The Government has been consulting over policy on the care of looked-after children since the publication of the Care Matters Green Paper in October 2006. As part of this process, the Children and Young Persons Bill [Lords] was introduced earlier this session to implement changes which required primary legislation. In many ways this is an exemplary way for policy to be developed and implemented, and the Government is to be congratulated for a thorough and serious consultative process.
Social work services
The Bill will allow local authorities to contract out responsibility for all or part of services for young people to "a provider of social work services", which will be a body corporate, but which cannot be a local authority. The Minister told us that the provisions in the Bill were designed to allow arrangements to be piloted over the next five years, aiming to see if providers of social work services would introduce smaller flexible teams akin to GP practices bringing greater continuity of personnel in providing services to children. We welcome the provision in the Bill on piloting social work practices. Care needs to be taken, however, to ensure that the pilots provide sufficient information to enable the Department to judge whether this is an initiative that could be introduced more widely. Our main concern is that continuity and stability of service should be maintained regardless of who is the provider. The pilots need to fill the evidence gap on social work practices. It is vital that they are properly evaluated and that they are not rolled out unless there is clear evidence that they will provide the essential continuity and stability for looked-after children.
On a related issue, we do not see inspection as the answer to concerns about services being withdrawn at short notice by a private provider, as in the case of the Sedgemoor children's homes. We note the Minister's point about Ofsted being the registration authority for homes, but in that case and with the proposed social work practices, it seems to us that contract terms or some other form of regulation would be more appropriate ways of controlling these problems. Throughout our evidence, continuity and stability for looked-after children are emphasised as key, and therefore some sort of safety net is needed.
Support for post-16 education and training
The Government is to make a bursary of £2,000 payable to looked-after children who gain a place at university, but there is currently no similar provision for other forms of education and training. We welcome the Minister's comments that he is giving consideration to increased support for those undertaking other education and training and not just those in higher education. We recommend that a broader bursary system is introduced for looked-after children in post-16 education and training.
Designated staff member
We consider that the requirement that all schools must have a designated staff member with responsibility for the educational achievement of looked-after children is an important statement of intent, and we support it. In particular, we welcome the confirmation that the designated staff member must always be a teacher. Given the importance we place on this requirement, we consider that it is unfortunate that the Government has not taken the opportunity to apply the legislation to Academies as well as to maintained schools. We expect all existing Academies to designate a teacher to have responsibility for the educational achievement of looked-after children. If the Minister's voluntary approach does not result in every Academy making such an appointment we expect him to reconsider his decision to exclude Academies from the legislation.
It is clear from all the evidence that a truly independent voice is needed for all looked-after children to ensure their needs and wishes are properly considered and acted upon in the care process. The Minister told us of his concern that the independent reviewing officer system was not yet working effectively, and the Government acknowledges this in the Bill by making provision for the Secretary of State to establish a body to be the employer of independent reviewing officers to provide greater independence if matters do not improve. The Government needs to be explicit about how it will judge if this change is needed, and how long it will allow present circumstances to continue without perceived improvement. There remains the question of whether formal advocacy arrangements should be put in place for looked-after children. If the new arrangements for independent reviewing officers do not improve the way the system works, then the Government should look again at independent advocacy and whether there is a need to replace the neutral independence of the IRO with active advocacy on behalf of the child or young person.
We welcome the extension of the provision of independent visitors to all looked-after children. We recognise the importance for looked-after children of stable relationships with adults, and we also recognise that the various members of the so-called 'team around the child' have different roles. However, as in all these issues, the welfare of the child or young person should be paramount. Every looked-after child should have one key individual to whom he or she can turn, and wherever possible the child should be entitled to say which individual should perform that role.
The Minister explained what the Government is aiming to achieve with the amendments it has moved in the Lords concerning placements for looked-after children. We note the Minister's comments that placement with family and friends is the first option to be considered if a child cannot remain with his or her parents, but that there is no duty to place a child with family or friends. The welfare of a child and his or her ability to thrive must always be paramount, but, given that, we expect the benefits of a placement with family and friends to be considered seriously before other options are chosen.
Since our meeting with the Minister, the Government has proposed a further amendment, to be considered at Report stage in the Lords, to provide explicitly that local authorities must make available appropriate accommodation for the children they look after in their area. We understand this to mean that no child should be placed outside his or her home area without a positive decision that this is in the best interests of the child, but that equally a child should not be forced to remain in the local area if placement elsewhere is considered more appropriate. We acknowledge the Government's attempts to address problems with the original text of the Bill. We recognise that the issue is likely to be a matter for debate once again when the Bill reaches the Commons. We hope that the Government will continue to take the constructive approach that it has done in the Lords when the debate continues in this House.
We note the Minister's outline of what the Government is doing to pilot post-18 fostering arrangements, and we ask him to provide further information about the pilots, where they are being held and the issues that they are designed to clarify. We also note the Minister's comments about the possible ways of bringing forward legislation on this issue if it is required. Given that the opportunity for further legislation is likely to be limited in the near future, we recommend that the Government considers amending the Bill to provide for regulations in respect of post-18 fostering if the pilots require it, following the example of proposals for independent reviewing officers already in the Bill.
The Bill extends the time limit before provisions in the Children Act 2004 relating to the introduction of a registration scheme for private fostering arrangements cease to have effect. The Minister says that he wants more time for the voluntary notification system for private fostering to work effectively. Given the concerns about some of the children in this situation, we ask the Government to give its assessment of the numbers of children in private fostering arrangements, to set out how it intends to increase levels of notification, and to explain its criteria for assessing whether the voluntary system is working or not. The Bill would allow another three years for a registration system to come into being. If it becomes apparent before then that the voluntary notification system is not operating effectively, the Government should immediately bring forward a registration scheme, having put in place the necessary arrangements in advance.