Children and Young Persons Bill [Lords]

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Lynda Waltho: Indeed, there are schools and residential homes that will not accept children unless they have looked-after status. The work done at Sunfield school in the constituency of the hon. Member for Bromsgrove—it actually has a Stourbridge address, so I feel that it is partly in my constituency too—is absolutely fantastic. It is run by Barry Carpenter and his staff, and it will not accept children without looked-after status. It is so vital that that status is conferred on these children.
Furthermore, conferring looked-after status will improve the transition of these children to adult services; that is something that the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham did not mention. It makes that transition much smoother because, of course, the child is known to the authorities and these children are most likely to have continuing needs.
Recent ministerial statements made in the other place are to be welcomed and they show a movement towards this position of conferring looked-after status, indicating, I hope, that the Government agree broadly that most disabled children in long-term placements, where the local authority has been involved, should really be looked after. However, there is a great deal of confusion around this issue. Local authorities, residential placements and the Government’s own research in 2005 indicate that current guidance is sometimes disregarded.
The Every Disabled Child Matters campaign group and its partners are keen to see the Bill amended to reflect the Government’s move to this position. Such an amendment would send the clearest signal possible to local authorities that they should actively be considering conferring looked-after status in these cases.
I know that the Minister is likely to tell me that guidance already exists and that it is possible to strengthen the regulations. However, as we have already heard, there is evidence that the guidance is confusing, so why not take the opportunity now of amending the Bill effectively while we have the chance to do so, which would send out a strong signal?
I know that the ministerial team has also been looking at providing additional protection for these children by strengthening the visiting regime, but why should we set up a parallel system when we could offer what is really the gold standard of protection for our most vulnerable children and do so now? To suggest an alternative way forward borders on possibly relegating such children to second-class status, and that would not give them the support that looked-after status would. If there is a visiting regime, what status would it have? Would the people in that regime be students, or people unused to, for example, the profound problems and behaviours of a young person with severe autism?
I will briefly mention two case studies. Both children attended Summerfield school, which I have previously referred to. James did not have looked-after status but he should have had it. He had a severe learning disability, but his family was told by the local authority that it was not necessary for him to be looked after. He had no care plan and no formal arrangements to review his placement, except an annual education review. That meeting reviews his statement and his educational needs but not his overall well-being, and that is the important point. His mother has full parental responsibility but does not benefit from any support or assistance from the local authority. James did not have a named social worker. His mother has three other children and is a single parent. She has no car and can only afford to visit him, using public transport, maybe three or four times a year. She is not legally entitled to any assistance.
Adam, on the other hand, has a severe learning disability but is being looked after by his local authority. The local authority and his mother share parental responsibility. Adam has a care plan through which his needs are reviewed within school and on a wider basis. He has regular visits from a named social worker and a review twice a year that is chaired by an independent reviewing officer. Adam’s care plan provides for regular contact to see his mother and transport is paid for by the local authority.
To sum up, looked-after status is about safeguarding planning, target setting and monitoring for our most vulnerable children. For too long, there has been too much confusion from local authorities in this area. This is the time to end the confusion and send the clearest message possible. This is a crucial chance to put the situation right for the first time and create a clear duty that gives disabled children living away from home the same rights to support and protection as their non-disabled peers. I urge the Minister to grasp this chance and actively consider this proposal.
Annette Brooke: Perhaps I should start by endorsing the comments that have been made to avoid being repetitive. I, too, would like to welcome the duty being put on local authorities for short breaks. That is important and is something that the Every Disabled Child Matters campaign fought for. It is important to identify areas where there is no clear legal duty. The new clauses ask local authorities to consider only whether disabled children should have looked-after status. We have been through all the advantages of this measure.
I, too, have looked at the case studies, but have chosen two different ones, which I would like to refer to briefly because they add further points to those that have already been made about vulnerability. This is the example of Thomas:
“Now that social services have given Thomas looked after child status, social services deal with all the difficulties and I can be a parent rather than a social worker.”
I thought that that was the most striking way of describing the advantages of looked-after status. It goes on:
“I also have the energy to be more assertive and to make positive decisions which are in Thomas’ interests, so when we have meetings with the social worker and other people involved with Thomas’ care, I am able to assert my parental authority.”
That is so important. In its way, it is as important as the short breaks in helping the parent to hold together and do the best for their child.
Secondly, I thought that the case study of Mark was rather telling. It states that
“when the government set targets for local authorities to reduce the number of children in the looked after system, we were put under some pressure to de-classify him as a looked after child.”
These parents had to fight to keep looked-after status. That shows how a local authority can respond to something that the Government said for particular reasons in a way that is not acceptable in this day and age and in light of the current debate. It is important to have this legal duty in the Bill to show that every disabled child matters.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Kevin Brennan): Welcome back to the Chair, Mr. Pope.
I have a great deal of sympathy with many of the remarks that have been made. There is accord across the Committee about this group of children and the problems that they face. I acknowledge the campaigning of hon. Members across the House and of the Every Disabled Child Matters campaign. We are all committed to ensuring that children placed away from home are not forgotten and that they are provided with the support and services they need to thrive. We are committed to the sort of change that all Committee members are looking for.
We should be clear that there is no gap in the legislative framework. The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole said that there was no clear legal duty. In fact, clear legal duties are outlined. She quoted somebody from the case study talking about Government targets to reduce the number of people in the looked-after system. The Government have never had any such targets. Sometimes I think that we should have targets to reduce the number of myths about targets that the Government have never had. Of course we have never had such a target and we have explicitly ruled one out for obvious reasons.
As I have said, there is no gap in the legislative framework. Unfortunately, the changes that the new clauses propose would not address the problem that we are all seeking to address, not least because they all have a serious defect. They purport to require the local authority to consider whether a child’s welfare would be best safeguarded and promoted by he or she becoming a looked-after child, but that drafting does not fit with the existing legislative scheme of the Children Act 1989. Although the expression “looked-after child” is a useful shorthand term to refer to the bundle of responsibilities that local authorities owe to a particular group of children under the 1989 Act, in strict legal terms the defining issue is the provision of accommodation. The other responsibilities flow from that, such as the duties to maintain the child and make a plan for their short and long-term care and keep it under regular review, and the new duty to arrange regular visits.
I appreciate the objective that all the new clauses share. They seek to ensure that social services are actively involved in a timely and appropriate manner when a decision is taken to place a child in an institutional setting so that consideration is given in every case to the child’s social care needs. However, not only is the drafting flawed and therefore unacceptable, but the amendments that they would make would have no practical effect. The effect of the amendments to section 85, introduced by new clauses 6 and 33, would add nothing to the existing requirements in the provision whereby local authorities must consider the extent to which, if at all, they should exercise their functions under the 1989 Act with regard to the child. It is not possible for the local authority to perform that duty without considering whether the child is a child in need for the purposes of part 3 of the 1989 Act and therefore what services it should provide.
Similarly, the amendment to the education legislation proposed in new clauses 10 and 34 would have no practical effect. The legislation and the code of practice on special educational needs provide a comprehensive framework that clearly and explicitly requires education officers to seek input from social services professionals before making placement decisions. The legislation also requires education officers to ensure that social services are notified when assessments are carried out, before placement decisions are made and again when the statement of special educations needs is reviewed. Section 85 of the 1989 Act imposes explicit statutory duties on local authorities exercising their education functions and on health bodies to notify the responsible local authorities at the time the placement in made. It also requires those local authorities to consider the extent to which they need to exercise their functions under the 1989 Act in relation to the child.
I agree wholeheartedly that more needs to be done to ensure that those children’s needs are met and that parents are properly supported in maintaining their role. Local authorities must perform all of those duties and obligations and develop with other public bodies a properly integrated approach that is capable of assessing children’s needs in the round and providing a multi-agency service. In particular, authorities must be discouraged from viewing children only through an education or health lens.
We do not agree, however, that these new clauses represent a legislative magic bullet. In our view, the key lies in improving social work practice and local authorities’ strategic planning and delivery. As a Government, we have obviously been striving consistently for more and better multi-agency working. That is why we brought in the Children Act 2004 and developed the children’s trust model of delivery. It is the rationale behind “Every Child Matters”, and that is why we will continue to work hard with local authorities to ensure that current practice, when poor, is brought up to the standard of the best.
The Bill includes provisions that build on and strengthen the existing framework under which local authorities are notified of, monitor and supervise all children who are placed away from home, regardless of the reasons for that placement. The improvements to the notification arrangements set out in clause 18 and the new visiting requirement set out clause 19 will make a practical contribution to improving practice and developing multi-agency working. We will supplement those new duties in the Bill with regulations and statutory guidance that will set out the clear requirements of the local authority visitor’s and our expectations of the services that local authorities should provide to support the active involvement of parents in their children’s lives.
10.15 am
As part of our revision of the statutory—[Interruption.] I will say that again because that was a rather loud ejaculation. As part of our revision of the statutory Children Act guidance, we will also set out our expectations of the actions that social services teams should take when they are alerted by their education colleagues to the likelihood of a child being educated at a residential school and they are involved in the decision making. There should be a presumption in every case that the child is likely to be a child in need, and an initial assessment should be undertaken in line with the framework for assessment of children in need and their families to assess the parents’ capacity to meet the child’s needs in the context of wider family and environmental factors. That assessment will identify whether a more in-depth, core assessment is appropriate.
However, we should be clear on one point, on which I think hon. Members will agree. Although that group of children is vulnerable in general and should therefore be considered for services, we must not forget that the children are all individuals and that their needs and family circumstances will vary depending on how much time they spend with their family, how far the placements are from their homes and whether they are intended to provide for the child in the long term. That is why, in the other place, we cautioned against the previous version of this approach—automatic looked-after status, which would constitute making an inappropriate assumption about family life.
We take these issues very seriously. We have been listening and I again point hon. Members to clauses 18 and 19 as evidence of our commitment to that group of children. Those provisions will be a lever by which to change practice and will support the other changes that we are introducing through work force reform. For example, with children who are placed by health in the national framework for children and young people’s continuing care, which the Department of Health has been working on closely with my Department and is publishing for consultation shortly, there is an emphasis on multi-agency working. We want to ensure that, wherever possible, there are multi-agency decisions involving education and social services on the provision of services to meet children’s long-term health needs, including accommodation provision. Ensuring that the social care needs of such a diverse group of children are met, whilst respecting their wishes, where possible, and their parents wishes, is particularly challenging, especially as their needs and their family’s needs will change as they grow and develop. That is why our clauses provide a solution as part of the wider “Care Matters” agenda, and will drive forward real change.
As I said at the outset, there is accord across the Committee on what we are trying to achieve. However, I understand and have listened closely to what hon. Members have said, and I undertake to look at the issues again. I will consider with my right hon. Friend how we might create the sort of changes that we all envisage, and whether there is anything that we can do, in addition to what I have outlined, to achieve that shared goal. We will continue our dialogue with hon. Members and with the Every Disabled Child Matters campaign, and we will come forward on Report with any conclusions that might be drawn from those further consultations once we have unpacked hon. Members’ practical concerns.
As I have said, we are committed to taking this opportunity to explore and establish best practice in this area, including how local authorities can best support continued parental involvement with a child in a long-term placement, and to capture it in our statutory guidance. On that basis, I hope that hon. Members will not press their amendments.
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