Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

17 Jan 2008 : Column GC575

17 Jan 2008 : Column GC575

Grand Committee

Thursday, 17 January 2008.

The Committee met at two o’clock.

[The Deputy Chairman of Committees (LORD GEDDES) in the Chair.]

Children and Young Persons Bill [HL]

(Fourth Day)

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Geddes): All your Lordships are fully aware of what happens when there is a Division so I shall not read out that little bit again; it gets rather repetitive.

Baroness Walmsley moved Amendment No. 69:

“(da) requiring the authority when seeking the views of the child to make arrangements for the provision of independent advocacy for the child;”.(a) a member of the local authority or any of their committees or sub-committees, whether elected or co-opted;(b) an officer of the local authority; or(c) a spouse or civil partner of any such person.””

The noble Baroness said: I will also speak to Amendment No. 72 with which Amendment No. 69 is grouped and which also stands in my name. Both amendments are about independent advocacy for looked-after children. Amendment No. 69 concerns advocacy when their care plan is being reviewed and Amendment No. 72 concerns advocacy when significant decisions are being made about the care plan.

We have been briefed by Voice and the Children’s Society on this issue. Both organisations are concerned at the fact that looked-after children and young people continue not to be heard when decisions are made about their care despite successive legislation and guidance requiring a whole range of professionals to ensure that this happens. Research studies provide evidence that in practice authorities are failing to meet their duties in this regard. While many more children in care are actively involved in reviews and planning meetings than used to be the case, some professionals continue to make assumptions that children will not want to, or would be unable to, participate in reviews and planning meetings.

A 2006 CSCI report on children’s views found that many continue to be intimidated by the number of adults in meetings, find the language used difficult to understand and are not confident enough, or are not given enough time, to get their views across.

17 Jan 2008 : Column GC576

Looked-after young people continue to tell us that their views are not being listened to and taken into account despite the existing responsibilities of the IRO to facilitate the child speaking at their review meeting and to ensure that the child understands what is going on.

In a paper by Boylan and Braye, one young man is quoted as saying:

In stark contrast, Chase noted in a 2006 paper the following view from a young person who had an advocate from the organisation Voice. The young person said:

Isn’t that significant—she gave me some power back? He continued that,

By supporting children in reviews and planning meetings, professional independent advocacy empowers them to have their views taken seriously, as required in law. A professional independent advocate makes sure that children understand what is happening to them, helps them to navigate the system and supports them in understanding their rights.

The need for high quality, professional independent advocacy will be further heightened by the commitment in the Care Matters White Paper, taken forward in Clause 8 of this Bill, to strengthen the statutory framework so that a local authority cannot place a child out of authority unless it is satisfied that such a placement is in the child’s best interests. We have had numerous debates on that issue. Although we are wholly supportive of this measure, with the caveats about children’s welfare, it will inevitably result in a significant number of placement changes, especially for those already placed out of authority. It must be recognised that looked-after children, particularly those with communication impairments, about whom we talked yesterday evening, are particularly vulnerable during times of change.

The existing statutory right in relation to complaints has had only a limited impact. That is in part because the number of looked-after children making complaints remains low. Many children simply do not understand that they have a right to complain and do not know that they have a right to an advocate to support them through the process. Anyway, children and young people do not want to have to resort to a complaints procedure before they can get the support that they need to get their views over. They would rather have support at an early stage and therefore avoid the problem escalating and avoid having to come into confrontation with the people who care for them day to day. I believe that better outcomes and potentially long-term cost savings can be achieved if independent advocates are involved and support children to be involved far earlier in the decision-making process.

17 Jan 2008 : Column GC577

As I mentioned yesterday when we were talking about another amendment, a survey of advocacy services across England carried out by the Children’s Society in 2006 found that a quarter of advocacy providers reported that they had not been able to respond to a referral from a disabled child at all. It is quite clear that the most vulnerable children are not getting the advocacy that they need and they are the ones who need it most. I hope that the Minister will look kindly on these amendments and I beg to move.

Lord Judd: The amendment makes an important point and I look forward to hearing what my noble friend the Minister has to say in response. During the years when I was privileged to be director of Oxfam, one thing that I learnt, among many others, about assistance to those who are vulnerable and in need is that one of most important contributions that can be made is advocacy. It is essential to be able to see things from the standpoint of the person who is being helped. Again—I do not apologise for repeating the point—no one questions the good will and commitment of so many of those who are trying to help and who give their lives to such work, but it is essential to ensure that central to considerations is what the children themselves believe. Some of the most vulnerable and disturbed children have difficulty in putting forward their own position. In recent work that I have done on immigration and asylum, I have sometimes blanched at the predicament of the youngster faced with the array of complicated administration and law. The amendment raises an important point and I hope that my noble friend will be able to say something reassuring.

Baroness Morris of Bolton: We have great sympathy with these amendments and are most grateful to the Children’s Society and Voice for their time and patient explanations. We recognise the concern of children and young people that they fail to be heard when major decisions affecting their care are discussed. As the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, said, this leads to the wrong presumptions being made and to young people being intimidated. The idea of having an independent advocate to support a child’s individual case in the review of their care plan is certainly sound. The Children’s Society has worked out that this will cost in the region of £3 million. As it would, for us, be an uncosted spending commitment, we are unable to support the amendment. The Children’s Society and Voice understand our position. I hope that we will be able to look at this as part of our future policy work, but in the mean time I hope that the Minister will look favourably on what is an important amendment.

The Earl of Listowel: I support Amendments Nos. 69 and 72 and will speak to my Amendment No. 95A, which concerns a duty on agencies, such as children’s homes and foster care agencies, to provide children in their care with access to advocacy. I thank Her Majesty’s Government for introducing the right to advocacy for children making complaints and for introducing advocates for children in the secure estate.

17 Jan 2008 : Column GC578

Many children have already benefited from these moves. I have heard from some of them at Voice conferences. I should say that I am a patron of Voice.

I need hardly add anything to what noble Lords have so eloquently said on this matter. This is an important set of amendments. As vice-chair of the Associate Parliamentary Group for Children and Young People in and Leaving Care, I hear each month from children in care how their wishes and rights are ignored. I am frequently reminded that care plans can be ignored. The Committee may wish to hear Mr Justice Munby’s observations in the journal Family Law in2004. He said:

Article 8 imposes procedural safeguards. He continued:

So there is a strong legal argument for the extension of the duties described here.

I shall hear and respect what I expect the Minister to say—he has said it before—about the importance of the independent reviewing officers, the independent visitors and the children’s councils in developing the voice of the child. Sadly, the situation is that, as we have heard time and again in Committee and as I know from listening to children, children require a strong, independent advocate whose focus is not on resources or local authority rules, who is a professional operating in a professional framework and who can take up the child’s concerns at the earliest stage possible. Neither a local authority social worker, nor an independent visitor, nor an independent reviewing officer can be enough.

I shall give a brief illustration of a recent case involving five children—three siblings and two siblings. They had come into care for some of the most serious reasons possible and life had become better for them. According to their reviews, they had lived happily for the previous five years in a large house near the sea, far away from the inner London borough that was their corporate parent. They all thought that they would live there until they were 18. Things changed one Monday afternoon. One of the boys, aged 12, rang Voice at 4 pm to say that their social worker had just visited and told them that they were all being moved the next day at 10 am to three separate homes. The foster carers had been informed two weeks previously that the children were being moved. This was not because of the quality of the childcare, parenting practice or, importantly, child protection, but because the foster carers were not

17 Jan 2008 : Column GC579

co-operating with the borough. They were told, “Don’t tell the children; it will upset them”. A complaint was sent and I shall not go into further details.

The matter went to court and the judge found that the decision to remove the children from the care of the foster carers was procedurally unfair and perverse, because there was no consultation, no consideration of the harmful effect of removal from the placement and failure to consider or evaluate the children’s security in the placement and the progress that they had made. The judge found in the children’s favour, but the damage had to a large extent been done; the foster siblings now have no contact and believe that they are not together because of something that they have done. So it is important that we ensure that there is an independent advocate at earlier stages to ensure that children’s views are heard. If that were to happen, such cases would be unlikely to occur.

Amendment No. 95A, standing in my name, would place a duty on children’s homes and foster care agencies to provide access to advocacy. Sir William Utting concluded in his report People Like Us in 1997 that looked-after children need independent advocacy as a source of protection and as a means of making their voices heard within an otherwise closed system. An advocate can develop a relationship with a young person over time and engender the trust and safety needed for them to raise child protection issues and any other issues of concern to them in placement or elsewhere. The advocate will be able to offer support to the child, take up issues on their behalf as they arise and support them through the protection procedures or any other procedures that may be necessary.

My amendment would ensure that children had access to an independent advocate wherever they were placed—in a foster agency or in residential care. It would ensure that children could be supported in raising safeguarding issues and other issues of concern by an advocate who was independent of the care authority and the placement provider. I hope that the Minister can accept this amendment but, before I conclude, perhaps I may briefly reinforce what I expect will be said later about the need for children with disabilities in long-term residential care to have access to ongoing advocacy.

I am grateful to the Children’s Society for reminding me that there are more than 13,000 children with disabilities living away from home in England. New research from the Children’s Society found that, despite government guidance, a quarter of advocacy providers were not able to respond to referral from a disabled child at all. The most vulnerable children were the most excluded: two-fifths of providers said that they could not provide advocacy for children who did not communicate verbally. I hope that the Minister can say that he will introduce a duty on providers to ensure that appropriate advocates are visiting children with disabilities in long-term residential care. I look forward to his response.

17 Jan 2008 : Column GC580

2.15 pm

Lord Hylton: I have previously declared my honorary interest in the Northern Ireland Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders. The association has for five or more years been providing lay advocates for children and young people in custody in the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland. That has proved beneficial and I am sure that the association would be willing to share its experience with those extending the advocacy principle to children and young people in England.

On the merits of the amendments, there is an urgent need for inarticulate children and young people to be represented. I would like to see the system starting off with those in custody of whatever kind, then going on to the 13,000 handicapped children just mentioned by my noble friend Lord Listowel, some of whom clearly have the greatest difficulty in making their views known or putting forward any kind of complaint. Finally, the new system might be extended to those who are in the generality of the care population.

Lord Rix: I support all the amendments in this group. My noble friend Lord Listowel mentioned disabled children. I particularly mention learning-disabled children, because they often have a great deal of difficulty communicating and find it hard to express their wishes and preferences. In my opinion—and, I am sure, that of many Members of the Committee—independent advocacy is crucial to ensure that the child’s views are taken into account.

Lord Ramsbotham: I particularly support Amendment No. 69 and echo what my noble friend Lord Rix has just said. One measure of how a custodial institution is working is the level of complaints. Frequently one would find that there were virtually no complaints in young offender institutions. People would say that the young people did not want to complain: absolute nonsense! When I found an establishment that was employing advocates, I saw that the complaints suddenly went up, along with a general understanding of what was happening. People were enabled to complain. The Committee must consider not just those with learning difficulties, but those who cannot communicate anyway. It is desperately important that advocacy is provided. Resources will be cited again, but this is a resource that must not be cut.

Baroness Howe of Idlicote: I certainly support these three amendments. Some areas have been gone over in discussion on previous amendments. I was particularly struck by the reference to Sir William Utting. Yesterday, I was accused of not looking back far enough, but I well remember all these issues being talked about in the 1970s—the lack of communication, the need for independent advocacy and so on. It is extraordinary that we have been arguing about this sort of thing ever since.

One of the previous amendments to which I spoke has given a definition of “independent” that might be accepted by and useful to the Minister. I thank Voice and the Children’s Society for all their work and for all

17 Jan 2008 : Column GC581

the information that they have given us, which reinforces yet again, as other Members of the Committee have said, the fact that children are making it clear to us that they do not think that they have been heard. Last night, the Minister looked rather surprised at this and suggested that communication is getting much better. I hope that it is; I hope that the fact that our figures are a little out of time means that some of these things are already happening. However, I join my noble friend Lord Listowel in saying how important this whole area is if we are to move this thing on at all. I certainly agree that advocacy is crucial, as is specialist advocacy where there are special needs. Special needs include those who cannot communicate or have not learnt to communicate and merely listen to what is said to them, and sometimes not even to that.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Children, Schools and Families (Lord Adonis): Looked-after children and young people must be confident that their views are heard and they should receive effective support so that they can make their views known. The examples of poor practice mentioned by the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, are clearly of concern. We believe that the key issue is to improve the professional practice of social workers involved in the day-to-day conduct of children’s cases and of the independent reviewing officers who will be responsible for monitoring the case as a whole and overseeing the regular reviews of the care plan, taking full account and expressing the views of the child in care.

The role of the IRO is central to ensuring that the voice of the child is heard. Therefore, Clause 11 introduces a specific duty on the IRO to ensure that the wishes and feelings of the child are given due consideration in care planning. We are providing that duty for precisely the reasons set out by the noble Earl and the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley. The Bill extends the responsibilities of IROs to monitor the performance of the local authority’s functions in relation to a child’s case, ensuring that they effectively oversee the care planning process so that it is fair and reasonable and gives proper weight to the child’s wishes and feelings. The IRO will support children’s active engagement with the care planning process, ensuring that there is greater scrutiny of the care plan for each child in care and making sure that children and young people are informed about their rights if they consider that they have been treated unfairly.

We have also committed to provide as part of these reforms, through regulations and guidance, that the particular communication needs of a child or young person are taken into account. We expect IROs either to have the skills necessary to elicit the views of those with communication difficulties or complex needs, or, in appropriate cases, to have access to specialist input from someone who does, in the way that I described in our debates yesterday.

We also recognise that there is an important ongoing role for advocacy and for access to independent advocacy to provide for complaints and to facilitate other representations about services provided to looked-after children. That is provided

17 Jan 2008 : Column GC582

for under the current statutory framework: all looked-after children should already have access to advocacy services—that is, assistance by way of representation—to help them to pursue complaints and to make other representations about the services that they receive.

As to professional practice in this area, we recognise that there can be specific barriers to accessing advocacy. That is why, for example, we have been funding Voice, the organisation mentioned by the noble Baroness and the noble Earl, for the past three years, to extend access to its advocacy service for disabled children and other vulnerable looked-after children. I pay tribute to the work of Voice. Statutory guidance also makes it clear that we expect children to have access to advocates beyond the complaints procedure; for example, a child should be able to secure the support of an advocate in putting forward representations concerning any changes that may be required to the services that they receive.

The noble Earl’s Amendment No. 95A seeks to ensure that children and young people receiving or seeking services from a children’s home or a fostering agency have access to independent advocacy services. I am glad to be able to tell the noble Earl that the children in the categories covered by his amendment—namely, those receiving services from children’s homes and fostering services—will be looked-after children and will therefore benefit from the statutory framework that I have set out. We accept that practice in this area needs to improve. Elements of the Bill will ensure that that happens. We also support other improvements in professional practice that will meet the objectives set out in the debate.

Baroness Walmsley: I thank the Minister for his response and all other noble Lords who have contributed. When we started considering this Bill in Grand Committee, I said that our amendments fall into two categories: those that are probing and those that are Oliver Twist. This is an Oliver Twist amendment. We appreciate the rights that children already have for advocacy, but research makes it clear that there is further need. I do not think that £3 million is a lot of money; indeed, I happen to believe that this measure would be cost-neutral because of the improvement and greater stability that would arise from the child having a good voice. That is what the advocate is: someone to help the child with its own voice.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page