Children and Young Persons Bill [Lords]

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Kevin Brennan: The first amendment seeks to limit the piloting to three years. The other seeks to ensure that the pilot period does not start until after the powers under clause 1 have been commenced. I acknowledge that the intention is to seek some reassurance that we will pilot the approach of social work practices in a timely fashion and seek further clarification on the timetable for the operation of the pilots.
The timetable for piloting social work practice was set out in some detail in the other place, in the debate referred to by the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole. However, I shall repeat it because it is important to understand the rationale behind the timetable and the five-year period.
Clause 6(2) allows for clause 1 to be brought into force by reference to a particular local authority or authorities in order to enable the selection of local authorities to pilot the social work practice model. Unless clause 4 is brought into effect within five years of Royal Assent, clauses 1 to 5 will cease to have effect. We therefore have five years to establish the pilots, allow them to run, make a thorough evaluation of them prior to deciding whether to roll out the power to make arrangements under clause 1 to all local authorities. Five years is a reasonable period to undertake that work. Reducing it to three years would compromise the effectiveness of the pilots and risk disrupting children’s lives by not allowing for the appropriate transition periods.
The subsequent timetable for the pilots is as follows. Subject to the successful passage of the Bill, we will move to identify local authorities where the pilots will take place. Those local authorities will begin commissioning social work practices in early 2009, subject to the Bill receiving Royal Assent—and subject to when it receives Royal Assent. Detailed contract negotiations will need to take place between the pilot local authorities and the social work practice providers, and practical arrangements for transferring cases will need to be put into place.
The aim is to have social work practices up and running, with full case loads, by autumn 2009, and that the pilots then run for two years until autumn 2011. During that period, evaluation evidence will be gathered. In the fourth year, 2011-12, the independent evaluation of the pilots will take place. We will ensure that the evaluation report is made public, and that there is a full and proper consultation before the model is made available to all authorities, if that is the desired option. The full evaluation report will obviously be placed in the Library of the House.
I hope that members of the Committee will see that while the pilots themselves will not last for the five-year period, we need five years to do all the things around the piloting, including set-up, evaluation, ensuring that we have the evidence base needed to take the right decisions for looked-after children, and consulting on the way forward before taking important decisions. It is also clear from the Bill that we will need to move promptly on Royal Assent. I hope that that goes some way towards explaining why the pilot in the Bill is set at five years.
Mr. Timpson: Has the Minister envisaged an extension to the pilot scheme—currently with nine local authorities—whereby if, after the first two-year period of more tightly controlled piloting, sufficient interest is shown by local authorities, which will undoubtedly have been exposed to the other pilot schemes by the nature of the cross boundaries between local authorities, they will be allowed to participate in the scheme during that five-year period?
Kevin Brennan: It is not intended at this stage for there to be any more pilots than the ones that we will announce. As the hon. Gentleman says, if this model becomes immediately attractive and highly successful and is lauded universally, there may be a queue of local authorities desirous of taking it up at an early stage. However, the appropriate thing to do is what we have indicated, which is to set up the pilots that have been funded in the “Care Matters” implementation plan, and to properly and independently evaluate them before making them universally available to other local authorities. I hope that my remarks have explained why we need five years from the date that the Act is passed. On that basis, and given that I understand why the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham was probing for more detail, I hope that the amendment will be withdrawn.
Tim Loughton: I am grateful for the Minister’s helpful comments. It is clear that it is not just some five years hence and then perhaps some after that, but that the Government appear to have a clearer timetable, which is more rapid and concise than I had anticipated. That is to be welcomed.
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When the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole rose to give reluctant support I thought that she was going to pitch for four years, and split the difference between three and five.
It is important that if we are to test the approach as a potential attractive new model, we should get on with it. The assessment part of the piloting timetable that the Government appear to have set is relatively small—not the full five years—and that is helpful. I am also encouraged by the Minister’s comments about proper independent evaluation and consultation in 2011-12 as an essential part of what happens and, looking forward to the regulatory regime, the need to construct an inspection regime. That clarification was helpful, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Kevin Brennan: We have had a fairly good kick around on clauses 1 to 6. Clause 6 is, as I said, crucial to our work on social work practices, because it enables us to test the model. In discussion of the amendments we have had the opportunity to set out in detail how we intend to do that.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 6 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 7

Border and Immigration Agency: welfare of children
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
The Minister for Children, Young People and Families (Beverley Hughes): I welcome the opportunity to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Pope. Having spent a lot of time, as my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary said, developing the White Paper, I also welcome the opportunity to be a member of the Committee, and to work with the other members to bring the measure to fruition.
Hon. Members will be aware that clause 7 was inserted into the Bill by Members in the other place, to add the Border and Immigration Agency to the list of agencies that are subject to section 11 of the Children Act 2004. The intention was obviously to extend to the agency the duty of safeguarding children. I hope that all hon. Members will acknowledge that safeguarding children has been and continues to be a top priority for the Government.
The Government have listened to the thoughtful and powerful arguments that have been made on this issue about whether those responsible for running the immigration system should have a legal duty to ensure that, consistent with the primary duty to secure our borders, they discharge their functions having regard to the need to safeguard and promote the welfare of children—the duty set out in section 11 of the Children Act 2004.
We welcome the considerable work already undertaken by the UK Border and Immigration Agency to implement a code of practice to protect children from harm while they are in the UK. I hope that hon. Members will acknowledge that the UKBA already has high standards of care compared with similar bodies, and has worked consistently with the Children’s Commissioner for England. However, we want to go further, learning from experience, in introducing the new code.
We have until now concentrated, rightly, on getting the infrastructure in place, focusing first and foremost on implementing the system. However, the establishment of UKBA now provides an opportunity to bring a stronger focus not just on the status of children and young people arriving in the UK, but on their safety and welfare.
It is important that we make the right legislative provision, to bind the UKBA effectively into a section 11 duty, while taking account of the agency’s particular distribution of legal functions, and its UK-wide remit. The current provision in the Bill does not address the proposed organisation of UKBA, nor does it encompass that range of its functions.
Today, the Government are giving a public commitment to pursue a section 11 duty for UKBA, but we intend to do so not in this Bill but in the forthcoming immigration Bill, which will be published in draft in July. The intention is that it will be introduced in the 2008-09 Session, and I therefore want to give Members notice of my intention to introduce an amendment on Report to remove clause 7 from the Children and Young Persons Bill. It is right that the duty affects the operation of UKBA not just in England and Wales but throughout the UK. It is also right that we take the necessary time and effort to work with colleagues to find a legislative solution that is accepted throughout the UK, works consistently in the interests of children and young people throughout the UK, and is consistent with, and obviously does not undermine, the integrity of our asylum and immigration system.
I hope that Members will accept the Government’s intentions and the commitment that I have given today, and will support the way in which we intend to proceed.
Tim Loughton: I am grateful for the Minister’s comments. She did give us slight prior notice of her intention, and that was helpful. I shall make some comments about why the principle behind clause 7 is important, and welcome, cautiously, what the Minister said.
Clause 7 was added to the Bill in the other House, when an amendment moved by my noble Friend Baroness Morris of Bolton received widespread support from all parts of the House and was passed by more than 50 votes. So, there is widespread support for its inclusion, and those of us who were around for the proceedings of the Children Act 2004 had a debate then about whether it should have been included on the list in what is now section 11 of the 2004 Act. Section 11 contains 13 different agencies on whom there has been placed a duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of children, ranging from the obvious, such as children’s services authorities, to strategic health authorities, youth offending teams and so on. We had a lot of debate about which of those should have been added.
Four years on, this Bill represented the next opportunity to place a duty on the immigration services, and some would say that it has been four years too long, that we should not have to wait any longer and that we had hoped that it would go through in clause 7. However, having said that, I appreciate that clause 7 is technically deficient. The Minister alluded to the fact that the Border and Immigration Agency has become the UK Border Agency, and it cannot be covered because it is a UK-wide body that the Bill does not therefore deal with. There was a problem with the way in which clause 7, which was perfectly well intentioned, was fashioned in the other House. The problem needed to be dealt with, and clearly, those who supported the inclusion of the clause will need to see the detail that the Minister has promised to produce in draft with the Bill in July—before the summer recess, I hope. We are taking a deal on trust, but one is heartened by the Minister saying that it is the right thing to do and that she is intent on introducing the duty in principle.
Importantly, however, if the provision is to be effective, it must lead to a culture change in the immigration service. We are dealing with very vulnerable children who come to this country seeking asylum as refugees, and with trafficked children. This is a group—in some cases, unfortunately, a growing group—of very vulnerable children who desperately need all agencies with whom they come into contact, placed under a duty to safeguard and promote their welfare, to act in their best interests.
It would be useful to firm up the Minister’s commitment that a duty equal to the weight of that carried in section 11 of the 2004 Act would be introduced in the new legislation. As there are two Departments involved—the Home Office, with which the Minister has personal experience, and the Department of Children, Schools and Families—it might be useful to know which is to be the lead Department. In that way, children’s interests will not be swallowed up in the Home Office and the DCSF will have an ongoing role in monitoring how this duty pans out, as it has for the 13 other bodies already covered under the 2004 Act.
Given that the Bill to be produced before the recess is a draft Bill for the Queen’s Speech, we are looking at the actual Bill being published in December. We could be waiting at least another year for it to come into effect after the passing of the legislation. We could be looking at a delay of more than five years from the first opportunity to include the immigration authorities within the Bill in 2004.
Will the Minister assure us, insofar as she can be responsible for Government timetabling of Bills, that this will be seen as a priority? Can anything be done in the meantime in terms of clear guidance from her Department, or jointly with the Home Secretary—not backed up by statutory duty yet—so that the immigration authorities can at least prepare on the basis of a strong likelihood and a firm intention by the Government that a formal statutory duty will be placed upon them in the not-too-distant future?
I do not wish in any way to denigrate or undermine the important processes that currently happen within the immigration service, greatly under pressure as it is. We have to balance what is achievable and practical without placing the service under undue pressures, which might have knock-on effects.
We are dealing with perhaps the most vulnerable subsets of children and it is imperative that this is taken seriously and introduced unequivocally on an equal basis to the current section 11 arrangements. Everything possible must be done to speed up its introduction. Any comments from the Minister on that score would be greatly appreciated.
Annette Brooke: I congratulate the Minister for Children, Young People and Families because I am sure that there has been considerable dialogue between the two Departments. I welcome this as a step forward.
I agree with the Minister that the Government have made safeguarding children a top priority and I have been proud to be a Member of Parliament during that period. It has to be said, however, there has been a dual system of safeguarding: one for children who are UK citizens and then the others. Surely, every child matters and we should be putting the child first throughout, regardless of status?
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I agree that we will need to see the detail before making detailed comments. I hope that all the organisations will be fully engaged—they come under the Refugee Children’s Consortium—in determining the details and the timetable. I, too, must express concern about the time that this has taken. I remember our discussions in the Committee that considered the 2004 Act when I joined forces with Hilton Dawson, the former Member for Lancaster and Wyre, on this issue, as the Minister will recall. I am sad that it has taken four years; nevertheless the fact that we have reached the right conclusion is welcome.
I am aware that a halfway house—“Better Outcomes”—has been discussed with the immigration authorities, and I wonder what can be done in the interim between making the momentous announcement today and the final implementation of the measures. Because there is a change in culture, we could be doing a lot more in the pathway to the legislation being passed. I, too, recognise that clause 7 was technically deficient, but my greatest regret is the time we waited, plus the long delay for the next immigration Bill. Overall, however, we are taking a step in the right direction.
Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): In the spirit of the dialogue to which my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole referred between the DCSF and the Home Office, what discussions have taken place or will take place with the National Assembly Government in Wales, not least because we are in the vexed area of a reserved matter, which is delivered in a devolved context? That also applies to colleagues in Scotland.
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Prepared 25 June 2008