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8 Jan 2008 : Column GC261

8 Jan 2008 : Column GC261

Grand Committee

Tuesday, 8 January 2008.

The Committee met at half-past three.

[The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Colwyn) in the Chair.]

Children and Young Persons Bill [HL]

(First Day)

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Colwyn): It is very unlikely, but if there is a Division in the Chamber while we are sitting, the Committee will adjourn as soon as the Division Bells are rung and resume after 10 minutes.

Title postponed.

Clause 1 [Power to enter into arrangements for discharge of care functions]:

Baroness Morris of Bolton moved Amendment No. 1:

The noble Baroness said: I begin by wishing everybody a very happy new year. In speaking to Amendments Nos. 1 and 18, I repeat the overwhelming sentiment of Second Reading that we broadly welcome this very important Bill. I look forward to debating the amendments, many of which can only make it better.

The purpose of the Bill is to improve the provision of care for children and young persons and to ensure that children in care have the same opportunity as all other children and young people. It is important, however, not to lose sight of the fact that providing the support that the Bill seeks to offer can happen in many cases without a child ever having to go into care. While the aim to improve care services is certainly laudable and necessary, we must remember that when it is in the best interests of the child, every effort should be made to keep families together and prevent children going into care in the first place. Of course this is, sadly, not always possible. However, the amendments place a duty on the local authority to make sufficient provision to intervene before the rest of the Bill’s provisions kick in. Having this duty is important for a number of reasons: success in early intervention provides relief for the care system, saving money and allowing the limited resources to be used more effectively. Sometimes problems that could have been resolved by counselling or family group conferences result in a vulnerable child being taken from their home and spending their entire youth in care. We have always welcomed any serious attempt by local authorities to intervene early enough to prevent children being taken into care, and I have often cited the example of Kent County Council, where early intervention and family group counselling have created a virtuous circle.

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Everyone we interviewed for our social workers commission said that they would like to see more emphasis placed on proactive work. When the Government issued their Green Paper, Care Matters, we held a number of hearings from those involved in the care sector. A common theme was that the current threshold for intervention into the lives of families on the edge of care is too high. That leads to a very costly process—costly to the lives of those children and costly to the state. Research from the NCH Sheffield Hallam report indicated that early intervention could save £250,000 within one family.

The other amendments in the group outline the specific manner in which we see early intervention being addressed, namely with family group conferences. Such conferences and our specific amendments are supported by a number of children and family lobby groups, including the Family Rights Group and Every Disabled Child Matters. Family group conferences offer a way in which children and their families have the opportunity to have a professionally mediated way of addressing problems and coming up with a plan of resolving them in a manner appropriate to the specific family’s needs. Does the Minister agree that it is vital to take the steps necessary to see that families are not broken up in the first place, and that if problems can be fixed early, they should be?

I understand that a weakness in my amendment could be the term “as appropriate”, and this could be an excuse not to refer in authorities where they are not confident of the model. I hope that the Minister will appreciate that the amendments are a genuine attempt to put some anchor points into a Bill that will require a great deal of best practice and good will. I beg to move.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford: I will speak to Amendment No. 26 in my name and that of my noble friend Lady Walmsley and the noble Lord, Lord Judd, and also to Amendment No. 27, in my name and that of my noble friend Lady Walmsley.

Amendment No. 26 is very similar to Amendment No. 18, which has already been spoken to by the noble Baroness, Lady Morris. It differs slightly in that it seeks to promote a family group conference before a child is committed into care and puts a duty on the local authority to undertake a family group conference when there is a strong likelihood of the child being committed into care and to offer the opportunity of a family conference to develop the care plan for the child. It is important to emphasise that point, because even when a child is taken into care, a family group conference is useful so that the family can understand what the plan for the child is, participate, be involved and to some extent have ownership of that plan. I emphasise the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, that such early intervention and thinking forward is a very important part of the process.

Family group conferences are a proven mechanism to enable partnership between the state and families at all key decision-making points for the child, including as a means of engaging the family to identify and support care arrangements for vulnerable children and their parents and as a way of identifying

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alternative care arrangements within the family when the parent cannot continue to look after the child, including identifying necessary support packages to avoid the child being received into care prior to legal action being undertaken, other than in emergencies.

Recent research has found that family and friends placements were initiated by social workers in only 4 per cent of cases, with the vast majority of placements initiated by relatives and friends. There is therefore clear scope to improve practice and to increase the number of family and friends placements. Family group conferences are a very effective way of engaging family members to come forward to care for a child if a child cannot live at home. The number of family group conferences taking place in England and Wales is increasing, and we welcome the commitment in the White Paper Care Matters: Time for Change to developing the capacity to deliver family group conferences. Nevertheless, whether a family is offered a family group conference is currently dependent on where they live and whether the social worker is inclined to support it. In other words, it is something of a postcode lottery. We believe that it should be the right of every child to know that it has not been removed from his or her family without the state fully exploring all the options for the child to remain within the wider family network. It is worth noting that it is a legal requirement in New Zealand that there should be a family group conference before a child is taken into care.

We have also added our names to Amendment No. 27, proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher. It deals with the provision of mental health and other services that might support the child and his family, which we discussed extensively at Second Reading. I am very grateful to the Minister for the letter that he sent after that debate, which spoke, among other things, of the statutory guidance that will be issued in the coming year on promoting health for looked-after children and which will make it clear that child and adolescent mental health services should be providing targeted and dedicated provision that prioritises children in care. That is certainly not the case at the moment. We should be delighted to see that guidance made explicit to PCTs and to child and adolescent mental health services.

The Minister also talked about two projects where pilots are being run aimed at providing additional support for vulnerable children and their families; the multi-systemic therapy intervention, which gives the child cognitive behavioural therapy strategies with a range of family support services, and the family drug and alcohol court developments, which are being piloted and developed. Both of those are very promising developments. We are delighted to see that they are taking place but other forms of therapy might be piloted and I hope that the Minister will say a little more about that.

Baroness Massey of Darwen: I support Amendment No. 18, to which I have added my name. I also support much of what the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, has just said. I start with an unscripted bit about how very challenging and encouraging it is

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to be in a room where so many people are focused in a non-party political way on the welfare of children. Many noble Lords present are members of the all-party parliamentary group which I chair. This strong grouping, including the observers, clearly indicates that if we support people who care for children, we support children themselves. That is the focus of our deliberations. The welfare of the child, as always, should remain paramount.

I want to say two things. First, the amendment supports the notion of consulting with children, which is evident in much recent government policy. Secondly, it also ties in with some of my later amendments on kinship care. Family group conferences genuinely seek to engage the family in identifying support care arrangements for vulnerable children, alternative care and support packages. They also provide pathways to planning and a means for the child to see members of their family and return home to the family from state care whenever possible. I support the amendment which has already been spoken to.

Lord Williamson of Horton: I, too, support the amendments and even more so in the light of the comments of the noble Baronesses, Lady Morris, Lady Sharp and Lady Massey, with which I strongly agree. My interventions will be wholly benevolent because I believe that this Bill is needed and I support it very much. I would like potential changes to follow the spirit in which the Government have presented the Bill to make a Bill which gives the best hope for improving the conditions of looked-after children and young persons.

I support both the key elements in this group of amendments. The first is early intervention, raised in Amendments Nos. 1 and 18, which is an underlying point of real importance. I shall not argue at great length that it must be built into the Bill but it is extremely important and if we can get it in the Bill, all the better. Early intervention is really important as regards all these issues.

The second element is family conferences and family therapy, which are not quite the same thing. Amendments Nos. 26 and 27 do not cover exactly the same ground but they are close to it. Both those elements are very helpful and, as some noble Lords said, we all know that there is strong pressure towards using more family therapy where there is a mental health problem. I have seen it in action and I very much support it. I support all four amendments in the group.

The Earl of Listowel: I support Amendment No. 26, to which my name is attached, and the general principle behind these amendments. It reminds me of the joint chief inspector’s report on safeguarding children published two years ago now. One of its most troubling and important findings was that the thresholds for interventions with families were too often too low to ensure that children were protected from harm and were also often too low when a child was being abused to enable social services to intervene to get them out of that situation. That is very important and the resources, particularly social workers, must be available to deliver

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early support to families. Perhaps the Minister can confirm that when a child is fostered by his or her extended family in such circumstances, the outcome is likely to be better, which is a very good reason to support them. There also will be amendments concerning the importance of grandparents and the need to give them more support.

3.45 pm

Last year, I attended a seminar sponsored by Family Law UK, with representation from the Family Rights Group, which looked at family group conferencing, in particular. Evidence strongly points to the success of this approach, but, as the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp of Guildford, said, there seems to be some reluctance by local authorities to implement it. The noble Baroness said that this approach is used in only 4 per cent of circumstances. Can the Minister confirm whether there is such apparent reluctance on the part of local authorities? Perhaps he would write to me. What might be the reason? Perhaps it is the cost of setting up a meeting in the first instance. What does the Minister consider to be the problem? I welcome the measures to prioritise placement with a family. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

Baroness Howarth of Breckland: I, too, welcome the Bill, despite what I said at Second Reading, to which I shall return from time to time. Let me add to what the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, said. For those of us who have sat through previous children’s legislation, where two or three people met and hoped that someone almighty was with us, it is wonderful to see so many people taking an interest.

No one who has been involved with social work for as long as I have can disagree with the tenor of any of these amendments. Clearly, the content is crucial. However, I question whether they need to be in legislation. On how the amendments would be incorporated, it would be interesting to hear whether the guidance and workforce planning going on answers some of the issues. We should remember that Section 17 of the Children Act 1989 already places a duty on local authorities to safeguard and promote the welfare of children. Within that duty, they are able to provide most things described in the amendments. The problem with Section 17 is the phrase, “who are in need” and the way in which local authorities have closely and tightly defined children in need to the exclusion of vast rafts of children who have needs that are not being met. Therefore, unless we get that clear, none of these amendments will improve the lot of children. We simply will be repeating previous legislation and not taking it forward.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, said, good prevention is good practice. We have heard the Government saying that about health services recently. We hope that they will pay the same attention to children as they have paid to adults in preventive health services. But all that depends on resources, skills and training, rather than legislation.

Family group conferencing is a very good preventive measure, but we must be extremely careful if we include it in legislation. It is equally important

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sometimes to provide in-depth, psychiatric and therapeutic help. It might be equally important to provide a washing machine to prevent children coming into local authority care of one form or another.

Noble Lords: Oh!

Baroness Howarth of Breckland: Perhaps the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, needs one too.

I go back to family group conferencing. The issue that I have with including it in legislation is that, having been involved with family groups and knowing the dynamics of families at times of trauma and difficulty, I know that that can be just the time not to bring some families together but to do good individual work until families can come together. In my work in CAFCASS, it is noticeable that the families who come before the court are increasingly more complex, with deeper and deeper difficulties, which may be why fewer children are being placed in extended families—as Members of the Committee will know, I am a keen exponent of placing with families, and especially of encouraging grandparents.

We have to be careful and remember that these are not your next-door-neighbour families, on the whole; these are families with extreme difficulties. Family group conferencing has been shown by research to be extremely positive when it works, but needs to be carried out with skill.

The Committee will know that I am a family case worker and therapist by background and my other anxiety is the level of skill that is available. I know that work is under way on workforce development. It would be interesting to hear from the Minister about that in terms of skills development, so that we know that the services that could and should be provided will be provided in future. I repeat, Section 1 of the 1963 Act—it goes back that far—now incorporated in Section 17 of the Children Act, while not referring directly to family group conferencing, gives the capacity to provide all those services. Section 17(10) includes support for the child's family.

If anything, I am inclined to support any new clause on the basis that something more might happen in children's services to make it move forward.

Baroness Butler-Sloss: I start by saying how sad I was not to be present for Second Reading; I was obliged to be elsewhere. I very much support the concept of the Bill. In principle, I support the amendments. We need to have a specific requirement, where appropriate, for family conferencing or family intervention. One can always deal with it by saying, “where appropriate”, to cover the situation that my noble friend Lady Howarth, has rightly raised. Of course, to bring some families into the same room is a recipe for the police.

My experience as a family judge trying care cases—I am certain that my noble friend Lord Elystan-Morgan will have had exactly the same experience—is that halfway through the case, you find

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that the parents say that they were never given the chance to take part. In some cases, that was true; in others it was not. Perhaps more importantly, that required the judge to ask social services whether they had looked at the wider family. I have to tell the Committee that, during I cannot remember how many years as a family judge, there were numerous examples where social services had gone rushing ahead and had never looked for the aunt, the cousin or the grandparent who was the obvious person to have the child.

My feeling is that with no specific requirement, whether in primary legislation, in a statutory instrument or in guidance backed by a requirement, and unless the local authority is told that it must consider a family conferencing early intervention, that is a recipe, I am sorry to say, for a large number of local authorities not to act. Somewhere, either in legislation or in guidance, there must be that requirement. It is very important that that is part of the Bill, in whichever form is thought appropriate. It is very important that parents are not given the opportunity to tell the judge or the magistrates that they were not consulted and that the wider family is considered with a great deal of care before we put the child into a wholly new family.

Over the years that I have been doing these cases there have been many where there would have been a cost implication of enormous value to a local authority, and therefore to the state, in getting hold of a family member early so that there are not the long, drawn-out and extremely expensive care proceedings, bitterly fought to the end, in which the child is in limbo for 12 to 18 months—and probably moved four or five times or more under short-term arrangements. The family really must be considered.

I am interested in Clause 27 on the need for intensive family therapy. The Cassel Hospital in west London is a unique family therapy unit. It is not only unique, it is outstanding—and it is expensive. It is in grave danger of having to close. Since a decision of the House of Lords Judicial Committee, it has basically been unnecessary for a local authority to send a child there for assessment if the assessment includes therapy. If we recognised that intensive family therapy at a very early stage would probably send a child back to the family in a certain percentage of cases, we would save the cost of the foster parent for the next 10 or 12 years. This splendid Bill has behind it intentions such as local authorities continuing to pay for these families through university education, so we are talking far beyond 10 or 12 years.

I strongly support intensive family therapy. Tied to that, please do not let the Cassel fail and shut down. If we do, the best place in the country will be gone and there will be nowhere else quite as good.

Baroness Murphy: I follow on from that point. I also did not speak at Second Reading, for which I apologise, but have followed with great interest, and listened carefully to, the debates involving the mental health aspect. I sound a note of caution. I strongly support our strong feelings and commitment to early

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intervention for children and their families; there are certainly many cases where intensive family therapy can be effective. Unfortunately we do not currently really know what type or proportion of families can benefit.

I add a note in support of the comments of my noble friend Lady Howarth that we must indicate to local authorities that they should explore what facilities might be appropriate for individuals. I do not know how this is best done, but I know that it is too early in our understanding and knowledge of how these things can work to put it in statute sensibly. We must do a lot more practical research on what works before we can say that. Of course, family conferencing is important and should be encouraged, but family therapy in particular probably only works when the whole family is ready for it. It can be quite destructive at times.

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