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Amendment No. 12 covers a different issue and deals with family group conferences. We discussed this at some length in Grand Committee. It fell in the very first group of amendments and we had an extensive discussion about the importance and the desirability of family placements and the value of family group conferences. The government revisions to Clauses 7 to 10, which emphasise the importance of placement with family or friends, reflect some of the discussion that we had at that time. On family group conferences, we on these Benches were much influenced by the two contributions in that debate from the noble Baronesses, Lady Howarth and Lady Murphy, to the effect that family group conferences, while a valuable tool, are not always the appropriate tool to use.

In his response the Minister echoed those words, making it clear that while the department was anxious to see it offered in appropriate circumstances and while it was extending training and support to that effect, it was a complex service to provide and requires high levels of skill and competence. However, the Minister made it clear that new guidance has been issued which puts emphasis on the importance of involving family and friends in decision-making and care plans. For our part, we were persuaded that for the moment the department is doing what it can to carry that through. In so far as it is not, it is back to the same old problem; namely, that we are not seeing practice on the ground reflecting the guidance received. Issuing more guidance does not seem to us to be the right thing to do at this moment.

Baroness Morris of Bolton: We strongly supported amendments in Grand Committee to provide a framework for family and friends carers, and we are happy to do so again today. It is time that we gave

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family and friends carers better support, particularly when they may be taking on more than one child and—as we heard—at very short notice.

I have a couple of points on the more general issue of kinship care. If it is not possible, after every effort has been made, to keep a child with their parents, then kinship care or care from a friend must be the next best thing. Sadly, such care is underused because too many local authorities have a presumption against family members looking after these children. That is a particularly poignant fact at a time when there is an estimated shortage of 10,000 foster carers in the country. In Grand Committee I mentioned Hampshire, which has a wonderful track record of kinship care. Unfortunately, there is no recognition of this valuable service. Given that the Minster has said that this is a vital issue, will he consider making it a key performance indicator?

We sought to address the issue of family group conferences by opening the Grand Committee proceedings with an amendment on early intervention. However, as our amendment was not without its technical deficiencies—no change there—we have not brought it back. We are nevertheless pleased to support this amendment. We have always felt that every effort should be made to keep families together, to prevent children going into care in the first place. Success in early intervention is good not just for the child and family in question but for the care system as a whole, freeing up already limited resources to be used more effectively elsewhere. It really is “invest to save”, both in terms of money and human outcome.

Lord Elystan-Morgan: I, too, enthusiastically support the amendment; the case has been put very trenchantly by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, and the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, drawing on their vast experience from different fields. The rigidity of the present arrangements makes it extremely difficult for very worthy and very anxious people who are well placed to assist a child, because, for the reasons articulated, they are unable to give that assistance. Anything that removes such barriers would be of immense importance and significance to the welfare of children.

There is a narrower point as well. I appreciate that this is an amendment to Section 17 of the Children Act 1989, and that it therefore deals with children who are looked after rather than children in care. However, it is perfectly obvious that where a local authority is looking around for potential carers in order to avoid making a care order, then the more people that there are in the former category, the better are the chances of avoiding the necessity of making a care order. As far as a child is concerned, the nearer to their natural circumstances they can be given assistance, the better it is for them; the further away, the less advantageous it is.

For those reasons I support everything that has been said—and said so trenchantly—by those who have taken part, and I support the amendment.

Baroness Morris of Bolton: I was thinking that we were on Report and that I could not speak to the amendment again, but then I realised that we are in

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Committee again. I realised that I had not turned over a page, and it is really quite an important page. I was going to go on to say that the Minister said that the legislative framework to which the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, referred, already exists in the Children Act 1989. Local authorities already have a duty under Section 17 to promote the upbringing of such children by their families. I do not believe in legislation for legislation’s sake. If there is a perfectly good existing power, we should not pass another law. However, I just wonder whether the existing law is not too broad and whether a specific duty might go some way to encouraging what we all agree is a good thing. Family group conferences are important in their own right and an obvious first step, rather than just being an option in a menu of care provision. Specific primary legislation might go some way to ensuring that that occurs.

Lord Adonis: We fully share the concerns expressed to enable as many children as possible to remain at home with their birth family and to enable more children who cannot live at home to be cared for by family and friends. Similarly, we share a commitment to improve the support available to all those who care for vulnerable children, including relatives and friends, and to enable families to play a key role in decision-making where that is safe and practicable. We are investing significant extra resources in this area to enable local authorities to make a wider range of services available.

I turn to Amendment No. 12. As I said in Grand Committee, Section 17 of the Children Act 1989 places a general duty on local authorities to safeguard and promote the welfare of children in need in their area through the provision of a range and level of services appropriate to fulfilling those children’s needs. There is also a particular duty under Section 17 of that Act to promote the upbringing of such children by their families, as the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, has just noted.

We debated family group conferences at some length in Grand Committee, and some of that debate was taken up with considering the merits or otherwise of using primary legislation to highlight a particular service or to drive practice on the ground. The purpose of the 1989 Act has never been to prescribe particular services in other than the broadest terms. We are wary of doing so because such prescription could easily appear exclusive to practitioners. However, family group conferences are specifically commended in the revised Children Act 1989 statutory guidance on court orders and are included in the practice flowchart. In all applications for care proceedings, local authorities will be required to show what efforts have been made to enable the child to live with wider family and friends. A family group conference would be an excellent means for a local authority to demonstrate how it has fulfilled this duty. We expect the use of such conferences to increase in future.

On Amendment No. 50, it is right to raise the issue of ensuring that we use the most effective interventions in our work with the most vulnerable children and families.

Baroness Meacher: I am not moving Amendment No. 50 at this stage, because it was wrongly grouped. I am sorry.

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Lord Adonis: I wondered why the noble Baroness was in her place but did not speak to her amendment. I thought that she might expect me to give a reply anyway, since it was in this group. However, she has reduced my task significantly because the next few pages of my speaking notes can wait until the noble Baroness brings her amendment back.

5.45 pm

I turn to Amendment No. 11. As I said in Grand Committee, the Government are committed to making significant improvements in support for family and friends carers. We hope that this will reduce the numbers going into care, as my noble friend Lady Massey wanted to see. She can tell the meetings that she will address later that it is our intention that local authorities should provide an enhanced range of services precisely to avoid the need for children to go into care when they would not need to if they had appropriate family and friends support.

However, we cannot support the amendment as drafted. It would require local authorities to treat any person who is not a parent but is caring for a child in the circumstances set out in subsection (2) as if they were a local authority foster parent with whom the child had been placed by the authority under Section 23 of the Children Act 1989. This would be the case even if the local authority had had no prior involvement with the child or his or her family, even if the local authority considered the placement to be unsuitable or had concerns about the carer’s capacity to care for the child.

The carer’s entitlement to financial and other support under this provision would not depend on any assessment either of the carer’s needs or of those of the child. It would not allow the local authority to take into account the means of the carer or the parents and could impose on local authorities a duty to provide financial support for what is, in essence, a private fostering arrangement. The local authority would be obliged to assume financial responsibility for a care arrangement that it would have little power to police, and where it had no particular duty to ensure that the arrangements promoted and safeguarded the child’s welfare and no continuing duty to rehabilitate with parents. The local authority would have no power to interfere in any way with the arrangements that the carer makes for the child, even if it considered that those arrangements were not in the child’s best interests, unless it obtained a court order. The carer could pick and choose the support they wished to accept from the authority—for example, accepting the financial payments but refusing social work support either for themselves or the child.

The law imposes on local authorities specific duties to those whom they have approved as foster carers, because authorities have taken responsibility for the care of the child and they rely on foster carers to perform the practical daily aspects of that care. For similar reasons, foster carers are controlled and regulated and the local authority can impose sanctions if foster carers fail in their trust. These related powers and responsibilities flow from the fact that the local authority has a particular legal duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of a child it looks after.

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However, family and friends carers are already able to access a range of support under existing legislation, including both special guardianship and residence order allowances. Through the Bill we are amending the Children Act 1989 to add to this. I have already mentioned that we are seeking through Clause 21 of the Bill to amend Section 17 of the Children Act 1989 to extend local authorities’ powers to provide financial support to promote the upbringing of children in need by their families. By removing the existing restriction that allows such support to be made only in exceptional circumstances, we will enable local authorities to provide financial assistance on a longer-term basis where they are satisfied that doing so would promote the child’s welfare—including, I stress, services for grandparents. So the Bill makes a significant move in the direction set out by my noble friend and supported by the noble Lords.

Further, family and friends carers have similar entitlements to those of a parent who cares for a child. There is a range of financial support, such as child benefit and child tax credit, both of which are unaffected by any payments made under either the existing Section 17 of the 1989 Act or the extended Section 17 that we propose in our amendments. Carers can qualify for other benefits on broadly the same terms as parents and, if they are bringing up a child on their own and are unable to work, they may claim income support on the same basis as other lone parents.

My noble friend Lady Hollis asked me about the eligibility requirements. As there is no greater expert in the House on these issues than my noble friend, I certainly do not feel equipped to reply precisely, benefit by benefit. However, I undertake to write to her setting out those issues and, in particular, responding to the concern which I know underpins her question, which relates not to formal eligibility but to the arrangements that we are making to promote uptake by carers who may not be the birth parents of the children in question.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: I am very grateful to my noble friend for that response and his promise of a letter to me. I simply ask him to take on board that family or kinship carers who take on responsibility are entitled to the same benefits and support as parents, including child benefit and child tax credit. Can he check for us how speedily the child benefit book, and therefore child tax credits, can flow to another adult with responsibility? He is right that in the longer term that can happen but, to my knowledge, it can often be six or eight weeks or more before the money is obtained, by which time the child may be ready to go back again, and each time the grandparents are severely hurt financially. Therefore, will he consider what might be described as a bridging or temporary arrangement to ensure that the financial support is relatively seamless?

Lord Adonis: I fully take on board the point made by my noble friend. I shall certainly look into the issues that she raised and report back to her and other noble Lords on the current arrangements and on any plans that we have to improve the efficiency of transfers of payments between those who have

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responsibility for looking after children. I entirely agree that it is vital that those who have the real responsibility should be able to access as speedily as possible the resources to which they are entitled and which they need for that job.

I hope that, as ever, my noble friend thinks that we are going some way towards meeting her concerns. She is always keen for us to go further and I take to heart the points that she made about the promotion of a better and wider range of support services. I believe that we are moving in the direction that she wishes. We may not be moving as fast as she would have wished but we are at least going in the right direction.

Baroness Butler-Sloss: Will the amendment to Section 17 promoted by the Government include non-kinship? I gave the example of a friend who takes over the care of a child. Will the deletion of exceptional circumstances, making it possible for maintenance to be given to a family, also apply to friends who take on the care in the circumstances that I outlined?

Baroness Howarth of Breckland: Supplementary to that, will individual local authorities find themselves making very different decisions so that whether a person receives these benefits through the local authority will be a matter of a postcode lottery? If there is a danger of that happening, will the Minister look at what guidance will be given under the new Section 17?

Lord Adonis: It will probably be best if I write to the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, setting out the precise circumstances rather than committing myself at the Dispatch Box to the range of additional services that the amendments to Section 17 would provide for. We hope that the resources that we are providing will enable all local authorities to enhance their provision in this area. I accept that the precise range of services supported will depend on decisions by local authorities but, as ever, that is subject to guidance by my department, and we try to see that there is as little of a postcode lottery as possible in this area.

Baroness Morris of Bolton: Can the Minister comment on my question concerning whether kinship care could become a key performance indicator? Councils such as Hampshire find themselves in the perverse situation of missing out on other targets because not as many children in their area are being adopted or put in long-term foster placements. However, they are doing the very best that they can for those children and that is not being recognised. Can he look seriously at that issue?

Lord Adonis: I will certainly look at the matter that the noble Baroness has raised.

Baroness Massey of Darwen: I thank the Minister for his response, which I think included a number of good things. I also thank those who have spoken in this debate passionately and with great experience. The number of supplementary questions will indicate that there are still some issues about which I, for one,

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am not entirely clear. I have two remaining concerns. First, will kinship carers, relative carers, friends carers or grandparents carers, or whatever we call them, understand all this and, secondly, will the professionals understand it? I think that the issue needs to be spelt out almost in words of one syllable.

I should also like to do some sums and find out, perhaps with the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, exactly how much we are talking about here. What is the total amount that the kinship carer can receive, including all the benefits—if they exist and if there is no postcode lottery, which I know there is? We need to find out whether it is equivalent to a foster carer’s allowance, although I suspect that it is not.

Bearing all that in mind, will the Minister agree to meet those of us in the Chamber today who are concerned about these issues in order to clarify with a fine-tooth comb exactly what this all means and how it can be expressed so that people understand it?

Lord Adonis: I am always happy to meet my noble friend and other noble Lords who have particular issues to raise, and I should be very glad to have such a meeting.

Baroness Massey of Darwen: In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 12 not moved.]

[Amendment No. 13 had been withdrawn from the Marshalled List.]

On Question, Whether Clause 7 shall stand part of the Bill?

Lord Adonis: I am not sure in which order I should move the amendments in this group. I want to move that we leave out Clause 7 and replace it with the government amendments, so I assume that I am moving—

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Boston of Faversham): The noble Lord does not need to move anything because the Question has already been indicated from the Chair. Therefore, subject to his wishes, I would expect him to speak to whether this clause should stand part of the Bill and, as it is grouped, to speak also to Clause 8, for which I will put the Question to the Committee later.

6 pm

Lord Adonis: I am very grateful. That makes it clear what I am doing. In essence, I am speaking to the government amendments that will replace Clauses 7 to 10 and 30. These government amendments concern the duties on local authorities in respect of the placement of looked-after children. They follow concerns raised in Grand Committee and by stakeholders about the interrelationship between different duties in the Bill with regard to different types of carers and different considerations, including locality and the proximity to a child’s existing place of education, which are to be taken into account in making residential placements.

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I stress to the Committee that the changes involved here are not as great as might be thought from the volume of amendments. However, we thought it right to restate the entirety of the provisions on this issue in the form of a new clause and schedule in the Bill replacing existing Clauses 7 to 10 and 30. The new clause requires a local authority to make arrangements for a child it is looking after to live with its parents or other person with parental responsibility where that is consistent with the child’s welfare. This reflects the principle that state intervention in family life should be kept to the minimum necessary to protect the child from harm. This provision simply restates the existing law as set out in the Children Act 1989. However, where placement with parents is not in the child’s best interests, the local authority should place the child in the most appropriate placement available. The local authority’s determination of the most appropriate placement is subject to a number of considerations.

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