Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Dixon-Smith: I rise to speak to the three amendments in my name, Amendments Nos. 91, 105 and 116, that are grouped with this amendment.

Once again, I seek clarification from the Government as to the meaning of the Bill, and to put down words that might improve it. Amendment No. 91 gives a little more flexibility as to what might be put into a parenting order. We thought that that would be helpful.

Amendment No. 105 extends the period for which a parenting order might apply from 12 months to two years. That may seem quite difficult, but some parents have considerable problems. It is better to have the possibility of too long a maximum period that can be cut off than come to the end of a 12-month period and still have problem parents who have made relatively little progress.

11 Sept 2003 : Column 522

Amendment No. 116 is a genuinely trivial amendment because it would leave out "must" and insert "shall". I am afraid that having been an anarchist for a long time in my life I do not like the word "must". However, if I am told that I should do something, I am much more likely to do it voluntarily. It is a case of compulsion versus people behaving reasonably.

The amendments are designed to help and to ensure a greater possibility of success for parenting orders, which we all want to succeed. The fact of the matter is, however, that a parenting order assumes that a parent can always ensure that a child attends school. That does not necessarily follow. There are some young children who will, as I do, reject the "must" and simply not go to school. The reason may be the very unfortunate one of bullying, but it may simply be a total unwillingness to go to school. Having grown up in an era when a lot of people I knew had to leave school at the age of 12, I can sometimes sympathise with that view. Some of those people were very successful. I beg to move.

The Earl of Listowel: I rise to speak to Amendment No. 80, which is in this group. Before doing so, I thank the Minister for the very helpful meeting that she kindly arranged for Peers prior to the Committee stage. I much appreciated the helpful replies that she and her colleagues gave to our questions.

Lord Hylton: I suggest to my noble friend that his amendments come in the next group and not in one beginning with Amendment No. 75.

6.30 p.m.

The Earl of Listowel: With respect to my noble friend, I believe that we have moved on to the group beginning with Amendment No. 77.

As I said at Second Reading, I welcome the thrust of the proposals. I am certainly no expert in this area. I have visited a parenting class; I have given awards at a parenting ceremony. The noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, eloquently put the virtues of parenting interventions. What struck me is the isolation that many parents experience, which parenting classes can often help to break.

I have received information from a number of children's organisations. Barnardo's, the Children's Rights Alliance for England, the Children's Society, the family services units, NACRO and several other charities which work in this area, have serious concerns about the compliance of these clauses with the principle of the best interests of the child under the Children Act 1989 and Article 3 of the United Nations Convention of the Child. They are also concerned about compliance with Article 9 of the UNCRC. Perhaps I may remind your Lordships that Article 9 provides that a child has the right to live with his or her parents unless it is deemed incompatible with his or her best interests. The child has the right to maintain contact with both parents if separated from one or both, except if it is contrary to the child's best interests.

11 Sept 2003 : Column 523

There has been little discussion or information on these measures. Government amendments tabled on Report in the House of Commons provided for the residential requirement, but those amendments were not debated. Therefore, my amendments are probing and are intended to provide and seek further information.

The anti-social behaviour White Paper, Respect and Responsibility, stated:

    "Where parental and parenting problems are having an impact on their child's development other options would be to work with the parents in residential settings such as residential family centres or building on innovative voluntary sector projects such as the Dundee Families Project run by NCH Action for Children. We hope that families who are at the stage where only drastic action will work will accept such support voluntarily. Where the family is in serious crisis and help is not accepted, children are very likely to be at risk".

The White Paper goes on to say that,

    "positive work with families must always be allied to a clear understanding—by professional agencies and the perpetrators—that the protection of communities must come first . . . If the situation is putting the children or broader community at severe risk, the courts can remove the children from the home or move the whole family out of the neighbourhood. We will consider whether we need to take further powers to ensure parents comply, for example by extending a Parenting Order to include a residential requirement".

That is the context for this.

There are no details of residential parenting courses set out in the Bill or in the Explanatory Notes. It is unclear whether the residential component of up to three months is for the parent subject to the parenting order only, or for the whole family. In either case, appropriate arrangements for the care of the child must be made. In her letter, the noble Baroness made clear that ideally the whole family would be involved, but that there would be circumstances in which it may be just the parents.

One of the options suggested in the White Paper was the use of residential family centres. Arrangements already exist under the Children Act 1989 and the Care Standards Act 2000 for a family to be placed in a residential family centre where available and appropriate as part of care proceedings in relation to the child. Residential family centres are often used for vulnerable families with young children to provide support and to identify work to be undertaken to help the family.

The primary reason for a family to be admitted to a residential family centre is concern that parents' or carers' capacity is, or may be, both insufficient to respond to their children's needs and insufficient to safeguard their children's welfare. Welfare is a primary consideration for admission to a centre. An establishment cannot be considered a residential family centre under the Care Standards Act 2000 if it provides only parenting support. Therefore, these may not be appropriate for the residential component of parenting orders. Residential family centres are defined under Section 4(2) of the Care Standards Act 2000 as,

    "any establishment at which—

    (a) accommodation is provided for children and their parents;

    (b) the parents' capacity to respond to the children's needs and to safeguard their welfare is monitored or assessed; and

11 Sept 2003 : Column 524

    (c) the parents are given such advice, guidance or counselling as is considered necessary".

The NCH Dundee Families project, also mentioned in the White Paper, provides a good example of how anti-social behaviour can be reduced by giving vulnerable families the necessary support and advice they need. However, this project's primary focus is to tackle the underlying problems of nuisance behaviours and prevent evictions. This could provide a model for organisations providing the residential component of a parenting order, but capacity issues would need to be addressed.

I shall sum up the questions which it would be helpful if the Minister could answer. How will the Government ensure that the residential requirement of a parenting order fulfils the UK Government's obligations under the UNCRC, the Children Act 1989 and the Human Rights Act 1998? Can the Government provide an assurance that parents will be required to attend a residential programme only if it is in the best interests of any dependent children? Can the Government also confirm what will be the main purpose of the residential requirement? As I have said, the Minister has already responded to my final question in her letter.

A great deal of further information is needed in this area, given that these measures were introduced late in the progress of the Bill and that not much information was set out in the White Paper. I look forward to the Minister's response. Further, the question of capacity has to be addressed because it is no good giving parents these orders and then putting them through a second-rate residential course which does no one any good. Assurances on that front would be very welcome.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford: Members on these Benches would like to associate themselves with the amendment spoken to by the noble Earl, Lord Listowel. When the normal pattern of a family is disturbed by a residential course, it is extremely important that real thought is given to whether the benefits will exceed the costs. I endorse entirely the remarks made by the noble Earl.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: I say straightaway that the sentiments expressed by the noble Baroness, the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, and by the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, are very much echoed by the Government. The thrust of the comments made by the noble Baroness follow closely those made by us.

Perhaps I may make one or two comments of a general nature before moving on to the specific applications. These measures are about supporting parents so that they can better support their children to take advantage of the educational opportunities that are available. Parenting orders and the assistance and support that go with them are very much supportive and enabling measures which it is hoped will improve the performance of parents in terms of their parenting, but for the precise purpose of benefiting children so that they can take advantage of their educational opportunities.

11 Sept 2003 : Column 525

There is no doubt that improving parenting skills inures to the benefit of the child. We would expect local education authorities and schools to investigate the underlying causes of truancy before entering into parenting contracts, issuing penalty notices or taking any of the steps set out in the Bill. We seek to reflect those sentiments in the guidance that will be issued.

I shall touch on the point made by the noble Earl in relation to residential parenting services, echoed I believe by the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp. It is right to say that these parenting services will first be piloted on a voluntary basis so that we can learn the lessons of how to fashion them in the most appropriate way, thus ensuring that we can enhance their effectiveness. In that way good practice will become clearer in terms of how the programmes will be designed.

Turning to the point made by the noble Baroness about the three-month trial period, of course the whole point of the residential places is to target those issues that are of most concern to the families and the children involved. A weekend residential period may be appropriate in order not to disturb the ordinary day-to-day life of the family and it may be necessary to invite the parents to take the children with them. In other cases it may be more appropriate for the child not to be there for a short period to enable the parents to concentrate on other matters. I can reassure the Committee that the level of sensitivity necessary for the particular needs of a particular family will be very much borne in mind.

We believe that a three-month period is an adequate time for a parenting programme. It is important that there is a clear cut-off date. If after a programme under an order a parent requires additional support, we would prefer to see this delivered on a voluntary basis. As the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, said, many parents have found these programmes very helpful indeed. More particularly, many parents who were resistant to a parenting order at its inception, after receiving the benefit of it, develop a hunger to continue with that work. If we have generated that level of commitment and enthusiasm after a three-month period, I am sure the noble Baroness would agree that it would be preferable to continue the work on a voluntary basis, if the parties agree, rather than retaining the element of compulsion. We believe that three months will be sufficient for us to taste whether or not the programme has succeeded.

The noble Baroness seeks to ensure with Amendment No. 78 that the counselling and guidance programme under a parenting order is appropriate. We absolutely agree with that sentiment. The Bill as currently structured enables that to happen.

Amendment No. 88 seeks to ensure that the local education authority or governing body provides appropriate support to parents as part of the parenting contract, and Amendment No. 99 places a duty on the LEAs and governing bodies to provide the parents with information about the range of advice and counselling services available. The Bill already states that the support provided must be for the purpose of

11 Sept 2003 : Column 526

complying with the requirements specified in the contract. These words define what is appropriate for the contract and therefore the addition of the word "appropriate" is unnecessary and possibly confusing.

I share the noble Baroness's view that it is important that the parents have access to the kind of support that will best enable them to improve their child's behaviour or attendance. But the school or the local education authority must make a judgment about how best to support the parent after considering the particular circumstances of the case, rather than providing the parent with a range of pre-determined options. This will be subject to negotiation between the school or the LEA and the parent.

We will set out in guidance the kind of support that might be provided by a school or a local education authority through a parenting contract. The guidance will emphasise that schools and LEAs should think innovatively about what kind of support to offer.

Likewise, I can assure the Committee that a court can make a parenting order only if it is desirable in the interests of preventing a repetition of the kind of behaviour that led to a parenting order being considered. This will be the case only where the programme of counselling and guidance that the parent will attend is relevant and appropriate.

Let me turn now to the amendments tabled by the noble Earl, Lord Listowel—that is, Amendments Nos. 80, 106, 107, 135 and 136. These amendments require three new conditions to be met before a court can include a residential course in a parenting order. The first additional condition would require that the parents' attendance is in the best interests of the child, taking into account the likely effect on the child because of changes in his home circumstances. Inserting this condition we think would be unnecessary. The whole purpose of the parenting order will be to support the parent so that they are able to influence their child positively. To include a residential course, a court will need to consider that it is likely to be more effective. This will serve the child's interests. So if the court believes, in all the circumstances, that it would be more appropriate to fashion a programme in another way, it will not provide for a residential placement to be included.

The second condition that the amendments propose is that the appropriate arrangements have been made for the care and education of the child. We believe that this is covered by the second condition in the clauses as drafted—that the likely effect on family life is proportionate. This would include their care and education. In some cases, this will involve the children attending on a voluntary basis, and in other cases, alternative arrangements will be made for their care and, if appropriate, their education.

The third condition mentioned by the noble Earl suggests that the residential course is a measure of last resort. I fear this would not lend itself very readily to interpretation or placement in the Bill and might well cause confusion.

11 Sept 2003 : Column 527

The conditions already ensure that parental orders will include a residential course only in exceptional circumstances and will be underpinned by guidance which will be issued for consultation shortly.

The aim of Amendments Nos. 81 and 82 is to ensure that the local education authorities and schools do not seek to enter into parenting contracts for truancy without assessing the causes of the child's truancy. I reassure the noble Baroness that we share that aim.

Parenting contracts are not to be seen as punitive sanctions but as one means of trying to secure improvements in attendance. It is also important to remember that they are voluntary. We see them as a way of enabling a school and a child's parents to work closely together in improving the child's attendance. I am sure that a number of noble Lords will know that many schools already enter into informal contracts with parents in relation to children whose behaviour has not been good in order to improve that.

Amendment No. 90 would ensure that the LEAs and governing bodies will be required to state that they will work together with local authorities and health services in providing the support to parents advocated under parenting contracts. We of course want to encourage an approach to supporting parents that draws on input from the full range of the relevant agencies. However, while in most cases joined-up working between different agencies will be necessary, this is by no means true of every case. Sometimes one authority will be necessary and others will not. It would be wrong to require a blanket approach by imposing this requirement by including it on the face of the Bill.

We will encourage local education authorities and schools, through guidance, to investigate whether other agencies are already working with the pupil and family and, if so, to work with those other agencies to ensure that the terms of the parenting contract are complementary. This is also a key consideration of the Children at Risk Green Paper which was published on Monday and which the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, touched on in her remarks.

Amendment No. 91, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, amends Clause 19(5) and is designed to provide that the parenting contract may include provisions for the parent's side which go beyond the requirement to attend counselling or guidance session. We say that this amendment is not necessary, as Clause 19(4)(a) already provides that the parenting contract is to contain a statement that the parent agrees to comply with requirements specified in the parenting contract.

Amendment No. 105 is intended to double the maximum duration of a parenting order from 12 months to two years. Again, that is unnecessary. It is important that any intervention in response to poor behaviour is timely and efficient. The expectation must be that the parent can be supported to bring about an improvement in the child's behaviour in a timely manner. We would not want to indicate that the improvement in the child's behaviour to an acceptable level can be allowed to take as long as two years. Noble Lords will know that two

11 Sept 2003 : Column 528

years is a considerable period of time in any child's life. That is not to say that support would not be available beyond a year; if the parent felt it necessary, further support could be assessed on a voluntary basis. If the local education authority felt that the order had not been successful within that timeframe, it would need to consider and draw on other interventions.

As for Amendment No. 116, I understand what the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, says about his preference for "shall" as opposed to "must". I would not have described him in the terms that he used to describe himself; he is in no way delinquent, certainly not in the way in which he usually disports himself. The import of "must" and "shall" are of course very similar.

The obligation in the clause is to "have regard" to the guidance, which means that the local education authority or governing body need not slavishly follow the guidance if it is inappropriate in individual cases. If there are good reasons to do so in an individual case, the local education authority can depart from the guidance. We say, "must have regard", whereas the noble Lord would say, "shall have regard". The use of "shall" does not add or take away from the existing imperative. Whichever word is used, the subject remains under the same duty to have regard to the guidance. On that basis, I know that the noble Lord prefers the one but, in terms of terminology, what is currently there will suffice.

Amendment No. 132 is necessary to reflect amendments made in another place to this part of the Bill. The intention is that, in any case where the parent has already been subject to a parenting order and has therefore attended a counselling or guidance programme, a subsequent order does not need to include a requirement to attend another programme. Clause 18(2) of the Bill now achieves the desired effect, which means that Clause 24(2) is not needed.

I hope that I have given a helpful exposition of the way in which the Government have put these matters in the Bill, because I know that noble Lords were, rightly, concerned about them. We share that concern, but we believe that they are adequately and appropriately expressed in the Bill.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page