Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I understand the noble Lord's concern. I believe, as does the noble Lord, that the parenting role is for both parents. We would expect that, in considering whether such a move would inure to the children's advantage, there would be thought as to whether the parents should go together and whether the children should go with them. If it is not thought necessary for the mother to be with the father on the parenting course, we would expect there to be proper arrangements.

The kind of issues which the noble Lord properly raises are those which we would expect the court to make inquiry about and those who seek the orders to be able to satisfy. If the court is not so satisfied, it will be open to the justice exercising the discretion to say, "I am not satisfied that a residential setting in these circumstances is the preferred way", and to suggest another way. These are the precise practical issues which need to be addressed in order for the court to come to its determination.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for giving so full a reply to all the queries that I raised. It is helpful to get the essence of the letter that she wrote to the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, on to the record. I thank her for repeating it and for the patience of your Lordships in listening to it.

23 Oct 2003 : Column 1817

We will study what the Minister has said and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 19 [Parenting contracts in cases of exclusion from school or truancy]:

Baroness Sharp of Guildford moved Amendment No. 37:

    Page 18, line 7, at end insert "and will work in conjunction with the appropriate agencies and authorities to ensure that such support is given"

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, Amendment No. 37 relates to the voluntary parenting contracts and goes back to the discussions that we had in Committee on the need for LEAs and governing bodies to work in conjunction with social service and health authorities—the multi-agency approach that we have talked about in terms of tackling family problems at the root.

In Committee, the Minister said:

    "We of course want to encourage an approach to supporting parents that draws on input from the full range of relevant agencies . . . 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 other agencies to ensure that the terms of the parenting contract are complementary. That is also a key component of the Children at Risk Green Paper".—[Official Report, 11/9/03; col. 527.]

The draft guidance that has been issued, which seems only to refer to parenting contracts initiated by youth offending teams, does indeed refer to multi-agency working, but it is mainly about youth offending teams working in conjunction with other agencies. It puts the onus on the youth offending team to identify the other agencies working with the child. That can be found at paragraphs 2.20 and 2.21. It concludes with the rather weak sentence:

    "Local protocols will need to be agreed about co-operating and supplying resources in such cases".

Paragraph 2.22 then states:

    "Local co-ordination in the delivery of parenting programmes may also help target effort and resources where it can be most effective".

Indeed, but we return to the old conundrum: is it enough to set that out in guidance, particularly when the guidance is as generalised and as weak as this? Given the failures of joined-up working, exposed time and again in cases such as that of Victoria Climbie, is there not virtue in having that injunction on the face of the Bill?

Amendment No. 37 is framed in general terms to meet the criticism of our more specific amendments raised by the Minister in Committee. It does no more than provide a gentle prod in the direction in which guidance will take the authorities, but being on the face of the Bill makes it that much stronger.

Amendment No. 45, to which I wish to speak, relates to a different issue. It concerns the question which my noble friend Lady Walmsley raised in Committee in relation to Part 4 of the Bill—namely, the question of how far action should be taken when there is merely the view that a young person is likely to

23 Oct 2003 : Column 1818

engage in criminal conduct or anti-social behaviour. Admittedly, here we are talking about parenting contracts and not the dispersal of groups. However, the same issue arises: whose judgment is it that such behaviour is likely to occur?

Given that the consequences for parents may be quite substantial, including enforced attendance at residential courses, which we have just discussed, can the Minister justify the presumption entailed? I beg to move.

Baroness Darcy de Knayth: My Lords, perhaps I should speak now to my amendment—Amendment No. 38—which is in this group. Incidentally, I wish to add warm support for Amendment No. 37. I shall try to be brief. I said that I would not try to de-couple the amendment and I have not done so. However, I am afraid that I shall have to spend a little time on it.

I shall not repeat the arguments that I made in Committee on 11th September at cols. 532 to 534. Then, I moved and spoke to similar amendments, which sought to give school governors and LEA officers a legal duty to pause for thought before issuing parenting contracts and orders to parents of children with special educational needs. The amendments sought to ask them to consider whether more appropriate action could be taken instead of imposing possibly irrelevant legal requirements on parents.

The Minister gave a full and most welcome reply at cols. 534 to 536, saying that the Government were absolutely committed to ensuring that the provision in Part 3 did not adversely affect children with SENs and that they would make that crystal clear in guidance. I withdrew gratefully and hoped that the guidance would be issued before Report. I am delighted that the draft guidance, which has already been mentioned, is already out for consultation.

I very much welcome the references to children with disabilities and special educational needs. The guidance goes a long way to meeting the concerns expressed by myself and other noble Lords—particularly the noble Lords, Lord Addington and Lord Elton. I am delighted to see that the noble Lord, Lord Elton, has stayed to debate the spin-off advantages available to other children in the class.

There is an excellent part on disability and special educational needs at the beginning of the draft guidance but no mention of them later. I feel very strongly that they need to be mentioned again under the section headed "Considerations to be taken into account before issuing contracts" and before issuing orders for their return.

The Special Educational Consortium fully supports that and is concerned about the checks on special educational needs and disability. I know that IPSEA, of which I should declare I am a patron, will respond to the consultation document in the hope of persuading the department to enlarge on the considerations that will be required before contracts are examined. It may wish to call for a review of the school's current arrangements in order to meet the child's special educational needs. It will wish to review

23 Oct 2003 : Column 1819

whether the necessary arrangements are in place and whether they are adequate or need to be amended or reassessed before issuing a contract. I hope that the Minister will agree to that kind of detail being included in the final version of the guidance. Other organisations will respond individually and I know that the SEC will do so collectively.

That deals with parenting contracts. I now turn to parenting orders which are applied for by LEAs. They are issued by magistrates' courts with a penalty for parents who fail to fulfil the terms. I believe that IPSEA is right to say that we need a stronger measure than guidance; hence Amendment No. 38. The amendment would call for regulations to require a review of the current arrangements to meet the child's special educational needs before an application for an order to a magistrates' court is made. Consideration should be made of whether the provision in place should be amended and whether there should be fresh assessment of the child's needs. At present those with a disability or with SEN receive no mention in the regulations. That is a very important point. It is in line with the concerns of the SEC and has its support.

Are we asking for a sledgehammer—although quite a small sledgehammer—to crack a nut? I think not. I have two quick points in support of the amendment: I mentioned one in Committee and the other is new. First, a growing number of voluntary organisations active in this area have experience of children with special educational needs being excluded because the schools cannot meet their needs: IPSEA, the National Autistic Society, the Down's Syndrome Association, the British Dyslexia Association and the ADHD National Alliance in particular all report that. They are active, grass roots organisations.

My new point is that the latest statistics on exclusions from school issued earlier this month by the DfES specifies for the first time the number of children without statements as well as those with statements. The numbers are somewhat startling. The total number of children excluded from school remains the same. The figures used to be for children with statements and the rest of the children and now they are for children with special educational needs with or without statements. In 2000–01, 9,000 children were excluded—a figure that stays constant—and 808 children with statements were excluded. In 2001–02, there were still about 9,000 excluded children, but almost 6,000 children—instead of 808—had special educational needs, which means that 60 per cent of excluded children probably had a special educational need of some kind.

IPSEA says that we do not have the figures, but there is a good reason to suspect that a large proportion of the 6,000 will have been excluded because the schools were not meeting their needs. In such situations there is little point in pursuing parenting contracts or orders without first having ensured that the individual child's needs are being met.

I hope that the Minister will agree that the figures are serious. I hope that she will look kindly on the amendment. I repeat that I am grateful for the

23 Oct 2003 : Column 1820

guidance as far as it goes, and I hope that the Government will take note of the comments. I also hope that serious consideration will be given to this amendment.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page