Children and Young Persons Bill [Lords]

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Tim Loughton: On that point, the Minister will acknowledge that that is clearly not what I want to achieve. Ofsted’s figures provide tables concentrating specifically on three or more placements. That has already been set down as a benchmark by her own Department for what is not acceptable. We need to set a threshold somewhere, whether at two, three or whatever, above which it is absolutely not acceptable. With all the incentives to push it down even further, we need to start somewhere.
Beverley Hughes: I agree with the spirit of what the hon. Gentleman says. Arguably, if we were setting the national indicator set now, we might have defined it rather more ambitiously than three or more placements. He is right that that benchmark is enshrined in the national indicator set and reinforced in guidance, but my point was that I would be worried about putting that permanently in legislation. We need to be more ambitious than that for most children. Putting it in the Bill might, over time, normalise it as an acceptable benchmark. We want to ensure that most children’s number of placements is far lower.
Mr. Turner: Surely the Minister is aware from the figures quoted by my hon. Friend that the number placed twice is far too high. We know that the figures are low for one, but I am not sure that they are low enough. Where are the rest? Are they like that or like this, or somewhere in between?
Beverley Hughes: The majority of children who remain in care for more than a year stay in the same placement. We also know that a substantial number of children—about 40 per cent., I think—are in care for a year or less before returning home. We are talking about a small minority of children, but none the less a substantial one. As of 31 March 2003, 14.8 per cent. of looked-after children had had three or more placements. By 2007, that had fallen to 12.3 per cent. of children in care. It is a minority, and it is falling, but it is still too many, and we want to reduce that as much as we can.
Annette Brooke: It seems that there are three aspects of a child’s circumstances that might cause several placements. Otherwise, the issue is the skill with which the placement is made, and the pool of foster carers or of social workers, which we discussed in depth. What is the Minister doing to encourage local authorities to recruit a larger pool of foster carers, with a wide variety of skills? That is an ingredient that we need.
Beverley Hughes: The hon. Lady will be familiar with those aspects of the “Care Matters” White Paper for which we do not need legislation and which we are therefore not discussing here. There is a wide variety of proposals there, designed to enable local authorities to recruit a wider range of foster carers, and also to give foster carers more training and more status within the family of carers for looked-after children. The hon. Lady raises an important point, because unless that situation is improved—particularly in some areas where the situation is worse—the consequences will ultimately be felt by the children themselves. We are trying to avoid that.
I remarked that there is a minority of children for whom several planned moves may be needed, either because of their own circumstances or because they are in special situations. I met a young man last week; it was tremendous to meet him. He is in an intensive fostering project and has been through three carers. He was about to move on from anti-social behaviour to all sorts of serious crime. Having a series of moves with trained people, and staying with the last set of parents for almost a year, has transformed him. That was fantastic to see. There will be special situations such as that, and we want to ensure that we allow for those. Such planned placement changes are already required to be reflected in a child’s care plan. What we need to do here is to reinforce the clear messages about stability, and as the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham said, we will do that again in the guidance that is being rewritten.
New clause 3 will strengthen the reviewing process, to ensure that it is rigorously focused on whether the care plan that the local authority puts forward is the most appropriate and responsive way to meet the child’s needs. I am sure that Members are aware that independent reviewing officers already have the power to report it to senior managers if actions from review are not being carried out, including where a change in social worker is delaying the implementation of decisions made at review. There is already a requirement for regular reviews: three in the first year and then every six months. That is a minimum requirement. The IRO can direct further reviews as he or she thinks necessary. Therefore I hope that Members will accept that in the specific context of a child experiencing an unacceptable number of changes in their social worker, we should strengthen both the reviews that are already in place and the role of the IRO, rather than focusing on triggering additional reviews. That will enable those who ought to be examining those changes for children to do so much more effectively. When we reach clause 11 we will perhaps talk about some of that in more detail.
Reviews should always consider whether the child’s placement offers the stability that they need, with secure attachments. Holding additional reviews in isolation from the focused activity that needs to take place in the local authority to recruit and develop social workers, will not necessarily address the real issue here, which is needing to increase the number of social workers where there are shortages, and achieving a range of expertise. As I said on Second Reading, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families has taken measures outside the Bill to help local authorities address some of the issues of vacancy and turnover rates of social workers. There was a package of measures backed by substantial resources to enable local authorities to do more of the kind of work that authorities such as Barnet have undertaken with great success in improving recruitment and retention.
With those assurances, I hope that the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham will feel that we agree with the purpose of the amendment. On new clause 3, I do not think that adding further reviews to an already demanding set of reviews with the potential for the IRO to demand more would help with the problem. I therefore hope that he will withdraw the amendment.
Tim Loughton: I am delighted and relieved that the Minister is with us. Her favourite buzz word today appears to be “lever in” or “leverage”. All of these measures are beginning to lever in the extra requirements, which is good.
I do not want to place greater bureaucracy on local authorities or on social workers. The greatest incentive for local authorities or social workers not to have to account for multiple placements or the use of multiple social workers would be that bureaucracy. That is where the incentive lies.
The Minister places great store by the IRO. Given that we have not reached that part of the Bill, I think that we will have an interesting debate on the exact nature of the teeth that the IRO will be given and how accountable he or she will be able to make local authorities or social workers who do not achieve the improvements in outcomes that we want.
This has been another useful debate. It has teased out that the Government are thinking along the same lines as us, but that these requirements are taken care of elsewhere in the Bill. On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: New clause 1—Welfare of looked after children—
‘When considering or maintaining placement for a child a local authority or other responsible body shall have regard in particular to—
(a) ascertaining the wishes and feelings of the child;
(b) the desirability of retaining the child in the family home wherever it is the child’s best interests and that an appropriate package of care and family support has been made available to that end;
(c) the likely effect on him of any change in his circumstances and environment, and the benefits of his remaining close to home wherever possible;
(d) any harm which he has suffered or is at risk of suffering;
(e) ensuring all options for kinship care have been explored and an assessment of their parenting capacity undertaken;
(f) maintaining contact with siblings and other family members wherever practicable and in the child’s best interest;
(g) maintaining continuity of appropriate education, accommodation and standards of healthcare;
(h) the appropriate level of access to the responsible social worker being maintained;
(i) where the required changes have been specified and not achieved.’.
New clause 27—Support for family and friends carers—
‘(1) The 1989 Act is amended as follows.
(2) After section 17B insert—
“17C Support for family and friends carers
(1) This section applies to a person (“P”) who provides full-time care and accommodation for a child (“C”) for more than 28 days but who is not—
(a) a parent of the child, or
(b) a local authority foster parent.
(2) A local authority shall assess P’s need for financial and other support under Part III of this Act to care for C in any of the following circumstances—
(a) where the child comes to live with P as a result of a plan made following an inquiry under section 47 (local authority’s duty to investigate);
(b) where the child comes to live with P following an investigation under section 37 (powers of court in certain family proceedings);
(c) where P has secured a residence order or special guardianship order in order to avoid the child being looked after, and there is professional evidence of impairment of the parents’ ability to care for the child;
(d) where P has obtained a residence order or special guardianship order arising out of care proceedings;
(e) where P is providing accommodation for the child and then secures a residence order or special guardianship order.
Mr. Kidney: First, having chided the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham, it behoves me to say what a wonderful clause this is. Congratulations to the Government and the other place for getting it into its current order. It is a very welcome clause.
I will speak briefly to new clause 27. It goes along with the thrust of the clause that in future, local authorities should think first about supporting parents and other family members in caring for children who would otherwise be in danger of being taken into the care of the local authority. If local authorities have to step in and use their statutory powers to take a child into care, they should immediately look at whether they can rehabilitate the child back to the parents or other members of the child’s family and that should be done as quickly as possible.
New clause 27 draws attention to the one lacuna in clause 9, which is the practical support that will be given to family members who take on the very important task of looking after one or more vulnerable children on behalf of the whole family. It would deal particularly with physical and financial support when it is most needed. When local authorities take a child into care, whether they place the child with a family member, a foster carer or in residential care, the panoply of support and money is available to the people giving the care. When family members rally round and take on that responsibility, there is no entitlement or direct duty for them to be given support and money to do that important work.
To ensure that the practical aspect of the enterprise is not overlooked, new clause 27 would require the local authority to carry out an assessment of the needs of the family members who are looking after those children at the outset and see what support, financial and otherwise, would be necessary to ensure that they could do their job to the best of their ability. Otherwise, the risk is that the placement will break down and the local authority will have to come back and exercise those statutory powers and take the child or children into care.
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We have willed the ends in the clause, but at the moment we are not willing the means to ensure that it is carried through into practice. I hope that the Ministers can say that they are sympathetic to closing a gap in what is otherwise an extremely welcome provision to ensure that families are properly supported by the local authority when they rally around to take on this awesome responsibility. Local authorities, instead of exercising their care powers, would be exercising their ability to support families and keep them together.
The Bill has been criticised for not going far enough and for not containing detail that is explicit enough to require local authorities to pursue the legislation right up to the spirit in which it is intended. In many cases, local authorities will be reluctant to spend more or invest more resources than they need to in order to comply with the new legislation, which is understandable, given the competing requirements on their budgets from all sorts of other children’s services requirements. That is the reason for our previous arguments over the term “having regard to.”
It would be suitable, appropriate and helpful for the Bill if a welfare checklist giving the nine criteria set out in new clause 1 was used as a benchmark against which a local authority could be measured in order to see whether it had fulfilled the spirit of the legislation rather than just carried out the minimum requirements. That would be measured in relation to the impact on the welfare of the child, which is the most important consideration and the reason we are all here. We thought that it would be helpful to suggest a welfare checklist that cannibalised the list from the 1989 Act and was made germane to looked-after children.
I will briefly run through the nine criteria listed in new clause 1. Item (a) states that a local authority should have regard in particular to
“ascertaining the wishes and feelings of the child”,
which we are all familiar with from previous legislation. It is right that children should be consulted on matters such as the appointment of their social workers, as we mentioned earlier. Many children feel excluded from decisions in relation to which they might have views of their own, and which could be relevant to their being able to get on with their social worker, which is in turn important for the success of the placement or of their relationships that they are building.
Item (b), which deals with
“the desirability of retaining the child in the family home wherever it is the child’s best interests”,
would back up the kinship care priority hierarchy in clause 9, which we have debated. Again, against the checklist, has a local authority pursued as fully as is practicable the possibility of keeping the child within the family rather than taking the child away? Item (b) contains the preventive measure. As I have said, it is too often perceived that social workers’ first contact with a vulnerable family is when care proceedings are about to be initiated, not—as should happen—when things are starting to go wrong in a family and they need help and support, resources or whatever.
As a benchmark before care proceedings take place, the new clause asks whether the local authority has done everything practicable to ensure that the child can be kept with the family, that the family can be kept together and that taking the child away from the family, however temporary or permanent the basis, is not an obvious option. The desirability of trying to keep the family together with the child in the family is the second benchmark.
The third benchmark is
“the likely effect”
on the child
“of any change in his circumstances and environment, and the benefits of his remaining close to home wherever possible”.
Clause 9, although we have not debated it in detail, mentions the desirability of keeping a child close to a familiar environment wherever possible and in the best interest of the child and the child’s welfare. Even though things might have broken down with the family or birth parents, it is in the child’s best interest to retain some accord with familiar friends, perhaps at the same school, or with kinship carers.
Before taking a child away from their environment, both in terms of their personal relationships and their physical environment, has an assessment been done of whether that is in the child’s best interest? In some cases, it clearly will be, such as if the child is being victimised or bullied or is under threat of physical or mental harm by remaining in a very damaging environment. Has an assessment been made? That is the third benchmark.
The fourth benchmark will be familiar from the 1989 Act:
“any harm which he has suffered or is at risk of suffering”.
Clearly, the welfare of the child is the basis for that. The fifth concerns ensuring, as we have debated at length, that all options for kinship care in the hierarchy criteria have been explored, including an assessment of the kinship carer’s parenting capacity. The Minister has told us that that will happen under the new arrangements, so that criterion should be quite easy to satisfy.
The sixth concerns
“maintaining contact with siblings and other family members wherever practicable and in the child’s best interest”.
Again, it replicates, but on a benchmark basis, what we have debated.
The seventh is
“maintaining continuity of appropriate education, accommodation and standards of healthcare”.
We have touched on the continuity of remaining at the same school, particularly in the sensitive key stage years of exams. Stability of accommodation should also be a factor, as well as standards of health care, should the child have some illness, such as a long-term condition or a disability, that would make any move harmful.
The eighth check is
“the appropriate level of access to the responsible social worker being maintained”.
Again, it deals with criteria that we have touched on, whereby the multiple appointment of social workers is clearly detrimental.
The final check is
“where the required changes have been specified and not achieved.”
There is a lot of repetition on the checklist, but it is meant to be held up as a benchmark, so that when there is a question mark over whether a child has received the very best support and ended up in the most appropriate and beneficial placement, the onus will be on the appropriate authority to measure its performance against that checklist. Did it really pull all the right levers and exhaust all the right possibilities before deciding that the child could not stay with the kinship carer, or that it should be placed in a completely new or physically distant environment?
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