Looked-after Children - Children, Schools and Families Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 660-664)


17 DECEMBER 2008

  Q660  Mr Chaytor: Is the issue of confidentiality of medical records a major blockage in the exchange of information?

  Dr Proops: It is much less so now than it used to be, and the guidance that we have is clear. The culture change is beginning to happen and we just need to keep pressing on with it. There is far more clarity about how child protection is everyone's business, how the risk to the child is important and that at times that will have to supersede confidentiality with regard to the parent. We are not yet there, and there are lots of places to go, but it is far better than it was.

  Q661  Mr Chaytor: With regard to the choice between keeping the child within the family and taking the child away, it always strikes me as an amazing paradox that there are many capable families who have children with special needs or serious disabilities who are desperate to get respite care. They want the state to be more interventionist and to give them a break and take their child away for a period of time. The converse is that we have large numbers of completely dysfunctional families who have fought tooth and nail to keep their kids within the family. Is that because the conventional way of looking at this is that either you keep your child or the state takes the child away from you? Is that why so many dysfunctional families are so resistant to intervention by social services and is not the concept of respite, as a point on a continuum between the child staying at home and being moved into permanent residential care, a way of cracking the problem?

  Professor Masson: That does happen. The key thing about the families whose children come into the care system compulsorily is a resistance to working with children's social care. They may have respite at a point. There may be a section 20 admission, which is intended to be temporary.

  Q662  Mr Chaytor: Is the word "respite" used with dysfunctional families?

  Professor Masson: I would not know whether that word was actually used, or was understood, but I would expect there to be a partnership agreement for temporary section 20. That is how I would see it at as a lawyer and how I have seen it discussed with parents. However, then there is an expectation that the parents will maintain contact and do X, Y and Z, and there is often a dropping off from the parents for a variety of reasons—other problems that perhaps have not been identified, or they have not disclosed.

  Q663  Paul Holmes: The Local Authority initiating care proceedings used to pay £150 to the courts, but the actual cost to the Government was over £4,000, or £35 million per year, so they have given £40 million to Local Authorities and said, "You pay it," and there seems to have been a worrying drop in the number of court proceedings being initiated. Is that true? Is it a problem?

  Professor Masson: There has been a drop in care proceedings and I have seen figures from the Family Justice Council. I am not clear that that is linked to finance, because one thing we know as legal researchers is that when you introduce a new process, there is always a drop-off in the use of the process, because it is more complicated, people do not understand it and they want to see how the land lies. The decline in proceedings in the past six months is much more likely to be related to the introduction of the public law outline than the fees. Having said that, the fees will have a longer-term impact. We do not know how the Government will compensate Local Authorities in the future in relation to this. We know that it is not ring-fenced money and that the way in which the money was allocated between Local Authorities did not bear any resemblance to the number of proceedings that Local Authorities had brought. It was related to the size of the care population, and that is only partially linked to the number of proceedings brought. The size of the care population is historic and is about outflows, not about how many proceedings you take. The Government simply did not have the figures and they still do not have accurate figures for the number of sets of proceedings brought by each local authority, so they do not have a way of divvying up the money appropriately. That is not terribly helpful. It also gives a message, and alongside the Public Law Outline (PLO) are a whole series of messages from the Ministry of Justice and, to a lesser extent, from the Department for Children, Schools and Families that they do not want too many proceedings to be brought. Part of this shift was intended to discourage Local Authorities from bringing proceedings. I find it difficult to understand why we should charge Local Authorities for bringing care proceedings when we would not dream of charging the Crown Prosecution Service for prosecuting people. I cannot see the logic in saying that there is a special funding regime for protecting children, which is part of social protection, when there is not a special funding regime for criminal proceedings.

  Henrietta Heawood: I totally agree with all that. We took a motion to the British Association of Social Workers annual general meeting in April about the increase in fees for care proceedings because we were so worried that it was sending quite the wrong message to Local Authorities.

  Q664  Chairman: If our inquiry report should include a particular item that you think is important, what is it? Is there something that would make it a second or third-rate report if it were omitted?

  Dr Proops: A key factor is to concentrate on the evidence base behind a number of the interventions that one needs, which is an evidence base that covers health and social care. We need to try to encourage the two, at the top level, both on a research and a delivery basis, to work even closer together.

  Professor Masson: Research is very important. In the 1990s, after the Children Act was implemented, the Department of Health had a substantial research programme which looked at child protection and social care issues. Since our move to the DCSF there has not been that concerted putting together of a programme that looks across the piece. We have put children's education in with their social care, but we have taken children's health away. So we have that other barrier. The barrier is also with the Ministry of Justice and how the legal proceedings fit in. We need to have much more wide-ranging research programmes, not only on outcomes issues, but on how these processes are operating. We cannot assume that child protection processes are operating in the same way now as in the 1990s, particularly with all the changes there have been. Drugs are a much bigger issue than they were in the 1980s and 1990s.

  Henrietta Heawood: I agree with that. From the point of view of the social workers on the ground, the message we would like to go back is that social workers need to be supported to do their difficult task and not constantly criticised. Support takes various forms. We would like greater resources to help them and more social workers. Even when teams are fully staffed they can be too small to cope with the demands of the work. Partly because of what Judith is saying, more and more need is being identified. There is greater awareness of the impact of domestic violence and of drugs. There have been changes in that we have to do things where before things were not noticed so much. We would like social workers to be freed up to do the jobs that they are supposed to do and not be stuck to a computer 80% of the time.

  Chairman: Thank you. This has been very valuable advice. We should be grateful if you could keep in touch with the Committee as we write our report and continue to gather the last bits of evidence. Thank you for your time.

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