Children and Young Persons Bill [Lords]

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Annette Brooke: I am listening carefully, but could the Minister outline the process from the point when we introduce the Bill? How will this new culture—the new regulations—operate in practice? Some authorities are excellent at dealing with such issues, but the good practice is not spreading, and I do not feel that simply introducing the legislation is enough. What back-up actions is the Minister thinking of?
Beverley Hughes: That is an important point that goes to the heart of my response to the amendment. The back-up procedures that we are putting in place will start to inculcate what the hon. Lady rightly calls a change of culture, which is what is needed in some local authorities.
For example, as part of making the proposals a reality, we published the new volume 1 of the court order guidance in January. The guidance introduced a requirement that relatives and friends should, as far as possible, be considered as potential carers in all cases, as part of the care plan that is lodged with the court at the outset of care proceedings. About 60 per cent. of children are looked after as a result of going through court proceedings, so we have a potentially strong lever here. The guidance that the courts now have makes it clear that they are required to check that the care plan has thoroughly examined and assessed whether there is a possibility of the child living with family or a friend. If not, the courts are required to ask why not. That is one important lever.
Another important lever, which relates to the proposal in the amendment, is that all local authorities are now required to use the integrated children’s system. That is an electronic system or template setting out in great detail the content of the care plan. Under the ICS, the care plan for a looked-after child requires the social worker to record evidence of the wider family’s capacity to care for the child as one of the family and environmental factors. That includes the practical efforts that have been made to ensure that such placements could happen.
Our intention is to make kinship care a reality in practice, and all of us on the Committee share that intention. Under the ICS, we are requiring social workers—this is true of all the care plan, but particularly where children do not go through the court processes and the court does not examine these issues—not only to mention their assessment of the wider family’s capacity to care for the child, but to give evidence in a particular place in the care plan to support that assessment.
Tim Loughton: Can the Minister tell us who that evidence will be available to?
Beverley Hughes: It will be recorded in the care plan, so it will be available to the social worker’s supervisors, but it will also be available and very clearly evident to the independent reviewing officer, who will be able to see easily whether the questions about the potential for family care have been examined thoroughly and, if the child is not to be placed there, why not.
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Tim Loughton: I know that we will address this matter later during debate on different subjects, but is there a case for making that evidence available in some version to the potential kinship carers too?
Beverley Hughes: The guidance that we produce—we are rewriting all the guidance—will also require social workers to notify the parents in writing about the care plan, as well as the child, other carers, representatives of other agencies involved with the child and others with a sufficient interest in the child. There is an intention to notify them, if not of the contents of the document itself—I will get a specific answer on that—certainly of the conclusions of the care plan and why they have been drawn.
I think that we agree completely that the decision-making process relating to that question needs to be clearly recorded and easily accessible by the other people within the system, including the IRO, the court, the child’s parents and carers and the child himself or herself. Through those two processes—the court process and, more generally for all children, the requirement to record the care plan in the ICS—that record will already be included.
However, we will not stop there. As I have explained, the significance of clause 9 is that we are bringing together all the requirements for care planning in one set of regulations. As we update the statutory guidance and develop those regulations to drive forward practice—that is the issue, as hon. Members have rightly said—as part of the delivery of the “Care Matters” programme, we will ensure that the requirements in clause 9 to consider family placements are fully reflected in the new guidance and regulations and that they mirror what we have included in the revised court order guidance where children are subject to family proceedings.
Annette Brooke: I just want to check whether a particular situation would be covered in regulations. I have a case involving a grandparent who is too ill and too old to take on long-term care of the child. The grandparent accepts that the child cannot stay. The child is likely to go to foster care and maybe, eventually, to adoption, but my constituent would like to remain the child’s grandmother throughout. It has been difficult to argue that with the local authority. Can Minister tell me whether the regulations can give me any comfort? It is another layer where a grandparent might lose their status, and there is no reason why they should.
Beverley Hughes: As the hon. Lady will appreciate, it is difficult to comment on individual cases. I do not know why that child is in care, whether there were any safeguarding issues with the family or anything else, but it is in the spirit of what we are including in the Bill and my passionate belief that we must enable children to keep their links with their birth family wherever and whenever that is conducive to their well-being. If that particular case gets to the adoption stage, issues will need to be worked out about adoptive parents and how that can be managed. However, in many cases, adopted children, with the agreement of all concerned, now keep in contact with their wider birth family. I would certainly like to see that trend continued and developed.
Tim Loughton: Before the Minister finishes, will she give her view of why such record keeping is not happening now? We can agree or disagree about whether it will happen after the changes, but why is it not happening more now?
Beverley Hughes: I do not think that I can provide better evidence than the speculations in the research cited by the hon. Gentleman. The practice is very good in some local authorities. The reasons that he cited from the NCH can be felt in some local authorities and one can feel that it is more difficult for social workers in those authorities. It is a reality that they have to untangle and make sense of what might be long histories of relationships between adults in the families. There may be difficulties between potential carers and the parents. Within that, the social workers have to determine what is in the child’s interests. I am not arguing that social workers should not try to work through those issues, but I can understand that making good decisions can seem difficult for them.
It may be that there is genuine antipathy towards family care in some places. We have to cut through that completely and make a very strong statement that this is what children say that they want and that this is what we know is in the best interests of children. I hope that, with the support of Committee members, we will start to inculcate the change of culture that is clearly necessary through the provisions of the Bill. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept those points and my assurances and will withdraw the amendment.
Tim Loughton: We have had a useful, short debate on this important subject. I am pleased that the Minister shares my enthusiasm for the concept, if not for the terminology of the amendment.
There are clear discrepancies in the evidence. I quoted from the Farmer and Moyers research, which found that social workers initiated only 4 per cent. of family and friends placements. I have seen other research by grandparents’ groups, which suggests that it is as low as 1 per cent. Other research suggests that the figure is 11 or 12 per cent.
There are also big discrepancies between local authorities, which is a real problem. This issue goes back to the tables of differential multiple placement records. A child who needs to be placed into the care of a local authority faces the same sort of problems whether in Cornwall, Stoke or Barnet, which are the three authorities that we cited earlier. The problems may be of a different magnitude, but interestingly, the research that I quoted suggests that there tends to be a greater willingness for extended family members to come forward as potential carers in more deprived areas. It is a problem on a number of levels that certain local authorities have different experiences and produce very different outcomes in how they place or look after the children in the care system, whether in foster care, kinship care or whatever. That merits closer assessment by the Government.
I am assured by the Minister that what I am trying to achieve is already being put in place. However, it is important that the message goes out from this short debate that this issue is a priority. It is not just another piece of paper on which the social worker responsible is supposed to tick various boxes; it is an important priority.
Mr. Turner: Will my hon. Friend remind me of the Government’s figures that apparently balance his 11 per cent. down to 1 per cent.?
Tim Loughton: I cannot remember what the Minister said. Would she like to remind us what the figures were, or has she forgotten as well? [Interruption.] Anyway, there are big discrepancies among all the different figures. The Government might like to undertake research to get to the bottom of it and why it is going on. [Interruption.] We will read it in Hansard tomorrow.
A clear directive needs to go out as part of the guidance within the ICS. A culture change is required, which is why the thrust of the amendment was that it must be the default position, without which the responsible social worker must be forced to make a serious assessment of why it was not possible. The reason why I also queried whether that should be available in some form to the parents as well goes back to the Ofsted study that I quoted earlier. Parents and extended family members feel very much in the dark about why decisions have been taken. Many of the cases that we get in our surgeries involve grandparents who cannot understand why they have been rejected as foster carers or even adoptive parents when, on the face of it, they are the ideal person. Are they just getting the brush-off from a social worker who may be lazy, risk-averse or completely stressed out for all sorts of other reasons and unable to give the priority suggested in the directions?
On the basis that the Minister has said that there will be a culture change and we will hopefully start to see a radical improvement in the figures, which in turn will lead to greater stability among the placements so that there will be fewer placements with fewer different, unconnected bodies, I am happy to take her at her word. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Tim Loughton: I beg to move amendment No. 7, in clause 9, page 7, line 37, after ‘sibling’, insert ‘or siblings’.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: Amendment No. 8, in clause 9, page 7, line 38, leave out ‘to live together’ and insert
‘or siblings to be placed together and maintain that placement for as long as is reasonably practicable and in the interests of C’.
New clause 4—Sibling contact—
‘After section 34 of the 1989 Act insert—
“34A Sibling contact
(1) Where it is not consistent with the child’s welfare to be accommodated with a sibling, the local authority shall take all reasonable steps to ensure the child can maintain contact with his or her sibling on a regular basis.
New clause 30—Sibling contact (No. 2)—
‘(1) The 1989 Act is amended as follows.
(2) In section 34(1) after paragraph (a) insert—
“(aa) any sibling of his;”.
(3) In Schedule 2, paragraph 15(1) after paragraph (a) insert—
“(aa) any sibling of his;”’.
Tim Loughton: It is me again, I am afraid. The amendments all deal with clause 9, but now we move to the also vital subject of siblings. Again, we may bandy around figures, but one thing is accepted—the Minister alluded to it just now, as did I—about connections with birth family members: it is absolutely essential that wherever possible, a child should be able to benefit from continued contact with a sibling, whether or not they are taken into care.
As we know, in certain families, some children are taken into the care system and some remain with the birth family. In the worst circumstances, children can be spread among different care placements. Surely it must be a fundamental principle that wherever possible, if there is more than one child, it is in the children’s best interests that they should be placed together. That puts great pressure on foster placements. If four children are taken away from a family, it is not easy to find a specialist foster placement for them, particularly if they have challenging behavioural problems or learning disabilities or a particular ethnic background that needs to be taken into account. However, surely the preferred position—it is what is supposed to happen—must be that those siblings should remain together.
The clause and proposed new section 22C(8) give a hierarchy of priorities. A child should be able to be kept near their home and may be prioritised for placement with a sibling wherever possible. The terminology could be misconstrued. That is why amendment No. 7 suggests adding the words “or siblings”. Technically, my reading of it is that subsection (8) refers to only one sibling even if a child is part of a group of three or more siblings. For completeness and to avoid misinterpretation, we suggest that subsection (8)(c) should state:
“if C has a sibling or siblings for whom the local authority are also providing accommodation”.
That is the technical purpose of amendment No. 7.
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I turn to amendment No. 8. Subsection (8) refers to siblings being able “to live together”. What does that mean? Does it mean that they are together for one day? Does it mean that they see each other occasionally, that they are close by but are still “together”? That, again, could be misinterpreted. What is meant by the subsection is that the children should be placed together in the same placement, with the same foster family or in the same kinship arrangement, in the same premises. We therefore suggest that instead of the siblings living together they should be
“placed together and maintain that placement for as long as is reasonably practicable”.
Under a strict reading of the provision, an authority that put those two or more children together for a day or a week would have fulfilled that qualification. I am sure that it is the Government’s intention that they should be placed together for as long as possible, in order to provide stability.
Those are points of clarification. The amendments would not take anything away from the Bill, but they would make what is intended more evident.
Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman is uncharacteristically ungenerous in not admitting that the clause is a good development. Can he not bring himself to say that, with or without his minor amendments, it is really good that we want to put children with their parents or other family carers and, failing that, that they should go to the most appropriate placement, which includes living with their siblings, if they have any, whenever possible?
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