accommodation directly within their boundary it will at least be provided within the neighbourhood and not 100 miles away?

Sarah McCarthy-Fry: That is something we will have to consider, and that was a problem with the amendment because not all authorities that provide children’s services also have housing services under their jurisdiction. We must take it into account that there are unitary authorities who do both, but in many cases housing is provided by district authorities and children’s services by the larger metropolitans.

The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham suggested it might be a probing amendment, so I hope I might have said enough for him to feel able to withdraw it.

I now want to respond to new clause 26, which proposes a new support service for kinship carers and goes much further than can be justified. It would give a blank cheque to kinship carers, requiring local authorities to provide financial support to arrangements where the
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local authority may have had no prior involvement with the child or his family, and even if the local authority considered the placement to be unsuitable or had concerns about the carer’s capacity to care for the child. Section 17 of the Children Act 1989 already places a general duty on local authorities to safeguard and promote the welfare of children in need in their area by providing a range and level of services appropriate to those children’s needs. If it is consistent with their duty to safeguard and promote the child’s welfare, the local authority must provide services to promote the upbringing of the child by his family. Family and friends carers must be considered for services under section 17 where the child is a child in need—in other words, their health or development is at risk—in exactly the same way that parents should be considered for services.

Clause 9 replaces section 23 of the 1989 Act with proposed new section 22C. It requires the local authority to consider placements in the following order of priority: first, the parent; secondly, the preference must be given to placement with a relative, friend or other person connected with the child who is a local authority foster parent. I can assure the House that our care planning regulations will continue the current emergency provision allowing temporary approvals pending full assessment of the relative’s suitability to foster. We expect more relative carers to receive financial and other support from local authorities under section 17, where that is needed, but we must be very careful not to undermine our policies on early intervention by offering greater support to those caring for a relative’s child than to parents who are struggling to care for their own child. At all costs, we must not introduce perverse incentives for parents to renege on their responsibilities to children, or for families to collude in alternative care arrangements because there is a perceived financial benefit. Family and friends carers are entitled to a range of other financial supports and benefits such as child benefit and child tax credit, both of which are unaffected by any payments made under section 17, on broadly the same terms as parents.

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