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Lord Bach: As my noble friend Lady David said, we now come to the CAFCASS part of the Bill--the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, to give its full title. That will be set up as an executive, non-departmental public body accountable to my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor. As Members of the Committee will know, CAFCASS

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will bring together for the first time the work of three impressive but disparate groups: the guardian ad litem and reporting officer panels, the Family Court Welfare Service and the children's work of the Official Solicitor.

The bringing together of those groups into one organisation has, it is fair to say, been generally and widely supported by all the political parties and, perhaps more important, by experts in the field. I am happy to be able to tell the Committee that the President of the Family Division, who has a real concern in these matters, to whom I have had the pleasure of speaking about the establishment of CAFCASS, has given me express permission to tell the Committee how much she supports the setting up of that organisation. Of course, not only are the Government grateful for that view but they are grateful also for the general support for the setting up of this body.

The consequences of setting up CAFCASS will be, we believe, a more child-focused service, pooling the experience and expertise of the three worthwhile services which I have mentioned. It will be a more professional service which highlights and disseminates best practice. Secondly, it will ensure continual professional development of staff, which is important in relation to these amendments, so that the staff are up to date with new developments--for example, the consequences of the recent Court of Appeal decisions on cases involving domestic violence. Thirdly, it will provide a better service for the courts based on the above points and the greater adaptability and flexibility of a national service whose staff will increasingly be able to work across the current professional boundaries between court welfare and guardian work. Fourthly and lastly, it will be a more visible and accountable service, being a national service with a voice in the development of policy and a service open to independent inspection and audit and accountable to Parliament, through the Lord Chancellor, for its performance.

I turn to the amendments. I deal first with Amendment No. 59 which my noble friend Lady David moved. CAFCASS will need to have open and transparent arrangements to ensure that there is local dialogue with its stakeholders; namely, its users and other agencies in the family justice system. There are existing, if imperfect, arrangements to allow CAFCASS to work with stakeholders locally. We believe that the way to approach the matter is to build and improve on what is already there.

The most obvious existing structure is the network of family court business committees--FCBCs--based at care centres around the country. Their role is to monitor the handling of children cases through local courts, including family proceedings courts, and to discuss issues of local concern. Those discussions include matters such as recruitment difficulties and ways of improving administrative arrangements so as to maximise available resources. GALRO panel managers and the FCWOs are already members of

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those committees and it is envisaged that CAFCASS will take on the role which GALRO and the FCWOs have played.

In addition to those committees, there is a network of parallel family court fora which included wider representation, including mediators and family groups. We recognise that there are problems with that system, not least that insufficient notice can be taken of the family perspective. We plan to address the problems but we believe that having the requirement for a further set of committees on the face of the Bill will not in itself improve arrangements. We believe that on balance, although of course we see the purpose behind Amendment No. 59, it could restrict the options available.

I turn now to Amendment No. 60 in the name of the noble Earl. We acknowledge, of course, the importance of having skilled, experienced and trained staff in CAFCASS. If it is to be the outstanding service that everyone wants it to be and it meets both the needs of children and the courts, it is imperative that officers of the service should have the knowledge and skills appropriate to the particular task.

Having said that, at once I must say that we have reservations about the amendment itself. We recognise that most staff who will transfer to CAFCASS have social work qualifications, but to set out the entry requirements on the face of the Bill seems to us to go too far.

We believe the first part of Amendment No. 60 would fetter the discretion of the service to recruit from the widest possible pool of potential staff and reduce its capacity to ensure that staff reflect the diversity of society. Importantly, it would also call into question the position within CAFCASS of the case workers of the Official Solicitor, the majority of whom are not qualified social workers but whose work is highly valued by the senior members of the judiciary. Of course, they too will be part of the staff of CAFCASS.

Noble Lords are concerned that CAFCASS should maintain or improve existing professional standards across the services that it will provide. The Government share the same concern, which is why, as part of the development of CAFCASS, work is going on specifically on training, professional accreditation and professional development in the new service. It will be important to ensure that staff undertaking particular tasks are properly equipped to do so. In the same way, staff who receive training will have to work under supervision, as they currently do in the Family Court Welfare Service. We do not believe it is necessary to restrict entry to the service in the way that the first part of the amendment of the noble Earl would do.

The second part of the amendment leads us to these conclusions. Paragraph 5 of Schedule 2 remits to secondary legislation the provision as to the qualification, experience and training to be required of officers of the service. It seems to us that that is the proper way to deal with those issues, and we shall bring forward proposals in due course.

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Clearly, staff will need to be appropriately trained. Those who will rely on the service of officers of CAFCASS should expect nothing less, but we do not believe it adds anything to the legislation to deal with those matters in the broad way proposed.

We also believe that the third part of the amendment of the noble Earl is properly dealt with under paragraph 5 of Schedule 2. The regulations that will be created under the schedule will apply to both those in management as well front-line staff. As I mentioned, we believe that that is the proper way to deal with the issues.

I turn to the second amendment of my noble friend Lady David, Amendment No. 61. We fully recognise the importance of training for CAFCASS but again we have reservations about the precise amendment. We do not believe that it is helpful to place on the face of the Bill details of how training should be organised and delivered. As I explained earlier, this paragraph of Schedule 2 remits to secondary legislation the provision as to the qualification, experience and training to be required of officers of CAFCASS. We feel that that is the proper way to deal with those issues and we shall bring forward proposals.

The amendment seeks to specify how training should be organised and delivered. Clearly, some training must be made available locally. However, more specialist training--by way of example on Munchausen's Syndrome by Proxy--may be better delivered from a few centres of expertise. We believe that the effect of the amendment will be to create some inflexibility in the service's ability to consider options for developing and securing the necessary training for its staff.

I know that my noble friend is concerned that CAFCASS should maintain or improve existing professional standards across the service that it will provide. She is further concerned that CAFCASS should be an organisation that reflects the diversity of the population that it serves. We share those concerns which is why, as part of the development of CAFCASS, work is going on specifically on training, professional accreditation, professional development and diversity in the new service.

Clearly, the staff of the new service will need to be appropriately trained and have opportunities for professional development that I have mentioned. The courts, the inspectorate and others will expect nothing less, but we do not believe that the amendment is the right way to deal with it.

Regulations will provide the framework to establish the necessary qualifications, experience and training required. We feel it would be wrong to constrain the board's ability to decide what is appropriate training.

In relation to Amendment No. 62, we appreciate my noble friend's concern that those who work with children are supervised appropriately and are accountable for their work. However, we are not convinced that that would be achieved by requiring directions to say that. We need to look at how the service will work and the framework surrounding its operation and that of its officers. It is our intention--

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we will come to this in Amendment No. 79--that the Protection of Children Act 1999 and the protection of children provisions in this Bill will apply to officers of CAFCASS so that those employees of the service who have unsupervised access to children are subject to checks before employment starts.

The creation of CAFCASS provides a unique opportunity to develop a single organisation covering England and Wales which will be transparent and accountable. Officers of the service will work within national standards. The service will be subject to independent inspection and the Rules of Court define how many CAFCASS practitioners should undertake their work. Within those rules an important and frequently used practice is that directions hearings offer courts further opportunities to direct how specific aspects of the case should be considered. We believe that those arrangements provide a significant and robust framework to ensure the probity and effectiveness of the officers of CAFCASS.

Those will be the tools on which the management of CAFCASS can build to ensure professional development and quality of officers of the service. It seems to us that the proper way to deal with issues of supervision and accountability is through national standards, Rules of Court, inspection and the role of management in professional development and quality. We are not complacent. Paragraph 9 of Schedule 2 seeks to have reserve powers if there is concern about the quality of work in CAFCASS. But to seek to define how that may be achieved on the face of the Bill would be inflexible and limit the development of the service.

We are grateful to all those who have spoken on these amendments. I hope that my response has gone some way to meet their concerns.

10 p.m.

Baroness Hanham: Before the noble Lord sits down, perhaps I can refer him back to the amendment of the noble Earl, Lord Listowel. My worry in relation to the way the situation is developing is that our service currently has qualified social workers. I refer particularly to the family proceedings court in which, as the noble Lord will be aware, I sit as a magistrate. But we are moving from one service into another. Currently the social work qualifications guide the standards of those who carry out the work with children who then come before the court.

However much the Government may intend to develop a new qualification and new standards, they will not be introduced within the next six months to one year. In that time recruitment will either have to be limited to those who are coming in from the court welfare offices and the guardian ad litem--though I accept the point about the Official Solicitor. If recruiting is done from outside, there will not be an appropriate standard because one will not yet have been developed. My concern therefore is the interim period before an appropriate standard and qualification is developed for the new combined service. Therefore there should be a clear definition of

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the minimum standard and qualification, particularly for those appearing before the family proceedings court.

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