Children and Young Persons Bill [Lords]

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Annette Brooke: Will the hon. Gentleman also consider that a severely disabled child, many miles from the local authority that is providing the services, may have formed a relationship with a visitor to the residential home? It may be easier for somebody who has a close relationship with that child to interpret what they want, rather than a distant independent reviewing officer, however skilled they might be.
Tim Loughton: The hon. Lady makes a good point. The issue of children with disabilities is also relevant to the role of an advocate, as she touched on. One of the consortium papers states:
“Disabled children placed away from home urgently need a right to advocacy.”
The same applies to specialist access to IROs. The paper goes on:
“Disabled children are at least three times more likely to be abused or subjected to demeaning treatment than other children and those living away from home are especially vulnerable. Many children in this situation have little or no contact with their families and are very isolated. Advocates can help these children stay safe.”
Similarly, the whole role of the position is also relevant.
The amendment cites four criteria. It is a probing amendment, and no doubt the Minister will shoot it to pieces when referring to the practicalities of putting it in the Bill, but we think that certain benchmarks are needed to assure the independence of the IRO. IROs should have a minimal connection to the local authority in question. Clearly, it is not sufficient for someone who has long been an officer of an authority to give a judgment on former close colleagues, as their judgment might be coloured by that, rather than the underlying needs and welfare of the child. That is why the amendment proposes that the IROs should not have worked for that authority.
When we debated that during the passage of the Adoption and Children Act 2002, six and a half years ago, we looked at the possibility of the officers coming from neighbouring authorities, but as we know, many social workers who work for local authorities, as with many other officers in children’s services departments, can move around quite a lot, particularly among London boroughs and between the home counties. We therefore propose that the officer should not have worked for the local authority in question in the previous 10 years, as that would ensure a good degree of independence.
Mr. Turner: I am listening with some care to what my hon. Friend is saying. I have a problem, which is that I live on the Isle of Wight. I am sure that he is familiar with that in relation to other issues. If the officer has not worked in 10 years, the problem is that they are likely to have left employment for that time if they lived locally, or they have retired. There is also the question of how up to date their knowledge is. Could my hon. Friend give some indication of how many people we are talking about—one in 10 years, or 20 in 10 years? I know that it is difficult, but that would help make my thoughts clearer.
Tim Loughton: My hon. Friend makes a helpful and probing intervention. The more the Committee’s proceedings continue, the clearer it has become that the Isle of Wight is a separate universe with a microclimate of its own, and that poses all sorts of problems. The narrow stretch of water between Hampshire and the Isle of Wight has much to answer for.
We are not looking at retired social workers, but social workers move around the system a great deal. With the addition of these new practices for social workers, that flow is likely to be greater. We do not want people who are out of date and lack the necessary training, which is why I quoted from the GSCC earlier and commented that IROs would absolutely need to be capable of doing the job, to be registered and to meet all the standards expected of them. In no way are we trying to have a sort of “Dad’s Army” of IROs—I hasten to add, lest I start to get complaints about that analogy, that the Home Guard did a fine job. There is no question of the individuals in question not being trained. My primary concern is that the IRO is not too close to the people who are effectively paying them or giving them the business, and that their absolute primary concern is the welfare of the child.
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I should like to touch briefly on the comments about advocacy. I have in the past supported greater advocacy as applied to certain groups of vulnerable people. I am sympathetic to what the hon. Members for Mid-Dorset and North Poole and for Stafford have said. We may have more of a debate on that when we come to new clause 31, which deals with the subject of advocates. Certainly, the report from the children’s rights director cited by the hon. Gentleman is excellent, as so many of them are. I agree with his comments. I certainly endorse the responses of children who said that it is essential that they can associate and identify with the IROs, and they need to be able talk with them privately and to be assured of their independence.
A costing has been placed on the availability of advocacy for children’s services. An estimate by the National Children’s Advocacy Consortium showed that on the basis of a 15 per cent. take-up, introducing such a service would cost what it described as a relatively modest £3 million, excluding on-costs. Is that an entirely unrealistic figure? Have the Government done their own costing? Whatever the Minister may say, there is a cost element to the reason why advocacy has not been included in the Bill. The Government set an interesting precedent in the Mental Health Act 2007, and I challenge them to say why it was done for that group of people but they do not propose to include it in this Bill.
The hon. Member for Stafford, who also sat on the Committee on that Bill, will remember that well. Advocacy services for people with mental health problems were included in the draft Bill that was first produced in 2004 and they had mysteriously disappeared from the Bill that was introduced after the Queen’s Speech of 2006. After the pre-legislative scrutiny Committee report, the Government put advocacy back in the Bill and are greatly to be congratulated for doing so.
Advocacy was deemed to be essential for people with mental health problems for three main reasons. The first was to ensure a statutory right to an independent mental health advocate for all patients subject to compulsory powers, for which we can substitute “for all children subject to care orders”, in a perfectly legitimate parallel. The second reason was to make patients aware of that right; making children aware would be perfectly legitimate. The third was to ensure that patients have a right to meet their advocate in private. Again, we could substitute “children” and we have already touched on the importance of meeting in private.
The structure and the rationale behind introducing an advocacy entitlement for mental health patients subject to compulsion sits quite easily with a similar entitlement for children subject to care orders. The pre-legislative scrutiny Committee estimated that the whole-time equivalent of 140 advocates, which was the number deemed to be required, would cost approximately £5 million. There was debate about whether those advocates were physically available or not, so there is question of capacity. Although it is early days for that legislation, has that turned out to have been a realistic estimate and how would a similar measure pan out for children?
The Government still do not see that it is appropriate to introduce similar provisions, for perhaps a lower cost, for children subject to the care system. Given that the criteria for mental health patients could easily be transposed to children in the care system, why does the Minister think that the Government were right to make that provision for mental health patients? They were subjected to close scrutiny and a lot of lobbying, and I did not think that they would but, to give them their due, they did. I am keen to push amendment No. 12 as a probing amendment. I have some constructive questions in support of the principle of advocacy and I will be grateful for the Minister’s response on why the same principles could not be applied here.
Mr. Turner: I would like to look at clause 11, to which the hon. Member for Stafford has tabled amendments. I am concerned: that is not to say that I am opposed to the provision but I would like to consider it further. Do the advocates have to give continued and repeated help, or is someone else to do that? My concern is that the advocates will deal with one person one day, another person another day and a third person on a third day. It would be much better if a youngster had continuous help. The problem with these youngsters is that they are likely to be moved from one person to another. Can the Minister ensure that these youngsters have continuous help?
The Minister for Children, Young People and Families (Beverley Hughes): We have had an interesting debate and there is very little difference between the views of Ministers and of hon. Members on both sides of the Committee about what the amendments are trying to achieve and the assurances that they are designed to elicit from me.
Before turning to the specifics of the amendments, I shall reiterate what we were trying to do when we developed the White Paper around four key underpinning principles, one of which was the centrality of the voice of the child. That is why “Care Matters” set out a vision for a care system that systematically and consistently promotes the voice of children and ensures that their voice is heard. Taken together—it is important to see them together—the whole thrust of the proposals is systemic change, with the entire care system being child focused and decisions being made in the best interests of the child after having considered properly the child’s views and needs, just as any parent would. That is the intention of the proposals.
Statutory guidance makes it clear that we expect children to have access to advocates beyond the formal complaints procedure: for example, a child should be able to get the support of an advocate in making representations about changes that may be required to the service that they receive. I therefore say to the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole that I do not think this is a matter of law, but a matter of changing practice through the new statutory guidance. I am not persuaded that providing more advocates for all looked-after children in other circumstances would necessarily achieve what we are all trying to achieve.
To the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham I say that cost was not the primary consideration. Looking at the subject in the round, as we did when developing the policy, we see that there are already many professionals—sometimes a whole plethora—who are involved with and interact with looked-after children. Increasing advocacy for every single child and adding an additional person into that mix can result in more confusion between the adults’ roles and even greater complication of relationships.
We are doing two things. First, to improve children’s participation in decisions about their care, we want to equip all those people who are working closely with them on a day-to-day basis—particularly carers, social workers and designated teachers—with the right skills to ensure that they really are listening to and understanding and taking account of children’s wishes. In particular, in clause 11, we are strengthening the role of the independent reviewing officer.
We also want to improve the practice of social workers who have day-to-day responsibility for children’s cases by setting out in guidance clear expectations for visiting looked-after children wherever they are placed. We are revising the statutory guidance on care planning to make it clear that social workers, too, have a responsibility to communicate properly with children and to record information systematically in the care plans so that care plans are comprehensive and up to date. For the first time, we also provide for new statutory guidance on the role of the independent reviewing officers responsible for monitoring the case as a whole and overseeing regular reviews of the care plan.
I will go through the various elements of how we want to strengthen that role, and I ask Members to think about them as a whole. We will require local authorities to appoint a named IRO for each child to enhance the personal accountability and individual responsibilities of each IRO. We will require IROs to spend time individually with each child before any review, so that that IRO personally establishes the child’s wishes and feelings about the issues that will be covered at the care planning meeting. The example the hon. Lady gave about the child who wanted contact with her sister should simply not happen, and we are going to make that clear.
Mr. Kidney: I am anxious to know whether the word “representation” is deliberate a restriction on the right to advocacy. In the example that the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole gave, if, at a case review, a child wanted it to be made known that he or she wanted to have contact with a brother or sister, would that entitle the child to an advocate to make sure it was said in the meeting?
Beverley Hughes: That is an interesting question. I take “representation” in the terms in which we describe it here, potentially including any aspect of the services the child is receiving. The first and preferred option is to ensure that it is the IRO who raises the issues that are germane to a child’s future. If that is not done, there may be room for advocacy or for some other means of ensuring that it is done.
Mr. Kidney: Is it not too late the day after the case review if it has not been done, and should not my right hon. Friend give a commitment to the Committee that in the new guidance it will be made clear that “representation” should be read very widely and might include the example we have just discussed?
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Beverley Hughes: Yes, I am happy to give the assurance that we want “representation” to be read widely, and to put that on the record.
We also want to introduce a duty on the IRO to monitor the local authority’s performance of its functions in relation to the case. It is important to understand that this duty will extend the IRO’s existing monitoring role, which is confined to the authority’s functions in respect of the review. It gives the reviewing officer a much broader scrutiny and monitoring role of the local authority’s functions in the whole of that child’s case.
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