Children and Young Persons Bill [Lords]

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Beverley Hughes: I welcome my hon. Friend’s contribution. It was through her sustained, dogged and very committed work that the action plan for young runaways was eventually brought forward. I commend her involvement in that. Let me just point out a couple of things. The prescribed persons referred to in subsection (4)(b) will, by definition, be young people aged 18 to 25. Younger people—the 15-year-olds whom she was talking about in relation to some local authorities’ apparently informal yardsticks for intervention—would be covered, as far as the Secretary of State’s duties were concerned, by the clause as it stands, because they are under 18 and the Secretary of State will have a duty to promote their well-being, as he will to promote the well-being of any children.
In relation to the prescribed groups in particular, we have no immediate plans as to how that might apply, but as my hon. Friend implied, we would have to introduce regulations if we were considering applying the measure to any of those groups and we would consult on the regulations before we did so. I hope that, with those assurances, she will accept that this issue is very much in our mind. Young people under 18 will be covered. In relation to any other groups, we are considering at the moment how far they might be included.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 8 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 9

Provision of accommodation and maintenance for children who are looked after by a local authority
Tim Loughton: I beg to move amendment No. 6, in clause 9, page 7, line 28, after ‘subsection’, insert
‘or submit a written explanation of why such a placement was not desirable or achievable’.
This is an obviously vital clause at the heart of the Bill. Largely rewritten in the House of Lords, it deals with the mechanics of how children in care are placed, giving priority to children being placed with extended family members if possible and making stipulations about distances from where the child comes from and about trying to maintain continuity of education and so on. That goes to the heart of what the Bill is about and is very welcome to the whole Committee and to those of us who over many years have drawn attention to the enormous disruption caused by the lack of stability in the life of a child in the care system, which can only exacerbate the many problems that such a child will already have. We welcome very much the level of commitment that clause 9 indicates, but once again we want to try to tighten the provision to get some greater definition in the Bill.
Amendment No. 6 relates to the proposed new section 22C(7) that section 9 would insert into the Children Act 1989, which is about the hierarchy of extended family members. Many of us would agree that some such form of hierarchy is needed for children who must be taken from their birth parents or parent into care, for however long a time, and that wherever possible, the best alternative, if there is no threat of harm to the child, is for them to be placed with another family member, close relative or close friend—someone with whom there is already familiarity and a relationship of trust. Failing that, the next choice would be non-related foster parents or perhaps specialist foster parents, if the child has complex needs or disabilities, or other kinds of foster parents, and then, if those were not available, and if it was appropriate, placement in a residential care environment.
In many cases, the residential care environment might be the best option. I do not in any way mean to put it at the bottom of the pile, but many of us have seen children who have been sent first to residential care simply because of the unavailability of suitable foster care closer to home. I hope that we can get the right balance in the future, but it must be horses for courses, and a question of what is in the best interests of the child.
In proposed new section 22C(6) of the 1989 Act, the Government have set out what they mean by an extended family placement, defining it as
“placement with an individual who is a relative, friend or other person connected with”
the child, who has been recommended by the local authority. We are trying to make that the absolute default position, and to require that if it is not possible the fact should be properly accounted for.
Although finding a placement with a kinship carer has for some considerable time been a preference—kinship care is described in section 17 of the Children Act 1989—in too many cases, it is still not happening. There have been various studies, perhaps the most definitive of which suggested that only 4 per cent. of placements initiated by social workers are with an extended family member who comes within the provisions of new section 22C(6). I think that I pointed out earlier the contrast with places such as Denmark, where some 45 per cent. of such foster care placements are with extended family members. There seems to be a bit of a discrepancy. Yet it has been estimated that between 200,000 and 300,000 children in this country are living with relatives who are not their parents, and only a small proportion of those are looked-after children. That has implications, of course, for private fostering registration schemes, which we shall be returning to later in our consideration of the Bill, if some of us get our way.
Most people acknowledge that there are clear advantages to kinship caring and placements with family members. The Family Rights Group has set some of those out in its brief, which it has provided to hon. Members. The brief details well-evidenced advantages in children who cannot live with their parents being raised by family and friends. It lists those advantages:
“Children in family and friends care tend to be in more stable placements that those placed with unrelated foster carers.”
“Children feel loved and report high levels of satisfaction.”
“Children appear to be as safe and their behaviour is perceived to be less of a problem when compared to children with unrelated foster carers.”
“Children placed within their family can more easily maintain a sense of family and cultural identity.”
“Contact with family members is more likely to be maintained.”
Therefore, that arrangement presses a lot of the right buttons. Familiarity with the carers tends to lead to greater short-term and long-term stability. For children who come from particularly traumatic family homes, a second chance of a stable upbringing is absolutely what they need.
There are some difficulties, which the Family Rights Group has also pointed out. A few of those are:
“Family and friends carers are more likely to be older, in poorer health and in more disadvantaged circumstances when compared to unrelated foster carers, yet receive significantly less support.”
“Some family and friends carers incur large legal costs in securing the care of children at risk of ill treatment.”
I am sure that many hon. Members will have had such cases in their constituency surgeries, often grandparents who want to take on responsibility for a grandchild whose parent has typically had drug or drink problems and is unable to look after the child. However, they face an uphill battle, struggling to make the case that they are capable of looking after the child to a social worker, to the local authority, and then having to go through the legal rigmarole, especially if it may ultimately be an adoptive placement. We should surely be making it easier rather than harder for people who are prepared to step into the breach and take on a child who would otherwise fall exclusively on the public purse, either with a non-related foster carer or in a home, at much greater expense and with much less chance of stability.
The group also points out:
“There are wide variations between local authorities in policies, support, finance and attitudes toward family and friends care, and in numbers of children placed with family and friends”.
“Access and entitlement to support, including financial support is based on legal status and not on need, resulting in some carers suffering significant financial hardship.”
“Assessment depends on legal status rather than need, thus risking inconsistent and inappropriate assessments. Some family and friends carers are subject to full fostering assessments that are essentially geared to non relatives while others have no assessment.”
The brief we received from the National Children’s Bureau presented a few potential answers to the question of what the barriers to using kinship carers may be. It mentions that
“social worker power can be lessened by kin placements.”
Do some social workers see them as a bit of a challenge? Is it much easier to take the child completely away from a family environment, to give them a completely clean break in a placement with a foster carer directly employed by the local authority and with no connection to the family? The brief also mentions that
“the complexity of family relationships and kin loyalties”
are considered
“more difficult to work with than non-kin foster care.”
Is that because social workers have such an enormous work load? We described earlier the great stresses on them and it is less likely to be problematic if a child is placed with a non-related foster carer. In many cases, do social workers
“see kin as part of the problem, rather than the solution, and therefore not favour such placements”?
4.30 pm
The NCB relates a number of studies that have been carried out, in both the US and the UK. It claims that several studies show fewer reported behavioural problems
“in children in kinship care compared to those in non-related foster care, and kinship caregivers tend to see themselves in more of a parenting role than do non-related caregivers and recognise the importance of their role in facilitating the child’s relationship with its family.”
A child has a better chance of returning to the family home with the birth parents or parent if extended family members are used—for example, if a mother with a drink or drug problem goes through rehabilitation and can take on the parental role again.
The family drug and alcohol court being trialled in Wells street by District Judge Crichton is an interesting experiment, which is based on an idea from California. The Government, to give them their due, have recently agreed to fund that pilot. I have seen videos from one of the courts in Santa Barbara or Santa Monica and it is a very interesting approach. The parents typically have a drink or drug problem and face care proceedings. In the past, the parent may have been given a last chance to get their act together or else the child would be taken into care. However, to get his or her act together that parent needs rehabilitation for the drink or drug problem, medical treatment, and often housing assistance as well. If a person is not in stable accommodation, they often go off the rails and other problems that are symptomatic of the underlying difficulty may come into the open.
The holistic approach is very exciting. I am sure that the pilots in Wells street will be successful. Too often we look at the problems in isolation and tackle the symptoms rather than the root causes, which can result in parents in miserable circumstances facing the tragedy of losing a child. Often the support of an extended family member, or even respite care in a temporary placement, can aid somebody to get the treatment and assistance that they need to get their act together so that they can recover sufficiently to get their child back. Kinship carers are key on all levels of temporary or long-term placement and support.
The amendment says that the default position must be that a far more extensive pursuit of a family or friend placement should be undertaken. If, after an exhaustive pursuit of that placement, it is not possible to place the child
“with an individual who is a relative, friend or other person connected with”
them, as set out in new section 22C (6), a written explanation should be provided and made available to the relevant parties.
We speak to people whose children have been taken into the care system. I quoted the Ofsted report, which said that birth parents do not feel that they have been engaged in the process and do not understand why their children have been taken away or why they have been placed with somebody completely detached from the family, particularly if there is a family member—typically the child’s grandparent—who is prepared to take on the responsibility. It is perfectly reasonable to place a specific requirement on the social worker responsible for the child to submit a written explanation if it is not possible to place the child within the terms of subsection (6)(a). They should account for why that was not possible and outline under what terms it might be possible to do so in future.
We want to strengthen what the Government are trying to do under the connected persons provision and ensure that there is an increase in the 4 per cent. of placements that are currently made with kinship carers. If that is not increased, we need to know why. I do not know, and I am sure that the Minister does not know, why we do not have more kinship placements. That is the reason for the amendment and I commend it to the Committee.
Beverley Hughes: I genuinely have no difficulty with the spirit of the amendment. I hope that I can explain how the extra leverage that the hon. Gentleman proposes through the requirement of a written record is accommodated in the care planning system that is being established. According to the figures that I have been given, 9 per cent. of looked-after children are placed with parents and a further 11 per cent. live with related foster carers. That is 20 per cent altogether. It is not enough, but it is rather more than the 4 per cent. that he mentioned.
It is extremely important that local authorities make the right placement decisions for the children that they look after. Such decisions go right to the heart of whether they are providing the best possible care. They will affect the ability of those children to maintain relationships with their birth families, their friends and their local communities. They will affect their chances of reunification. They will also impact on their progress in the longer term.
Enabling children to live with people who they know and trust wherever possible is key to influencing their life chances for the better. If they cannot live with their parents, the arrangements should first and foremost be with family and friends for those within and outside the care system. The Bill provides a clear hierarchical framework to support such arrangements while allowing flexibility for decisions that reflect individual circumstances. We have to do that and I know that hon. Members will appreciate why. The continuing role of family and friends as carers is one the key factors that will be taken into account. Most importantly, placement decisions should be made in the interests of the child.
As the hon. Gentleman said, clause 9 is the product of much consultation and of detailed consideration by many experienced people in the other place. As it is crafted, it will ensure that decisions are made in the way that I have described. It includes much of section 23 of the 1989 Act, but it is much clearer about the kind of considerations that will apply to placement decisions.
Where placement with parents is not possible, the clause requires a local authority to place the child in the most appropriate placement available. The determination of that is subject to a number of constraints. First, subsection (7) requires that the decision be taken in accordance with the local authority’s other duties under part III of the 1989 Act, with particular regard to their duties under section 22 to safeguard and promote the child’s welfare, to ascertain and give due consideration to the child’s wishes and feelings and to those of other relevant persons.
I am setting out the sequence of the legislation and how it works together to provide clarity. When considering the placement options available to it, the local authority must give first preference to placement with a relative, friend or other person connected with the child. That reflects our commitment to the principle that children should, wherever possible, be brought up in their own families and communities.
Sometimes, such placements will not be in the child’s interests, and although we recognise that they might not always be possible, we must make a real push to ensure that local authorities always consider the potential for relatives or friends to care for the child. They should not only do that at the first stage of decision making, but revisit the issue at every subsequent stage. That reflects the commitment that we made in the “Care Matters” White Paper to put in place a gateway approach, and that is what I want to see. At every stage of the process, there should be a gateway mentality, with people asking whether the child should be with family and friends.
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