Children and Young Persons Bill [Lords]

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Kevin Brennan: It is our view that they will keep their human rights protections under the Bill. We will explore that in more detail as we consider the Bill further, but in our view there is no reason why their human rights should not be protected. We consider that social work practices will be a functional public authority. Arrangements with providers of social work services under the clause will be fundamentally different from the arrangements in the case of YL v. Birmingham city council, which is the source of the concerns. In that case, the majority of the House of Lords concluded that a private care home was not exercising functions of a public nature. That is the source of the concerns. In reaching that conclusion their Lordships lay great emphasis laid great emphasis on the fact that a private care home was not exercising any delegated statutory functions. In other words, there was no duty on the local authority to provide care and accommodation to Mrs. YL under section 21 of the National Assistance Act 1948. The authority’s statutory duty was to arrange for the provision of care and accommodation, and that duty had not been contracted out or delegated to the care home. However, the functions subject to arrangements under the clause will be functions of the local authority itself. Primary and secondary legislation imposes those functions, so their discharge, by social work practice providers, will be funded by the local authority. For those reasons, we strongly consider it to be absolutely clear that providers of social work practice will be discharging functions of a public nature. I hope that that reassures my hon. Friend.
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Other clauses in this part of the Bill provide context. Clause 2 restricts the functions that the local authority can delegate to social work practices. Those restrictions are important to ensure quality and focus in the services offered. In particular, the independent reviewing officer role will remain with the local authority: the IRO will have an important role to play in the social work practice model, as it is a mechanism whereby the local authority can quality assure the social work service provider in relation to individual cases.
Clause 3 confirms that the local authority can be accountable for the acts and omissions of a social work practice. I am sure that we will come on to that in more detail, as we go through the clauses.
Annette Brooke: Will the social work practices engage in preventive and family support work, as well as taking responsibility for the child once it has been taken into care?
Kevin Brennan: No. The intention is that social work practices will deal with children in care. The type of children whom we anticipate, and the report anticipated, will be looked after by social work practices are those who are in care and who may be likely to remain in care for a long time, because they are the ones most affected by the problems that we have identified of instability and change, including in the number of social workers that they face during their time in care.
Clause 4 provides for regulation of social work practices. It requires those who run SWPs to be registered with Her Majesty’s chief inspector of education, children’s services and skills and subject to regular inspection. It will also enable us to issue national minimum standards for social work practices and to make regulations under the Care Standards Act 2000 in respect of social work practices, as we have done in relation to other establishments and agencies covered by that Act.
Clause 5 is important because it provides that the local authority power to contract with providers of social work services in clause 1 is a social services function for the purposes of the Local Authority Social Services Act 1970. That means that the Secretary of State will be able to issue statutory guidance and give directions to the local authority about the use of the power.
Clause 6 is critical to our work on social work practices. It provides the context for clause 1 by allowing the social work practices set up under clause 1 to be piloted. The model’s operation needs to be tested before we can judge whether it will deliver significantly better outcomes for looked-after children, which is why genuine pilots are needed. We will ensure that they are proper trials so that comparisons can be made on a like-for-like basis. We need to support the set up of pilots, but it is not in the interests of looked-after children for us to prop up the pilots artificially, so that they can only succeed and not fail. We would be failing looked-after children if we did that.
We want to make rational decisions based on the pilots. We want to be innovative and do things in the true spirit of social work—a dedication to social progress and to being bold and ambitious for our looked-after children, which, after all, is the purpose of the Bill. We must be prepared to try out new ideas such as social work practices. On that basis, I commend clause 1 to the Committee.
Tim Loughton: Perhaps I can ask for your indulgence, Mr. Pope, given that in the first six clauses, amendments have been tabled only to clause 6. If I speak in general terms about these clauses, as the Minister did, we will be able to speed through part 1. I will identify some of the problems that social work practices aim to tackle, and then I have a list of questions about the detail for the Minister.
We agree in principle with the setting up and piloting of social work practices, so we want to engage constructively. Clause 1 gives local authorities the power to enter into arrangements to contract out their services and responsibilities. As I understand it, the arrangements will be similar to the way that GPs operate in GP practices or barristers in chambers in taking on work. We agree in principle because we desperately need to innovate.
Too often, social workers are seen as surrogate child snatchers. Too often, the first contact that a vulnerable family has with a social worker is the knock on the door to initiate care proceedings. Many of us would like to see social workers instead working constructively and preventively with vulnerable families at an early stage, doing everything possible to keep families together, rather than adding to the 61,000 children in care.
We must remember that the majority of children in the care system are returned to their families within a year. It is therefore particularly important that the social worker—preferably the same one throughout—establishes and maintains good relations with the child, who may have to go into care temporarily, and with the family to whom, hopefully, the child will return.
We welcome anything that will provide innovation and an antidote to the demotivation felt by many social workers. In parts of London and other inner-city areas vacancy rates for social workers are as high as 20 per cent. As our commission reported, many social workers complain about the excessive bureaucracy, which means that too many of them spend too much time in front of computer screens and filling in forms, rather than in front of children and families trying to sort out problems at the sharp end. They complain that they are too often reactive rather than proactive, and that they are demonised in the press.
An interesting report was produced by the children’s rights director in July 2006, which was all about the comments of children in the care system about social workers and the social work system. We should never forget to focus on the views of the children. The report outlined the sorts of problems that social worker practices will have to deal with. Typical comments were that a child’s social worker had moved them on when they were just settling down in a placement; that children should not have had to stop all contact with their birth families or have been split up from their friends; that social workers should not ignore the views and feelings of young children; that social workers kept changing; that social workers who were leaving were not good at passing information on to whoever took on the child; and that it was important that children got on with their social worker.
We must remember that young people in the care system have very little say on who their social worker is. That is an important consideration for social work practices. All those challenges are faced by social workers now, when they are attached to local authorities, in dealing with children in the care system. The problems will not go away just because we have a new structure of social work practices. Those practices are now being piloted.
A report was issued just last week by Ofsted on the views of parents of children in the care system on how the children were looked after, and more importantly on how they were being kept in touch in with them. As I said, the majority of those children will go back to their birth family or members of their extended family after a short spell in care. More than a quarter of parents said that they had not seen their child’s care plan, and some did not even know what a care plan was. A quarter did not know whether the council planned for their child to return home. What sort of a relationship is that, if parents do not know if there is a prospect of their child coming back home and what the family have to do to recreate a stable environment for the child to come back to? The report also showed that 44 per cent. of parents did not have a say in their child’s care plan, and 38 per cent. did not agree to the plan. Fifty nine per cent. of parents said that there had been no support from the local council to help to prevent their children from going into care in the first place. More than three quarters of parents said that they got no or not enough council support, including help with the child being returned to them.
There are serious problems facing both children in the care system and the families whence they come, and social workers. There are the usual problems of high staff turnover, staff being reactive not proactive, too much bureaucracy, money and staff flowing away from the front line, social workers being deprived of their autonomy, children coming into contact with too many social workers—there is a lack of continuity—and children not seeing their social workers often enough. Those are the problems facing social workers working for local authorities now. If we are to pilot a new form of social work practice, we need to be convinced that those new set-ups will acknowledge those problems and will be able to deal with them head-on and come up with solutions. At the moment that does not happen often.
Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the problems is cost? The cost may be different for those employed social workers to those in secondary accommodation. Can he explain how that will affect the composition?
Tim Loughton: My hon. Friend makes a good point. One of the questions I wish to ask the Minister is about how the finances will work out. It is important not to look at a charge or a social work practice in isolation. We must look at the overall cost of the child’s experience and the overall effect on all social work practices and social work departments within local authorities. We do not want Peter to rob Paul, and we do not want to see knock-on effects on other children. We do not want to see something beneficial happening for a child in a short intensive burst because there is extra finance available, only for that child then to slip back into some of the problems they experienced before. It is important we take an holistic approach and consider the social worker profession and practices and practitioners within local authorities.
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The bottom line must be the outcomes for children. I am concerned primarily with that, as I am sure that all of us in the Committee are. The structures are secondary to achieving the right results for children in the care system—the most vulnerable children of all—who are the subject of this welcome Bill.
I have sat in family courts, and my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich has made a profession in cases and I am sure will have seen this first hand. The last time, I sat in on several cases and had lunch and talked with the judge afterwards. He said that in every case that had come before him that morning, the social worker present was not the one who had started the case when he had first heard it weeks or months before. Interestingly, in almost every case in the court that I went to, the social worker was Australian and was actually a very good social worker. Many of them come over here, and we are grateful that they do, because there are many gaps in the profession, as we know. However in many cases, unfortunately, they are not going to be around for a long time. That lack of continuity is deeply worrying in an area where, above all, we need continuity and stability for vulnerable children and their families. Will social work practices provide greater continuity than the stressed and under pressure social work departments of local authorities do now?
There are big disparities within the system and between different local authorities. That is one of my biggest concerns. For example, if one looks at the records, one can find authorities where children have had had three or more placements within the previous 12 months. Three or more placements represents enormous upheaval for a vulnerable child who, in many cases, has come from unsettled and threatening backgrounds. Why is there such an enormous disparity between different authorities?
The latest figures that I have been able to get out of the Minister’s Department show that as of March 2007 in Cornwall, 23.5 per cent. of children had had three or more placements in the previous 12 months—almost a quarter had experienced the considerable turmoil of going into different foster parents, or residential or other care in the preceding 12 months. How can being moved that often contribute to reconstructing a degree of stability, such as being able to stay at the same school and with the same group of friends? I do not know why the turnover in placements was considerable in Cornwall in particular—it may have been an exceptional year. In Stoke-on-Trent the figure was 19.1 per cent. One imagines that the problem may be more severe in inner cities where there are difficulties recruiting social workers, but, in contrast, the figure for the London borough of Barnet was just 5.4 per cent. There will always be divergence between local authorities—they deal with different demographics and different challenges—but that is an enormous range of experiences.
One of the biggest challenges that the Government face is how to get greater conformity in achievement and, preferably, get nearer to the Barnet level of 5.4 per cent. Barnet has an excellent children’s services department: it invested in its children’s services and social workers five or six years ago and is now harvesting the benefits. Can the Minister assure me that social work practices will go some way to decreasing the enormous divergence of experience in those and the other statistics relating to the achievements and outcomes of looked-after children? Will the Minister target some of the worst or some of the best local authorities in that range as part of the nine pilots? I do not think that the prospective pilots have been named yet.
There are many other examples of good practice; I and other hon. Members mentioned some on Second Reading last week, so I will not go over that again. My point is that social work practices will not be the universal panacea to the problems of instability among the social work profession. We need to innovate and encourage the many voluntary organisations—NCH do a lot of preventive family support, which I mentioned last week and Community Service Volunteers do a fantastic volunteer social worker programme.
The Government tasked Professor Le Grand to chair the social care practices working group, which was established by the then Department of Education and Skills in November 2006. An eminent group of men and women served on that group, including Alistair Pettigrew, who was the director of children’s social care in Lewisham and a member of the Conservative party commission on social work, Lynne Berry, who was the chief executive of the General Social Care Council and has also made a contribution to our commission, and Paul Fallon, who was the head of children’s services in Barnet and to whom I am sure much of the credit is due for the excellent figures that I have just mentioned.
The social care practices working group recommended the preferred model of a professional partnership grouping of between six and 10 partners, the majority of whom should be social workers, and the clauses suggest that the Government have adopted that model. Interestingly, the group recommended that the payment arrangements would allow a fixed baseline amount to be paid to the social work practice by the local authority and that a bonus unit based should be based on the outcome that the social work practice achieves, presumably measured through the outcomes for the children. Again, further detail on how that will work would be useful, as they things come back to the financing of the practices, as my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight mentioned.
Clause 1 leaves the details of the commissioning arrangements to regulations, which we do not yet have. As so often happens in Public Bill Committees, we are grasping in the dark for what the regulations that will bring these provisions into force will look like.
I am grateful for your indulgence, Mr. Pope, while I was trying to set the scene. I think that that is important, but members of the Committee can be assured that I will not repeat the process for the remaining clauses. However, I have a few additional questions for the Minister. We want assurances that the pilots will be meaningful and not just be set up so that they can report and move seamlessly into being the norm across the country. I will be delighted if they are successful and have much to offer, but they are controversial and a number of concerns have been raised by professionals, local government and authorities about the knock-on effect that the pilots might have on existing local authority-led social work departments.
Will the Minister tell us how the pilots will be evaluated, so that they will not just be nodded through, and will he confirm that that evaluation will assess the knock-on effects on the local authorities and the actual outcomes for the children involved, so that we do not risk simply creaming off some of the best social workers from local authority departments to join the social work practices? If the pilots are successful, they should also have a positive knock-on effect for social workers by attracting more people into the profession and improving standards of social workers overall.
The hon. Member for Stafford rightly mentioned the human rights dimension, because the Bill does not say that social work practices, as providers of services, will be functional public authorities, which I think is the technical term that the Human Rights Act uses. That was left hanging in the air after the debate in the Lords, so further details from the Minister would be welcome.
On the level of qualifications held by the social workers who are likely to work within the practices, one presumes that they will be registered social workers who are regulated by the General Social Care Council, but who will register and inspect those practices during the pilot period? They will, of course, be dealing with real children, because this is not just a dummy pilot in a dummy cockpit somewhere. The pilots will have real social workers dealing with children in the care system who have real problems and challenges. Clearly, they must be monitored and regulated in the same way that we would expect social workers to be when working directly for the local authority. Does the Minister know where the pilots are likely to be? He does not necessarily need to list the nine or so recommended pilots, but does he anticipate that the range of areas will give a cross-section of different experiences?
Finally, Unison has some grave concerns. I am not pleading the case for Unison, but it made some relevant points in the brief that we received. It questioned whether social work practices would lack the leverage to facilitate access to other local authority services for looked-after children. That is a fair point. Dealing with vulnerable children desperately needs an holistic approach. A social worker must deal with the local school and the local education authority, and with the housing department of the local authority if accommodation is involved. Can the Minister assure us that social worker practices will have the authority and standing to have that sort of relationship with colleagues, even though those colleagues will be at arm’s length, as they will be within the local authority?
Unison is also concerned that the proposals will fragment the child’s journey through the care system and work against continuity. If the proposals are to be successful, they must address that and social work practices must provide greater continuity than there is now. Unison also refers to the fact that the Government have issued a prospectus canvassing interest from local authorities. Perhaps the Minister could update us on how expressions of interest are going and how advanced that process is.
In principle, we warmly welcome the proposals set out in clauses 1 to 6 and the innovation that they represent. We hope that the move will be successful, but we need to be convinced of how it will be successful and how that success will be judged. We need to be assured that a proper holistic evaluation of the pilot will take place. We will have more to say about the timing of that under clause 6. I am sure that the Minister will reply to some of our concerns. Most importantly, professionals who are expected to transfer to these practices and those who will work alongside them must feel reassured rather than threatened by these controversial, but potentially exciting, provisions of the Bill.
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