Children and Young Persons Bill [Lords]

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Kevin Brennan: Bearing in mind what we have just debated, I will be reasonably brief. Cause 2 restricts the functions that local authorities can delegate to social work practices. Those restrictions are important to ensuring quality and focus in the services offered. The first restriction will ensure that the independent reviewing officer role will remain with the local authorities. The independent review officer will have an extremely important role to play under the social work practice model, as they are the mechanism by which the local authority will be able to quality assure the work of the provider of social work services in relation to individual children. In that context, the independent review officer will attend care-planning reviews, as now, to monitor progress and make decisions about changes as necessary. In undertaking that role, the independent review officer will build up an important bank of knowledge about the effectiveness of the social work practice, including its strengths and weaknesses, how well it works with other agencies and the quality of its relationships with children. Consistent with the IRO role, that information should then be fed back to senior managers regularly, whether as part of wider contract management meetings or by some other means. That information flow will be absolutely crucial to enabling the local authority to hold the social work practice to account meaningfully.
The second restriction will ensure that social work practices cannot carry out the local authority’s functions as an adoption agency unless the practice itself is already a registered adoption agency. That is because we want to ensure that children who are likely to remain in care long term are the focus of social work practices, and those are the children who seem to suffer most from the problems with the current system that we and other members of the Committee have identified. Social work practices will be of most use when they develop innovative and effective strategies for working with that group of children that can be transferred to the local authority context and implemented across the country. Indeed, the processes for preparing for adoption are obviously different.
The third restriction that will apply to the provider of social work services will be any restrictions applicable to the local authority by reference to its area, such as restrictions on out-of-area placements. That is intended to ensure consistency of treatment, despite the fact that the functions will have been delegated between children with a social work practice and those who remain in the care of the local authority directly. Finally, the clause will require local authorities to be satisfied that the functions it is to delegate to a provider of social work practices will be discharged by or under the supervision of registered social workers, as we have mentioned.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 3

Effect of arrangements under section 1
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Kevin Brennan: Clause 3 is extremely important for ensuring a strong framework of accountability for the work of providers of social work services. It is important to be clear that under the social work practice model the local authority will remain the corporate parent for looked-after children and the local authority will remain accountable for what happens to them. Local authorities will use the children and young person’s plan to set out their priorities for local children, including looked-after children, and inform the commissioning of a social work practice.
The local authority’s director of children’s services will have oversight of the operation of the social work practice, just as they would in relation to other local children’s services delivered directly by the local authority. In that respect, the contract between the local authority and the social work practice will be absolutely crucial. It is through that contract that the local authority will set out the outcomes that the social work practices must deliver and the framework within which they must work, including requirements for multi-agency working and other issues relevant to the delivery of local authority services.
Once the contract is agreed, there must be rigorous, frequent and engaged contract management, as there is no question of the local authority tacking its foot off the accelerator simply because of its contract with the social work practice. We envisage a relationship of partnership between the local authority and the social work practice, involving regular meetings to spot potential problems early and agree steps to put them right. The close management of the social work practice will be important in the light of the local authority remaining the corporate parent and retaining responsibility for the discharge of its functions. As I explained earlier, the IRO will be another key mechanism for ensuring that.
Clause 3 confirms that the local authority will be accountable for the acts and omissions of the social work practice, without removing the accountability of the practice itself. That is vital for ensuring the proper protection of children and families supported by providers of social work services. The local authority must remain responsible for the discharge of its functions in relation to looked-after children, even if it delegates some of those functions to a social work practice. As I have said, that means that it will be accountable to the service, provided that it remains the corporate parent of the children it looks after, so children and their families can have the reassurance of knowing that that claim could be pursued against the local authority directly if things go wrong. Local authorities will require a comprehensive contract and proactive contract management.
That does not mean that the social work practice will escape liability for its actions and failures. Its work will be sensitive, the decisions it makes will be critical and we want to ensure that it is directly accountable to the children and families it serves. Although clause 3(1) ensures that the local authority is accountable for the acts and omissions of the social work practice, clause 3(2)(c) confirms that claims may be brought against the practice in the usual way if things go wrong.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 3 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 4

Regulation of providers of social work services
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Kevin Brennan: Clause 4 provides for the regulation of social work practices. It will require social work practices to be registered with Her Majesty’s chief inspector of education, children’s services and skills and they will be subject to regular inspections. The clause will also enable us to issue national minimum standards for social work practices and make regulations under the Care Standards Act 2000, as we have for other establishments.
We do not intend to bring the clause into force immediately. The pilot period in clause 6 will end when clause 4 is brought into force after there has been an evaluation of the pilots and a decision has been made to roll the model out more widely or five years after Royal Assent, whichever is sooner. We do not think it appropriate for social work practices to be regulated under the 2000 Act during the pilot phase because to introduce a new regulatory system for such a small number of pilots would be unduly burdensome and bureaucratic. Nevertheless, we will have the range of mechanisms that I set out earlier to monitor the work of social care practices and assure their quality.
Social work practices will be within the scope of the annual assessments by the inspectorates, including the chief inspector, from 2009 through the new comprehensive care assessment and through programmed inspections of services for children in care. Moreover, they will have to ensure that their functions are carried out under the supervision of social workers who are registered with the GSCC.
Tim Loughton: Will the Minister say what would happen in the scenario of a social worker who was working for one of the pilots being struck off during the pilot period? Would it differ from what would happen if they were working for the local authority? What additional inspection safeguards would be triggered for such a social worker practice, given that it would not be subject to the GSCC?
Kevin Brennan: My understanding is that such a social worker would not be able to work for the social work practice any longer. I will correct myself if that is wrong. If there were wider implications of that scenario for the social work practice, ultimately there would be provision for the Government to take action centrally. Long before that, the local authority would have the ability to terminate the contract if events were serious enough. If there was systematic failure in a social work practice, I would expect the contract to be terminated at quite an early stage.
At local authority level, there will be proactive contract management by the local authority with input and support from the Department and those acting on its behalf, including Government office staff. That might involve participation in the commissioning process and attendance at contract management meetings. They will give general advice and guidance on commissioning and contract management issues. That will be complemented by the individual case reviews by the independent reviewing officer.
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Finally, there will be an independent evaluation of the social work practice model, which we mentioned earlier, which will gather and report on performance measuring it against a range of indicators at regular intervals. Until we have evaluated the operation of the pilots, we will not know whether the practice model will be extended beyond the pilot phase and local authorities, but if it is to be continued to be used, the services should become regulated under the Care Standards Act to ensure high standards of practice from providers of social work services in the long term, in the same way as any other establishment or agency is regulated under that Act.
Mr. Turner: How will providers be released from the pilot? Will they be obliged to work together, or will some be released and others not?
Kevin Brennan: If the independent evaluation finds that the model as a whole has something to offer more broadly, the Government can switch on the ability of any local authority to decide to contract out to a social work practice. The local authority will make that decision—there will be no centrally determined or directed, top-down Government directive ordering local authorities to use this model. The provision will be available beyond the pilot areas to any local authority that feels that it is an appropriate model for them. The evaluation will consider, therefore, not whether an individual social work practice has been successful, but whether the model itself has something to offer to the system.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 4 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 5

Functions under this Part to be social services functions
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Kevin Brennan: Very briefly, clause 5 provides that the local authority power to contract with providers of social work services, under 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 can issue guidance and directions to the local authority about the use of the power. That is important, because the social work practice model is as yet untested, and we will need to put in place mechanisms to ensure effective operation. For example, we are likely to issue guidance on what must be done prior to a contract to verify the quality of the provider, what the contract must include and which children will benefit most from the social work practice approach.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 5 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 6

Piloting and expiry of arrangements under this Part
Tim Loughton: I beg to move amendment No. 1, in clause 6, page 5, line 17, leave out ‘five’ and insert ‘three’.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 2, in clause 6, page 5, line 18, leave out ‘passed’ and insert ‘comes into force’.
Tim Loughton: Now we have some real amendments—well, they are probing amendments, rather than real ones, so I shall not detain the Committee too long. We have had a good debate on the concept of social work practice already, but I am concerned about getting on with it. Amendment No. 1 would reduce, therefore, the duration of the pilots from five to three years, and amendment No. 2 deals with a technicality that the Minister will probably say is not required. In the working party report, which Professor Le Grand chaired, the time recommended for pilots was at least two years. The recommendation stated:
“The Group’s view is that pilots would need to run for at least two years, if not longer, to provide a sufficiently robust assessment. Also, the Group proposes that there should be nine pilots to provide a robust assessment”.
I am concerned that it will take too long. Why should it take at least five years to assess whether the pilots have worked? Would it not be possible to speed things up by having an assessment after three years? Those three years may turn out not to be long enough—all sorts of reasons for extending the period might be raised during the development of the schemes—in which case there is nothing to stop the Government asking for more time. It could probably be done by regulation. However, I to do not want to see the pilots eventually being set up and running for at least five years, with a further period of assessment being required, further queries bring thrown up and further legislation being required in order to give force to the status of these social worker practices.
On the basis that we could find out whether or not the schemes will be a success, the amendment would reduce the time specified from five years to three. It is a probing amendment, and if the Minister can give us good reasons for why five years has to be the absolute minimum, I shall be happy to take it as read. The purpose of the amendment is to put the Minister on the spot, to challenge the time scale and not the principle.
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