My Lords, we have no plans to review the rules governing taking children into care. The law, which has been in place since 1989, is clear that children should live with their parents wherever possible. However, action must be taken if a child is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm. Where a child is taken into care on a care order, the court is required to treat the welfare of the child as its paramount consideration.
My Lords, why do family courts not follow the normal rules of justice and fairness practised in all other courts? Why are parents who are under threat of losing their children not permitted to know of any written evidence against them or to have an independent expert challenge such evidence? Why are they threatened with prison if they complain to their MP about that?
My Lords, I am aware that there are issues around the operation of the family courts system and a review of the family justice system is under way. I will reflect on the points made by my noble friend and would be happy to discuss them with her further and to arrange a conversation for her with my honourable friend Mr Loughton, who is the relevant Parliamentary Under-Secretary.
My Lords, the Minister will be aware that, following the Baby Peter case, there was a 37 per cent increase in referrals to the family court on care orders. I wonder what the Government's response is to that, bearing in mind that this is a local authority responsibility. The Government need to do all that they can, given what such an increase means for the nation's children, to ensure that local authority social workers have as much support as possible through all the government channels that have been put in place in the near past, including the preventive services such as Sure Start and other under-fives services, so that children can stay with their families safely when appropriate.
I agree with both the main points made by the noble Baroness. In my Answer, I said that we think that the legal framework is broadly correct. The key issue is clearly the ability of social workers on the ground to make the right judgments. Those involved work extremely hard in almost impossible situations, but they are criticised from both ends because they are thought to intervene either too quickly or not quickly enough, so it is terribly difficult. Training is vital, and they need support. I also take the point about Sure Start centres.
I was very pleased to hear the Minister reaffirm that social workers must make these very difficult decisions on the basis of the paramountcy of the child's interest, as enshrined in the Children Act 1989 and in the Every Child Matters agenda established by the Labour Government. However, is he aware that the every child matters website now displays a very prominent and somewhat intimidating warning that it may not reflect the policy of the new Government? Does this mean that the coalition is abandoning the principle that every child matters?
It is clearly not the case that the coalition Government are abandoning the principle that every child matters. I will look into the specific point that the noble Baroness makes about the website. That clearly is not the purpose. I hope that the priority that the Government give to caring for children, looked-after children and children at an early age is as strong as ever.
My Lords, I was recently contacted by a distressed grandmother because her grandchild was being taken into care by the local authority and it had not included her in its decision-making process. Can the Minister assure the House that, whenever there is a question of a child being taken into care, there is always a family group conference including wider family members who are willing to become kinship carers? Will he consider giving support, both financially and otherwise, to those kinds of carers who are willing to give a happy, stable home to vulnerable children?
All those points are very well made. I will follow them up with my honourable friend Mr Loughton to make sure that the force of those points is properly reflected in the department.
Does the Minister accept that the Children Act 1989, to which he has already made reference, is perfectly adequate and fair in dealing with these situations? Even where the natural parent or parents of a child have let that child down badly by placing the child in jeopardy, nevertheless, no family court-whether it be the High Court, the county court or the magistrates' court exercising that jurisdiction-should take away that child from another member of the family who is prepared and willing to take on that responsibility.
My Lords, I think that the Act makes clear that the priority in making those decisions is that a child should stay with the family or with a suitable family member. No one wants to get into the situation whereby there is a presumption that a child should be taken from the family into care. Everyone would want the child to remain with the family or a member of the family as long as the child is not at risk.
My Lords, my noble friend said that he would reflect on the Question of the noble Baroness, Lady Knight of Collingtree. Will he also reflect on the fact that the experience of Members of Parliament is that a lot of the distress caused in this area is due to lack of adequate and comprehensive communication between the local authority and the parents? Perhaps he might see whether, arising out of his reflection, some guidance would be helpful.
I am happy to take those points back and I hope that the Munro review, which is looking into this whole area much more broadly, will also come forward with helpful suggestions for all of us in this difficult area to make sure that we get the balance right.
Will the Minister confirm whether his honourable friend in another place was misquoted or quoted correctly as saying that people who volunteer could help families with vulnerable children-something with which we all agree-and that, as a result of such voluntary activity, there could be a reduction in the number of specialists working in this field? Will he confirm that volunteers should never replace but only complement qualified social workers?
I am afraid that I am unable to answer the first part of the question on whether my honourable friend was quoted or misquoted, but I will happily look into that and, if I can get an answer for the noble Baroness, I shall. On her second point, I can confirm that, much though we all want to encourage volunteers across the piece in all sorts of ways, the key role of well trained professional social workers must lie at the heart of dealing with these difficult and sensitive issues.