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Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: This has been a helpful debate and, once again, the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, has drawn our attention to the reasons why we need to improve our adoption services and why we need to gear ourselves up to improve the outcomes of looked-after children.

The noble Earl referred to educational statistics. I have looked at them. The figures for September 2001 tend to show that there has been a very small improvement—but improvement none the less—which we ought to welcome. In school year 11, for example, 11 per cent of looked-after children achieved at least one GCSE or GNVQ, which is up from 49 per cent in 2000; 8 per cent of looked-after children achieved at least five GCSEs at grades A to C, which is up from 7 per cent in 2000; and at the end of school year 11, 53 per cent remained in full-time education, which is up from 52 per cent. There are other statistics which also tend to show a small percentage increase. But we wish to see greater progress and I hope that we shall do so in the future. None the less, these are significant signals, which are to be welcomed. But these figures also show that we have a long way to go before we achieve the kind of outcome that we really want for these vulnerable, looked-after children.

I know that we have debated the issue of advocacy for quite some time now. I recognise the importance of advocacy. Clause 114, around which the debate is taking place, is an important improvement. It improves the way in which complaints procedures will operate in respect of children. We know that there have been many concerns in the past about local authority/social services complaints procedures, which have been criticised as being too slow and too bureaucratic. We need to do something about that, particularly for children.

Clause 114 amends the Children Act in three ways. First, it corrects an anomaly in the complaints procedures for complaints involving children. Currently, complaints about the discharge of local authority functions, including care and supervision and child protection, are dealt with through the adult

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complaints procedure established under the Local Authority Social Services Act 1970. Clause 114 extends the more child-focused Children Act complaints procedure to complaints and representations about these services. This will ensure—to pick up the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth of Breckland, who suggested that a national framework was needed—that there is a consistent approach to all complaints made by or concerning children.

Secondly, Clause 114 amends the Children Act 1989 in order to enable regulations to be made imposing time limits for the making of representations under that Act. Again, this is another important part of the building block of a national framework. Our aim is to set a reasonable time limit so that matters complained about by current service users have a reasonable prospect of being remedied.

Finally, Clause 114 also makes a mainly technical amendment to the Children Act regulations to enable regulations to be made so that an independent person is not required in any informal resolution stage. We are able to introduce an informal resolution stage under the present powers in the Act by means of regulations. We propose that the informal resolution procedure should have a tight, 14-day timescale because it is especially important for children to have their concerns dealt with quickly.

I turn now to the question of an independent advocate. Members of the Committee know that the Government and myself are sympathetic to these issues. We have completed five consultation roadshows with providers, commissioners and users of advocacy services about issues such as provision, funding, standards and training. We do not feel that it is the right time to introduce legislative changes in the Bill because consultation has only recently been completed and the Government are analysing the responses and considering the key messages from these events. We want to ensure that independent advocacy sits alongside or is built into a strong foundation of listening-to-children activity. Furthermore, the amendments do not provide the flexibility necessary to make a system of independent advocacy work.

The noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, referred to the advice that my department might seek from my noble friend's department in relation to legally or qualified professional people to undertake advocacy. We are ever ready to listen to my noble friend's department, but I believe we need some flexibility. The noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, also said that in her introductory remarks.

During the consultation events, feedback from young people's groups told us frequently that flexibility is important; that they would like the choice of who provides that advocacy. For instance, as the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, suggested, it could be peer advocacy, or it could be mentoring from among the peer group of young people. It might be a relative or a friend from the local community. We want to consider all these issues raised in the consultation, and

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we need some time to make a response. However, I want to assure Members of the Committee that the intention is that we respond by the end of the year.

We also need to do more work to clarify the roles of the different professionals advocating for children and young people in the complaints procedure. As the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth of Breckland, suggested, a number of people and organisations are involved. They can include independent persons, complaints officers, independent reviewing officers, independent visitors, and listening-to-children officers. They all do a good job and is no question about that. However, we must careful that these different roles are not confused, particularly during the early stage of any procedure when we would want complaints or concerns resolved informally.

The confusion among young people about who to go through and the pathways to take is apparent and came through in the consultation process. We must also ensure that there are sufficient numbers of advocates, or people wishing to be trained as advocates, before we make it a statutory requirement on all councils. Again, feedback shows the need for an appropriate and affordable service, which gives young people the flexible service that they need.

We want to get these issues right. The consultation looked at the funding of advocacy services; at definitions of the different professionals who provide advocacy; and at the national standards and training of advocates. We will analyse all those issues, and we will then be in a better position to define what we want local authorities to deliver and how we want them to deliver it.

I also give a commitment to Members of the Committee, that we are keen to use the national advocacy standards. These standards were developed by my department, the National Youth Advocacy Service and the Advocacy Consortium, and were put out for full consultation. The current consultation, which also involved consultation on not only the draft standards but on the wider issue of advocacy, will be very carefully considered.

In the consultation we also explored the possibility of introducing a joint system between children's social services and developments in the NHS, with the creation of independent complaints advocacy services. As many Members of the Committee will be aware, we intend to introduce independent advocacy in 2003 within the NHS, with pilot sites being used to explore issues concerning practical implementation. Feedback from the events indicated the importance of consistent advocacy services across NHS and social services.

The work we do links in to the Quality Protects programme. Listening to children is a key principle underpinning the entire programme. Guidance to local authorities requires social services departments, and other agencies to increase participation in day-to-day decision making through the development of independent advocacy services and the speeding up of complaints procedures.

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Furthermore, the principle of listening to children is being taken seriously at national level. My right honourable friend, Mr John Hutton, who has lead responsibility for children's services across government, and the Young Persons' Unit within the Cabinet Office are dedicated to ensuring that government departments listen and talk much more to young people.

Today I attended a meeting of the UK National Youth Parliament, which I would describe as an invigorating experience. Three hundred young people elected from local communities, come together for four days to talk about many of the same issues. I gave a commitment that my own department would meet with the specialist health select committee of the young people's parliament to talk about the issue of involvement within the National Health Service and social care at a national and local level.

I hope that Members of the Committee will know of our commitment to considering these matters carefully. We have a problem with the amendments because of timing but work is being taken forward in the light of consultation. However, much more needs to be done before we can consider making the provision of independent advocacy services a statutory requirement. We are committed to doing everything we can to take this work forward as quickly as possible.

5.30 p.m.

Baroness Noakes: Will the Minister say whether in the event that the amendment was not proceeded with at a later stage, the Government would have legislative cover to introduce some kind of national system of advocacy? If the amendment were not made, what would be relied upon to achieve that?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: This question has been raised before. Primary legislation would be required and I can never speculate about what future legislative proposals might be in place in the area of social care. All I will say is that this is not the first Bill relating to the responsibility of local authorities that we have debated over the past three to four years and it certainly will not be the last.

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