Children and Young Persons Bill [Lords]

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Angela Watkinson: The right hon. Lady’s comments have led me to take a closer look at the new clause. The wording says “where appropriate” and “any other reasonable intervention”, so it is not suggesting that family group conferencing should be an exclusive strategy.
Beverley Hughes: Putting that method in the Bill gives it pre-eminence and means that the local authority should consider it above any other methods that they would use. That is the point I am trying to make in relation to the 1989 Act. I understand that stakeholders have concerns and I would like to join in the references made to NCH because it has done a great deal to take forward improved methods of working with children and families. We have adopted many of those methods—not only family group conferencing, but family intervention projects, which I will mention in a moment.
Tim Loughton: I would like to probe the matter further because I want the Minister to give examples of what other methods, as she described it, would be de-prioritised by the insertion of the new clause.
Beverley Hughes: I was just coming to that point. For three specific reasons, the right way to promote the use of family group conferencing is to do what we do already: suffuse our documents with references to family group conferences; continue to develop the knowledge, training and expertise required; and put the method in the context of a focus on early intervention and prevention. However, we should also recognise that it is not the only method. In relation to the point at which family group conferencing is used at the moment—in the context of a child possibly being accommodated—we are developing other options that bring families together at a much earlier stage, for example, when children show difficulties that are identified in primary school. We also have the family pathfinders project, the family intervention projects that NCH has helped us to develop, and the family nurse partnerships, which for the first time identify the need to support disadvantaged mothers at the point of birth. That support continues to be provided by a specially trained health visitor over two years to try to prevent the need further down the line for a family group conference to discuss whether the child needs to be accommodated.
For those reasons, I do not want to fetter local authorities with one particular method. I support the method when it is necessary and think that it can achieve some excellent results, but in relation to the panoply of intervening much earlier in families and the wide range of alternatives that are now being developed, we should stick with the spirit of the 1989 Act.
I say to the hon. Member for Upminster that the amendment to new clause 5, which requires family group conferencing to be considered where appropriate, adds nothing to the existing requirement in section 17 of the 1989 Act for local authorities to consider whatever is necessary, as appropriate.
Mr. Kidney: I am looking for a way forward that does not involve primary legislation. My right hon. Friend mentioned the publication “Working Together to Safeguard Children” and the tool kit, which is welcome. Clearly, when the Act is passed, it will include new guidance incorporating what we have said about clause 9 and the new consideration of kinship care. Am I right in saying that when social workers consider taking care proceedings, they have a kind of handbook so they can check everything they need to before and so they have evidence they have done so? Would my right hon. Friend undertake to consider those different documents in the round, to see whether together we could apply that focus that she mentioned suffusing all the documents, with consideration of how the family group conference might be a helpful tool in kinship care cases, for example?
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Beverley Hughes: I am certainly happy to reiterate that, as my hon. Friend said, I will undertake to continue to suffuse all the relevant documents with a reference to family group conferencing and a range of other methods, to ensure the early intervention that members of the Committee rightly want to see. I share that objective, but I hope that the Committee will accept that it would not be right to specify one particular method in the Bill. We can, however, use the other available mechanisms to inform and shape social work practice—the guidance that my hon. Friends referred to—and I undertake to do that. I hope, therefore, that my hon. Friends will feel able to withdraw the new clause.
Tim Loughton: I am slightly disappointed, to start with, about the reference to the more elegant of the proposed new clauses—I did not come into politics to be elegant. I came into politics to get something done, to create meaningful legislation and I am perfectly prepared to cast aside elegance in the pursuit of brevity and succinctness, of which our new clause is the epitome. It goes to the heart of the matter slightly less elegantly, but more practically, than the new clause tabled by the hon. Member for Stafford, but I did not seek to undermine it in any way and I shall not do so now. Both new clauses would add something to the Bill.
I was disappointed by the Minister because I do not think that the new clause would fetter, as she put it, the ability or flexibility of social workers and local authorities and I was not convinced by her response to my request regarding what other matters would be deprioritised by inserting the new clause. My hon. Friend the Member for Upminster made some pertinent points about the origins of family conferencing and how important and effective it has been, in the second reference of the day to New Zealand, from which we can clearly learn quite a lot.
I shall not press the new clause, but if we were to come back to this issue on Report—the hon. Member for Stafford has mentioned possible uses within the tool kit or with guidance elsewhere. Given that the Bill may not Report for some months, it might be useful for the Minister to report back on the use of family group conferencing and how it is growing. It is currently happening according to a postcode lottery and too few placements are kinship placements, which would have a far greater likelihood of success if they resulted from family group conferencing—if it was still necessary for the child to go into the care system. On that basis, the Minister’s comments on that would help. The Minister may have sympathised with what we are trying to achieve, but many of us think that the proposal needs to have more force and a bit more bite.
Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): I am concerned. Does the Minister read the new clause as recommending something that one does sometime during the process, or is it to happen at the end, almost as the last chance that a child has to remain in their home?
Tim Loughton: Our new clause would not fetter the chronology of that process at all, it just states:
“Before a child is committed into care, the local authority must, where appropriate, offer a family group conference and”—
perhaps it should read “or”—
“any other reasonable intervention which may alleviate the need for a child to be put into care.”
The family group conference could be the first thing to take place, it could be the very last thing to take place and if it was not successful then care proceedings might be triggered, or it could happen partway through the journey of dealing with a vulnerable child. I do not agree that the new clause would fetter the process. I will rephrase the new clause for Report. I will be grateful if in a few months’ time, perhaps at Report, the Minister could detail how the use of family group conferencing is growing. If it is not growing or if the figures are stalling, still low or unrepresentative of cases up and down the country, we will want to pursue it more aggressively.
Mr. Kidney: I am always keen to be positive and helpful. A long time ago when the hon. Gentleman moved new clause 1, which, with its looked-after children welfare checklist, also referred to the desirability of keeping children with their families with the correct package of support, the then Minister offered to brigade the different laws and guidance to show us that those points were covered. This dovetails into that, because when we want to know about family group conferences, we want to know about how they relate to the points in the hon. Gentleman’s welfare checklist, do we not? It is reasonable to ask the Minister be ready by Report to be able to tell us about family group conferencing practice on the ground.
Tim Loughton: The hon. Gentleman makes a helpful point and I am always keen to be reasonable, as he knows. In the interests of reasonableness and of speeding along the Committee’s activity, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.
Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

New Clause 6

Looked after status
‘(1) The 1989 Act is amended as follows.
(2) After section 85(4) insert “; and
(c) in the exercise of their functions under paragraph (b) consider whether the child’s welfare is best safeguarded and promoted by being a looked-after child.”’.—[Tim Loughton.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
Tim Loughton: I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
New clause 10—Long-term placements—
‘In section 324 (c.56) (statement of special educational needs), of the Education Act 1996, at end insert—
“(7A) Where a statement specifies a school or type of school that would result in a child not ordinarily being resident with their parent, the authority shall consider whether the child’s welfare is best safeguarded and promoted by being a looked after child.
New clause 33—Looked after status for children in health settings etc.—
‘(1) The 1989 Act is amended as follows.
(2) After section 85(4)(b) insert “; and
(c) in the exercise of their functions under sub-paragraph (b) the authority shall conduct a children in need assessment under section 17 for the purpose of determining whether the child’s welfare is best safeguarded and promoted by being a looked-after child.”’.
New clause 34—Looked after status for disabled children in education settings—
‘In the Education Act 1996, section 324, at end insert—
“(8) Where a statement specifies a school or type of school that would result in a child not ordinarily being resident with their parent, the authority shall carry out a children in need assessment under section 17 of the Children Act 1989, for the purposes of determining whether the child’s welfare is best safeguarded and promoted by being a looked after child.
(9) The assessment specified in subsection (8) above shall be carried out as soon as reasonably practicable and no more than 14 days after the date the statement is issued.”’.
Tim Loughton: New clauses 6 and 10 deal with children with disabilities in long-term placements. The issue has been raised in the Lords and it is a campaign by the Every Disabled Child Matters group. All of us in Committee sympathise with what that group has achieved; it has been very effective. I do not understand why the Government were not more sympathetic to adopting the proposal in another place, so I will be grateful for more clarification from the Minister in this place.
The Every Disabled Child Matters campaign welcomes the progress that the House of Lords made to improve the Bill for disabled children and young people, as do we. Part of that was the short breaks from caring provision, which we debated earlier and is greatly welcomed.
The new clauses would require local authorities to consider whether disabled children in long-term residential placements should have the protection and support of looked-after children status. They retain the flexibility to ensure that the right solution is found for each child and family, but make sure that every child placed away from home will have their safeguarding needs properly considered.
Looked-after status should include disabled children in long-term residential placements in education or health settings, some of whom are away from home for 52 weeks of the year with little or no parental contact. Looked-after status would provide a package of support for those children, including a contact plan to support parents to maintain contact with their children while they are away from home. We are talking about severely disabled children who require specialist placements. Those placements are few and far between and for many children will inevitably mean being a long distance from home, with implications and practical problems for keeping contact with their parents and other people looking out for them.
The few homes that offer those specialist services do a fantastic job. I have visited many of them and have seen the services and the dedication of the staff. Those long-term placements are for children who are not in the care system on account of having been taken away from their birth parents because of abuse or other problems, but who are living away from their parents because they are severely disabled and require the intensive and specialist support that many of the homes and education or health settings offer.
The Every Disabled Child Matters campaign thinks that there is a gap in the system. The 2005 review of disabled children in residential placements recommended a more consistent application of looked-after status for disabled children spending long periods in residential placements, particularly those are far from home. That recommendation recognises that disabled children are three times more likely to be subject to abuse than their non-disabled peers, and therefore require much more robust child protection measures and support from the placing authority. There is widespread confusion on the part of residential settings, local authorities and parents about that, and Government research shows that guidance is too often disregarded. We are not talking about an enormous body of children. Recent statistics show that 338 children are placed in residential accommodation for 52 weeks of the year without the protection of looked-after status. The new clauses would send a clear message to local authorities that they should consider looked-after status for disabled children in long-term placements, to determine whether or not that is the best way to keep them safe.
The current system for allocating looked-after status is inconsistent and confusing for families, and it is not optimal for safeguarding vulnerable children. We are not trying to undermine the voice of the parents; the proposed approach would support the creation of partnerships between parents and local authorities, and those partnerships would maintain parental rights and responsibilities as set out in section 20 of the Children Act 1989. That section was designed as an opportunity to create such partnerships, and placements made under it are based on a voluntary arrangement between the local authority and the child’s parents. That does not affect parental responsibility, which remains with the natural parents. We are not stepping in to override the parents’ wishes and be unduly nannying.
To conclude, I shall outline the benefits of looked-after status for this small body of children. Disabled children living away from home without looked-after status miss out on a range of measures to support and protect their welfare. If looked-after status were given to those children, they could receive an allocated social worker, and a care plan that identified their needs and how those should be met, and which included the views and wishes of the child and their family. There would also be a health assessment and health plan, and a contact plan to promote contact between the child and their family, along with access to support for the costs associated with visits from the family. There would be an allocated independent reviewing officer to monitor implementation of the care plan and to ensure that the child’s views were being taken into account, and finally there would be regular reviews of the placement, and access to after care advice and assistance to support the young person’s successful move on from the placement.
Lynda Waltho (Stourbridge) (Lab): I rise to speak to new clauses 33 and 34 in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East.
I am particularly keen to ensure that the Bill supports and protects disabled children who live away from home, many—as the hon. Gentleman said—of whom have profound communication difficulties. Those children are the least able to tell anybody how they feel—whether they are happy, settled or frustrated, or possibly scared or frightened. Those children are truly the most vulnerable of the vulnerable and that means that the state has to play a far larger role. The Bill provides us with a key opportunity to ensure that local authorities actively consider the welfare needs of disabled children when arranging long-term placements, some of which are for 52 weeks of the year. To include such a duty would represent part of the joining up of the “Every Child Matters” agenda, so that it would really work and every disabled child would truly matter, alongside their peers. There is no clear legislation that ensures that local authorities consider whether looked-after status would best protect the welfare of a child being placed away from home, in either a long-term educational setting or a health setting. Interestingly, however, when a child is placed away from home during a crisis, even if it is only for one night, that child automatically has looked-after status.
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Children who will be living away from home for a large part of the year should have access to the benefits of looked-after status. It is really the gold standard, and offers almost the shopping list of benefits that the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham read out; that is so important. All of those benefits are so vital to these vulnerable children: the allocated social worker; the care plan; the health plan, and the contact plan. Of course, if they do not get that looked-after status, they will only get a once-a-year review of their statement, and there is such a wide disparity there.
Kerry McCarthy (Bristol, East) (Lab): As my hon. Friend mentioned, I have seconded the new clauses. Is it not the case that some placements are not available to children unless they have looked-after status, because of the extra support that goes with it?
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