Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families Written Evidence


Memorandum submitted by NCH, the children's charity

1.  EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

  For too long children in care have been let down by the state. This legislation, along with the other measures set out in Care Matters, offers a real opportunity to deliver the much-needed changes to the care system. These reforms must improve the quality and experience of those who enter the care system. Both the legislation and the implementation plan must realise the radical reforms to the system set out in the Care Matters Green Paper.

  NCH would like to see:

    —  greater support around the educational aspects of the Bill;

    —  an independent advocate for children in care;

    —  clarification about the responsibility and powers of the Independent Reviewing Officers; and

    —  greater support, both financial and otherwise, for those leaving care to pursue apprenticeships or training.

  In particular, preventative services, while not requiring legislation, also have an important role to play. Intensive family support for families with children on the edge of care can, where appropriate, prevent the need for a child to be placed in care in the first place. NCH runs a number of these services in partnership with local authorities and this has resulted in, on average, four out of every five referrals being deemed successful. This kind of service can also be used to support children leaving care and returning home to live with their families, or to prevent the breakdown of a foster placement.

2.  NCH, THE CHILDREN'S CHARITY, CAMPAIGNING AND LOBBYING FOR CHANGE

  2.1  NCH is the UK's leading children's charity. We run nearly 500 services and work with more than 178,000 children, young people and their families across the UK,[35] some of the most vulnerable in our society.

  2.2  We complement our role in promoting social justice through our services by lobbying and campaigning for change. NCH is one of the main providers of Children's Centres and we are the sector's leading provider of preventive and intensive support to families with vulnerable children, including those in care, in trouble with the law, who are disabled and who have mental health problems.

  2.3  We work to promote the best interests of children and young people in care through providing a range of residential services for children, young people and families, including residential services for disabled children and those who are leaving care or homeless. NCH also has a long tradition of adoption work, and we were one of the first approved adoption agencies. These include addressing the specific needs of black and ethnic minority families. In addition NCH offers a variety of foster care placements, ranging from emergency and short term through to long term, remand and shared care.

  2.4  NCH works with over 80% of local authorities in the UK and we are expert at working in partnership with a wide variety of organisations to deliver services. Our purpose is to help the most vulnerable children and young people break through injustice, deprivation and inequality, so they can achieve their full potential.

3.  PART 1—DELIVERY OF SOCIAL WORK SERVICES FOR CHILDREN AND YOUNG PERSONS (CLAUSES 1-6)

  3.1  This part of the Bill puts forward proposals for the provision of social work services for children and young people. It will enable the local authority to enter into an arrangement with a "provider of social work services" and enable the discharge of some or all of the local authority's social services responsibilities for individual children who are looked-after by the local authority or who are former relevant children (as defined in section 23C of the Children Act 1989).

  3.2  Clause 2 sets out the restrictions on arrangements for the delivery of social work services for children and young people that cannot be discharged to an external provider. This includes the local authorities' function in relation to the appointment of independent reviewing officers and the functions as an adoption agency, unless the provider is a registered agency. There is also provision to ensure that the functions are discharged or under the supervision of registered social workers. The local authority must also abide by any guidance given from central government.

  3.3  Clause 3 states that the responsibilities of omissions or acts to the social work provider are to be treated as the acts and omissions of the local authority. However, this does not apply to criminal offences or prevent any civil proceedings against the provider.

  3.4  Clause 6 sets out the arrangement to pilot these proposals for up to five years in a number of local authorities. Following evaluation of the pilots, it may be extended to all local authorities.

NCH's view

  3.5  It is important to recognise that the proposal for independent Social Care Practices (SCP) stems from a desire to tackle many of the perceived weaknesses that the current social work system has when it comes to placing the needs of the child at the centre of all that it does.

  3.6  While there may be potential benefits of SCPs, we need to acknowledge that change does not always bring better outcomes. We share many of the same concerns as the LGA regarding the development of SCPs. For example, SCPs will restrict a local authority's flexibility in allocating resources and introduces yet another layer of bureaucracy to the system. Furthermore, there is no evidence that SCPs will resolve the issues of recruiting and retaining social workers, or why this model is better than empowering foster carers or key workers in children's homes who are already much closer to the children and young people.

  3.7  For now we would suggest that it is important for this idea to be closely tested and have its role and relationships clearly defined and boundaries and goals unambiguously outlined.

4.  PART 2—FUNCTIONS IN RELATION TO CHILDREN AND YOUNG PERSONS (CLAUSES 7-28)

  4.1  This part of the Bill sets out that each local authority to have a care plan for each child in care that includes the kind of services that will be provided to meet the child's needs. Care plans must be reviewed within four weeks of a child becoming looked-after; the second review must be within three months after that date and subsequently not more than six-monthly intervals. These clauses make amendments to the various regulations that are currently in place for care planning and review.

4.2  NCH's view

  Children and young people enter the care system from various backgrounds and circumstances. The majority of children in care (62%) are there because they have suffered abuse or neglect and 42% of children in care return home within six months. The care plan and its implementation are crucial to meeting the individual needs of each child.

5.  SUPPORT FOR CHILDREN PLACED WITH FAMILY OR FRIENDS

  5.1  Clause 7 makes provision for support for children placed with family or friends. It restates the duty on the local authority to place a child who is voluntarily accommodated with a relative or other person connected with them unless that would be inconsistent with the child's welfare. These placements will still mean that a child accommodated under section 20 of the 1989 Act still remains looked-after unless placement is will a parent (or another person who has parental responsibility).

5.2  NCH's view

  NCH agrees that children placed with suitable family and friends still remain looked-after, but there should also be safeguards in place to ensure that the child will be properly cared for and their needs fully met. This could be done by having a greater emphasis on identification and assessment of potential family and friends prior to the start of care proceedings.

6.  PROVISION OF ACCOMMODATION IN ITS AREA FOR CHILDREN LOOKED AFTER BY A LOCAL AUTHORITY

  6.1  Clause 8 imposes a new duty on local authorities to place children in accommodation that is within their own local authority, except where accommodation cannot be provided with areas that is consistent with the child's welfare.

NCH's view

  6.2  NCH believes that when deciding on placements, the welfare of the child should come first. We are pleased with the reassurances given by Government that this will be the case, however it is important that there is not a disincentive for local authorities to keep a child within their own local authority when their needs could be best met accessing provision (such as specialist education) in another authority.

  6.3  In addition, Clause 8 (2) (7C) states that "Where a local authority provide within their area accommodation for a child whom they are looking after, they shall secure that (where he child is not accommodated in his home) the accommodation being provided is near is home". We would like further clarification about what is meant by "near".

7.  PROVISION OF ACCOMMODATION NEAR TO LOOKED-AFTER CHILD'S SCHOOL

  7.1  Clause 9 builds on the requirement set out in the Children Act 2004 that places a duty on local authorities to "give particular attention to the educational implications of any decision about welfare of any child they are looking after". It expects that care placement decisions should not normally mean that the child has to change school (unless it is for the welfare of the child) and that any school change should normally come about due to educational needs.

  7.2  In addition, this clause also puts a new requirement for children in school years 10 and 11—the circumstances must be exceptional to justify a care placement that is not near the child's school.

7.3  NCH's view

  NCH supports the strengthening of the duty on local authorities with regard placement stability when looked-after children are studying for their GCSEs or equivalent qualifications. However, we believe that this duty should be extended to cover other critical periods in a child's education, in particular the transition from primary to secondary school.

8.  REVIEW OF CHILD'S CASE BEFORE MAKING CERTAIN ALTERNATIVE ARRANGEMENTS FOR ACCOMMODATION

  8.1  Clause 10 introduces a statutory requirement in a case where the local authority is considering a particular change to the arrangements it has made for the accommodation of a looked-after child to undertake a review of the child's case.

8.2  NCH's view

  NCH supports the strengthening of the statutory review processes, which should reduce the numbers of children moved between provider homes without adequate consultation and agreement and that the process would be overridden in order to safeguard the welfare of the child.

9.  INDEPENDENT REVIEWING OFFICERS (IRO)

  9.1  Clause 11 sets out the additional requirements regarding the appointment of independent reviewing officers. When a child is looked-after, an individual name must be appointed as the IRO for the child. The additional responsibilities of the IRO include ensuring the views of the child are taken into account in care planning, there is identification of persons responsible for implementing any decisions from the review and that any failure to implement the review recommendations are brought to the attention within the local authority at a senior level. The aim of these amendments is to ensure that the child's interests are best protected.

NCH's view

  9.2  NCH has, from the time of the Green Paper, welcomed proposals to strengthen the independence of the reviewing officer. In our view, the legislation improves existing arrangements but could go further in demanding that IRO services be provided by an independent organisation. It is incredibly important that the IRO be totally independent from the local authority so that the child and young person being represented can fully trust that the office has their best interests at heart. There should be no potential conflict of interest when it comes to an IRO being able to challenge an authority's conduct, policy or services where that is needed.

  9.3  NCH supports the case for independent advocacy. Along with other organisations, we would like to see a statutory right to independent advocacy when significant decisions are being made concerning the lives of looked-after children and a legal requirement on all agencies providing care to ensure access to independent advocacy.

10.  INDEPENDENT VISITORS FOR CHILDREN LOOKED AFTER BY THE LOCAL AUTHORITY

  10.1  Clause 14 extends the group of looked-after children for whom an independent person must be appointed to visit befriend and advise the child.

10.2  NCH's view

  NCH runs a number of Independent Visitor programmes, working with more than 20 local authorities. In our experience, independent visitors are a very good idea and we are keen to see them promoted and revitalised. Many young people do not want their independent visitor to be their advocate, not wanting them to know more information about them than they themselves are prepared to share. In addition, many independent visitors work full time and the extra responsibility could be enough to dissuade them from volunteering. The separation in role and function must remain in these reforms.

11.  EDUCATION AND TRAINING

  11.1  Clause 17 requires the governing body of a school to designate a member of staff as having responsibility for promoting the educational achievement of looked-after children who are registered pupils at the school.

NCH's view

  11.2  Having a designated member of staff in each school has the potential to ensure that children in care have access to the educational support they need. We would like the Government to clarify that the "designated member of staff" will be a teacher. In addition, for this position to make a difference, the member of staff must have the ability to ensure that any recommendations are implemented by the school.

  11.3  Resources and training should be available to the designated member of staff so that they can effectively discharge their responsibilities. Contact and the exchange of information between social workers and the designated member of staff will also be required to ensure that support both in and out of the school setting complements the aim of improving the educational outcomes.

12.  ENTITLEMENT TO PAYMENT IN RESPECT OF HIGHER EDUCATION

  12.1  Clause 18 adds duties that local authorities to pay a fixed sum to "former relevant children" who go on to pursue a course of higher education. Regulations will set out the amount and how it will be paid and will be exempt from income tax.

12.2  NCH's view

  This measure will help make a difference to "former relevant children" who enter higher education. NCH is of the view that such support should not be restricted to higher education and that financial support should also be made available for further education provision. This is of particular importance given that 30% of care leavers aged 19 were not in education, employment or training.

13.  ASSISTANCE TO PURSUE EDUCATION AND TRAINING

  13.1  Clause 19 extends the duties of the personal adviser to include a former relevant child who informs the responsible authority that he is pursuing or intends to pursue a programme of education or training, but who the authority would not have a duty because the young person is over 21 years of age. The young person must, however, be under 25 and the local authority must undertake an assessment of educational and training needs. If the education or training goes beyond a young person's 25th birthday, the local authority must still provide assistance.

  13.2  Clause 20 puts in place an extension of entitlements to a personal adviser and to assistance in connection with education or training.

13.3  NCH's view

  NCH supports the extension of an appointed personal adviser and provision to undertake an assessment of education and training needs for children who have left care to age 25. Ways in which to promote the engagement of care leavers in education or training must feature if this measure is to make a difference. NCH is of the view that local authorities should also explore the possibility of offering care leavers access to apprenticeships.

14.  EXTENSION OF POWER TO MAKE PAYMENTS IN CASH

  14.1  Clause 21 removes the restriction on the making of cash payments "in exceptional circumstances" and gives local authorities wider discretion in giving cash payments to those caring for children in need. Local authorities may also decide that assistance could be repaid.

14.2  NCH's view

  Removing the restrictions on the powers to make payments in cash to children in need will give greater flexibility to meet the needs those in and leaving care, such as disabled children and young people.

15.  PART 3—FOSTERING AND ADOPTION

  15.1  Clause 29 gives power for prospective or existing foster carers to apply to the Government for an independent review of the determination of a fostering service provider regarding a person's suitability or continuing suitability to foster a child.

15.2  NCH's view

  NCH supports the option of an independent review mechanism for foster carers.

16.  PRIVATE FOSTERING—EXTENSION OF PERIOD ALLOWED FOR MAKING REGULATIONS UNDER SECTION 45 OR 46 OF THE CHILDREN ACT 2004

  16.1  Clause 31 extends existing powers to establish a scheme for the registration of private foster carers, which will lapse in November 2008. This clause extends these powers until November 2011.

16.2  NCH's view

  From our experience supporting private foster carers, many of the children being cared for are very vulnerable having limited or no contact with their parents. NCH is of the view that more needs to be done both at a central and local level to increase the number of registered private foster carers. This would help prevent these vulnerable children slipping through the net. There could be significant merits to introducing a more formal requirement to register private foster carers. This is an area that must be sufficiently addressed as part of the Care Matters reforms.

February 2008






35   As at 1 April 2007. Back


 
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