Children and Young Persons Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Kidney: I refer the hon. Gentleman to the documents and will happily lend him my copy in a moment.
Roger Morgan describes his methodology, which involves a number of interviews across the country and a number of open opportunities for people to make comments, such as through a website or by writing in. It covers the whole of England and so is drawn from across the country. However, he does not individualise the responses, so it is not possible to see where in the country each person made their comments.
Lastly, I want to refer to four of the seven recommendations that Roger Morgan made as a result of the views that he received from children. First, all children who have a right to help from an advocate need to be told about advocacy and how to contact an advocate. That comes back to the point I made earlier about some children not appreciating that they can have an advocate to make a complaint. They certainly do not understand what a representation means and that they can have an advocate for that reason.
Secondly, most advocates should be independent of the organisation looking after the child, although children should be able to choose an advocate they know from their own service if they wish to do so. That is why amendment No. 36 is different from amendment No. 33. Thirdly, children should have a choice of advocate and should be able to change their advocate if they do not get on with them. That is a matter of practice, but it requires a diversity of providers of advocacy services to be available. Fourthly, children should be able to have the help of an advocate if they need one to help get their views across and not only in relation to complaints.
That is another example of Roger Morgan using his experience to say that although the law perhaps intended a wider access to advocacy, it is mostly coming through in connection with the making of complaints. Therefore, I hope that the amendments can provoke a debate that leads us to see that some changes to advocacy services will definitely be needed in the future. Those could be achieved through changing the law or through the guidance and practice that comes next.
Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr. Pope. Amendment No. 35 seems eminently sensible to me. I will wait to hear the Minister’s reassurance that it is not necessary, but I think that it addresses some important points. Indeed, I will perhaps inadvertently touch on some of the points addressed by amendment No. 12, because it seems that the way the position of independent reviewing officer is being set up will make swaps between local authorities more likely, which will be useful.
I live within a unitary authority that is adjacent to another unitary authority so I know from experience that, with regard to careers, there is a great deal of movement between the two unitary authorities. Because of their proximity, it is highly likely that someone in one authority will have worked for the other. People tend to stay in our area once they have moved down. It is important to ensure that we are covering all independent review officers.
The hon. Member for Stafford made the point about self-employed independent reviewing officers who might find it difficult to make challenges for fear that contracts might not be awarded in the future. My concern is about inhibitions or obstacles on the part of the local authority, which mean that the case cannot be strongly put for the child receiving the sort of services that they should receive. The amendment seeks to ensure that local authorities co-operate with independent reviewing officers, whatever their status. To my mind, that would ensure that we have effective challenges on behalf of all looked-after children, regardless of the independent reviewing officer’s employment status.
I made a note that on amendment No. 12 I would listen carefully to the arguments before pronouncing. I shall stick to that so the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham can be assured that I will be listening.
Amendment No. 33 was tabled in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion. I have also supported amendment No. 36. As has already been said, there is a great similarity between the two amendments. There is a difference in that amendment No. 33 contains a more comprehensive interpretation of the term independent. There is probably a balance here: there should be confidence in the independence, but equally it is important that whoever the person is, they have the total trust of the child. The important point and the thrust of the two amendments is the aspect of the independence and the need for advocacy.
I have been impressed by just how many organisations and professionals from the whole spectrum believe there is a need for independent advocacy. Indeed, 30 different organisations have signed the joint statement on it. I have spoken to professionals right across the field and they all suggest that there is a need for more advocacy. Perhaps most important of all, the children themselves want independent advocacy.
Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): My hon. Friend has mentioned the extensive number of organisations that support our amendment. Would she agree that it is also a question of practice across the United Kingdom and elsewhere? Wales is very much leading the way in terms of the development of independent advocacy. The Assembly’s Children and Young People’s Committee has recommended having an advocacy unit within the Assembly, as well as a national body to provide advocacy services for children.
Annette Brooke: I thank my hon. Friend. I hope that the Minister will be able to touch on that point about equality of service across the UK. Going back to the many supporters of independent advocacy, it would be remiss of me not to refer to the famous reference in 1997. Sir William Utting’s report “People like Us” concluded that looked-after children needed independent advocacy as a source of protection and a means of making their voice heard. There is certainly evidence to suggest that professional advocacy input leads to better decision making and that children’s outcomes are improved as a result.
At a recent meeting of the Children, Schools and Families Committee, I asked the Minister about children with physical difficulties. If a child has such severe physical difficulties that they are placed quite a long way way from home in specialist residential accommodation, surely there is a need for advocacy. It has been drawn to my attention that that might be a situation where the relationship with the child is an important determinant of the choice of advocate at that point. Being able to interpret the wishes and feelings of children who perhaps cannot communicate fully themselves is such a delicate thing.
I also mentioned mental disabilities. Sadly, many children who are brought into care are likely to have been abused in some way or other. They may have the greatest difficulty expressing their views for that reason. I was heartened by the Minister’s response, which I interpreted to be that in such cases as I described, it would be difficult to think that advocacy would not be needed. I am looking for at least an acknowledgment that independent advocacy is necessary in a number of cases. Perhaps we will need a roll-out process, but surely we should start somewhere by making sure that there is an absolute right to it.
The independent review officer role has been strengthened and I welcome that, but I do not believe that the enhanced role meets the needs of more children to have access to professional independent advocacy. The expression of the child’s views in the decision-making process by an independent review officer who is responsible for facilitating its outcomes is quite distinct from the representation of those views by an advocate who is independent of the process. Review officers cannot practically be expected to enable the necessary participation of the child in the review process, despite the existing requirement in regulations to ensure that the voice of the child is conveyed to the review.
Children still tell the various children’s organisations that they do not feel they are listened to. The hon. Member for Stafford has just given us some examples. One child said of his experience, “I told the IRO that I wanted contact with my sister, but that did not come up at the meeting.” That sounds remarkably odd. Independent review officers have significant responsibilities in relation to chairing review meetings, which means that they do not have the capacity to give young people the dedicated support necessary to ensure that their views can be clearly represented. Chairing a meeting and putting views forward are clearly quite different roles. Moreover, the IRO has to act in the best interests of the child. It is possible that they concluded that what the child wanted was contrary to the child’s best interests. In that situation, would an IRO be able to represent the views of the child as well?
Better decision making can save money in the end. I urge the Ministers to think again and to give further consideration to a statutory right to independent advocacy whenever significant decisions are being made in the lives of looked-after children, and not just when they have cause to complain. That would be integral to the whole Government policy of improving outcomes for children in the care system.
Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): May I welcome you back to the Chair, Mr. Pope? I want to speak primarily to amendment No. 12. I agree with much of what has been said by the hon. Members for Stafford and for Mid-Dorset and North Poole and I will touch on the subject of advocacy at the end of my comments. I agree that there is a case for a greater use of advocacy before things reach the crisis stage and something has gone wrong. I certainly agree with the method behind the hon. Gentleman’s amendment in trying to tease out the independence of the IRO and argue for greater independence. I am approaching the matter from that same angle.
I went back over the Committee proceedings of the Adoption and Children Act 2002, back in those heady days of 2001-02 when I was in the same role as today, leading for the Opposition. The current Home Secretary was leading for the Government. Great things happen to some people and not to others. That was the piece of legislation that set up the IROs. They came in on an statutory basis in 2004. In another place, Lord Adonis made it clear that the primary role of the IRO was to ensure that the child’s wishes and feelings are listened to. He said:
“The role of the IRO is central to ensuring that the voice of the child is heard. Therefore, Clause 11 introduces a specific duty on the IRO to ensure that the wishes and feelings of the child are given due consideration in care planning.”
He went on:
“The IRO will support children’s active engagement with the care planning process, ensuring that there is greater scrutiny of the care plan for each child in care and making sure that children and young people are informed about their rights if they consider that they have been treated unfairly.”—[Official Report, House of Lords,17 January 2008; Vol. 697, c. GC581.]
None of us would disagree with that.
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I challenged the then Health Minister, who is now the Home Secretary, about the independence of the IRO when debating the Adoption and Children Act 2002. That was an important consideration for many of us when the legislation first came in. She said:
“It is vital that reviewing officers are independent of the case management and perhaps the social services department in the authority.”—[Official Report, 20 May 2002; Vol. 386, c. 61.]
I was making the case for an IRO being completely disconnected in terms of previous employment and engagement from the responsible social services department, which would now be the children’s services department. That is what lies behind amendment No. 12.
Since the independent reviewing officers became statutory in September 2004, their functions have been set out. They are there to monitor the local authority’s plans for a looked-after child and, where appropriate, to refer the case to CAFCASS. Will the Minister say how many referrals there have been to CAFCASS, whether that has put a lot of pressure on it and whether it has been able to deal with it? Has that even been a consideration?
The amendment is designed to get around a potential conflict of interests. I made this point during the passage of the 2002 Act and other hon. Members expressed similar concerns. There are obviously difficulties for officers who are employed by the authority and who, in effect, have to challenge their employers, to whom they are contractually accountable; whereas officers who are self-employed risk not being given any further work if they are too challenging and are perceived to be a thorn in the local authority’s side. There is clear potential for a conflict of interests and for an IRO “dumbing down” any criticism of a local authority because it might think that that officer is a bit of a pain and will think again about whether to keep on or give him future case work.
Mr. Timpson: Does my hon. Friend agree that in the strengthening and widening of the IRO’s role, the perception of the independence of that role on the part of parents and children is important? In the current system, particularly as part of the care planning process in the court arena, we see parents challenging the work of social workers. The court then has to employ an independent social worker from outside the local authority to carry out a further piece of work, thereby adding to the cost of the process. Is there not a danger that with the strengthening and widening of the role of the IRO, the perception of independence will decrease rather than increase?
Tim Loughton: My hon. Friend is absolutely right and has clearly seen that happen in his former job. It is crucial that the independence of the reviewing officer is seen in practice, particularly by the family so that they have confidence in the whole system. The burden of proof is on the Government and the authorities operating the system to show that the IRO is absolutely independent and makes decisions based entirely on the welfare and interests of the child and his family, rather than on any subsidiary interests of the employing authority, for which it might be rather inconvenient if a decision went the wrong way. It is therefore crucial that we get it right.
When the IRO was first established, I welcomed it, and we welcome the widening of that role, but it will not have the necessary effect unless the IRO’s independence and integrity are kept sacrosanct.
Mr. Kidney: Is it not difficult to pursue independence to the state of perfection? The hon. Gentleman’s amendment seeks to make authorities pay for outsiders in every case. Clause 12 is about perhaps setting up a completely independent body, just to do the job. Does it not get more and more expensive but never achieve what he might call the perfection of independence? Is not the better solution the sort of independent reviewing officer that we have now as well as decent advocacy services for children? That would save us all this expense and worry.
Tim Loughton: I am grateful that the hon. Gentleman described my amendments as near perfection—he has certainly not done that before. I may return to the exact terminology of the amendments and explain why they are practical rather than idealistic.
In its brief, the General Social Care Council raises points about the qualifications and training of the IRO, and reasserts that it is essential that GSCC registration is a requirement. The council wishes to be involved in the development of the regulations, and it believes that IROs should have appropriate training and accreditation. It would be useful if the Minister commented on that. Clearly, part of the confidence in the role of the IRO is linked to their qualifications and ability to do the job.
The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole touched on, albeit more in relation to the advocate, the particular needs of children with disabilities in communicating their wishes. During the debate in the Lords, Lord Adonis said that he will
“ensure through statutory guidance that children with communication difficulties or complex needs are supported either by an IRO with the skills necessary to facilitate care planning and to elicit the views of children with communication difficulties or complex needs, or through an IRO who has access to specialist input from someone who has these skills to ensure that the child’s views are elicited and put forward effectively.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 16 January 2008; Vol. 697, c. GC530.]
That is reassuring, but I am concerned though whether that will happen in practice and whether there are people capable of performing that role.
We know how short of skilled social workers we are. We will be even more short of skilled social workers if more of them are hived off to be IROs and to do other specialist jobs for which a social work qualification is needed. We desperately need more social workers—that is the solution. I would appreciate a comment from the Minister on how the capacity of the system can cope with the particular communication skills required, as described by her noble friend Lord Adonis. If that capacity is not satisfactory at the moment, how will it become so, and how soon will we be at that stage?
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