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Children and Young Persons Bill [Lords]

Children and Young Persons Bill [Lords]

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairmen: Mr. Greg Pope, † Hywel Williams
Brennan, Kevin (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families)
Brooke, Annette (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD)
Foster, Mr. Michael (Worcester) (Lab)
Hesford, Stephen (Wirral, West) (Lab)
Hughes, Beverley (Minister for Children, Young People and Families)
Kidney, Mr. David (Stafford) (Lab)
Kirkbride, Miss Julie (Bromsgrove) (Con)
Loughton, Tim (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con)
McCarthy, Kerry (Bristol, East) (Lab)
Russell, Christine (City of Chester) (Lab)
Southworth, Helen (Warrington, South) (Lab)
Timpson, Mr. Edward (Crewe and Nantwich) (Con)
Turner, Mr. Andrew (Isle of Wight) (Con)
Waltho, Lynda (Stourbridge) (Lab)
Watkinson, Angela (Upminster) (Con)
Williams, Mark (Ceredigion) (LD)
Chris Shaw, Mick Hillyard, Committee Clerks
† attended the Committee

Public Bill Committee

Tuesday 1 July 2008


[Mr. Greg Pope in the Chair]

Children and Young Persons Bill [Lords]

Clause 11

Independent reviewing officers
Amendment moved [26 June]: No. 35, in clause 11, page 10, line 13, leave out from beginning to ‘it’ in line 14 and insert
‘Whether or not the independent reviewing officer is an officer of the local authority,’.—[Mr. Kidney]
10.30 am
The Chairman: I remind the Committee that with this we are taking the following amendments: No. 12, in clause 11, page 10, line 18, at end insert—
‘(5) A local authority must ensure that the independent reviewing officer appointed under this section is sufficiently independent.
(6) In this section ‘sufficiently independent’ means—
(a) having minimal connection to the local authority in question;
(b) having not worked for the local authority in question in the last 10 years;
(c) being previously unconnected to the particular child in question; and
(d) having no conflict of interest.’.
No. 33, in clause 11, page 10, line 18, at end insert—
‘(5) In carrying out his functions in relation to subsection (1)(c) above the independent reviewing officer must—
(a) give information to the child about independent advocacy;
(b) where the need for independent advocacy is identified, require the local authority to make arrangements for the provision of independent advocacy for the child.
(6) For the purposes of this section—
(a) “advocacy” means the provision of independent and confidential information, advice, representation and support to a child;
(b) “independent” means that the person appointed is not connected with the local authority by virtue of being—
(i) a member of the local authority or any of their committees or sub-committees, whether elected or co-opted; or
(ii) an officer of the local authority employed by the Children’s Services Department of that authority; or
(iii) a spouse or civil partner of any such person.’.
No. 36, in clause 11, page 10, line 18, at end insert—
‘(5) In carrying out his functions in relation to subsection (1)(c) above the independent reviewing officer must—
(a) give information to the child about independent advocacy; and
Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): It is a pleasure to see you back in charge of our proceedings, Mr. Pope. Hon. Members will recall that I introduced the amendments on Thursday, albeit briefly. I shall now move on to the specifics.
Amendment No. 35 is a probing amendment to tease out the Government’s thinking on what an independent reviewing officer’s independence means and how they believe that the reviewing officer will be able to do their job independent of the local authority that they are helping. Independent reviewing officers are registered social workers; the local authority for which they carry out their work may employ them or they may be self-employed. In the context of the amendment, that work is participating in the statutory reviews of looked-after children cases, monitoring progress made in accordance with the child’s care plan and reporting their concerns to the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service.
Clause 11 alters those duties by adding more responsibilities. First, each child will know who their independent reviewing officer is. Secondly, the independent reviewing officer will be charged with assessing the child’s views and wishes and with ensuring that they are taken into account at the statutory reviews.
The amendment relates to the proposed new subsection 25B(4) to the Children Act 1989, which begins:
“If the independent reviewing officer is not an officer of the local authority, it is the duty of the authority”.
It goes on to say what those responsibilities are, which include co-operating with the independent reviewing officer. With those words, the Government draw a distinction between a self-employed independent reviewing officer who is engaged to do the work and one whom the local authority employs. Why does that authority not have a duty to co-operate with an independent reviewing officer who is an officer of the local authority? Surely, our job as Parliament is to ensure that, whoever the independent reviewing officer is, they do their job independently, since it has “independent” in the title. An independent reviewing officer employed by a council could be put in a compromising position if we do not say that the local authority is under a duty to co-operate with them as much as it is required to co-operate with outside officers.
The Family Rights Group has trained 250 independent reviewing officers. It has found that the pressures on independent reviewing officers from the local authorities are equally intense, whether they are an officer of the council or self-employed. If they are independent they worry about whether they will get more contracts if they give the local authority a hard time, and if they are an employee they worry about whether it will affect their career progression and future job with the local authority if they give their employer a hard time.
The amendment’s purpose is to ensure that it is the authority’s duty to co-operate with the independent reviewing officer, whether or not they are an officer of the local authority. I shall be interested to hear the Government’s response. I am reminded by my tenuous knowledge of employment law, which goes back to when I practised as a lawyer more then 11 years ago, that it is an employee’s duty to obey “reasonable and lawful instructions” from their employer. A local authority could say to its employee who is going to take part in a statutory review, “You will have regard to the parlous state of our finances when you take part in the review, won’t you?” If they are under that kind of pressure from their local authority and a child is saying to that independent reviewing officer that they want an outcome that is expensive for the local authority, how is an independent reviewing officer to advocate for the child in the statutory review? If the law of the land says it is the duty of the authority to co-operate with its employee in that situation, at least the independent reviewing officer would be able to turn round to the council and say, “Excuse me, but in this situation you have the duty to co-operate with me. I shall therefore do my job independently, as the law requires.” That is the outcome that all in this room would hope to happen on every occasion. That was my purpose in tabling the amendment.
The group of amendments includes No. 12, which is about the independence of independent reviewing officers, and amendment No. 33, which is about independent advocacy for children who are in contact with the independent reviewing officer. I did not table those amendments and will leave it to those who did to explain them.
I did table amendment No. 36 so I will speak briefly to it. It is very similar to amendment No. 33. I must declare a slight interest because some years ago I was a founder member of a citizen advocacy scheme in Staffordshire called ASIST, which is an acronym for Advocacy Services in Staffordshire. It successfully set up a scheme of advocates for adults covering the entire county and many different situations. It has a good combination of employees who are paid to do the work and volunteers who are trained to do it. They work as a team to provide advocacy across the county.
The first time I saw the advocates in action, having helped found the organisation, was when a large mental institution was closed down and people were moved to independent living in the community. Advocates from ASIST were contracted to carry out advocacy on behalf of the residents. I know that this is a bit of a diversion, Mr. Pope, but shockingly, I met a woman in her 80s in the mental institution who had been admitted because she had had a child out of wedlock when she was a young woman. That is amazing in this day and age.
The advocates provided superb skills to people who had been institutionalised for their entire lives. The advocates got to know them, understood their circumstances, learned what their points of view were and articulated their views and wishes to the reviews, which determined where they would live and what support they needed to live independently. I have seen advocacy at first hand through that tremendously successful scheme. To explain my interest further, I am still a patron of ASIST because it did not want to lose contact with me when I was elected to Parliament.
Amendment No. 36 proposes that when an independent reviewing officer seeks the wishes and views of a child, they should tell the child about the availability of independent advocacy services. If the child wanted somebody to speak for them in a statutory review, they could ask somebody to be their advocate and bat for them in front of the professionals in the review.
Some might argue, as did Lord Adonis in the other place, that if the independent review officer’s role is being strengthened and they will be charged with learning what the child thinks and wants, there is no need for an advocate because the independent review officer can do the necessary work on behalf of the child. I disagree with that because if the independent review officer is to stay true to that title, they will take account of the views of the child, the local authority, other professionals and the parents in deciding what is best for the welfare of the child. That might or might not be what the child wants. The point about an advocate is that they are never diverted from speaking up for what the child says the child wants. Ensuring that that voice is heard in the place where it matters the most is an important role.
Mr. Edward Timpson (Crewe and Nantwich) (Con): How does the hon. Gentleman’s scheme of independent advocacy for children through the independent review officer sit with the draft legislation, which is in line with the Adoption and Children Act 2002, and allows for an officer of CAFCASS to be referred by the independent review officer to take on the role as an advocate should the case arise?
Mr. Kidney: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He has offered a way forward on who could be an advocate for a child. A CAFCASS officer is a perfectly acceptable person—independent of everyone in the process—to step in and be that advocate if that is what the child wants. However, we should give the child a diversity of choice. My amendment differs from amendment No. 33, which was fully debated in the other place. That amendment seeks to ensure that the advocate chosen by the child is absolutely independent of the local authority. My amendment does not go that far. If, for example, there is a member of staff in a residential children’s home who has been trained to be an advocate and has gained the appropriate qualification, and a child wants that person to be their advocate, we should not say, “You cannot have that person because they are employed by the local authority so they are not independent.” If the child is confident that that person could speak for them, even against their employers, that is fine by me.
The hon. Gentleman mentions the 2006 Act. I would go back a little further to the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000, because that is when the big debate about advocacy first emerged in Parliament. We were given assurances during the passage of that Act—which came to fruition two years later, I think—that a child in care would have access to an advocate if they wanted to make a complaint or a representation about their care. Fortunately, the number of complaints is quite low, but not many youngsters appreciate that they could have an advocate to make their complaint for them, and they certainly do not know what a representation is. Roger Morgan, the children’s rights director, often has difficulty—even though it is his job—explaining to people that representation could be read widely, and that there could already be many situations where a child could access an advocate if they wanted to. Even wanting to have their voice heard at a statutory review could be classified as a representation. I argue that perhaps the Government have done a good thing in the past, but they have, through the kind of language used and the lack of publicity about representation, denied a lot of access to advocacy to children who already probably could have had recourse to it. Later, one or two new clauses that try to reassert the general access to an advocate that a child should have will be proposed.
I want to draw my comments to a close by referring to the recent report by Roger Morgan, the children’s rights director, on children’s views of advocacy. He gives helpful guidance based on his interviews with children. Children and young people regard the independence of the advocate as important, mainly because the advocate would not be involved with the issue at stake, they would be less judgmental than people closely involved, and the process of consulting with the advocate would be more private. On page 13 of the report it states:
“Many children and young people expressed very strong views about this. Some thought it was important that advocates did not work for the same organisation as the people looking after them. Others thought that advocates should not be people in the same home as themselves.”
That shows a healthy pragmatism on behalf of the children and young people: the advocate would be somebody they trusted and their status—whether or not they were an employee of the local authority—would not necessarily be important.
Roger Morgan asked children when they thought an advocate would be of use. These are some of their answers:
“When you feel like complaining”.
They could already access advocacy in that situation.
“When you’re in a meeting and you don’t understand it”.
It is frightening that the professional process can go on around somebody and they do not know what is happening. A good one is:
“When you’re locked up”.
That is an obvious reason for wanting somebody to say something on your behalf.
“When you have been arrested or in trouble at school or in any other bad situation”.
“When I’m too afraid to ask the council”.
The latter is an enlightening comment, which links to giving people the ability and the confidence to know that with someone’s help they would be able to say the right thing at the right time. The final situation quoted in the report was:
“Whenever you feel unable to speak for yourself”.
As a result, Roger Morgan made some recommendations, and I would like to refer to four of them.
Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): That is interesting. Will the hon. Gentleman indicate whether those views differ across the country?
10.45 am
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