Children and Young Persons Bill [Lords]

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Tim Loughton: The hon. Gentleman is being uncharacteristically churlish. I started by saying clearly that the clause was welcome. It has been rewritten and greatly improved. We very much approve and support, as I have said, the hierarchy of kinship care. We approve of the detail on putting siblings together. I am trying to improve it further, in order to ensure that it is not open to misinterpretation. The hon. Gentleman and I share the same goal. Although it is always good to hear from him, he is being slightly churlish at this juncture. I am trying to give credit where credit is due.
New clause 4 takes a belt-and-braces approach. It places a duty on an authority to “take all reasonable steps” to ensure that if the siblings cannot be placed together because of problems—the siblings may have suffered a traumatic time and cannot live together; that may be one reason why the home has broken down—whenever possible there should be the means for those siblings to keep contact if they desire it. Again, both sides have spoken of the desirability of retaining some family contact whenever possible. The local authority should take all reasonable steps to ensure that the child can “maintain contact” with other siblings, but with the get-out provision in subsection (3) that if the child does not want it, it will not be forced on them.
Mr. Kidney: I rise to ask the hon. Gentleman about a welfare get-out from contact between siblings. I very much support his point—indeed, I hope to speak in a moment to a new clause on sibling contact—but we would not want to force sibling contact when it is contrary to a child’s welfare. Clearly, we are not going to force them to live together if it is against their welfare, and new clause 4 recognises that point with its proposed new section 34A(1) of the Children Act 1989. However, the Bill does not say that there would be contact subject to the welfare of the child. It refers to “taking all reasonable steps”, and we could argue that it would not be reasonable to enable contact if it were against the child’s welfare. However, that is not explicit in the Bill. The hon. Gentleman just said that his proposal has a proviso about consent but it is not the same as the welfare of the child. Does he agree that there is a bit missing from the Bill?
There is a wider issue within the amendments, too. Local authorities should not just enable contact; they should promote it. Other than in the circumstances that the hon. Gentleman and I have just described, it is in the best interests of the children to maintain such contact, particularly if they are unable to maintain kinship contact with the older generation of their family. A sibling may be the only family member who comes into a child’s environment at all, so there should be a duty on local authorities not only to enable contact but to promote it—to make it a practical reality, particularly if the siblings are not able to stay together. If the foster placement were in danger of breaking down, perhaps because of insufficient support for the family in respect of their special needs due to dealing with a complicated set of siblings, the prime consideration should be whether an alternative foster placement, which did not keep those two or more siblings together, would be preferable to keeping the existing placement.
The three amendments, grouped with new clause 4, would only add detail and definition to the Bill. They are absolutely intended to achieve the objectives that I am sure the Government want to achieve—quite rightly and praiseworthily, having included clause 9. On that basis, I hope that the Minister will accommodate me by saying that this is a good idea and the Government accept it.
Mr. Kidney: I rise to speak to new clause 30, which is grouped with amendment No. 7. Like the hon. Gentleman’s amendment, the new clause is about ensuring that local authorities facilitate contact between siblings if they are not accommodated at the same place. The formulation in the new clause is slightly narrower than that which the hon. Gentleman attempted, because it would simply amend section 34 of the 1989 Act. It already includes the full panoply of a local authority allowing reasonable contact between a child and various groups of named people, but it does not include naming siblings. The amendment would include siblings on the list. The 1989 Act says that where a child is in the care of the local authority, the authority shall allow the child reasonable contact with parents, guardian and anybody with a residence order, and the proposal would add “siblings” to show that the local authority should also allow reasonable contact with a brother or sister.
Mr. Turner: Does the word “sibling” include both looked-after children and children at their home?
Mr. Kidney: Yes, because siblings are simply brothers and sisters wherever they are. The local authority’s duty is to the child in its care, so if one child was in care and one was not, allowing contact would be to allow contact with the child that was not in care. I think that that is the point on which the hon. Gentleman wants clarification.
The good thing about amending section 34 of the 1989 Act is that it goes on to provide many safeguards in order to ensure that the contact takes place safely. For example, if the local authority had doubts about whether contact was a good thing, it could refuse to allow it to take place. The person who wanted to object could apply to a court, and the court could make an order or refuse to make an order, depending on the circumstances of the case. In that sense, everything is protected.
New clause 30 would make a similar amendment to paragraph 15 of schedule 2 to the 1989 Act to ensure that the two provisions are consistent, but I read the measure more carefully when preparing to speak to it and I found that the Children Act 1989 is inconsistent. Paragraph 15 states:
“Where a child is being looked after by a local authority, the authority shall, unless it is not reasonably practicable or consistent with his welfare, endeavour to promote contact between the child”—
this is the point that the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham made about promotion—
(a) his parents;
(b) any person who is not a parent of his but who has parental responsibility for him; and
(c) any relative, friend or other person connected with him.”
I took the trouble to look at the definition of “relative” in the 1989 Act. I see that it includes brothers and sisters, so brothers and sisters are covered in a schedule to the 1989 Act, but not in section 34—the primary legislation that matters the most. I should have thought that Parliament would be compelled to put that right and make it happen.
The hon. Gentleman made the case well on why sibling contact is important, but it is worth pointing out to the Ministers that their Department published its summary of responses to its consultation on the “Care Matters: Transforming the Lives of Children and Young People in Care” Green Paper last December. In the summary, it said:
“Many of the children and young people we have spoken to thought that it was vital to keep siblings together wherever possible.”
That is where clause 9 helps. The summary went on to say:
“Where this is not possible, maintaining contact with siblings is very important to young people.”
That is a very welcome statement. It is an all the more compelling reason for the Department to think that the amendment should be made.
The children’s rights director, Roger Morgan, published a report in December 2007 that gave the views of 433 children on improving care standards, which said:
“care placements should be designed so that brothers and sisters can stay together”.
That was the children’s fourth main recommendation.
Finally, the Family Rights Group has produced a briefing for members of the Committee in which it stated that NSPCC research published in 2000 entitled “Your shout too!” found that more than one third of children in care felt that they did not see enough of their brothers and sisters. That is compelling evidence of the need for an amendment, and new clause 30 is the right form for making that change rather than the other proposals included in this group of amendments.
Annette Brooke: I support both new clauses. The point has been made clearly about the great desire for more sibling contact. It is evidenced by a number of surveys, including one by A National Voice, an organisation that is run by for young people in care. That showed that 83 per cent. of children and young people who do not live with their birth siblings would like to see more of them. The critical point is the difference between allowing something and facilitating and supporting it, which is one step further. I would certainly want the caveat of when it was in the children’s interests for that contact to take place and safe to do so, with welfare being absolutely paramount.
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Within those parameters, however, we should go that one step further to be truly facilitating. Travel expenses might be provided—I believe that they are—but sometimes more is needed. Making the first contact is a big step, so perhaps a person might need some support to undertake the journey rather than just the cost. I support the thrust of both new clauses and hope that the Minister, should she find the wording unsatisfactory, will be able to accommodate the views that have been expressed with regard to sibling contact.
Beverley Hughes: We are all aware of the importance that looked-after children place on their relationships with their brothers and sisters and the importance of those relationships for their well-being and progress, and in that regard we are all coming from the same point of view. These are the relationships that, for most children, endure throughout childhood and beyond and can provide that much needed stability and emotional support that we are seeking in a child’s life, so I share the sentiments behind amendments Nos. 7 and 8, which relate to the placing of siblings together.
With regard to amendment No. 7, I have simply been advised that section 6 of the Interpretation Act 1978, which applies to all other legislation, makes it clear that in any piece of legislation,
“unless the contrary intention appeals,...words in the singular include the plural”,
and vice versa. I did not know that before today, but think that it deals with amendment No. 7, for absolute clarity.
Amendment No. 8 relates to the placement of siblings together. For looked-after children it can be all too easy for relationships with siblings to be lost by being placed separately, either because the different needs and circumstances of individual family members might lead them along different paths in care or because there are too many children to accommodate, at least initially, in one foster family. We are extremely concerned to ensure that children are placed with their siblings wherever possible and where consistent with the welfare of each child. We expect those placements to be maintained as long as they remain suitable, in accordance with the overarching responsibilities of the local authorities to safeguard and promote the welfare of children for whom they are providing that type of accommodation.
Furthermore, the Bill places an expectation on local authorities to ensure that there is sufficient accommodation of a suitable type across the range of accommodation needs. When we draw up the guidance on how local authorities should fulfil that sufficiency duty and develop their commissioning strategies, we will include references to the possible need to accommodate sibling groups.
Mr. Timpson: The right hon. Lady’s final comment relates closely to the point that I was about to make about the deficiency in the present system of foster carers who are able to take sibling groups of three or more, which accounts for a fair proportion of the children going through the care system. Will she clarify what the Government propose to do to expand that group of foster carers to ensure that sibling groups are not split up simply because there is not provision, despite the spirit of the Bill, for them to remain together within the care system.
Beverley Hughes: I share the hon. Gentleman’s views. As I have said, we are emphasising the need for children to stay with brothers and sisters where it is in their interests to do so, and we are giving local authorities a duty to ensure that there is sufficient suitable accommodation of various types. That duty is given in the Bill, and in the guidance we will refer specifically to the need to anticipate and make provision for a wider range of placements, including those that will enable siblings to stay together.
Where siblings are separated on entry to care, perhaps because of a lack of capacity or because it is physically not possible to place them together at that point, we expect that separation and the reasons for it to be included in the care plan. If it is not possible to place siblings together, IROs should track the arrangements that are being made to reunite them at the earliest opportunity, so that that is in the interest of each child, and that appropriate arrangements are made for contact in the mean time.
Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove) (Con): Mr. Pope, I apologise for not being here this morning and if I missed anything important that is relevant to my question, but I wonder whether the Minister has any figures that would help the Committee to understand roughly how many children coming into care did so as two or three siblings together. How many children came alone and how many came as two, three or more together? My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich has suggested that, in his experience, a large number of children coming from one family were more likely to be in this position.
Beverley Hughes: I do not have a breakdown of the number of siblings and how many were in each grouping. The range is broad. Hon. Members may be familiar with a recently publicised case where 14 children in one family were taken into care at various times. Clearly, that is an extreme example of the sort of pressure that there can be on local authorities. Much more normally, where siblings are involved it tends to be groups of two or three. I shall see whether figures are available and if so, I shall let the hon. Lady have them.
The child’s permanence record, which is prepared when a child is being placed away from home long term, including for adoption, requires an enormous amount of detail about each sibling to be recorded to ensure that contact can be maintained or resumed in the future where they are not being placed together. Our intentions are clear. Together with the sufficiency duty that we are requiring local authorities to take on, I cannot see that amendment No. 8 would make any difference in practice to the duty in clause 9 in relation to placement.
The amendment talks about maintaining the placement, but I cannot imagine that local authorities would wilfully not support successful placements—indeed, there would be a huge financial disincentive to doing so. As a further strength, both in the new Children Act guidance that we are completely rewriting and in the first ever statutory guidance to independent reviewing officers, we will reinforce the considerations in respect of sibling placements and the importance of supporting sibling contact.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford, because the inclusion of new section 22C(8)(c), which requires a local authority to provide accommodation for siblings to live together, is a huge step forward. It makes clear our intentions to local authorities, which we will support and buttress in the guidance that we give to them.
The new clauses deal with contact between siblings. Obviously, we are all aware of the difficulties that contact presents for some children and families who are separated. It can generate difficult, mixed feelings; it requires careful planning, organisation and in some cases supervision for that contact to be maintained when they have been separated. Paragraph 15 of schedule 2 to the Children Act 1989, which my hon. Friend had diligently researched, explicitly requires local authorities, as he said, to be proactive in not just maintaining contact, but promoting it—indeed, it is headed:
“Promotion and maintenance of contact between child and family”
Included in that paragraph is a reference to “any relative.” As he said, under section 105 of the Act, the definition of “relative” specifically encompasses grandparents, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts and stepsiblings. The point is that the law as it stands already requires local authorities to maintain contact between siblings. I accept my hon. Friend’s argument—up to a point—that we have to work from section 34 to schedule 2 and on to the definitions in section 105 of the 1989 Act; none the less it is there in statute, and we would achieve nothing more by accepting the amendments.
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