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I have three questions for the Minister, which stem from some of the reservations of local authorities; the Local Government Association has asked us to raise these questions with the Minister. First, in relation to timing, will the Government work with the LGA and other sector representatives to determine an appropriate lead-in time for the amendment? Secondly, on funding, resources will be necessary, and it will cost local authorities money or resources to develop new placements within the area. Will the Government agree to work with the LGA to develop an impact assessment of what resources will be necessary? Thirdly, in relation to enforcement, the legislation, guidance and regulations implementing the amendment will need to be developed and will need to have a degree of flexibility so that local authorities retain the freedom to make placements outside the area where the needs of the child are best met by such a placement. I think that we all agree that there are some occasions when that is so. Will the Government work with the LGA and other sector representatives to help to develop the flexibility in the regulations?
Baroness Morris of Bolton: My Lords, we very much welcome Amendment No. 18 and appreciate that the Minister has listened yet again to the concerns of noble Lords, especially the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, in the debates on accommodation. We especially welcome the fact that this is an explicit duty. We also appreciate that safeguards take into account those living with their parents, and those for whom it would be inconsistent with their welfare to be placed in the areathe very children whom the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, spoke of who may be involved in gangs, have been horribly sexually abused, or have been trafficked.
It is good that there has been recognition of the importance of diversity of provision. Different children have different needs, and the move to ensure that local authorities must provide a range of accommodation for a range of needs is welcome. However, how far does that extend? Does it require local authorities to provide for every possible need? Can the Minister give a clear guarantee that children with acute and complex needs will be able to receive the most appropriate care placement, including an out-of-area specialist setting where necessary? Very much on the lines of the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp of Guildford, I say that local authorities are concerned that that will be very costly. Does it come with any extra money?
Lord Adonis: My Lords, I am grateful to noble Lords for their general welcome for this new duty on local authorities to secure sufficient accommodation. The noble Baronesses, Lady Sharp and Lady Morris, made points about consultation with local authorities on the scope of the duty and how we would expect it to be implemented. I undertake that we will continue to work with local authorities to support improvements in commissioning across childrens services, and to engage them in determining the commencement and implementation arrangements of the provision as part of the implementation of Care Matters. That consultation will include the matters set out by both noble Baronesses. The statutory guidance on the new provision will be developed in consultation with local authorities and other stakeholders, and subject to a full impact assessment, a point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp.
The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, was concerned about 16 and 17 year-olds who had left care but were entitled to leaving-care services. We recognise that supporting that group of vulnerable young people is crucial, which is why we brought in the duty to provide them with accommodation through the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000. From a legal point of view, it is problematic to include that group in the current general duty, so I cannot propose to bring them into the scope of my proposal. However, I recognise that he raises an important point about that group, and I will take the matter away to consider further in the expectation that we will be able to address it through statutory guidance.
With regard to Amendment No. 20, a range of obligations on health and local authorities already relate to planning and publishing information about their plans, including a duty to undertake joint strategic needs assessments and a requirement to
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(4A) Following an ascertainment under subsection (4)(a) the local authority shall record in writing the childs wishes and feelings or why it has not been reasonably practicable to ascertain the childs wishes and feelings.
The noble Baroness said: My Lords, noble Lords will recognise that I moved this amendment in Committee. I bring it back following further concerns and briefings from the Childrens Rights Alliance, Participation Works and a range of childrens organisations. The amendment introduces a mandatory duty on local authorities to record the child's wishes and feelingsor, where that has not been possible, the reasons for thatin relation to the provision of services for children, including accommodation and all decisions made by the local authority with respect to looked-after children.
In Committee the Minister suggested that the amendment was unnecessary, as the integrated children's system includes opportunities for local authority social workers to record the views of children throughout
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Research on serious case reviews undertaken by the Open University and the University of East Anglia, and published recently by the DCSF, found evidence of poor practice in the production of chronologies of the child's life history and contact with agencies. It also found that too often social workers focus not on the child, but on their relationship with adults. One extract from a serious case overview illustrates the depth of the problem:
There is no information that the children were spoken with. Sibling 1 had just turned 16 and Sibling 2 was 14 years old and both were fully able to discuss issues of physical chastisement within the family. The accounts from the older children would have been able to inform a decision about speaking with the younger siblings who, at age 5 years and 4 years, would also have been able to express if they were being hit around the head in answer to direct questions.
It may be no surprise that the children themselves do not feel that their views are adequately taken into account. An online survey of children conducted by the DCSF in autumn 2006 found that nearly a quarter of respondents who had a social worker23 per cent, 604 childrensaid that they felt that the social workers never took their views into account. Inspectors of foster care services have also noted that children do not always feel confident that their views are listened to; they had concerns about the structure of meetings and found aspects of the documentation and recordings unhelpful. A major 2002 consultation with children in care found that approximately one-third felt that they had not been listened to.
In a letter to directors of children's services and chairs of local safeguarding children boards written in February, the Minister, Kevin Brennan MP, himself admitted the importance of obtaining and taking into account the wishes and feelings of children. It is clear that the current system does not sufficiently address that problem. Moreover, the impact of the integrated children's system remains unknown. An evaluation of the ICS was commissioned as early as 2004. A first draft was received by the DCSF in 2006 but has not yet been published. The latest available public information from DCSF officials suggests that many local authorities are falling behind in administering the system.
The more effective system of consultation that this amendment would introduce would tackle a real problem in the care of looked-after children and particularly help children under the age of 16, who government statistics show are much less likely to make their wishes known spontaneously. It would also help disabled children, who all too often have little family contact.
Lord Judd: My Lords, I support this very important amendment. It seems to me that the child must be at the centre of our considerations all the time in working out what solutions, what programmes and what approaches will be most appropriate. That is absolutely indispensable in being certain that we are hearing the voice of the child. As I think I put it in Grand Committee, we must try to avoid a situation in which, even inadvertently, the child becomes an object that is being discussed. The child is a human being with all its personality, its potential and, yes, its rightsI use the modern language. Even more creatively than that, I think we could use the word spiritual. In that sense, the voice of the child is crucial. The amendment and the exemplary way in which it has been moved spell out the importance of this matter and reassurance on it by my noble friend is vital.
Baroness Walmsley: My Lords, I, too, have put my name to the amendment. I continue to support it as I did in Grand Committee. I wish to draw the attention of noble Lords to one example of where there is already a duty to ascertain the childs wishes and feelings. It must surely be on the record that that is when a review is taking placealthough, in fact, that is not happening.
I refer to the report from the Childrens Commissioner, to which I referred in an earlier amendment, about the way that the London Borough of Hillingdon deals with unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. On page 7 of that report the commissioner pointed out:
Interviews with independent reviewing officers and examination of the files showed that necessary documents were not always available at the childs review when significant decisions were being made about the care of the child.
That means there should be a full record of the childs views from the IROs interviews with the child. This should take place at the point where the childs placement arrangements are being reviewed. That is an important staging post in the childs history of care. These are the most vulnerable children.
I do not have anything against the London Borough of Hillingdon. I very much accept that it is doing its very best, but it has an enormous burden, particularly with respect to unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. That issue is not being properly funded by the Government, so the council has my greatest sympathy. I point this example out to noble Lords because it is one where the wishes and feelings of the most vulnerable children, at a very important stage of the care process, are not being recorded and taken into account at the review. If it is not happening at those times, it is clearly not happening at somewhat less important stages for less vulnerable children, when it should be happening. It is not just a question of best practice, it is the only acceptable practice, whereby social workers should take account of childrens wishes and feelings at every
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Lord Adonis: My Lords, this amendment seeks to place in the Bill an explicit requirement that whenever the local authority has a duty to ascertain the wishes and feelings of the child under Part 3 the Children Act 1989 a written record must be made of those wishes and feelings.
There is no disagreement of principle here at all, but it is the Governments view that such a requirement is implicit in the statutory duty which already exists to ascertain the childs wishes and feelings when taking decisions that affect the child. The Framework for the Assessment of Children in Need and their Families in 2000 and related government circulars about the implementation of the Integrated Childrens System were issued under Section 7 of the Local Authority Social Services Act 1970. Local authorities must act under the provisions of Section 7. The legal basis is already clear. Recording all important information on which decisions are based, including the childs views, is central to good professional practice, as set out by the Integrated Childrens System.
As I said in Grand Committee, where a child is looked after, their social worker must record on the ICS form, which I read out in Grand Committee, the views of the child about their care plan; and if it has not been possible to ascertain those views, the social worker would need to record the reason for this. The social worker must also recordI stress record, because it is a requirement of the ICSwhether or not it is possible to act on the childs views. Each childs care plan is a living record and the child must be closely involved in planning their own care.
However, we intend to do more. Our Care Matters White Paper outlined our intention to bring together into one set of regulations, with accompanying statutory guidance, all requirements for care planning and reviewing of cases. This will set out in one coherent set of care planning and reviewing regulations all requirements for practitioners and managers in relation to these core processes. The regulations will be linked to the full implementation of the ICS.
The new regulations will incorporate most of the requirements in the current regulations, but will also provide the opportunity to address a number of additional issues set out in the Care Matters White Paper, increase the level of scrutiny and oversight of the care plan and improve the participation of children in planning for their own care. These regulations will provide an opportunity to impose a legal requirement that social workers record the views of children about their care. We believe that this detail is more appropriate for secondary legislation but we
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As the House is aware, Clause 9 strengthens the functions of independent reviewing officers, who are responsible for scrutinising each looked-after childs care plan. Clause 9 amends the Children Act 1989 to impose a new duty on the IRO to ensure that any ascertained wishes and feelings of the child are given due consideration by the local authority. We envisage that implementing this requirement will involve the IRO meeting the child personally before the review meeting to discuss the care plan. This requirement will also involve scrutiny of the authoritys performance of its care planning duties. Any authority would be unable to discharge these duties competently unless it had a robust approach that ensured that its officers ascertained and recorded childrens views about the care plan.
To summarise, the current framework of legislation and statutory guidance already requires the local authority to involve children and to record childrens views, or where necessary, record why it has not been possible to establish these. However, future regulatory change will enhance this framework and reinforce the responsibility of the childs social worker for establishing and recording the childs views. I hope that, on that basis, the noble Baroness will not feel it necessary to press the amendment.
Baroness Howe of Idlicote: My Lords, of course I am pleased to hear that more thought is being given to this issuealbeit not in the Bill. However, I find it strange that there has been no explanation as regards the evaluation of the system, which was undertaken as early as 2004. A draft was received by the department in 2006 and still we have had no indication as to whether the system was regarded as failing. Certainly all the evidence we have had is that it has not been complied with satisfactorily by local authoritiesnot all local authorities but quite a number of them. Presumably the evaluation should have been published by now and it would show us exactly where the failings are.
Lord Adonis: My Lords, I shall be quite frank with the House. I am not familiar with the evaluation to which the noble Baroness refers, although I shall certainly be happy to look at that issue further and come back to her. However, as I said, the statutory requirements on local authorities in this matter are very clear.
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