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Earl Howe: As regards the final point, I am not sure that I am entirely clear. However, I shall read what the Minister said and, if I need to, I shall drop him a line during the Recess.

Lord Clement-Jones: I thank the Minister for his reply. On my Richter scale of Grand Committee responses I am afraid that I regard that as one of the Minister's rather dustier responses that we have had over seven Grand Committee meetings. I do not believe that we have got a great deal further. The Minister's arguments rest on a number of different propositions. He says that special guardianship does not have the same long-term consequences as other provision, that we do not have experience of it, and that it requires a great deal more flexibility than might be appropriate for adoption support services. However, much of the earlier debate in the Grand Committee concerned the flexibility which we thought was undesirable in adoption support services. We shall no doubt return to that matter on Report unless the Minister comes back with some splendid proposals in September and October.

One local authority's flexibility is another person's inability to enforce a set of rights. In my opinion that is the worry throughout new Section 14F. In the course of this debate we have not assured any birth parents that they can ask for special guardianship services. We have not assured grandparents that they will be included. The Minister has simply said that the Secretary of State could include them. I do not believe that most objective observers would regard that as satisfactory.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: With the greatest respect to the noble Lord, I also said that in a consultation process we are open to discuss those very issues. However, because special guardianship orders are a new concept, we think that it is worth having flexibility in the Bill. As the noble Lord implies, in new Section 14F, if it is so decided in the future—I certainly cannot

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give a commitment that birth parents should always be able to apply for assessment—there is the ability to enable that to happen.

Lord Clement-Jones: I see a ray of sunshine in the Minister's response perhaps.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: The noble Lord should be a little cautious about that. I did say that I could not give a commitment. All I am seeking to say is that we have the ability to consult and to take account of views that are put forward. I refer to the flexibility in the Bill, as it currently stands, to develop the list of people who would be eligible.

Baroness Howarth of Breckland: I ask for a point of clarification. I am not too sure who I should ask, but it may be the Minister. It follows from the point that is being made.

As regards this debate I am unclear about the provisions of Section 1 of the Children and Young Persons Act 1963 which gives local authorities the ability to provide funds to families and to make other provision to enable them to stay together. It seems to me that we are in real danger here of managing to do that only through some kind of legal order. I believe that that would be sad and dangerous. I should much prefer local authorities to be seriously encouraged to improve their preventive services. In the 1970s they developed extraordinarily exciting and innovative community ideas to help families to retain their home networks. Are we really saying that the only way a family is going to get financial help and assessed help is if they apply for a guardianship order? Should we not instead firmly encourage greater use of those rather lost 1963 powers, which were very powerful in terms of developing systems in local communities?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: The noble Baroness raises an important point, which encapsulates what I was trying to say; namely, that under other sections of the Children Act, local authorities are under a general duty to provide services to support children and their families. The great irony is that if Members of the Committee pursue this amendment, to make it a statutory duty to provide support services after an assessment, they are placing it in a higher order—giving it a higher level of priority—than the general duty to support services in the way the noble Baroness has described. That is the problem with this approach.

Lord Clement-Jones: The Minister earlier said that there would continue to be duties under other sections of the Children Act and under other legislation, but we should not, in this Committee, reach a stage where the good is the enemy of the best or vice versa. What we are arguing for in these amendments does not foreclose a local authority action in any other respect. I was about to say, before the Minister intervened, that we welcome the fact that the Minister proposes to consult.

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But he also said that it would be within the light of experience. It may be, therefore, that the consultation will be extremely limited.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: I can clarify that. We will consult and that will inform the regulations that will be laid in relation to special guardianship orders. I was trying also to indicate that as time goes on and we have experience of special guardianship orders in practice, we can revisit many of these issues. I was trying to show that we can have a flexibility in response because of the way the Bill is drafted.

Lord Clement-Jones: That is what I thought the Minister was saying. He said that minds are not closed; that is, in future consultations, in the light of experience and so on.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: No, the noble Lord misunderstands me. Our minds are not closed in relation to the consultation that we will undertake before we lay the first set of regulations. Our minds will remain open in the light of experience.

Lord Clement-Jones: I am sure the Minister's mind is open at all stages of the proceedings. I welcome that clarification because it is important that the issue of the birth parents and the grandparents is considered now, not simply in the light of experience. I take that as an assurance that those issues will be considered.

The Minister—and we have debated often enough—is very fond of talking about achieving a balance. I do not believe—and I hope this is taking into account the consultations—that a balance is achieved. These amendments seek to achieve that balance, whether it is the inclusion of the birth parents in new Section 14F or that no one should be automatically excluded from special guardianship support services. That seems to us on these Benches to achieve that balance and I hope the Minister will consider that.

Naturally, when it comes to the issue of whether, an assessment having been made, those support services have to be provided, we get deep into the thickets of decentralisation and so on. Again, we have debated these issues. Whenever the Minister does not want to make a financial commitment, we start talking about decentralisation. This is a question of assumption of responsibility, not whether decentralisation takes place.

I would prefer to say that governments can decide whether something takes place but that the "how" is determined at local level. That seems to be entirely appropriate and if the Minister abdicates from the "whether", which is the determination that something should happen at local level, that is an abdication and not true decentralisation. I am quite sure that we will debate again in the context of adoption services.

Moreover, we on these Benches are not suspecting that local authorities will deliver poor quality services. They may be high quality services but to a more limited number of people. Local authorities may determine that that is the best use of their resources unless they have the duty laid on them by Government to provide those services and also the resources that go with that.

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I do not believe that we have come to any satisfactory conclusion at the end of this debate. We shall revisit the matter. I welcome the Minister's assurances on consultation but I believe that we have some way to go before we have a satisfactory resolution of this matter. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 107C to 113 not moved.]

Clause 112 agreed to.

5 p.m.

On Question, Whether Clause 113 shall stand part of the Bill?

Baroness David: It has come to my attention through the National Council of Voluntary Child Care Organisations that Clause 113 might have some unintended consequences. I have assured them that I shall bring this to the attention of the Minister and listen to his comment on it, so that we know whether we might have go any further.

I understand that Clause 113 was introduced into the Bill in another place during the course of its passage through that House. Clause 113 of the Children and Adoption Bill amending Sections 17, 22 and 24A of the Children Act 1989, has the effect of allowing children to be accommodated separately from their parents. The intention, undoubtedly, is for Section 17 to be used to accommodate children with their parents. However, as it stands the clause would appear to allow a local authority to accommodate lone children with the authority acquiring the duties of Section 22 of the Children Act; duties which include safeguarding and promoting the welfare of looked-after children.

Already, vulnerable children and young people—for example, homeless young people, asylum-seeking children and children being removed from mental institutions—could inadvertently be placed at further risk. It is unlikely that a local authority will choose to make use of the full range of powers under Section 20 of the Children Act when a less costly alternative is available. It is probably unintentional but it is a loophole that should be closed, and I hope the Minister will comment on that.

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