Children and Young Persons Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Timpson: I am grateful to the Minister for that reassurance, and it is reassurance. He is clearly sympathetic and accepts the thrust behind our amendments in principle. It is heartening to see that there is movement with the commitments made under the review of the national minimum standards, particularly on fees. I will read with interest what the Minister provides on anonymity, but, again, I am heartened that he agrees with our position in principle. On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.
Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

New Clause 16

Medical records of adopted children
‘Local authorities must make provision for the parents of children given for adoption to deposit medical records which may include samples of their DNA as part of the child’s medical record to be made available to the medical practitioner responsible for the 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 21—Duty to keep records—
‘(1) It shall be the duty of every local authority and voluntary organisation that looks after or provides accommodation for a child to maintain records prescribed by regulations.
(2) Regulations may provide for the transfer of records held by a voluntary organisation to another voluntary organisation or local authority.’.
New clause 22—Duty to provide access to records—
‘(1) A post-care adult has the right, at his request, to receive from the local authority or voluntary organisation holding his care records:—
(a) all the information relating to his personal history;
(b) all relevant information relating to his family history.
(2) Subsection (1) does not apply to a request for information in circumstances where the local authority or voluntary organisation is authorised by regulations to withhold the information or any part of it.
(3) Regulations may provide for local authorities and voluntary organisations to provide appropriate support, including information and advice, to post-care adults if requested.
(4) The regulations may provide for circumstances in which the local authority or voluntary organisation holding the records may arrange for another local authority or voluntary organisation near the post care adult’s home to provide access to the records and support.
(5) In this section “post care adult” means a person aged 18 and over who has at any time been in the care of, or looked after or accommodated by, a local authority or voluntary organisation.’.
Tim Loughton: I do not wish to delay the Committee for too long. New clause 16 is a probing amendment. I am in sympathy with new clauses 21 and 22 in the name of the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole and others. I want to focus on health records. We had a discussion on that and the problems that occur on the Adoption and Children Bill. I am involved with a charity called Cardiac Risk in the Young, which will be holding an annual reception on the Terrace before long. It deals with the tragedy of young people who drop down dead all of a sudden due to a congenital heart defect about which they knew nothing, often relating to problems inherited from parents or defects that could have been detected or been scanned for and dealt with before the fatality happened. As we discussed during the Adoption and Children Bill, there are cases of children who develop a genetic disease later in life, without any knowledge that they may have inherited it from a birth parent with whom they no longer have contact and/or knowledge of.
The purpose of new clauses 21 and 22, which were proposed by BAAF, is to ensure that the lifelong needs of post-care adults are not overlooked during debates on the reform of the care system. It is paramount, when appropriate, that a child who has been through the care system should be able to access the medical records of their birth parents, or that those medical records should be available to the person responsible for caring for that child, so that when the child becomes an adult he or she can refer to them to see whether they mention anything that might prejudice their health later in life.
The idea of a genetic key has been mentioned. For those children who end up in the care system and then go for adoption, there should be a formalised system for keeping their health records and the records of their birth parents safely, so that they can be made available to the children and the children’s health advisers when appropriate. Although it is common sense for that to happen, it does not happen often enough.
When children are pushed from one placement to another, and have unsettled lives, the capacity for medical records to go missing is exacerbated. We know that a large number of children in the care system have not had the basic vaccinations, so their health outcomes are already prejudiced. They do not have access to some of the basic medical preventions that are available to the rest of the population.
The new clauses are probing, to see whether such provisions are necessary and, if it is not already good practice, whether the Government would consider them as a basis for spreading good guidance, so that a directive along those lines could be issued to local authorities.
Annette Brooke: I shall speak to new clauses 21 and 22. I do not disagree with anything said by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham. The purpose of the clauses are linked. The first is on the duty to keep records. Whatever should be in those records and how it should be transferred would, I assume, be dealt with in regulation. The details and possibly the medical records, too, could be the subject of regulation. The second is on the duty to provide access to records, on which I particularly want to speak.
Requests by post-care adults for access to childhood information held in records retained by the local authority come under the Data Protection Act 1998. That Act, however, is not an effective way of meeting the information needs of post-care adults. It imposes restrictions on birth party information, and it does not take account of the plight of post-care adults who want to obtain their family history and details of their parents and siblings.
For many years, rightly so, legislation has been in place to assist adopted people to access support. Today, I am looking for equality of treatment. The same opportunities do not extend to post-care adults, and it could be argued that until they do so those adults will continue to receive a second-rate service, compared with adopted people.
Mr. Kidney: I wanted to intervene to say that I support the new clause, which is why my name appears against it. I do not wish to make a speech. Is not the crux of the matter that there is a legislative framework for adopted children as adults to access their records and learn more about their history, but there is no such framework for adults who were children in care? Those adults have to fall back on the Data Protection Act, which was not meant for that purpose and actually gets in the way.
Annette Brooke: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He knows that I am using the BAAF briefing, so he probably anticipated where I was heading. There is an action on access group which is calling for a legislative framework that would enable post-care adults to access information so that they could have a coherent and personal account of their origins and time in care. It also calls for the availability of advice and support that post-care adults can request if they wish, including intermediary services to help to locate and contact family members, and for an audit of statutory and voluntary sector records to be undertaken and published, to enable post-care adults to know where records can be found. Clearly, a lot more needs to be done for that group of people.
I would like to pay tribute to my noble Friend Baroness Barker who has raised the issue on a number of occasions in the other place, most recently during the passage of this Bill. Lord Adonis said that the House of Lords was
“indebted to the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, for raising the critical issue of how best to ensure proper access to information and related services, not only by those who have been adopted but by those who have been in care.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 14 June 2005; Vol. 672, c. 1189.]
Therefore the consideration today is: “It is a critical issue, but can it be addressed please?”
Kevin Brennan: I will do my very best to satisfy as many people as I can before the bell tolls.
On new clause 16, we agree that where a child is adopted it is important for their GP to have full and accurate medical information in order to meet that child’s health needs. It is equally important that local authorities have full and accurate medical information about a child where adoption is the plan, and that the child’s adoptive parents are also given that information. That provision already exists in regulations, and I will not go through the regulations now because I seek to keep the Committee happy. However, I shall write to everybody and set out—perhaps in full—what those regulations are and why I think that they are satisfactory. There is nothing to prevent birth parents from approaching the local authority and asking it to pass on new medical information to the child’s adoptive parents and GP. There should be a balance between the interests of the child, and the privacy of birth parents and the confidentiality of medical records. That is a difficult balance to strike. However, local authorities are required to record detailed information about a child’s health and medical history, and must arrange for regular assessments of the child’s health and take health matters into account in regular reviews of the child’s case.
2.30 pm
New clauses 21 and 22 relate to looked-after children. Looked-after children are not covered by the support and assistance under the Adoption and Children Act 2002. The hon. Lady mentioned intermediary services which was my own addition to that Act. I accept that formerly looked-after children do not have access to the same services, but there are important distinctions between the two groups. Looked-after children did not change their name or identity. The overwhelming majority returned to their families during the course of their childhoods. That is a vital distinction.
Most children do not typically spend a significant period of time being looked after before a permanent arrangement for their care is made either with a parent, another family member or an adoptive parent. These two new clauses are not necessary because the appropriate statutory framework exists. I shall not set out again what that is. The hon. Lady is familiar with it and I will again write to members of the Committee with the full details of the regulations that I am talking about.
There will be individual adults who are trying to piece together information about their time in the care system from a long time ago. Although the Data Protection Act provides for access to personal information, if records are incomplete then, sadly, no new legislative provision would be able to conjure up non-existent records. Record-keeping is now much more consistent. The guidance is clearer than it has been in previous decades. The Children Act 1989 sets a better framework than previously existed. The integrated children’s system and the detailed resources being produced to support it aim to improve record keeping still further.
While I do not agree with the hon. Lady that we need primary legislation, we recognise that practice varies. Existing guidance already highlights the need for local authorities to handle these issues sensitively and provide appropriate support. In the planned revision of the statutory guidance to the Children Act there is an opportunity to update the existing guidance to local authorities and to ensure that the current best practice is promoted more widely. I will seek to do that.
Mr. Kidney: The briefing from BAAF, to which the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole referred, anticipates that the Minister will say that the guidance is adequate, so there is no need for primary legislation. Does he not understand that BAAF, Barnardo’s, the Care Leavers Association, the Catholic Children’s Society, the Children’s Society, the National Children’s Bureau, the National Leaving Care Advisory Service, the NCH, the Post Care Forum, Voice and the Who Cares? Trust all say that the present legislative framework is out of date and inadequate? It has been overtaken by the Data Protection Act 1998 and that gets in the way of people having access to records that are relevant to their own identity.
Kevin Brennan: I realise that I am outnumbered. I take the hon. Gentleman’s point very seriously and I will look carefully at what they have to say. But I also give an undertaking that during the planned revision of the Children Act statutory guidance we will look at updating the existing guidance for local authorities and we will try to ensure that current best practice is promoted. On that basis, I hope that hon. Members will not press these new clauses.
Tim Loughton: I am grateful for that response. We have had an interesting debate. I am particularly pleased that the Minister has undertaken to write to us with further details. I moved my last new clause and I am equally delighted to withdraw it. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.
Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

New Clause 20

Duty to consider children’s views in service improvement
‘After section 22 of the 1989 Act insert—
“22H Children’s views in service improvement
(1) Each local authority shall establish a Children in Care Council or other collective mechanism to ascertain the views of children they are looking after about the services these children are receiving.
(2) Regulations shall prescribe the functions, composition, powers and resources of the Children in Care Council or other mechanism.
(3) The director of the children’s services and lead member for children’s services shall give due consideration to the views expressed by the members of the Children in Care Council or other collective mechanism.
Brought up, and read the First time.
Annette Brooke: I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
This is about the participation of looked-after children. I do not want to undermine the great strides forward that have been made generally in terms of taking on board children and young people’s views and listening to them. But it is vital that we make sure that children’s views are fully taken on board in service improvement. The new clause calls for each local authority to establish a children in care council or other collective mechanism to ascertain the views of the children they are looking after about the services they are receiving.
We must acknowledge that it is not prescriptive to say that every local authority shall have a children in care council. There are obviously other ways of accessing children’s views. It may not be appropriate for a very small authority to have a children in care council. However, there should be a collective mechanism to bring children and young people together to engage in debate on a fairly regular basis, not just once a year. That would enable them to have a dialogue with the lead member of the council and the director of children’s services.
The purpose of the new clause is to place a duty on local authorities to provide a collective mechanism for children in their care. It would obviously be helpful for the director of children’s services and the lead member for children’s services to be able to give due consideration to the views of such groups, to report on their responses and to give action to the views expressed.
I was honoured and privileged, along with the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich, to attend the all-party parliamentary group on adoption and fostering yesterday. I met a virtual head teacher for the first time. I was looking forward to that moment and it was impressive to hear him talk about his work in the local authority where he is effectively head teacher for 500 looked-after children. In any school situation, it would be good to have a school council among a group of 500 children. With all of the good work going on with the virtual head teacher, it would be superb to have a children in care council. I can see that it would really work with those sorts of numbers.
Following that meeting, I am even more inspired about this idea. I am very keen on school councils and like to promote them when I go round schools. Now that we have virtual head teachers, I do not see why a virtual head teacher should not be empowered, or have a duty, to set up a council.
Lord Adonis claimed in the House of Lords that it was unnecessary to legislate for children in care councils because we have existing regulations for children in care to be consulted about service provision. My briefing points out that what is in existence is only an annual one-off event for the children and young people’s panel. A children in care council would be ongoing with continuous participation and existing ideas could be built upon. Consultations are narrowed by specific questions, where as a children in care council would be pretty open-ended. The views of children in care would be heard directly by the people who are vital to the provision of services: the director and the lead member.
Most of all, this proposal focuses on the specific views and experiences of children in care. Throughout the Bill we have made the point that we must keep focusing on the particular needs of children in care. I emphasise that I am not suggesting that the new clause should result in a children in care council for every local authority. I can see that there would be variations. However, I think that it would be excellent to have a commitment in the Bill to listening to the views of looked-after children.
The new clause is compatible with article 12 of the convention on the rights of the child. It would bring out debates on local needs and it could spread accountability to children in care. How often do we hear young people say, “Well I said such and such, but it did not make any difference.”? Regular interactive meetings with young people would enable them to follow something through. They would be able to find out why good ideas that they had raised had not been implemented. They would be able to find out the reasons and chase people up to get on with the job. I commend the new clause to the Committee for serious consideration.
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