Children and Young Persons Bill [Lords]

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Angela Watkinson: In her investigations, has the hon. Lady found a wide variation across homes in the propensity of young people to abscond? Does she conclude from that that the quality of the staff has a big influence?
Helen Southworth: One of the problems that has been mentioned consistently by some of the excellent social workers and voluntary organisations working in this field, and by the police, are the push and pull factors. Young people can leave something that that they do not like, but they can also be enticed away by people with a vested interested. Young people in residential homes are particularly subject to such enticement. That is one of the reasons why there are so many young people coming into the criminal justice system, and there are some shocking examples of young women involved in prostitution—through people who have sought them out and groomed them—who have not had effective support in the residential homes.
The purpose of the new clauses is clear. It is to ensure that there is an underpinning framework that enables the purpose of the main clause—clause 26—to be achieved. Enforcement can then happen, but on an evidence base that is drawn from all the stakeholders involved in the young person’s well-being.
Kevin Brennan: I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, South for sparking an interesting debate, and I pay tribute—as I have done before—to her diligence in and around this subject. I also thank other hon. Members who participated. The debate has been useful for teasing out some of the issues on inspection—of children’s homes in particular—and what should and should not be reported. I replied not so long ago to an Adjournment debate on the subject, and I am aware of many of the issues that my hon. Friend raised.
On new clause 39, the Government agree very much that it is important that reports from Her Majesty’s chief inspector are available. We entirely agree that local authorities considering placing a child should consider all the available information in making such a decision, including recent inspection reports. As the hon. Lady said, the law currently provides that such reports should be made available. The chief inspector must send a copy of the report to each person who has registered in respect of the establishment, make copies of the report available for inspection at its offices by any person at any reasonable time and take other steps that she considers appropriate for publicising a report. Any person who asks Ofsted for a copy of a report is entitled to one. I know that hon. Members have encountered teething problems with that.
Ofsted is currently consulting on whether to publish its reports. That consultation, which runs until 16 September, seeks the views of the children and young people who live in children’s homes. That is important. Of course, it should also seek the views of hon. Members and I hope that they will give their views to it. The publication of inspection reports on children’s homes is sensitive, as I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, South will acknowledge. Ofsted has not to date published such reports on its website for that reason. While reports do not name individual children, a significant number of homes care only for a small number of children and, in those circumstances, it may be harder to protect children if the reports are widely publicised.
The Government are committed to ensuring that inspection is a fully rounded process, which takes account of all the relevant evidence, including the views of children and others with an interest, such as local authorities placing children in the home and the designated teacher at a school attended by children from the home. Primary legislation is too unwieldy to make that happen. It is essential that the inspectorate is able to tailor its approach within a broad framework to take account of individual and changing circumstances.
Ofsted’s current guidance on inspecting children’s homes is set out in its April 2007 document “Are you ready for your inspection? A guide to inspections of children’s services conducted by Ofsted.” That guidance explains to managers of establishments that they may sometimes be asked to help distribute surveys to stakeholders of their service, for example, to parents, teachers, social workers or health professionals. That is to ensure that as many people as possible linked to the service have the opportunity to express their views and to let Ofsted know what the service does well or could improve.
In practice, of course, Ofsted plans each inspection individually according to the circumstances in each children’s home using, among other sources, the children’s homes self-assessment and the inspection of children’s homes questionnaire, both of which the children’s home complete. They help the Ofsted inspectors to decide which partners should be consulted.
Regarding, for example, the designated teacher at the school attended by the children, we fully agree that it is vital that children’s homes support the education of children in their care effectively. Building strong links with the child’s school is an important part of that. Standard 14 of the “National Minimum Standards for children’s homes” says that the home should have
“an education policy that shows how the home intends to promote and support the education of children throughout the time that they live there”
and, as part of this, the child or young person’s personal education plan should
“set out which staff in the children's home have responsibility for liaising with schools.”
Ofsted’s practice means that a questionnaire on the children’s home may be sent to the designated person at the school, which would be taken into account when preparing an inspection report on the home. In addition, section 32(5) of the Care Standards Act provides that Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector must send a copy of the report to the registered person for an establishment without delay. Prompt reporting of inspection findings is of vital importance to maximise their value and impact.
New clause 38 would require Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector to inform local authorities placing children at a children’s home that she was preparing a report, but would not require her to seek their views. We are not persuaded of the value of such a provision. It would require Ofsted either to create and maintain a list of the placing authority for every child in every children’s home, or to seek this information in respect of each individual inspection, either of which would be administratively cumbersome. Every children’s home is inspected twice a year. Notifying local authorities twice a year before this happens would not serve any clear purpose.
The Government agree that inspections of children’s homes should seek and take account of the views of those with an interest in the effectiveness of the home, and believe that Ofsted takes steps to achieve this. Ofsted has made significant progress in terms of consulting children, parents, local authorities, providers and other key stakeholders. However, the details of how this is done in practice should not be for primary legislation. Within the broad framework set by the legislation, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector is best placed to ensure a flexible and appropriate balance between seeking views and reporting promptly.
New clause 37 requires children’s home providers to collate their statistics on the number of children who go missing from children’s homes and incidences of antisocial and criminal behaviour, and to make that information available on request to the inspectorate. I entirely understand the point that my hon. Friend is making because she raises an important issue. Notwithstanding her point about reporting positive things as well in relation to young people in children’s homes, I am very sympathetic to her reasons for tabling this amendment.
In making placement decisions, local authorities should take all necessary steps to satisfy themselves that the placement is appropriate and is able to meet the assessed needs of the individual child. At an earlier sitting we discussed the factors that may give rise to antisocial and even criminal behaviour by a small minority of children placed in children’s homes. We considered, for example, the effects of inappropriate placements, a long distance from home, and of children feeling “dumped”, as the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham put it. Clearly, we hope that these sorts of placements will become increasingly rare as a direct result of the Bill. While it is of course important for placing authorities to take account of a wide range of information in making placement decisions, that information must be meaningful and useful. It must obviously help local authorities to make the right placement decisions.
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What matters most is that children’s homes take appropriate action to address the behaviour of the children placed there through well trained staff providing the right support and care. As we have discussed, there are steps that should be taken, and the Government are taking them to ensure that that happens.
I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, South will be aware that provisions are in place to enable the chief inspector to consider the information sought by the amendment. The Care Standards Act 2000, which provides the legislative framework for the registration and regulation of children’s homes, includes a general power to make regulations requiring the keeping of records and the notification of events occurring in establishments and agencies. The Act also contains the power for the registration authority to require an establishment or agency to provide any information that it considers necessary when carrying out an inspection.
Regulations provide that the procedure for dealing with any unauthorised absence of a child from a children’s home must be supplied to Ofsted as part of the initial application to register the home. The national minimum standards for children’s homes also refer specifically to the need for the registered person to have such a procedure in place. In addition, there is a regulatory requirement that all incidents of absconding—or whatever term we use—must be noted on the child’s record, and the placing authority must be notified of the incident.
Where there are instances of criminal behaviour, the regulations and national minimum standards are also clear about procedures for making the consequences of unacceptable behaviour clear to staff and children. Any disciplinary measures taken must be appropriate to the incident. The home is required to notify specific serious incidents to Ofsted and to the placing authority.
My hon. Friend has raised some important issues relating to statistics, but for the reasons that I have given, I think that requiring collation from individual records in the way that she suggests is not the best solution. Those are matters for professional judgment in light of the regulatory requirements, the national minimum standards and guidance, rather than for primary legislation. The national minimum standards for children’s homes are to be reviewed this year as part of a review of all sets of national minimum standards for children, and I assure my hon. Friend that the review will consider how to strengthen existing requirements and expectations in the areas that she outlined.
On that basis, I ask my hon. Friend not to press her new clauses, with the assurance that as part of the review of national minimum standards, we will consider closely how we can strengthen existing requirements through those standards.
Helen Southworth: I am of course disappointed in some ways by the Minister’s response, but I hope that it is only a temporary disappointment and that the review of minimum standards and the various regulations attached to the Bill will relieve my concerns and those of other Members. I am sure that both he and Ofsted have taken note of the fact that there is considerable interest in the House in the performance of inspectors, the transparency of inspection reports and, accepting absolutely what he said about respecting young people’s privacy in the process, the need to ensure that people making a decision about those young people have the evidence that they need to make a full and proper decision.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 26 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clauses 27 to 33 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 34

Independent review of determinations relating to adoption
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Annette Brooke: I have a brief question, which I hope the Minister can answer by speaking to the clause. Not having served on the Committee that considered the Adoption and Children Act 2002, although I have served on most Committees considering that sort of Bill, I am not sure of the clause’s full significance.
Kevin Brennan: The amendments made by clause 34 are minor and are being made so that the review mechanisms for adoption and fostering are in line with each other. Subsection (2) clarifies that applications for a review of a qualifying determination are to be made to the appropriate Minister, not to the review panel. On receipt of an application, the appropriate Minister will constitute a review panel to review the qualifying determination. Subsections (3) to (7) remove from review panels the power to recover the cost of a review from the adoption agency that made the qualifying determination under review. Instead, it will be for the appropriate Minister to determine the sum that must be paid by the adoption agency. That will be based on the cost to the appropriate Minister of performing his independent review functions. In anticipation of this question, it will not and must not include any element of profit.
The only practical change for adoption agencies is that the review panel will not include in its written recommendations an order for payment of costs. Prospective adopters will not be affected by any of these changes and there will be no additional work for adoption agencies.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 34 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
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