Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Adonis: My Lords, this is a wide and varied group of amendments, and I shall do my best to respond to the very many points that have been

17 Mar 2008 : Column 51

raised. On Amendment No. 10, spoken to in particular by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, and my noble friend Lord Judd, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child is an international treaty, which is signed and ratified by the United Kingdom. As such, the UK has an obligation under international law to ensure that the rights set out in the convention are given effect. This obligation does not rely on any specific provision in domestic legislation, but exists entirely independently. In practice, UK law often goes further than the convention requires, as the description of child’s rights in the UNCRC is set out in very broad terms.

The Government take implementation of the convention seriously. Since ratification of the convention in 1991, they have pursued implementation through legislation and initiatives, including the Children Act 1989, the Children Act 2004, the Every Child Matters initiative and, most recently, the Children’s Plan, published at the end of last year by my department. All those programmes are steadily improving the well-being and outcomes for all children and therefore the fuller realisation of their UNCRC rights.

In respect of the new duty in question, the Secretary of State’s duty to promote the well-being of children already encompasses the principles of the UNCRC and the duty as it stands creates an additional legislative vehicle through which the Secretary of State will carry out activities which implement the convention. However, in keeping with the UK’s approach to implementation at large, we do it through the totality of our activity rather than through individual legislative provisions, and we would not wish to depart from that established practice.

I turn to Amendments Nos. 9 and 11 on supportive parenting tabled in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne. I appreciate that the intention of these amendments is to assist those working with parents and children to be able to explain authoritatively the significance of parenting and the responsibilities that accompany parenthood. I also understand that these amendments have been proposed in particular to respond to those parents specifically who are failing to take seriously their parental responsibilities and who may benefit from targeted support and challenge in this area. These are aims which we entirely support but, as a number of noble Lords have said in their contributions, we are not persuaded that changes to primary legislation are the right way forward. Most parents do not need the assistance of the state in telling them how to bring up their children. However, we fully accept that some parents do need advice and assistance, and we are steadily improving the quantity and quality of the advice and assistance being made available to vulnerable parents and their children. That is why, for example, we are looking at the principle behind the red book, mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, which is given to every parent by their health visitor to track their child’s health development through the first years of life, and we are exploring whether we could use that document to give more advice and guidance.

It is also in recognition that some parents, particularly young parents, need more help that we have allocated £30 million from this year to expand

17 Mar 2008 : Column 52

family nurse partnerships, enhancing the principle of the health visitor by providing intensive nurse-led home visiting for vulnerable first-time young parents in England until the child is two years old, well beyond the provision typically provided at the moment by health visitors. Nurses build close, supportive relationships with families and guide inexperienced teenage mothers and fathers to adopt healthier lifestyles, improve their parenting skills and become self-sufficient.

In addition, to help every parent to do their best by their child, we are allocating £34 million over the next three years to ensure that there will be at least two expert parenting advisers in every local authority, and we are expanding school-based parent support advisers. Moreover, just today my department and the Department of Health have jointly published updated guidance on the Child Health Promotion Programme which is for PCTs, local authorities and practice-based commissioners, including health visitors. This is a single programme from pregnancy and early years through to adulthood, and today’s revised guidance focuses on pregnancy and the first years of life. It sets out that on offer to every family is a programme of screening tests, immunisations, developmental reviews and information and guidance to support parenting and healthy choices. The programme will ensure that each family receives support that is appropriate to their needs, with the most vulnerable families receiving intensive interventions and co-ordinated support packages.

Our long-term commitment to supporting parenting through programmes of the kind I have set out—I could describe many others—is the reason why the Government have made it clear in Clause 7(3) that as part of meeting the general duty to promote the well-being of children, the Secretary of State may carry out,

That is precisely to meet the objectives set out by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne.

Amendments Nos. 39 and 40 propose to set out in statute the responsibilities of parenthood. As the House is aware, we considered this issue at length in Grand Committee on 17 January. At the end of that debate I undertook that the Government would consider the issue and come back on Report with their view as to whether there is a case for further amendment to the Act on the lines suggested and in line with the practice in Scotland. At the specific suggestion of the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, the Government have sought the views of the president of the Family Division and through him other senior judges with experience of family cases, as well as that of members of the Family Justice Council. The common view of these experienced practitioners is that there have been no difficulties for them in managing cases using the current wording of Section 3 of the 1989 Act which defines parental responsibility as meaning,

17 Mar 2008 : Column 53

On the contrary, concerns were expressed by judges in particular that a fuller definition such as that proposed here might cause difficulties. This view is summed up in a letter of advice sent to me by the president of the Family Division, Sir Mark Potter, saying that the proposed amendment is,

The president goes on to say that,

The advice of the president could not be clearer, and I simply commend it to the House.

Finally, Amendment No. 40, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, seeks to place on those acquiring parental responsibility through the making of residence orders under Section 8 of the Act the additional responsibility of having regard to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Since the obligations under the UNCRC fall to the Government as the signatory state party, it is not appropriate for a duty to have regard to international obligations which bite on Governments rather than individual citizens to be imposed on a narrow group of private citizens who, through seeking to promote the welfare of children known to them, apply for residence orders under Section 8 of the Act. But of course we accept the responsibilities of the convention in so far as they apply to the Government.

The noble Baroness also asked me about the promotion of public awareness of the UNCRC, which is an important issue. I am glad to be able to tell her that our support for promoting this awareness is not in name only. My department is providing funding to UNICEF for its highly respected Rights Respecting Schools initiative which has been mentioned by a number of noble Lords. Funding of some £181,000 in the current financial year is being provided, and £178,000 in 2008-09. UNICEF has piloted the Rights Respecting Schools award in over 100 schools, and my department is seeking to scale up this activity in clusters of schools which can act as best practice models for others. We accept our responsibilities in this area and we are providing funding to see that public awareness is increased. I hope that that will have the desired effect.

5.45 pm

Baroness Finlay of Llandaff: My Lords, I am most grateful to the Minister for his explanation of what the Government are doing, but can he confirm whether they are considering incorporating the words as laid out in Amendment No. 11 in the guidance resulting from the Bill in terms of attitudes and behaviours that should be looked for in parents rather than it simply being a concept incorporated in other pieces of guidance that go out to different professionals? What concerned us as we were looking at the wording of this amendment was the need for a clear, consistent and relatively simple, positive message about what parents are expected to do. I can see clearly why the courts, which often deal with the

17 Mar 2008 : Column 54

problems that result from people not having done something, would like to find that they are not shackled by something which cannot be proven, such as attitudes and behaviours. The educational role of the guidance behind the Bill must be very important indeed for those who are likely to implement it.

Lord Adonis: My Lords, we are certainly seeking to ensure that the elements which form part of the definition of supportive parenting are promoted in guidance. I hope that gives the noble Baroness the assurance she is seeking, but what I cannot say is that that precise definition is one that we will seek to put in guidance.

Lord Northbourne: My Lords, would the noble Lord please repeat what he has said because I did not hear it?

Lord Adonis: My Lords, we shall certainly seek to ensure that the elements which form part of the definition of supportive parenting are reflected in the guidance. But I cannot give a commitment to promoting in that guidance precisely the words set out in the amendment.

Lord Northbourne: My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, and I am glad that the Government accept the intention of the amendment. The trouble is that they have not given me any opening to take forward what I believe to be a very important issue, and listening to the noble Lord’s brief, I have the feeling that the Government have not really taken on board what the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, referred to. I do not think that I would need to divide the House if the noble Lord could say that he is prepared to produce draft guidance or an indication of what the guidance will be. We could then decide whether to bring the issue back at Third Reading.

Lord Adonis: My Lords, I am happy to write to the noble Lord before Third Reading to set out more fully our thinking on this matter. I hope that that will be helpful to him.

Lord Northbourne: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord. In that case I will withdraw the amendment, but consider whether to bring it back at Third Reading.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 10 and 11 not moved.]

Clause 8 [Provision of accommodation and maintenance for children who are looked after by a local authority]:

Baroness Massey of Darwen moved Amendment No. 12:

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 13, 14 and 37. I remember saying at the beginning of our consideration of the

17 Mar 2008 : Column 55

Bill that I looked forward to working for the benefit of children with colleagues of all parties because it is the welfare of children that is paramount and not political division. That has happened and it has been very gratifying. Significant changes have been made by the Government, which is also gratifying.

We have visited the issue of relative and friend carers before and I thank my noble friend the Minister for his correspondence, for his flow charts and diagrams, which are very clear, and for conversations. I am grateful to him and his team for trying to reach satisfactory conclusions, but I do not feel that we are quite there yet and I would like a little more detail.

We will be able to tackle the problems faced by family and friend carers only if the laws are changed or firm guidance is issued to local authorities and only if carers know what it all means and are drawn into the system. We need consistent criteria and adherence to specific rules to do the best for children. I would prefer the changes to be in law, but clear and firm guidance may do it. This Government have done much for children and families—probably more than any other—and this anomaly in relation to family and friend carers needs to be, and can be, sorted out.

During our consideration of the Bill, expectations for family and friend carers have been raised not only in the children plan but in the recent drug strategy, one of whose key strategy actions is to,

Newspaper headlines followed this up with statements such as, “Grandparents to be paid for looking after children”. That is not quite true. Grandparents, after the initial excitement about all this, are now thinking that this may be much of the same and entirely down to local authorities deciding their status and that of their grandchildren. As we have said before, many of these carers have had bad experiences.

We heard in Committee examples of how local authorities are inconsistent in how they treat relative and friend carers, although there is good practice about. The noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, spoke of a relative being persuaded not to become a foster carer and then not to become a special guardian. That was all to save money, of course, but how short sighted it was.

The outcomes for children placed in the care of relatives and friends are often better than the outcomes for those fostered by strangers. How much better would these outcomes be if those carers had more support and spent less time struggling to get financial and other help from local services? We all know that a child who is well looked after is much less likely to get into trouble with the law, get involved with drugs or get pregnant while a teenager. It is a false economy to deny payments to support a child while he or she is young. This false economy will of course rebound.

I spoke last week at two conferences, one on drugs and diversity and one on grandparents as carers. I heard from several grandparents emotional and

17 Mar 2008 : Column 56

emotive speeches about their cases. My files are full of case studies of relatives and friends who have been denied access to help and support. One grandparent whose daughter died from a drug overdose took charge of three children. She is still, after several years, trying to get decent accommodation. She said:

There are many examples of relatives and friends who have given up work and pension rights to be carers. Many now live in real poverty. One grandparent said that she had not been able to send her grandson to school because he had no suitable shoes. What era are we living in when a carer is destined for poverty?

I have been told that some local authorities define family and friend care as a private arrangement. You cannot have a private arrangement with someone who is dead, as many sons or daughters are when a grandparent takes over.

I asked the child health mapping programme whether children of relative and friend carers came up on its local surveys. Of course they do not, so who is in charge here? These carers are not trying to cheat the system to get money; they are trying to do a good caring job. Surely a prompt assessment of a case, with follow-up, would eliminate any malpractice and protect the child. This would be better than leaving people struggling with a system that they feel cheats them and stands in the way of their caring for their children as they would wish. An NHS slogan says, “Adding life to years and years to life”. That is not true in the case of many grandparent carers. I know that judgments have been made against local authorities in cases involving not paying until an assessment is made and in cases of other payments to grandparents and other carers. Why is there such inconsistency?

What is needed—this is the nub of my argument—is a system whereby when a child comes into the care of relatives or friends, the carers are immediately advised as to their options and counselled. This is not quite covered in correspondence with the Minister. The carer may become a local authority foster carer and be assessed or they may choose other routes such as special guardianship. Whatever the decision, they should be advised honestly on the financial and other support implications and not be bullied into the cheapest option. Becoming a local authority foster carer would clearly be more financially beneficial, but I accept that that might not suit everyone.

While those decisions are being made and assessed, it must be clearly understood and communicated that there will be financial support so that the children do not suffer. This requires instruction to local authorities, a named person to deal with the cases and clear information to the relatives and friends, taking into account that they may be grieving, stressed or disoriented. In the long term, this could save a great deal of money and would undoubtedly have better outcomes for children. We could also share and learn from the good practice that already exists. I beg to move.

17 Mar 2008 : Column 57

Baroness Howarth of Breckland: My Lords, I speak to Amendment No. 37, the only amendment to which I have attached my name, as I believe fervently that we have to do something about this issue.

We discussed this matter in great detail in Committee. I do not wish to repeat those arguments or the arguments of the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, but I will say something about how you have to change practice at the coal face rather than merely hope that things will happen. We have all had a number of letters from grandparents with heartbreaking stories about their wish to care for their grandchildren and either losing the opportunity or being driven into poverty by the experience. I know that the Government have a strong policy towards kinship care, but the problem and the trick seem to be how we manage to protect the children by giving support to grandparents and how we make government policy happen on the ground.

Having spent most of my life trying to get organisational change, I know that, in a situation where you cannot get compliance by encouragement, you have to have a different framework. There are two key issues. First, although we would like local authorities to be principle driven, most are resource driven. If you look at any area of their work in social care at the present time, you will find that, every time we raise the issue of resources, the Government tell us that millions more have been poured into a particular issue, whereas on the ground difficult issues are being resource-driven. This is one of those issues.

Secondly, on the ground, people set their own expectations. If they have been working with a family, have difficulty with it and then have to receive the children into care, or if there has been a traumatic experience within a family, such as death—social workers, like the rest of us, find bereavement difficult to take—often social workers will think that a separate placement is more beneficial for the children. That is because we have not yet helped most practitioners to know how to use research findings in relation to their work. As the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, pointed out, research shows that children in kinship placements do better than those with even the most excellent foster parents found by the local authority.

On the resource-driven issue, we need to set up a framework that says that kinship care is a priority. The framework that the noble Baroness has outlined would ensure that these people were assessed as local authority foster parents and then given the opportunity to look at alternative options, because they will need guidance in finding their way through our confused benefits system. I am a great believer in devolving responsibility to local authorities, but you cannot leave this just with the local authority unless there is either something in the Bill—that is what I would like to see, which is why I support the amendment—or extremely positive regulation and guidance. If there is not, we will see no movement on this issue.

17 Mar 2008 : Column 58

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page