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Lord Campbell of Alloway: I am grateful to the Minister for his thoughtful, detailed and comprehensive response to the spirit of this amendment, which I support. However, it is satisfactory if the object are to be achieved by the regulations, the court rules and the regime in different aspects to which the Minister has referred. I am wholly content to accept his assurances in that regard.

However, perhaps I may advert to the fortuitous intervention of the noble Baroness, Lady Gould of Potternewton, on 11th July on the amendments moved by my noble friend Lord Howe. All Members of the Committee will wish to acknowledge her intervention with gratitude. The noble Baroness drew the firm line between the motivation of my noble friend and those who supported his amendments, which in no way is to be impugned, and the consequences such as discrimination and retrogression which are not acceptable to Members of the Committee, including myself, who opposed the amendment.

Albeit that the Standing Order—and I have looked at it—on asperity of speech may well have been breached on this single occasion over these days of constructive and amicable debate, no doubt this arose only through want of familiarity with our traditions of debate, there being no wish by any noble Lord involved to express or imply any want of sincerity on the part of my noble friend.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: I should like to associate myself with the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway. We are in our seventh day of Grand Committee debate, which has been a very effective mechanism for debating the Bill. There have been divisions, but the spirit in which every noble Lord has spoken has been splendid. On the issue of unmarried couples, for example, every noble Lord who has spoken has respected the right of every other noble Lord to speak and to have their voice heard.

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Lord Clement-Jones: I fully concur with the comments of both the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, and the Minister.

I thank the Minister for that reply. It was effectively an interesting jigsaw puzzle. The ultimate question is whether all the bits of the puzzle will fit together into a harmonious pattern. Only by looking at the Minister's assurances—of which he gave a considerable number—will we be able to work out whether they add up to strengthening a presumption of the type suggested in the primary legislation as opposed to a presumption in different rules and statutory guidance.

In response to the Minister, we very much welcome the institution of special guardianship orders. We believe that they are potentially a considerable advance. I welcome his commitment to consult widely on how the orders will operate and in particular to consult on the regulations governing what will have to be included in the report from local authorities. I also welcome his assurance that that will be a rigorous process. I welcome, too, his comment that the statutory guidance will require early assessment to be taken into account and that adoption agencies could be part of that process.

I particularly welcome the Minister's comments on CAFCASS involvement and the fact that CAFCASS officers will be appointed in most cases. I took a note of that extremely welcome comment. I took that to mean that, when a special guardianship order is being made or unmade, the usual presumption in the rules will be that an officer of CAFCASS should be appointed guardian for the child involved.

The Minister's exposition of how the child's voice will be heard in the proceedings was helpful, as was his reiteration of the undertaking of the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, in relation to the scoping exercise. In a sense, therefore, we are talking about work in progress and not about a given. So there is room for change on that point.

Finally, the Minister gave an undertaking on consultation on the court rules that will set out not only the circumstances in which the CAFCASS officer is appointed guardian, but also the duties of the officer when he has been appointed.

The various assurances given by the Minister are extremely helpful. However, between now and Report, I think that we on these Benches will need to consider whether the assurances add up to a package containing the right slices of the pie which we were seeking in the amendment. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Clement-Jones moved Amendment No. 107B:

    Page 63, line 29, at end insert—

"( ) a birth parent;"

The noble Lord said: I rise to move Amendment No. 107B and speak to Amendments Nos. 107C, 107D and 108A. We come to the specific provisions of Section 14F, imported by Clause 112. I shall speak first to Amendment No. 107B and then move through the other amendments.

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The importance of support services for children and special guardians is rightly recognised. Parents, however, are not included in Section 14F(2). Consequently, birth parents are not covered by the provision and do not have a right to an assessment. Given that the effect of a special guardianship order is to exclude the parent from decision making about the child, although it is also anticipated that some form of contact is likely in most cases, we believe that it is essential that the parent has the right to an assessment of their need for support services. Otherwise, the provision of support may be lopsided, and therefore largely ineffective, as the parent would not have received any help in adjusting to the new arrangements. We suggest in this amendment that that right should be contained in the primary legislation. If it is not included, it is likely to be given a low priority by local authorities.

I turn to Amendments Nos. 107C and 107D. The right to an assessment ought to apply to all special guardians and to children subject to special guardianship orders and their parents because of their special situation. It is not clear who it is intended to include within "prescribed description". We are very concerned that the Government may seek to exclude all special guardians caring for children who have not been looked after by the local authority.

Research evidence entitled Second Time Around—a survey of grandparents raising their grandchildren which was published by the Family Rights Group in 2001; I recommend it to the Committee—showed that many grandparents caring for children who have not been looked after face great difficulties and in particular great costs, and yet they have struggled to obtain the support services they needed. In our view, there is no category of special guardian who will never need support; hence none should be excluded from the right to an assessment. Whether they go on to receive support should of course depend on the needs identified in the assessment.

Finally, I turn to Amendment 108A. This Bill gives the local authority complete discretion as to whether it will provide any support services at all when a need is established by an assessment. Although the local authority must have the discretion to provide services that are relevant to local need, there should be a requirement on them to provide services, or to arrange for services to be provided, in situations where a need has been established by an assessment. Otherwise the process of assessment and subsequent service provision may be skewed by the resource implications for the local authority. That is what Amendment No. 108A is designed to do. I beg to move.

Earl Howe: I should like to speak to all the amendments in the group, and I can do so fairly briefly as the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, has largely covered the ground. First, I think that birth parents are as deserving of support services as the child and the special guardian. Who otherwise will explain to the birth parents what the procedure for special guardianship consists of, what contact arrangements

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are possible, and what the implications are of special guardianship? Who will be there to counsel if there is a need for that?

The argument put forward by the Government hitherto has been that birth parents are not a priority for support services in this context, and that in any case they will have access to social services if they need it. I am not happy about that. I do not think that a support service from someone in social services who has no detailed knowledge or experience of special guardianship will be worth very much. I hope that the Government will think again about this.

I also back fully what the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, has said about assessments. We need to know clearly who will be included within the ambit of "prescribed description"—that rather vague and indeterminate phrase. If the Government believe that there may be a category of special guardian who should not receive support, then we need to know why they believe that. Moreover, if this is their position, I profoundly disagree with it.

The noble Lord mentioned the work of the Family Rights Group, which has shown quite conclusively how difficult it can be for grandparents who are caring for children. All categories of special guardian should be entitled to an assessment if they request it.

Amendments Nos. 109 and 110, in my name, bring us back to familiar territory. If we believe in trying to generate public confidence in the system, as we surely must, then there has to be transparency and openness. There has to be a feeling that one is being treated as a human being and that one is not dealing with a faceless bureaucracy. If a support service is denied to you, you should be entitled to be told why. You should also be able to ask for the decision to be reviewed.

I am sure that the Minister will tell me that he does not want such provisions to be included on the face of the Bill, but I shall need good reasons why. At the very least I hope that he will be in sympathy with them and will tell me that, in practice, these are procedures that the Government will wish to ensure are implemented.

As to Amendment No. 113, subsection 7(a) in new Section 14F states that,

    "The regulations may in particular make provision . . . about the type of assessment which is to be carried out, or the way in which an assessment is to be carried out".

I do not understand why the regulations should not cover both rather than one or the other. Knowing what kind of assessment is to be carried out is as important as knowing the way in which it is to be done. The two should be inseparable.

Finally, the other amendments in the group are all directed at the same target. The question they implicitly pose is this: how committed are the Government to ensuring that support services are actually going to be provided? We want to know that there are going to be regulations laid; we need to know that all the matters listed under subsection (7) will be included in those regulations; and, as we said in the debate about adoption support services, we need to

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know that if an assessment indicates the need for special guardianship support services, that support will be delivered.

I realise that there are resource implications to this, but without an obligation on the part of the local authority these provisions amount to window dressing. If the Government believe that local authorities should have the flexibility to decide that they are not going to provide support services despite a need for them having been demonstrated, the Government need to specify the circumstances in which they think such a decision would be justified. I have said before, and will say again, that if there is no explicit requirement in the primary legislation you might as well whistle for such support because, in their current state of affluence, local authorities will in practice only meet those requirements that are legally inescapable; they will not be minded to do more.

4.30 p.m.

Baroness David: I support what has been said by the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, and the noble Earl, Lord Howe. I support Amendments Nos. 107B, 107C, 107D and 108A. I believe that the birth parents should be included among those who may be assessed. It would be a much better arrangement for the future if they were all entitled to an assessment. The noble Lord and the noble Earl have already given the reasons for this, but I would like to add my voice to theirs. I hope the Minister agrees.

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