Children and Young Persons Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Kidney: Is there not a slight difference under section 34, because if the local authority fails to allow the contact that it is supposed to be promoting, as the Minister explained, the person who is dissatisfied—I am arguing on behalf of the other sibling—could apply to the court for an order to make it happen? The one third or so of children in care who have no contact with a sibling, and that sibling, could go to court to force the hand of local authorities that are not doing what they are supposed to be doing.
Beverley Hughes: I agree with my hon. Friend. However, my argument is—I think that his point reinforces it—that we do not need further legislation or changes to it; what we need is the current law to be implemented much more effectively. Although I recognise that there is some very good practice in relation to sibling contact, I agree with him and other Members that it is very patchy. I do not believe for a minute that sufficient priority is given in practice to ensuring that that contact happens. For that reason, we have included the requirement that contacts are reflected in the child care plan, the placement plan and the integrated children’s system, and that the IRO must pay particular attention to that matter. That is what we are trying to do throughout the Bill. Where we need to strengthen legislation, we are doing so, as in new section 22C(8)(c), but where legislative provisions already exist, we should strengthen their implementation.
I have already mentioned the ICS in relation to another clause, and shall not rehearse the details, except to say that there will be specific requirements on social workers to include in the ICS care plan all the details of siblings, including step and half siblings, arrangements for contact and the practicalities of how contact will be maintained. Guidance notices within the records will reiterate and emphasise the importance of that contact. Those new provisions, together with existing legislation, cover the intentions behind the amendments. The real challenge is to use the other measures in the Bill—particularly those on the strengthening of the IRO’s role, which we will get to shortly, and the requirements through the recording systems and the detailed guidance that we will insist on in the care plan—to achieve results in practice.
I hope that the Committee accepts my assurances on those points. We have a job to do that does not require further legislation, or changes to existing legislation. We need simply to implement the levers in place to improve the quality of social work practice.
Tim Loughton: Again, the Minister and I seem to be coming at this from the same direction as far as intentions are concerned. I am slightly nonplussed by the reference to the Interpretation Act 1976—
Beverley Hughes: 1978.
Tim Loughton: I’m terribly sorry—that makes all the difference. On that basis, will she explain a reference in new section 22C(10), that
“The local authority may determine...the terms of any arrangements”.
Surely to be consistent that should be “arrangement” on the basis that the 1978 Act requires a reference only to the singular, rather than the plural?
Beverley Hughes: Far be it from me to question parliamentary counsel. I simply refer the hon. Gentleman to what I said, which is that unless the contrary intent appears, words importing the singular include the plural and vice versa. It is a matter of decision in the drafting as to whether the singular or the plural is actually written down, but in either case, it always includes the opposite.
I do not think that the right hon. Lady entirely took my points about amendment No. 8. She assumes that a decent social worker would clearly want to maintain a placement with siblings for as long as possible, but we cannot take it as read that the social worker would always do everything to make it possible to keep siblings together—not just living together but placed together in a sustainable placement that enabled those two or more siblings to live together in a stable family environment for as long as possible. I think we might have to agree to disagree. I do not think that what the Minister says actually achieves our aim in amendment No. 8, but we are very much agreed on the necessary intention.
I will not get bogged down in the Interpretation Act 1978, and I beg to withdraw the amendment and the new clause.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Tim Loughton: I beg to move amendment No. 9, in clause 9, page 7, line 41, at end insert—
‘( ) The local authority must ensure that C does not have more than three placements within a 12 month period or more than two placements within the last year of compulsory schooling, or submit a written explanation of why this was not possible.’.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 3—Reviews for social worker turnover—
‘A local authority must conduct a review of a child’s experience of care if, during a child’s time in care, he or she has been looked after by three or more different social workers during the course of one single year.’.
Tim Loughton: Not wishing to appear churlish, let me say at the outset what another good addition the clause, and this particular subsection of the clause, is to the Bill, and that we want to make it even better. I hope that satisfies the hon. Member for Stafford.
There is one amendment and a new clause dealing with the related subjects of multiple placements and multiple social workers. They are on a similar theme. I quoted earlier figures from a table showing alarming differences in the local authorities who have children who have been in three or more placements during the year ending March 2007, which is a cause of great concern. The basic theme of all our discussions on the Bill has been the need to maintain some stability, continuity and familiarity with environment and carers. If a child has multiple placements—we have set a benchmark of more than three in the space of a 12-month period—that cannot be conducive to giving that child a chance of regaining some degree of stability. It is particularly important given the impact on education which is quite rightly also part of the clause.
As constituency Members, we have seen foster placements breaking down for various reasons—in many cases it is because suitable and appropriate support was not given to the foster family to enable them to cope with perhaps a particularly difficult child who has particular behavioural problems or needs—so a new foster placement has to be found. Given the shortage of fostering places—we heard recently that the Local Government Association has identified an immediate deficit of 5,250 foster carers—often it is not practically possible to find an alternative appropriate foster carer in the vicinity. That can mean, particularly within large county authority areas, placing a child many miles away, often at the opposite end of a large county, which makes the maintenance of that child at his or her school practically impossible, or possible only at great expense and with great time taken to ship them from an out-of-area placement to a school. My local authority is West Sussex county council, and I have no reason to think that West Sussex is any better or worse than other authorities are.
We need to do a lot more to ensure that multiple placements are avoided at all costs. When one looks at the table that I quoted from this morning showing that a quarter of children in the care system in Cornwall and one fifth of children in the care system in Stoke-on-Trent had three or more placements in the previous year, one becomes deeply alarmed. That figure needs to be reduced considerably. That could mean sharing the best practice of places such as Barnet, which are able to do something about the number of placements.
The two issues are interlinked. Some years ago, Barnet very boldly decided to invest in its social work work force, particularly child social workers. It launched a recruitment campaign called, “Got a new Barnet?” It attracted social workers, gave them special allowances to enable them to live in the area and focused on the welfare of its children in care. It developed a buddy system, whereby every child in care was buddied up with an officer from the local authority, from the chief executive down. That person would be the “pushy parent” in the background looking out for that child’s educational achievement, health records and so on, and asking awkward questions of the relevant department, social worker or officer when that child appeared to be achieving less than expected. The scheme proved to be very successful.
In Barnet, the number of looked-after children going to university or into equivalent further education is about 12 per cent., compared with 1 to 2 per cent. of the looked-after children population as a whole. The last time that I checked with the former director of children’s services, the vacancy rate in Barnet was less than 4 per cent.; it is 20 per cent. in other London boroughs. Barnet identified as a priority, and invested in, a well motivated, well resourced and well rewarded social work work force. That led to much lower turnover in the work force, a much better service for the children they were there to look after, and an investment in foster carers, which meant that more foster placements were likely to succeed than to break down. Such action is not rocket science and certain authorities are better than others at doing something about the problems.
We need an extra safeguard to avoid multiple placements at all costs. I refer back to the office of the children’s rights director for England’s report that I and the hon. Member for Stafford quoted from earlier. It is very rich in appropriate statistics on the attitudes of young people in the care system towards social workers. According to that report, children said that their social worker moved them when they were just settling down—a major gripe. Others said that a big issue was that social workers kept changing. One child is quoted as saying:
“I have had around 30 social workers in 10 years.”
The office of the children’s rights director heard from many young people about how important it is not to keep having new social workers.
As I mentioned earlier, many children said that they had no say in the selection of their social worker, even though they rightly identified that it is important to get on well with one’s social worker. There was a way to change the social worker if the relationship was not working from the child’s perspective—that might happen if the child felt that the social worker was overpowering them, or if they did not feel that their views, worries or feelings were being listened to. The children’s rights director also heard that careful matching was needed to get the right social worker for each child. The young people who proposed that said that they had not had any choice in who would be their social worker, even though getting on with them and trusting them was vital. One of the quotations says that
“social workers are like young people—you have your good and bad ones”.
Amendment No. 9 would make it an absolute exception for a child to have more than three placements in the space of 12 months. Ideally, they would stay in the same placement and the local authority would do everything possible to enable that. If a child had more than two placements in their last year of compulsory schooling, when continuity is vital to their achievement in their studies and examinations, a written explanation would be required.
As with the earlier amendment, it may be that the Minister will tell me that this provision will be included in new guidance. It would be reassuring if it were required in a different form. If it is not, the aim of avoiding multiple placements, which can be so damaging, is a minimum requirement of acceptability.
Similarly, new clause 3 would require that if a child had been looked after by three or more different social workers in the course of a year, the local authority must account for it. It should not just be brushed under the carpet of all of the pressures on the social work department. It may well be a requirement in the performance assessments of social worker practices that they are assessed on how few placements they are able to achieve for one of the children for whom they are being paid a bonus, as was set out in the recommendations, or they could be assessed on whether children have had the continuity of just one social worker wherever possible. If it is likely, as I envisage, that these terminologies will be applied to the new social work practices, surely we should ensure that they apply equally to social workers within the existing local authority remit.
Hopefully, these are constructive and positive proposals that will give greater definition and detail in the Bill to what the Government are trying to achieve and the goals that we all share. They make it explicit that multiple placements and the use of multiple social workers has been unacceptable for too long. A very strong message must go to the relevant departments that everything must be done to avoid those things so that we get more figures comparable with the likes of Barnet, rather than authorities at the other end of the spectrum.
Beverley Hughes: As the hon. Gentleman rightly says, stability is critical for children in care. That is why stability is one of the four key principles that underpin the “Care Matters: Time for Change” White Paper and that are at the heart of the Bill. We know from our own children that they should be able to rely on stable relationships, and that applies particularly to looked-after children. They should be able to attach to people, to trust people and to gain consistent support from their carers and social workers. That kind of stability is essential in allowing looked-after children to thrive and achieve.
It is particularly crucial to minimise disruption during the two years of key stage 4, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned. Such disruptions can have a dramatic effect on the ability of children to achieve their educational potential, particularly if they have to change schools.
5.45 pm
Most children who remain looked-after for more than a year stay in the same placement. We want to increase the proportion of children in long-term, stable care placements, because we know that that leads to the best outcomes. At the other end of the spectrum, we want to reduce the proportion of children facing three or more placement moves in a year. That is why both the measures are part of the national indicator set for local authorities and feature as a part of many recently finalised local area agreements. Since they have been part of the national indicator set, it is gratifying that there have been year-on-year improvements in relation to both—not fast enough or big enough, but the measures are none the less beginning to have a lever effect on local authority practice. Coupled with clause 9, that will further strengthen our leverage for ensuring continuous improvement at the local level.
Decisions about a child’s placement must be taken in the light of that child’s needs and circumstances. I have no difficulty with the amendment’s intentions, but I would like to put two issues to the hon. Gentleman. The first concerns the amendment’s practical effect. It would enshrine in primary legislation an assumption that it is normal or acceptable for a child to face three placements in a year as long as there are no more than three. Clearly, that is absolutely contrary to his intention, but to enshrine that figure in a Bill would not be helpful. Indeed, for the large majority of children, it would set the bar far too low. Where it is in their interest, children should ideally have a single placement where they can develop relationships and find stability and continuity. For a very small minority of children, there can be good reasons why several moves in a planned progression might be needed to prepare them for permanent attachment.
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