Moved by Lord Nash
1: Before Clause 1, insert the following new Clause—
“Contact between prescribed persons and adopted person’s relatives
(1) In section 98 of the Adoption and Children Act 2002 (pre-commencement adoptions: information), after subsection (1) insert—
“(1A) Regulations under section 9 may make provision for the purpose of facilitating contact between persons with a prescribed relationship to a person adopted before the appointed day and that person’s relatives.”
(2) In each of subsections (2) and (3) of that section, for “that purpose” substitute “a purpose within subsection (1) or (1A)”.
(3) In subsection (7) of that section, after the definition of “appointed day” insert—
““prescribed” means prescribed by regulations under section 9;”.”
My Lords, I am delighted to be starting the Report stage of the Children and Families Bill. I know that we are all hoping to make significant progress through the Bill this afternoon and evening, but before I speak to my first amendment, I hope noble Lords will allow me to share a few words of thanks.
We had some very good debates in Committee over 12 days and I am extremely grateful to all noble Lords who contributed to those debates and to those who came to the many meetings we had during Committee and since on specific issues. I found the debates and those meetings extremely helpful, and I have tried hard on those relatively few matters where we do not have a consensus really to understand both sides of the argument. I am grateful for the patience and expertise of all noble Lords who have taken time to talk to me and I have shared those discussions with my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education and my honourable friend the Minister for Children and Families—noble Lords will realise, I am sure, that they have been supporting me on a learning curve which has been, at times, almost vertical.
I am also grateful to noble Lords for tolerating the large volume of paper that I and the Bill team have been sending your way. Some people have been kind enough to say that our meetings and correspondence have been helpful, and I very much hope that has truly been the case. We have now shared improved indicative statutory guidance on adoption, sibling contact for children in care, care leavers’ access to records and support for care leavers aged between 21 and 24 who are not in education, training or employment. We have also shared information on new regulations and guidance on support for trafficked children. Copies of that information are in the Printed Paper Office if noble Lords do not already have them. Some of the guidance addresses issues that we will continue to discuss today; in other areas, I am pleased that we have been able already to make progress towards addressing the issues that your Lordships have raised.
A number of noble Lords were kind enough to join me in a discussion with our new chief social worker, Isabelle Trowler. Isabelle was inspirational in her account of the reforms she is helping the Government to drive to improve the confidence, professional skills and quality of social workers. Achieving that will do more than any primary or secondary legislation or statutory guidance can do on its own to secure the step change we all want to see in support for our most vulnerable children.
There are also some issues on which we have been persuaded that legislation is the answer. Noble Lords will see further evidence of this when I table amendments to Part 3 of the Bill later this week. If we proceed at pace tonight, we will be able to speak about the Government’s commitment to use this Bill to legislate on “staying put” arrangements for care leavers in foster care.
Returning to the matter in hand, however, let me thank my noble friend Lady Hamwee and the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, for helping me to understand the initially confusing issue of access to intermediary services for the descendants of adopted people. There was one debate in Committee in which I felt we were operating in two completely parallel universes and there was also a moment in the debate when I felt there was an anomaly which could not possibly be as simple and straightforward as was being proposed. However, on investigation afterwards and following an extremely helpful meeting with my noble friend Lady Hamwee, the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, and a number of people who are experts in the field, it became clear that there was an anomaly that we needed to rectify. I am therefore delighted to be putting forward an amendment today that addresses this.
Under the current law as it applies to adoptions that took place before
December 2005 is because information about these adoptions is held and accessible under a different legal framework, which does not distinguish between descendants and other relatives.
Noble Lords may wonder why the wording of the new clause refers to “persons with a prescribed relationship” rather than “descendants”. Were we to put “descendants” on the face of the Bill, we believe that the extended access would be limited to children and grandchildren of the adopted person. While it is our intention that the regulations will, at a minimum, include the children and grandchildren of the adopted person, we also wish to consult on whether it is appropriate for others, such as spouses and siblings of the adopted person, to be able to access the same services.
With the help of my noble friend Lady Hamwee, the Government have explored the implications of this reform with the Law Commission and the British Association for Adoption and Fostering and are confident that this new clause will close the current gap in the law. I hope that your Lordships agree that this amendment is necessary and I urge noble Lords to accept it. I thank again my noble friend Lady Hamwee and the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, for bringing this important matter to our attention. I am very glad to be able to rectify the problem. I beg to move.
My Lords, I start where my noble friend the Minister started by referring to the series of meetings that he and his colleagues arranged as well as the many papers—I cannot remember what term he used, but it was a lot of paper, which was welcome—that we received during the period starting before the end of Committee. I do not think that I have ever known so many meetings as he was able to arrange, but they have been extremely helpful. Because we are on the first day of another stage of the Bill, I need to declare interests as patron of the Intercountry Adoption Centre and of PAC and as a president of London Councils.
It will not be a surprise that I support and welcome this amendment. I thank the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, and the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth of Breckland, for their support in Committee, the officials who struggled with the technicalities of the not-very-easy current provisions and, most of all, the Minister, who dealt with the matter with care and, if I may say so, very effective pragmatism. I know that I pass on the thanks of the British Association for Adoption and Fostering and the Law Commission, both of which were involved, and of the individuals who have campaigned for this change. I have been able to show to the Bill team the very grateful and excited emails that I have had from the lady who has led the campaign. She and those with whom she is in touch can see that they will be able to answer questions about their own heritage, medical issues and indeed their very identity.
I understand the Government’s caution to ensure that the extent of the new rights is appropriate, and the Minister has given us an assurance as to children and grandchildren being the minimum within the prescribed relationships. I hope that he can assure the House that the consultation on this will take place very soon after Royal Assent and that the necessary regulations are expected to follow very speedily so that the anomaly that has been identified can be corrected with the minimum of delay. I thank him and his colleagues very much indeed.
I start by saying that I think that this is a good Bill, though it needs some improvements. What is absolutely splendid is that in certain places the Minister has listened with great care and, like the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, I am extremely grateful to him, not only for a number of very useful meetings on this particular amendment and indeed others, but also for the outcome. I am really very grateful indeed and look forward to that being a source of relief to a number of families.
Amendment 1 agreed.
Clause 2: Repeal of requirement to give due consideration to ethnicity: England
Moved by Baroness Butler-Sloss
2: Clause 2, page 2, line 12, at end insert—
“( ) In subsection (4)(d) (matters to which court or adoption agency must have regard), after “the child’s age, sex, background” insert “and (except in relation to an adoption agency in Wales, to which subsection (5) applies) religious persuasion, racial origin and cultural and linguistic background.”
My Lords, I said that this was a good Bill; none the less, there are certain aspects of it with which, respectfully, I do not agree.
This amendment relates to comments at the beginning of the pre-legislative scrutiny report by the Select Committee on Adoption Legislation, which I had the honour of chairing. It was the unanimous view of the members of that committee that, compared with the previous position, the Government had gone too far in the opposite direction. Section 1 of the Adoption and Children Act 2002 lists eight considerations applying to the exercise of powers. The previous Government had included subsection (5) as a separate subsection. It reads:
“In placing the child for adoption, the adoption agency must give due consideration to the child’s religious persuasion, racial origin and cultural and linguistic background”.
Instead of being one of a number of considerations, that was out front. The result was that social workers, who were dealing with what is properly called the “ethnicity question” up front, were refusing to place children for adoption with parents who were not of the same colour, the same persuasion or whatever, and this was impeding the very natural and highly to be commended desire of this Government for adoption to move speedily.
The Government therefore decided to take Section 1(5) out of the Adoption and Children Act 2002. So far, so good, but now they have gone too far the other way because it does not appear anywhere. The nearest you get to it is Section 1(4)(d) of the Adoption and Children Act 2002, which reads,
“the child’s age, sex, background and any of the child’s characteristics which the court or agency considers relevant”.
The Government’s view is that that covers the ethnicity point but I do not share that view. The evidence that the Select Committee received was that, whereas social workers paid too much attention to that consideration when it appeared as a separate subsection, there was now a very real danger that they would not pay any attention to it at all. Matters which are of considerable importance to a child—their religious persuasion, racial origin and cultural and linguistic background—have to be taken into account. They must not be permitted to frustrate a proper adoption if the circumstances of the adoption come outside one of those matters but they must be included in the checklist of the various points to which the social workers, the adoption agency—but usually the social workers—and the court must have regard, and removing them presents a problem.
I have had various meetings with the Minister and I even gave him a cup of tea this afternoon before we embarked on what is going to be a very long evening. However, I am afraid that I am not persuaded by his suggestion that there should be statutory guidance. Having it on the face of the legislation means that it has “an importance” but not “the importance”, whereas we all know that, although statutory guidance is important, it may not necessarily be read as carefully as it might be. However, it cannot be entirely ignored if it is in primary legislation. I share the Select Committee’s thought, which was to tuck it in neatly into subsection (4)(d), so you would read it as,
“the child’s age, sex, background and any of the child’s characteristics which the court or agency considers relevant”.
This would then include,
“religious persuasion, racial origin and cultural and linguistic background.”
It would not be too prominent, but it would be there. For those reasons I wish to pursue this amendment, and I beg to move.
My Lords, I have the other amendment in this group. Like the other members of the Select Committee, I agreed that certain characteristics of a child for whom adoption was sought should not be highlighted as if they overrode everything else. Like the other members, as the noble and learned Baroness has said, I was concerned that the wrong message might be taken from new legislation. In taking out a provision for due consideration—because that is all it is, not an overriding consideration—to be given to the child’s,
“religious persuasion, racial origin and cultural and linguistic background”,
Parliament would be saying that no consideration should be given. Like the noble and learned Baroness, I fear that guidance would not be enough in that situation.
I do not think we said this in Select Committee, but I am fearful about this. England would not be in the same situation as Wales. Wales will be keeping this wording. The fact that adoption is a devolved matter does not answer the concerns that I have. It would be seen as a very significant distinction. This swinging political pendulum has got to end up in the middle. As the noble and learned Baroness has said, it is not an overriding issue, nor something to be entirely discounted. In Committee I said there had been oversensitivity to what some parts of the media regard as political correctness. I know that the Minister’s concern is that minority-ethnic children are being short-changed. Sadly, the cohort that is being short-changed is the many children from all sorts of backgrounds who are waiting for adoption. The problem is the imbalance between their numbers and the numbers of prospective adopters. To adopt, one needs to be sensitive—to be understanding of the importance of religion, of racial origin, of cultural and linguistic background. It is not a matter of “being the same as”. People who are the same may not understand, and may not be sensitive enough. But that sensitivity, that openness, addressing issues which may arise—that is the matching which is important, not the direct same characteristics.
As the Government were not been persuaded in Committee, a different approach might appeal. My amendments would take out the references to age and sex so that the court and the agency should have regard to the child’s background and characteristics, because those cover everything. The Minister has said that background and characteristics must include ethnicity. He said that is a matter of plain English. Age and sex are also characteristics, so I hope that my plain English amendment might be helpful.
My Lords, pendulums do swing; it is very difficult to find a middle way. We are all agreed that it was wrong that for a period of time there was too much emphasis given to a child’s racial and religious background, as the noble and learned Baroness has said. That has resulted in appalling waiting times for children of some ethnic-minority backgrounds, who wait to be adopted for three or four times longer than white children—their contemporaries—do. That is not acceptable in our society. But we are in danger of swinging the pendulum a little bit back in the wrong direction by trying to put in the words of,
“religious persuasion, racial origin and cultural and linguistic background”.
I am of the view, which I understand is also the Minister’s view, that any sensible person trying to interpret the “background” would include racial, religious, cultural and linguistic origins. There is no way that you can look at someone’s background without taking those into account, otherwise the word “background” is meaningless. What else could it possibly mean?
I turn to the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. I have a lot of sympathy with her wishing to take out the racial, cultural and linguistic elements as put forward by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, but I wonder whether we have not taken too much out there. It is a question of the pendulum swinging in all directions. Given all the various views that there are here, it seems to me that we all want the same thing: we want children of ethnic-minority backgrounds to be able to be adopted as quickly as their contemporaries; and we also want all their background to be taken fully into account. Given the efforts we are making to get the pendulum to hang in the middle, I think the Government have got it just about right.
My Lords, my name is attached to the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. Our intention in paring this down to background and characteristics is to force people to look at the guidance. The Government tell us that they are strengthening the guidance considerably and will emphasise the need to understand that a child’s ethnicity is an important aspect of their identity. What concerns me particularly about taking ethnicity out altogether is that we will continue to have a large number of trans-racial adoptions. Hurrah to that, I say, as long as the child is going to a family who can love them, bring them up in a caring way and, if there are differences in background, ethnicity, culture and so on, understand how that affects the child. Whether through the Bill or in the guidance, we need to ensure that local authorities, when dealing with prospective parents, are able to investigate whether they are the kind of parents who would understand the importance of that characteristic of the children. I fear that taking “ethnicity” out will not fix the problem.
As my noble friend Lady Hamwee said, there is a mismatch between the cohort of children waiting for adoption and the size of the cohort of parents prepared to adopt them. There is also a difference in the ethnicity of those two groups and that is why, until we can balance the ethnicity of the one group and the other, there will continue to be those trans-racial adoptions. That is why we need to make quite sure that, among all the other wonderful characteristics of those prepared to take the step and adopt a child who needs a home, there is that sensitivity and understanding of the child’s ethnic background. Whichever way we do it, it has got to be done well.
My Lords, following the intervention of the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, with which I agree absolutely, I warmly support the amendment in the names of the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, and my noble friends on the Front Bench.
The noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, has unrivalled expertise. I have only personal experience—I am speaking as the parent of an adoptive child of Asian background—and it is my conviction that any child of a different racial background from the parents is deprived if it cannot identify easily, almost unconsciously, with someone close to it in the way children do. A baby first learns visually to recognise faces. A teenager depends very much on confirmation of his or her identity to develop confidence. A loving home is, of course, all important. I am speaking not only as a parent, but as a member of a support group for adoptive parents, so I am also aware of their experiences. You impose a burden and a cause of stress on a child if ethnicity—as far as is possible—is not respected.
Children survive all sorts of things and I hope we have had a happy family. But that in no way alters my conviction that the Government should pay attention to this need of children and accept this amendment.
My Lords, some interesting points have been made by the previous speakers, but one of the things none of us has mentioned so far is the valuable and important role of social workers in this exercise of matching children with appropriate, loving parents.
I worry that by being as prescriptive as putting something like this on the face of the Bill or making guidance hugely prescriptive, we are limiting the opportunities of social workers to be flexible and professional about their assessment. If we need to do anything, perhaps it is strengthening that kind of perception and understanding within social worker training. I have confidence that, if the Government choose to remove this, it does not mean that social workers will not look at each child’s background very fully; and not just the backgrounds of children who are easily identified as from a minority. The assumption that all Caucasian children, for instance, have no difference in their needs is quite ridiculous.
If we are prescriptive about applying considerations to do with parental connections only to the lives of children from ethnic minorities, we are not giving social workers the right to make the proper professional judgments. For example, if a Quaker family adopts a child from a Catholic background, it is just as important for them as it is for people of mixed ethnicity. I am concerned that if we are prescriptive and put something on the face of the Bill and are also prescriptive in the statutory guidance, we may make the situation worse in some cases.
My Lords, in Committee I spoke in support of Amendment 2. I quoted the Joint Committee on Human Rights, of which I am a member, in its legislative scrutiny report. This led to some debate about the implications of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child for this clause.
I want to read from the letter that the chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights wrote to the Minister following our debate in Committee. He expresses disappointment at the Government’s refusal to accept the amendment. He writes: “In your response”—to the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss—
“you said that ‘the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child does not require children to be placed with someone who shares exactly the same ethnicity but someone who respects it.’ That is correct, but what the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child does expressly require, in Article 20(3), is that ‘when considering solutions, due regard shall be paid … to the child’s ethnic, religious, cultural and linguistic background’. Removing the statutory provision which gives effect to that obligation, without retaining those considerations in the welfare checklist, is incompatible with that provision of the Convention.
Unless the Government accepts the amendment when it is brought back at Report stage, it seems to us to be inevitable that this aspect of the Bill will be the subject of criticism by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child. The Government is currently finalising its Report to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, for submission in January 2014. My Committee will ensure that the issue is brought to the attention of the Committee when it examines the UK’s Report”.
Would it not make sense to listen to experts such as the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, and the NSPCC? It has said that the amendment would,
“ensure that reference to ethnicity in the Adoption and Children Act is better balanced rather than it being given prominence in its current standalone form, and that it is appropriately recognised given its significance. We welcome the updating of statutory guidance … and are keen to work with DfE to input into this. However, while the detail of the guidance is certainly important it will only go so far in ensuring this is appropriately taken into account and could send a contradictory message as to its importance having removed this from primary legislation”.
That is one of the concerns—that having expressly taken this out of the legislation, and if nothing is put back, it will send out a message that whatever the statutory guidance says, this is not important. But it is important, and I really hope the Minister will think again. I know that his reading of the UN convention is different, but the Joint Committee on Human Rights is expressly given the duty to advise Parliament on the human rights implications of legislation. I hope the Minister will take seriously this rather strong advice given by the Joint Committee.
My Lords, I was not planning to speak in this debate at all but I feel strongly that we need to support my noble and learned friend Lady Butler-Sloss. I want to mention only one case—that of a really superb set of parents who adopted two children across the racial barrier; that is, two African children. You could not find better parents. They were both involved in the mental health services and were devoted to these two girls. It seemed that the thing was perfect. But both those girls committed suicide in their late teens. If we are to neglect the advice of the UN convention, we need to beware. It is no accident that these issues are emphasised so clearly, and no accident that our extremely experienced noble and learned friend, Lady Butler-Sloss, has tabled this amendment. We should support it.
My Lords, I support my noble and learned friend Lady Butler-Sloss on this amendment, as I did in Grand Committee. I do not want to repeat what other noble Lords have said, but I support very much what the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, and my noble friend Lady Meacher said. The noble Baroness, Lady Eaton, said that she thought it would be restrictive to put these words back into the Bill. However, to urge people to have regard is perhaps not as restrictive as she thinks. The agencies from which I have received briefings and with which I have had round-table discussions, along with other discussions over a long period, also support the amendment tabled by my noble and learned friend.
That is not to say that everybody has a kind of purist, essentialist view on who should be adopting who, but to recognise that there are many other factors regarding black and mixed-race heritage children, and children with disabilities. Children with those kinds of backgrounds have experienced delays in the system for all kinds of reasons, not simply because of previous legislation. There are lots of different ways of supporting those children, too, which can be long-term. Fostering can provide long-term stability in lots of different ways. So, as I say, I support my noble and learned friend.
My Lords, I support Amendment 2 and should like to comment briefly. What is strange is that it seems we are all in agreement. On the substance of the matter, there is not as much disagreement in this debate as I thought there would be when the Bill was published, which is interesting. To some extent, what we seem to be debating this evening is: what is the best way in legislation to give that message to people whose lives will be affected by what we decide?
I want to add two points to that. The first is about perception. Throughout the implementation of this Bill, one problem will be not so much with the legislation but with how it is seen out there by people who have to interpret it. This is about changing culture. As far as this matter is concerned, the perception of people outside this Chamber is not that there is wide agreement across the political spectrum about the need to take these matters into account, but that this legislation intends to move the position to the other end from where it has been in the past. For me, the challenge is: how do we have something in law that clearly gives the message that it is all right to take into account a child’s ethnic background? Many people out there think that what this legislation is about is that it is not all right to consider a child’s ethnic and cultural background when making a decision on adoption.
I ask myself which of the two alternatives available to us—statutory guidance or something in primary legislation—will most strongly give the message about where this House wants to have the legislation. It has to be in the Bill; that is my non-expert interpretation. It would be unwise not to take the advice of the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, who is paramount in her expertise in this area. If I have to come down on one side or the other, I will go for that of the noble and learned Baroness, not the Minister. In the run-up to the Bill, the spin that the Government gave was that they were moving away from taking into account a child’s ethnic, cultural and linguistic background. That is where people in the wider world think they are. To get the pendulum back to the middle, we clearly need something in the Bill, and so far I have heard nothing that argues against that. To give that message and to get this new legislation to have a fair and good start is better served by putting it in the Bill. I support Amendment 2.
My Lords, I rise to speak with no real expertise on this matter, although, as it happens, my father was an adopted child. It is interesting that there has been a 20% increase in the number of looked-after children since 2009. I suspect that there is a perception that if you do not ethnically match, children will be hanging around waiting for a loving, caring family. I am not sure that that is the case. We all want the same thing, do we not? We all want to make sure that children are adopted by the right families, in all sorts of ways. I rarely disagree with my noble friend Lady Eaton, but if there is statutory guidance—and there will be—it is hugely important that the religious, heritage, cultural and ethnic issues are clearly spelt out. Presumably it is called “statutory” because it is backed by the full weight of the law. When the Minister replies, I hope that he will spell out how important that statutory guidance is.
I suspect that, for all sorts of reasons, we are at a bit of an impasse because of views shared by other people who are not in this Chamber. I understand that. Clearly, however, there has been real movement by the Government to have statutory guidance. I do not think that I would ever dare to disagree with the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss. However, I think that social workers do take note, and will have to take note, of that statutory guidance, given that it is enshrined in law. They will know clearly what the thinking is. When the statutory guidance is put together, organisations such as the NSPCC will play a prominent part in making sure that it is fit for purpose and delivers what we all want.
My Lords, I learnt one lesson at the Home Office where I legislated for some years. When you make a list, the longer it is the more that considerations which are not on the list are excluded. Expressio unius est exclusio alterius: if you have a list of what must be done, the inference is that the rest does not have to be done. Therefore, if you are going to have a list, let it be complete.
My Lords, first, I thank the Minister for listening to concerns raised in Grand Committee and for the many meetings with all interested parties over the past few weeks to find ways to move forward in dealing with adoption issues.
With regard to Clause 2, I acknowledge the Government’s argument for removing the requirement in primary legislation to have particular regard to,
“religious persuasion, racial origin and cultural and linguistic background”,
as it has become evident that in some cases the current legislation of due consideration has been interpreted too bluntly, with some social workers giving undue regard to racial characteristics and seeking perfect ethnic matches. There is a need to find ways to avoid that happening—to find a balance. Statutory guidance could be the answer if it is fully thought through and applied. However, as we have already heard, there are concerns that the removal of the express requirement to give,
“due consideration to the child’s religious persuasion, racial origin and cultural and linguistic background”,
when matching a child with prospective adopters might increase the risk that a child’s racial origin will be completely ignored in matching decisions.
I would appreciate it if the Minister could tell the House what the Government propose should happen when a child is adopted by a family of different race, heritage or religion. How will the guidance ensure that those families are given help to understand, appreciate and engage with the background and culture of the children placed with them? How will the statutory guidance address identity, background and heritage issues that will almost certainly need to be dealt with at different times in a child’s life as, getting older, they grapple to understand their identity? As we have heard, some find it very difficult if they are not exposed to those issues. In short, how will adopters of a different background and ethnicity access additional training and support to help them understand issues their child might have to face, such as racism and identity crisis as well as religious and cultural differences?
I have spoken to both the NSPCC and CCS Adoption based in Bristol. I declare an interest as I am a patron of the latter. Both believe that a stronger case needs to be made before the removal of due consideration of race and ethnicity when a child is adopted. Some people have asked why we cannot simply amend the welfare checklist specifically to include ethnicity. Can the Minister explain the Government’s reasoning behind the decision not to do this?
One of CCS Adoption’s concerns is that guidance might be considered discretionary and is more likely not to be adhered to or might even be ignored. Just last week it was advised by its local authority that it was not the authority’s policy to undertake life story work with children or to produce a life story book for a child. In the local authority’s view, these tasks should be done by the adopters. Would statutory guidance make this clearly the responsibility of the local authority, as it holds the child’s key information? The life story workbook is key to any child coming through the care system in helping to preserve and develop their identity. To try to delegate these responsibilities to adopters when all the key information is held by the local authority is unacceptable as it does not ensure that the best interests of a child are met. Will this practice be addressed and enshrined in statutory guidance?
As we have heard, the NSPCC welcomes the updating of statutory guidance in relation to this issue and is keen to work with the department to input into this. However, it feels that this is work in progress and that at this stage it cannot commit wholeheartedly to endorsing the guidance. It and others have asked a number of questions to seek reassurance. What impact will the statutory guidance have and how will it be implemented? Aside from whether the guidance is statutory, as the Government are proposing to remove “due consideration” from primary legislation, do they think that stating this in guidance is contradictory and could lead to confusion among social workers as to whether it is a priority issue for consideration? How will the guidance ensure that all families are given help to understand, appreciate and engage with the background and culture of children placed with them? How will the Government ensure that local authorities actively recruit more adoptive parents from a range of ethnic backgrounds?
I believe that when a child is adopted by a family of different race, heritage or religion, that family must fully understand the child’s background and help the child to cherish their birth heritage. Adopters do not have to share the same ethnicity, but they must be able to respect the child’s background. They must be able to help the child to identify with their birth heritage and to be well prepared for issues that may arise as the child develops into a teenager and beyond. These adopters therefore need to be supported and helped by appropriate training to strengthen their skills together with their knowledge and understanding of the child's birth heritage, so that they can meet these needs.
This will undoubtedly avoid situations like the one I was made aware of recently by a young mixed race girl. She wrote:
“Growing up in a completely white family meant I didn’t get a taste of my heritage and not knowing my father meant that I wasn’t introduced to my black heritage until my teens. I feel strongly about this topic as I used to be picked on when I was younger and called an ‘Oreo’ (black on the outside, white on the inside) purely because I didn’t know or understand my black heritage”.
Over the years I have heard many similar stories.
Every child needs a loving and stable home, but they also need to be confident about their identity in order to face the world. We all agree that children must not suffer as a consequence of our decisions. So if we end up with statutory guidance, we must all work diligently to ensure that it is clear and understandable to all and not open to misinterpretation. As I always say, childhood lasts a lifetime and a child’s experiences shape their adulthood. So let us get this one right. I am happy to work with the Minister to do just that. In the mean time, I look forward to hearing how the Minister believes the Government can achieve this.
My Lords, these are complicated matters. We need to come down on one side of the fence. Can primary legislation cope with these matters, or are there so many variables that we have to rely on guidance? Guidance would allow more judgment than could be exercised if faced with a section in an Act of Parliament. My perception is that we would be better advised to rely on statutory guidance. If we do not like it or do not think it deals adequately with all the variations that have been talked about today, we can debate it in Parliament and ask the Government to think again. However, trying to cover what has been talked about today in a clause in a Bill which becomes an Act of Parliament will not work. Therefore we have to rely to a much greater extent on the development of confidence and judgment within the system operated by the courts, local authorities, social services and voluntary agencies. That is the way we should go.
My Lords, I speak in favour of Amendment 2, to which my name has been added, and very much support the arguments that the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, has put forward this afternoon.
Noble Lords who were in Committee will recall that we debated this in depth. It is fair to say that there was widespread sympathy for the point of view that the noble and learned Baroness has put forward this afternoon. There was a sense that we wanted to get the balance right—not overstating their importance, but recognising that ethnicity, culture, language and heritage are all factors that make up a child’s identity, which any prospective adopter should be able to respect and value. The challenge for us is how to get it right and achieve that.
The noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, explained that this issue was dealt with in some detail by the adoption pre-legislative scrutiny committee last year, which took evidence from a number of the major players in the adoption sector, including Coram and Barnardo’s. We continue to believe that that is an authoritative piece of work. While no one wants children to be disadvantaged by delays being caused by the search for the perfect match, the evidence of the adoption committee seemed to show that while there are some pockets of poor practice, it is no longer a widespread issue. For example, Barnardo’s believed that the current legislation was adequate and Coram argued that while this might have been a problem in the past, the situation was improving rapidly. The committee also identified that there were several other factors affecting the placement of BME children, including having fewer prospective adopters and a failure by social workers to promote their availability. The truth is that there remains a paucity of evidence that BME children are waiting longer for placements because of the current wording on ethnicity.
In his response in Committee, the Minister referred to two pieces of research, which I have now had a chance to look at. The first is by Julie Selwyn and commenced in 2005, which is some time ago. Even so, the study did not find systematic bias or mishandling of minority ethnic children by children’s services. The second piece of research, which was by Professor Elaine Farmer, was also carried out some time ago. It commenced in 2007. It was also interesting reading, but it covered a limited sample and, as she acknowledged, it was impossible to draw definitive findings because local authority practice was changing at the very time that the research was taking place. I believe that the latest research carried out by the adoption Select Committee is probably a better reflection of what is currently happening in adoption practice rather than research carried out six or seven years ago.
While there is, no doubt, scope for further definitive research, we should in the mean time be cautious about driving major change in this area. This is why we believe that putting these factors in the welfare checklist along with other considerations strikes the right and proportionate balance in addressing this issue. It would require agencies to have regard to these factors, but they would not be paramount.
The Minister argued that, if references to ethnicity and culture were removed, they would nevertheless remain as a silent, unspoken part of the children’s characteristics and would still need to be taken into account. A similar argument was put forward by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, in her amendment. The Minister also referred to the fact that indicative statutory guidance is being prepared, which we welcome. But putting those two things together, I do not think they are good enough. By removing the references to ethnicity, religion, culture and language from the Bill, the Government plan to send a deliberate message to courts and social workers. Why else would they do it?
We believe that that message is disproportionate and misguided and will be interpreted in the wrong way.
As we discussed in Committee, any change in the law in this area would also be in direct contradiction to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and in particular Article 20, which states:
“Children who cannot be looked after by their own family have a right to special care and must be looked after properly by people who respect their ethnic group, religion, culture and language”.
I am very grateful to my noble friend Lady Lister for updating us on the continued concerns of the Joint Committee on Human Rights in this regard. We continue to share those concerns. We think it is important that parents understand the identity of the child and are able to help them feel at ease with that identity. We cannot be blind or neutral to these considerations.
For all these reasons, we urge the Government, even at this stage, to agree to the amendment. We all want what is in the best interests of the child, which in this case is to have their identity respected and nurtured. We believe that our amendment sends the right message to the sector, building on their developing good practice and helping to speed up placements. I therefore urge noble Lords to support the amendment.
My Lords, it seems ironic that, on a day when we have been paying tribute to probably the greatest force for racial reconciliation ever, we are having a debate about a matter relating to race. However, I am encouraged by today’s debate. It is absolutely clear that we are really not very far apart; we are all trying to achieve the same thing—the question is just how. Perhaps I could try and outline, at some length if I may, how I and the Government see the matter, our motivation, and where I believe there is considerable common ground.
The fact is that it takes two years and seven months for a child from entering the care system to be formally adopted, but for a black child it is 13 months longer—nearly four years. It takes one year and seven months for a child to be placed with his or her proposed adopters, but for a black child it takes 13 months, or 70%, longer. Of course, this conceals the fact that many children never get adopted. This is completely unacceptable and upsets me now as much as it did when I first heard about it three and a half years ago. This is not a question of the pendulum having swung too far. The pendulum has swung off the scale.
I have since I started working with children and young people felt very strongly that we need to ensure not just that the life chances of all young children are substantially improved but particularly those of the BME community, and in particular the black community, because it seems to me that we need more successful black people and more successful black role models. It defines our society to have a balance of successful people. I look forward greatly to the day when there are many more Baroness Youngs and Baroness Benjamins. Although I was scribbling some of the time, I think I agreed with everything the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, had to say.
There is unequivocal evidence on the negative impact of delay on children’s development and well-being. Children need to form secure and stable attachments, with one or two main carers in order to develop physically, emotionally and intellectually. Therefore, what can we do about the appalling fact that it takes black children, and other children from other minority ethnic groups, so long to be adopted? First, we are taking great steps on a number of fronts to improve the speed at which children are adopted generally. Secondly, we must seek to recruit more adopters and BME adopters and, as my noble friend Lady Hamwee said, we need to open up the system on a more national basis so that there is more scope for making the right matches. However, our research still reveals that in too many cases social workers try for too long to make a perfect match.
I have reflected deeply on this clause since Grand Committee. When children are being matched, consideration of their background and heritage plays a critical part. It is an integral part of a child’s identity and their new parents must be able to support them as they grow up. In Committee, there were moving testimonies from my noble friend Lady Perry, who spoke about Marrianna, the little girl of the Kindertransport, for whom her parents cared, ensuring that they learned about Jewish religious tradition so they could help Marrianna cherish her religious identity.
My noble friend Lady Walmsley spoke about her granddaughter Cathryn, of Chinese heritage, whose parents are learning about her heritage so they can support her. Clearly, with the right awareness and commitment, mixed-race adoptive families can be very happy and successful ones. What is crucial to making effective matching happen is good social work practice and support for adoptive parents so they can support their children, not just at the point of adoption but beyond, as the child grows into a young adult. I do not think that the blunt wording of the Adoption and Children Act—however well-intentioned and wherever it is placed—can secure that.
I am delighted to see the noble Baroness, Lady King, here this afternoon. I had the great pleasure of meeting her now probably eight week-old son the other day, and one could not wish to see a more charming baby. Perhaps the whole House can join me in congratulating her on the birth of Tullio.
Under the Government’s proposal, courts and adoption agencies will continue to have to have regard to,
“the child’s age, sex, background and any of the child’s characteristics which the court or agency considers relevant”,
as set out in the welfare checklist. The Government take a strong view that that must include the child’s ethnicity. We therefore believe that the amendment is not necessary, as that aspect of a child’s identity will form part of an agency’s, or court’s, considerations in deciding the most appropriate match for a child. It is not in the nature of social workers to ignore ethnicity. That has been confirmed by discussions I have had with practitioners, to which I will refer shortly.
On the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, on the JCHR, we do not agree with the Joint Committee that the clause is incompatible with the United Nations convention. We are satisfied that the requirement in the welfare checklist to have regard to the child’s background and characteristics includes ethnic, religious, cultural and linguistic background. There is also a risk that to place the requirement in the welfare checklist as the amendment proposes will have the effect of giving this aspect of a child’s identity more significance than other equally important characteristics such as disability.
Due to the current wording, some local authorities have paid undue rather than due regard to ethnicity in some cases, at the expense of other needs of the child, as most noble Lords have acknowledged. Since Committee, I have spoken with several directors of children’s services about our proposals. I will share with noble Lords what those who are willing to be quoted told me, and why they support our clause. Ade Adetosoye is Director of Community and Children’s Services, City of London, and spent seven years as the director of social care at Lambeth Council, during which time his leadership helped transform practice. He told me:
“Changing the legislation to remove this explicit requirement is a positive thing—it will not change the good work of many local authorities who already look for the best placements rather than the perfect match. However, poorer performing local authorities do sometimes look too hard for the perfect match to the detriment of the child”.
Andrew Christie, Executive Director of Children’s Services for Westminster, Hammersmith and Fulham, and Kensington and Chelsea, said:
“I fully support the government’s plans not to have ethnicity on the face of the Bill and the welfare checklist because there is evidence that suggests that this leads to some social workers trying too hard to make the perfect match which can result in the child taking a very long time to be adopted, or in some cases never being adopted at all. In my authorities we have a strong focus on people realising that the crucial thing for the child is that the clock is ticking”.
Tim Coulson, Director for Commissioning: Education and Lifelong Learning, Essex, who has himself adopted a child of a different race, said:
“We agree with the Government’s proposal to remove the requirement in legislation to give due consideration to ‘a child’s religious persuasion, racial origin, and cultural and linguistic background’ because we think that this requirement makes some social workers look too long for an ideal match based on these factors”.
Those are practitioners at the coal face.
I think we all agree that we therefore need to change the behaviour and culture of some social workers. We think that the right way to do this is through considerably enhanced guidance, so we have been spending a great deal of time talking to the NSPCC and others about this. I have also had the opportunity to talk to the marvellous charity Hope and Homes for Children, which specialises in going into conflict-torn areas—it started in Bosnia—and placing children in adoptive-type arrangements. It has considerable experience of making cross-race placements, including of Roma children—there is a massive shortage of Roma adopters—and emphasised strongly to me in some detail the importance of training and advice for adopters in that situation.
The debates with noble Lords have made us look closely at the guidance on this issue. We need to underpin practice with nuanced statutory guidance and will continue to work with the NSPCC and others. We intend that the revised statutory—not discretionary—guidance on which we will consult in the new year, and on which I would welcome noble Lords’ comments, will build on the existing draft. It will add that identity, background and heritage are issues that may need to be addressed at different times in a child’s life so that they understand their identity within the family and wider society, particularly as the child reaches adulthood. The noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, spoke convincingly and passionately from personal experience about the importance of this.
I am grateful to the Minister for understanding my convictions, but I was attempting to argue against his proposal that these characteristics should not appear in the Bill. It seems to me imperative that they are there as a signpost. I hope he can acknowledge that.
I am grateful. I understand entirely the noble Baroness’s position. The guidance will also state that adopters of a different background/ethnicity may need additional training and support to help them support their child. This will include how to identify and deal with racism. On the matching process, it will ensure that the adopters can engage with the cultural background, heritage and ethnicity of the child. We will take my noble friend Lady Benjamin’s point about the importance of the child’s life story—the life book—and ensure that this point is in the statutory guidance. I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Eccles for his support for this approach.
We do not think that having ethnicity in guidance but not in legislation is confusing and we are funding the British Association for Adoption and Fostering to provide training seminars for all local authorities and voluntary adoption agencies on this matter and the rest of the adoption reform programme. Training to support ethnicity issues will be part of the 2014-15 sessions and places at these sessions are free. Of course, good matching is important for all children and all adoptive families need access to adoption support at different stages of childhood. We are addressing these issues for all adoptive families and the guidance will reflect that. We will also add other issues that may arise in our discussions with the NSPCC and other experts. During the consultation I will put a copy of the consultation document in the House Library and send a copy to former members of the Select Committee. I hope that many of you will respond. To make that as easy as possible we would be delighted to host a round-table discussion with Peers about the guidance.
However, improving outcomes for black children is not only about adoption. For many, fostering will be more appropriate: three-quarters of all looked-after children are in foster care. For others, it will be special guardianship with a relative or former foster carer. Where adoption is the right outcome for black children, we must do better to find them families as quickly as we do for other children. For those children for whom adoption is the right permanent outcome we need action on several fronts. This includes recruiting more adopters generally, including from minority ethnic communities. This year we have given £150 million to local authorities through the adoption reform grant to help boost adopter recruitment and £16 million for the voluntary adoption agencies to help recruit more adopters who can meet the needs of children needing adoption. For example, Southwark has come up with innovative ways of recruiting adopters from the black community.
There will be better training for professionals. We have appointed BAAF to provide training on a range of issues, which next year will include ethnicity. Places are free for all local authority and voluntary adoption agencies. There will be better adoption support. We know how important this is, not only when the child is first placed with the family, but also later on, perhaps when they are dealing with the trials of adolescence and maybe, as my noble friend Lady Benjamin alluded to in one particularly moving case, questioning their identity. In September 2013 we announced a new fund with a contribution of nearly £20 million to help adoptive parents access the best possible support to meet their children’s needs. This fund will be rolled out nationally from 2015 but will be trialled from next year. The investment will make a difference to adopters in providing the support they need and better guidance, and I have explained the steps we are taking here.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, said so incisively, we have, I believe, complete consensus right up to, and including, the point of diagnosing the problem. The issue is precisely how we change a culture of behaviour, but we have no intention of moving away from the importance of the child’s cultural and ethnic background. It is imperative that these are taken into account on every front.
I hope that we do not vote on this matter. That would be unfortunate given the nature of the matter that we are dealing with. I am personally committed to spending as much time as possible with my officials, the NSPCC, noble Lords and other interested parties to ensure that we get appropriate guidance in place to enable this matter to be handled in a way that takes into account the best interests of the children so that, on the one hand, their ethnicity is fully taken into account in all placing and matching decisions and, on the other, they are not left on the shelf and short-changed by the system, as many are now.
I hope noble Lords will agree that we are all very much in the same place and that statutory guidance gives us the scope to steer social work practice in a more nuanced way than through blunt statements in the Bill. On that basis, I hope the noble and learned Baroness will withdraw the amendment.
I now turn to the amendment in the names of my noble friends Lady Hamwee and Lady Walmsley. I am grateful to my noble friends for their innovative thinking on this matter, proposing to remove references to age and sex from Section 1(4)(d) of the relevant Act. I understand the thinking behind the amendment, which I believe is designed to remove from legislation any of the specific characteristics about a child, and rely wholly on the phrase,
“the child’s background and any of the child’s characteristics which the court or agency considers relevant”.
After careful reflection, I do not propose to follow this line of thinking at present. This is because there is no evidence that there is an issue with the way that the courts or adoption agencies are interpreting the words
“age and sex”. There is a fairly technical issue at play here. Clause 2 seeks to remove subsection (5) of Section 1 of the 2002 Act. This is a requirement which applies only to adoption agencies—that is, local authorities and voluntary adoption agencies—when placing a child for adoption. Subsection (4) of Section 1—what is known as “the welfare checklist”—applies to the court as well as to adoption agencies, so seeking to amend this suggests a change for the courts as well as for adoption agencies.
In addition, this provision in the welfare checklist reflects an identical requirement on the courts in Section 1 of the Children Act 1989 when considering orders under that Act. Therefore, if we were to change the wording in the Adoption and Children Act 2002 in the way suggested by removing the reference to age and sex, that would send a strange signal to the court as it would suggest a different decision-making process under the Adoption and Children Act 2002 from that under the Children Act 1989.
However, in the end I come back to the very serious issue we want to address: the delay that black children and other ethnic minority children experience while waiting for adoption. As I said at the beginning, we have today paid tribute to one of the greatest advocates of racial equality ever. I listen frequently to the wonderful speech given by the other great advocate, Martin Luther King, which in my view is the greatest speech ever made. It is not the “I Have a Dream” speech, which everyone thinks of, but the one he made two months before that at Cobo Hall in Detroit in June 1963, which was then the centre of popular music, in which he used that wonderful musical analogy that all God’s children, from base black to treble white, are equally important in God’s world and on God’s keyboard. However, that does not seem to be the result in terms of the outcomes for black children in our adoption system, and this Government are determined to change that.
It is the requirement on local authorities and other adoption agencies at Section 1(5) in the Adoption and Children Act which—albeit it was placed there with the best of motives—I believe has contributed to the delays that black children face, as I think all noble Lords have acknowledged. The statutory guidance gives us the opportunity to provide much more nuanced advice and guidelines which will benefit all children being adopted, not just those who are visibly different from prospective families. For this reason, I urge the noble and learned Baroness to withdraw the amendment.
My Lords, I thank all those who have spoken on what in my view is an important issue, although it may be, as several have said, a question of balance and degree. I will start by answering some of the Minister’s points. As a former judge who tried adoption cases, I am well aware of the unacceptable delays that there have been in adoptions of non-white children and children from other cultural backgrounds. I believe that Section 1(5), requiring social workers and the courts to pay particular regard to ethnicity, was wrong and I am happy that the Government wish to remove Section 1(5) from the Adoption and Children
Act 2002. However, I do not believe that putting these words into the checklist would have the effect that the Minister says.
The Government are putting forward a number of extremely sensible suggestions, many of them coming from the important reports that have been published. I hope that these will lead to far better adoption situations, and for all children who should be adopted to be adopted more quickly. Therefore, I very much appreciate the work the Government are doing. It is interesting that agencies remain unconvinced by the Government’s arguments, although they are, like the NSPCC, willing to work with Government to improve the statutory guidance if this amendment does not go through. I very much support any sort of enhanced guidance and training, but I am afraid that this is not enough.
I was probably wrong in my opening remarks to your Lordships in concentrating on ethnicity, because the words that I proposed should go into the checklist are four factors:
“religious persuasion, racial origin and cultural and linguistic background”.
They are all equally important and I was at fault for concentrating on ethnicity. It was a shorthand version and probably misleading.
I take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Storey, about statutory guidance being good enough, but I ask him: if statutory guidance is good enough, why do we have the checklist? Surely the checklist could equally well go into statutory guidance. The checklist in Section 1(4) of the Adoption and Children Act has six paragraphs, (a) to (e), and three sub-paragraphs, (i) to (iii), and it is thought necessary to include them in the checklist, not just in statutory guidance. So why are the other factors in the 2002 Act so much more important than these four points that I have just set out, which I propose should be slipped neatly in with the rest of the checklist?
It has been suggested by the noble Baroness, Lady Eaton, that the words “have regard” might be seen as prescriptive, but sitting as I did as a judge, to “have regard” to something is not in the least prescriptive. One can have regard to it and then disregard it. One does not have to keep on regarding it. I certainly had no problem in the Children Act and the Adoption Act in having regard to something, then discarding it. There is nothing at all prescriptive about “having regard”. However, a checklist is a reminder to social workers and judges that they must not ignore it. To take it out altogether, which the adoption agencies are concerned about, is to swing that pendulum too far the other way, because it is not then anywhere.
It is suggested that the words “background” and “characteristics” are clear, as the noble Baroness, Lady Perry, said, and one does not need anything else. If I may respectfully disagree with her, I actually think that you do. You need a bit of a jolt. What do “background” and “characteristics” mean? They have to include certain points that I am not certain every social worker, however senior, might necessarily have in mind unless they were there. I say again that statutory guidance is not quite as good as having a checklist in primary legislation. The pendulum should be in the middle, and the middle means putting it in somewhere, but not making it too important. That is what I would like to see with this amendment, and I would like to test the opinion of the House.
Amendment 3 not moved.
Clause 3: Recruitment, assessment and approval of prospective adopters
Moved by Baroness Hughes of Stretford
4*: Clause 3, page 2, line 32, at end insert—
“( ) When it relates to a direction given under subsection (3)(b) or (c), the power to make a direction under subsection (1) will be exercisable by statutory instrument not to be made unless a draft of the instrument has been laid before, and approved by resolution of, each House of Parliament.”
Clause 3 grants the Secretary of State a new power to force local authorities to franchise out adopter recruitment services, either to another local authority or to a registered adoption agency, by amending Chapter 2 of Part 1 of the Adoption and Children Act 2002. The new section inserted by Clause 3 provides the Secretary of State with the power to direct the outsourcing of local authority adopter recruitment functions, either from individual named authorities under subsection (3)(a) or from classes or groups of local authorities under subsection (3)(b) or from all local authorities at once under subsection (3)(c). The important aspect is not the power to outsource itself but the manner in which it would allow the Secretary of State to make change on a large or even national scale at once through a direction. The Secretary of State, in issuing a direction as opposed to bringing forward primary or secondary legislation, would not obviously have to subject himself to any parliamentary scrutiny, and Members in either House would not have the opportunity to question or amend the changes. This is the nub of our concern.
Our Amendment 5 would have the effect of deleting subsections (3)(b) and (3)(c) and therefore remove the power of the Secretary of State to direct outsourcing from classes or groups of local authorities or from all local authorities at once. We tabled this amendment in Committee to probe the Government’s intentions and we do not intend to press this amendment here. It was tabled at an early stage following Grand Committee to signal our continued concern and before we were able to see the Government’s response to that debate.
At the meeting last week, Edward Timpson said that there would be an amendment to respond to those concerns and we wanted to see the terms of that amendment before finalising our position. We were hoping that the Government would address those concerns by amending the clause to make subsections (3)(b) and (3)(c) subject to an affirmative resolution order. However, unfortunately both the government amendment and the policy statement that was issued alongside it really are a wholly inadequate response to what noble Lords across the House have been saying. Government Amendment 6 would simply delay the implementation of subsection (3)(c), which provides the power to outsource to all local authorities at once. Along with the government amendment, there was also a written commitment to report that decision in some as yet unspecified way. Delaying implementation is really neither here nor there—it is irrelevant—and reporting to Parliament falls far short of parliamentary scrutiny.
The policy statement that was published does not explain why the Secretary of State is seeking power through a direction rather than through secondary legislation but simply restates the arguments about the need to reshape the market in adopter recruitment. That is an argument with which we would not necessarily disagree but in support of which the Government have provided no evidence. These are important issues, but they are wholly irrelevant to our point that taking powers to institute major change to the national system of adopter recruitment by direction is a completely unacceptable way to treat this House and the other place. We cannot support the Government’s amendment.
Therefore, our Amendment 4 would retain the powers in subsections (3)(b) and (3)(c) but make their implementation subject to an order by affirmative resolution in both Houses of Parliament. We all support efforts to improve adopter recruitment if this will mean more children finding good homes. The Government’s policy statement sets out why the Government believes that major structural change may be necessary to address the shortfall in adoptive parents despite the 34% increase in the last two years, which is a very welcome improvement. However, even here the statement is contradictory on the role of the powers in Clause 3 in reshaping that market. Paragraph 11 says that the purpose of Clause 3 is to provide a powerful market-shaping lever to help restructure fundamentally the adopter recruitment system, but paragraph 12 says that, in moving towards the Government’s vision for that restructured system, Clause 3 is not seen as the sole or even the principal driver of reform—its role is to drive change only if there is little or no progress in reshaping the structure of the market and reducing the shortfall of adopters. That is because, as the Minister admitted in Grand Committee, Clause 3 is not of itself a solution to the problem of the shortfall of adopters that the Government have identified; Clause 3 itself cannot change that market. Indeed, it can be deployed only if and when it has been demonstrated that adopters can be recruited in sufficient numbers by different arrangements.
The policy statement goes on to outline the real levers for change which are happening now on a voluntary basis and which do not need legislation—for example, the consolidation in the local authority sector through mergers such as that involving St Helens, Warrington and Wigan in my region, the north-west, and the development of commissioning and provider relationships between local authorities in adopter recruitment. The adoption leadership board is encouraging and facilitating these developments, as well as supporting partnerships involving voluntary adoption agencies.
If these developments were successful, one could envisage that the system would have changed to such an extent that it reached a tipping point at which the use of the power in, say, subsection (3)(c) might make sense. However, if these developments were not successful, what would the Secretary of State do? Would he outsource adopter recruitment from all local authorities anyway when there was no credible alternative? That would be wholly irresponsible and I cannot believe that the Government would take such a risk. Either way, the point is that there really ought to be parliamentary oversight at that point.
The point is that mobilising the power in Clause 3 becomes necessary, and indeed possible in practice, only if and when the developments between local authorities and the voluntary sector reach a critical mass such that wholesale change across the country is a viable option. That is my concern with Amendments 4A, 4B, 4C and 4D. Together, they would have the effect of applying the affirmative resolution procedure only in the event of the Secretary of State wanting to outsource these adoption functions from all local authorities simultaneously—that is, using the power in subsection (3)(c). If these amendments were agreed, the Secretary of State would still be able to direct significant proportions of local authorities in groups under the power in subsection (3)(b) and require them to outsource their adoption functions. For instance, he might require that in respect of all shire counties or all metropolitan authorities. Indeed, by announcing three or four successive directions, each of which related to a large group of authorities, the Secretary of State could effectively sweep the country without any parliamentary scrutiny. In other words, by using a few directions under subsection (3)(b), he could achieve what I think we all agree we want to prevent, which is the use of subsection (3)(c) without any scrutiny.
In my view, it is not logical to try to apply the affirmative resolution to subsection (3)(c) but not to do so also to subsection (3)(b). The effect of that would be not to constrain the Government at all, because they could still use the power in subsection (3)(b) successively to include all local authorities. That is my big concern, and it is expressed and supported by organisations in the sector such as Barnardo’s.
We believe that, apart from in relation to individual named authorities under subsection (3)(a), we should expect the Secretary of State to come to Parliament and, via an affirmative order, outline the progress that has been made and to answer the questions that Members would inevitably have—questions such as how secure the changes are, what the national picture is in terms of the number of consortia recruiting adopters, how many adopters are being recruited, and whether the capacity of the voluntary sector has grown and what role it is playing. The voluntary agencies and local authorities might have issues that they would want us to pursue, as would be normal. There would be many legitimate questions, and answers to them could be put on the record.
The Government are right to address the problem of insufficient adopters. If they wish to review the adopter recruitment system and propose something radically different, they are entirely within their rights to do so. However, they should not try to instigate radical change to a national system on the judgment and pronouncement of an individual Secretary of State. They should come to Parliament so that those proposals could be properly debated and scrutinised in the normal way. That is all we are proposing, and I think it is very reasonable and very normal. I beg to move.
My Lords, I rise to speak briefly in support of Amendment 4, to which I have added my name. The noble Baroness, Lady Hughes, has set out the arguments very clearly and I do not need to take up more than very little of your Lordships’ time.
I understand that the intentions of the adoption clauses in the Bill are to improve the adoption system and to tackle the shortage of adopters. I am sure we all agree with that. Increasing the number of looked-after children appropriately and successfully placed for adoption must of course be a priority, and, again, I am sure we all agree with the Government about that. The question is whether issuing ministerial directions affecting adoption services across swathes of the country without parliamentary scrutiny is a desirable way forward.
If local authorities were removed from the adoption roles, as envisaged in Clause 3, the voluntary adoption agencies would need to increase their capacity fivefold, as I understand it. We could expect severe disruption of the system and a serious shortage of adopters for some years in the local authority areas affected. We would feel content if named authorities were dealt with in that way, because presumably there would be very serious issues in those authorities, but the idea of blanket shifts in this direction, using directions without any parliamentary scrutiny, sounds disproportionate.
My second concern is that Clause 3 risks fragmenting the system, as all councils would remain responsible for placing children for adoption and matching them with families. My understanding is that adopter families greatly value having continuity of social workers through the entire system and that they would not welcome changes simply because of alterations to the system as envisaged under Clause 3.
If a local authority fails in its duty in the adoption field, it is clearly important that the Government are able to intervene, and of course they can under Section 7A of the Local Authority Social Services Act 1970. Also, as has already been said, the amendment does not touch the right of a Secretary of State to intervene without any parliamentary involvement with directions in relation to specific named local authorities.
I understand that the Government have accepted the principle of our amendment in relation to directions affecting all local authorities, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hughes, said, but not in relation to directions affecting one or more descriptions of local authorities, which I understand could affect, for example, all boroughs throughout the country. Perhaps the Minister can explain why it is right and proper to have a statutory instrument laid before Parliament and approved by a resolution of each House of Parliament in relation to changes applying to all local authorities when the same principle is apparently not acceptable for directions applying to all boroughs, for example—and perhaps some weeks later all county councils and all other specific classes of local authority.
I confess that I am somewhat confused by the apparent lack of logic in the Government’s position. Does the Minister accept that the amendment does not prevent reform but merely ensures proper parliamentary oversight in a more consistent way than he currently envisages?
I hope that the Minister will be willing to think again and explore ways in which he might come close to meeting this amendment—I was going to say half-way but I do not think that that would work either. What we really want is parliamentary oversight if more local authorities than can be reasonably named are going to be affected in this way.
My Lords, I have also put my name to Amendment 4. I am not too worried which of the various amendments finds favour with the Government, but I want the Government to look at where we stand at the moment. I do not want to repeat what either of the noble Baronesses has already said, but my concern is a general one. If a future Government became overenthusiastic, under the existing clauses there is a possibility of wholesale interference with various local authorities, either all together or singly by picking up on them one after another.
I am aware of this issue from the newspapers, but I used to be aware of it when I had local authorities appearing before me—my heart would sink when I saw the name of a particular local authority, because I knew that the way that it would behave in relation to the particular child coming before me was not up to standard. Indeed, I would use a phrase that has been used with regard to some government departments in the past that it was “not fit for purpose”. That, we know, is true of some local authorities even today, and that is very sad.
However, the issue needs to be dealt with in a less than heavy-handed way. There needs to be a degree of delicacy in how one deals with this. I would like the Government to reflect on the best way to bring forward to this House how we can ensure that any overenthusiasm of future Governments might be tempered by the requirement to show Parliament that what they want to do is appropriate, necessary and proportionate.
My Lords, I have Amendments 4A, 4B, 4C, 4D and 6A in this group. They have already been trailed. When I first became aware of a proposal for the Secretary of State to issue directions about local authority adoption functions, I shared the alarm which was expressed, because I am pretty unreconstructed when it comes to local authority powers. On the other hand, having heard some of the issues which seem to lie behind problems with recruiting adopters, during the debates that took place during the work of the Select Committee, at one point I wondered whether adoption services should be nationalised. My pendulum has swung back to the middle.
I am reassured from what the Minister has said that the clause is not about failure or the underperformance by individual local authorities; it comes about because of concerns about the system, and systemic underlying problems. The amendments in my name and those of the noble Baroness, Lady Eaton, the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles—also members of the Select Committee—and my noble friend Lord Storey, flow from that. They are aimed at building on and improving what we are presented with in the Bill. It has been voiced again today. What has very much exercised noble Lords is ensuring that Parliament is not sidelined. I realise that a direction under paragraph (c) would be very different from directions under paragraphs (a) and (b) of new subsection (3), and I will come back to that in a moment.
Our amendments would turn directions relating to all local authorities into an order requiring the agreement of both Houses through the affirmative procedure. That would mean the Minister explaining the position, and both Houses debating it with an order not to be made before March 2015. The parliamentary timetable suggests to me that it is very unlikely an order would be made two months before a general election. So I was glad to see the Government Amendment 6 and even more pleased when the Minister told me that he wanted to add his name to our amendments but was too late for the print of the Marshalled List.
The Select Committee said that local authorities should have the time,
“to develop viable and achievable alternative proposals.”
We see that they are already doing so. We heard in the Committee of successful structures in the “tri-borough arrangement” as it is called in London—the three boroughs—and with three local authorities in the north-west. I understand that there are now probably five groupings involving 12 local authorities, which return their data together and are coming together in new structures.
The noble Baroness talks about the levers for change, whether what we may have will be enough, and whether it needs a heavy hand. I do not think that this is proposing a heavy hand. But if an order is proposed by the Secretary of State, as I see it—and I hope that the Minister can confirm this—it would not be a lid, perhaps here a portcullis, coming down. It would be a point in a sequence development of work, a transitional point which could be, and I hope if necessary would be, tailored as to which of the functions in new subsection (2) was brought into play. It would not be necessary to make an order dealing with all the functions in new subsection (2). So it is not the nuclear option, which I at first understood it potentially to be, or as it has been described.
A direction under new subsection (3)(b)—I confess that I had not initially appreciated how this might differ from an order under a statutory instrument—would allow for a lot more continuing work, after as well as before a direction with the local authorities concerned, which is a much more flexible way of working. It has been described to me as a quality improvement measure, with the possibility of collaborative development of the detail of the direction before it is given. Thinking about how that has worked on other subject areas within child protection and children services work, I can see that would work well. That leaves me unable to support Amendment 4.
The Government have already given commitment to giving notice to a local authority before using the powers in new subsections (3)(a) and (3)(b). So there would be an opportunity for that way of—I am sorry, I hate the word—iterative working, a development and refinement process. The steps which have already been taken since this debate started earlier in the year, or at the end of last year, when the Government made their announcement, have been constructive and productive, with the adoption form grant, the adoption register, the adoption leadership board and the equalisation of fees between local authorities and voluntary agencies. I mention voluntary agencies because it will be essential to work with the voluntary sector. Capacity and culture issues are both important. They are not going to change overnight. But the clause, as it would be amended by our amendments, allows more than adequately for this.
I hope that the directions in new paragraphs (b) and (c) will never be used, because it will not be necessary. I hope, too, that the Minister can confirm that over-enthusiasm, as the noble and learned Baroness has called it, would not mean that the paragraph (b) direction would be applied to all local authorities. That seems to me to be something that would be very open to challenge, given the rest of the structure of the clause.
I see why the Government feel that they need to have reserved powers, operated as I described, and that means that I cannot support Amendment 6. I hope that the House will feel that Amendments 4A to 4D and 6A are the way forward. I am comfortable with the logic of this, and I am usually over-logical about things. It is not heavy handed. It might almost be delicate—I will not go quite as far as to claim that—but it is a way forward.
My Lords, I cannot keep using the expression that I am a new person to your Lordships’ House, but I am still on a big learning curve, and I like to put into simple terms some of the language that is used.
When I saw this clause, I remembered that something like 84% of adoptions last year were carried out by local authorities and that, as we have heard, the majority of them do a fantastic job. That is recognised by the voluntary sector and, equally, the local authorities realise how important the voluntary sector is. When the Bill first came to your Lordships’ House, the voluntary sector, quite rightly, said, “Look, we could not cope if you took it all away from local authorities. We would not be able to do that”.
At the time, it seemed right that the Government pointed to the fact that some local authorities had an appalling track record. As I have said, it is a very small number, but some had an appalling track record. Indeed, the Local Government Association would be the first to recognise that. So it seemed absolutely crucial that the Secretary of State should have the power, if local authorities were underperforming and were not prepared to work together and co-operate, to take that responsibility away from them. I see the logic and the importance of that because, at the end of the day, we are talking about the children. However, I did not see the logic of having the power to take the responsibility away from every local authority—that seemed plain daft to me—given the expertise and commitment that local authorities have and the amount of work that they do. I was therefore delighted when the Minister tabled an amendment which ensured that nothing could happen before March 2015. But that still means, unless I have misunderstood it, that the Secretary of State could say in March 2015—although, as my noble friend Lady Hamwee said, it would be two months off a general election—“We are going to do this, and that is what we are doing”. That would not be in the best interests of adoption and children.
If in the mean time the Government work with local authorities and the voluntary sector and different structures come together with different ways of operating—and if it is decided that tri or quad groups working together is the structure that we want—that is great. Whatever structure is arrived at, the Secretary of State should come to Parliament and both Houses should be able to say yes to it. I was not used to the phrase “affirmative procedure” in the amendment. If the Minister feels able to support Amendments 4A to 4C, as his comments suggest, that would be a result with which we could all be happy.
I do not share the concern that the Secretary of State might use Amendment 4B to take away the responsibility from boroughs and metropolitan bodies. That would not happen in the timescale because, as we have heard, 84% of authorities carry out adoption. However, if some local authorities are letting down children or the adoption service, in extreme cases the Secretary of State would have that power. If these clauses and amendments are accepted, it will mean that local authorities have come to the table and discussed these matters even more rapidly with the voluntary sector. I welcome the work that the Minister has done in bringing those people together.
My Lords, I support the amendments in my name and those of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, the noble Lord, Lord Storey, and the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles. I do not wish to rehearse all the points that my colleagues have already made but it is important to say that part of what we need is a cultural change of collaboration and working together in local authorities to create a climate where adoption happens with ease for all the children needing a loving home.
The word “direction”, which hangs over local authorities, is not conducive to a working, productive relationship. It is dictatorial and does not create the atmosphere that we are all looking for. As the noble Lord, Lord Storey, said, we need the Secretary of State to have the absolute power at the end, if it is required, but the amendment ensures that there is justification for anything that is taken before both Houses of Parliament, and I am sure that we will all be more comfortable about such scrutiny. The idea that, with the direction, the Secretary of State merely has to give his reasoning but does not give anyone the chance to fully debate the matter and make changes would not be helpful in this process.
I support these amendments and I hope that they will take us much further forward in obtaining the co-operation we need and the adoption system that we are looking for.
My Lords, I support the amendment in the name of my noble friend Lady Hamwee.
A point was made by two earlier speakers that the Secretary of State could use successive orders under new Section 3A(3)(b) to achieve what new subsection (3)(c) provides for—in other words, to wipe out all local authorities from these various functions. Given the fact that new subsection (3)(c) is in the Bill, any Secretary of State who were to try that would, I am sure, be challenged for an abuse of process. I cannot see any Secretary of State trying to do that. It would be eminently challengeable. To colleagues who fear that scenario in the future, I suggest that it is not likely to happen. We have in my noble friend’s amendments a process—which I think the Government will be able to accept—to bring about parliamentary scrutiny if the powers in new subsection (3)(c) were used. That is the right level of parliamentary scrutiny required.
My Lords, I am grateful to those noble Lords who have contributed to this debate. I am acutely aware of the concerns Peers have raised about this clause. I thank particularly my noble friends Lady Hamwee, Lady Eaton, Lord Storey and Lord Eccles for helping me to understand the nature of those concerns.
Following constructive discussions, I am persuaded that the Government’s amendment and the commitment to report to Parliament do not provide for the parliamentary scrutiny that many noble Lords would wish to see. I am therefore very grateful to my noble friends for tabling their Amendments 4A to 4D and 6A. I am persuaded that it is right for a direction to all local authorities to be subject to full and rigorous scrutiny by Parliament. I therefore confirm my support for their amendments and, if they are accepted, I will not of course need to move my Amendment 6.
Before I address Amendments 4 and 5 I remind noble Lords of the rationale of the clause as set out in the recently published policy statement. The clause is intended as a backstop should the current and significant efforts of local government and voluntary agencies prove insufficient. Unfortunately, we have to accept that this is a possibility as adoption agencies have to work within a flawed system. The fundamental problems are the structure of provision, based around local boundaries, and the unhelpful incentives associated with this structure. This constrains the ability to recruit adoptive parents in sufficient numbers. As a result, the system fails to deliver enough adopted parents to meet national demand, as we have already discussed.
However, let me be quite clear: it is the system that is failing to meet national demand, not the individual local authorities and voluntary adoption agencies that make up the system. The distinction is important and can be demonstrated by statistics. Recently published Ofsted data showed a 34% increase in adopter approvals in 2012-13 compared to the previous year. This is a huge achievement on the part of individual agencies. Local authorities have delivered a 32% increase in adopters recruited and approved and voluntary adoption agencies a 53% rise, and they should be congratulated.
Impressive though these numbers are, the sad truth is that this is still not enough to meet the needs of the number of children waiting for a loving home. At the end of March 2013, there were 6,000 children approved by the courts for adoption, waiting to move in with a permanent family. This is 15% higher than the year before. Furthermore, we estimate that we need around 3,100 additional adopters to meet the existing demand of the children who were already waiting with a placement order.
So we face a real challenge to recruit more adoptive parents. To meet it, we need to transform the system and tackle the underlying structural problems. I feel that we are well placed to do so. After welcome and constructive discussions with colleagues from local government and the voluntary sector, we have an agreed proposition for a national adoption leadership board. This is a significant milestone and demonstrates a collective commitment to take nationally driven action to close the adopter recruitment gap. The board’s members will be senior figures from the core organisations within the adoption system in England. I therefore see this board as the principal forum to deliver significant improvements in the performance of the adoption system.
Under the board’s leadership, we expect to see significant changes in the shape and structure of the providers available, including increasing consolidation and scale among local authority adoption agencies; growth in the capacity of the voluntary sector and an increase in the proportion of adopter approvals for which it is responsible; and more partnership working between local authorities and voluntary adoption agencies, local authority employees, spinouts into mutuals and the entry of some new providers.
These sorts of things are already happening. For example, I was pleased to see from the recent Ofsted publication that, as my noble friend Lady Hamwee referred to, 12 local authorities now provide adoption services under joint arrangements. These are Bedford borough and Central Bedfordshire; the west London tri-borough; Leicestershire and Rutland; Shropshire and Telford; and, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hughes, referred to, Warrington, Wigan and St Helens.
I also welcome the partnership arrangements that exist between local authorities and voluntary adoption agencies—for example, those operating in Harrow,
Kent, Cambridgeshire and Oxfordshire. We just need to see these types of arrangements happening more quickly and more often.
Clause 3 therefore provides levers of last resort. It is the backstop to a number of things that Government are doing to support local authorities and voluntary adoption agencies. I have already mentioned the Government’s support for the new national adoption board. We have invested £150 million through the adoption reform grant to support local authorities in 2013-14. We are also investing £16 million to build the capacity of the voluntary sector.
We know that these investments are having an impact. We expect there to be a number of new voluntary adoption agencies in the near future and we know that many local authorities have made good use of the adoption reform grant. For example, they have recruited additional staff, provided staff training and development and funded a range of marketing activities to recruit more adopters. I was particularly interested in the work the Southwark area is doing, as I have already mentioned. It used some of its funding to develop an innovative recruitment campaign to target harder-to-reach prospective adopters using a reward scheme. Southwark is also working with Lambeth to fund an outreach worker to promote the recruitment of adopters from the BME community.
I will now explain the government amendment, which tries to address some of the concerns raised in Grand Committee. Amendment 6 delays the implementation of new subsection (3)(c) until March 2015 at the earliest. It therefore provides more time for current reforms to embed and for the new leadership board to have an impact. The Government also commit that the Secretary of State will report to Parliament before issuing any direction under new subsection (3)(c).
This report would set out an updated analysis of the state of the adopter recruitment market. It would cover both the local government and voluntary sectors and analyse their current structure and effectiveness. It would also include the latest estimate of the adopter recruitment gap. In essence, it would justify the requirement for a direction under new subsection (3)(c). Any such direction would provide sufficient time for new arrangements to be put in place. This is an important point as structural change cannot happen overnight.
Yes, if I accept Amendment 6A, I do not have to move Amendment 6, because it is covered, I believe. If that is not clear, we will have a further conversation, I am sure.
My Lords, I am and I am accepting Amendment 6A.
In the period prior to March 2015, the Secretary of State would retain the capacity to issue directions under new subsections (3)(a) and (3)(b), if absolutely necessary. As I set out in my policy statement, these directions would follow due process. For example, they would be preceded by a letter setting out the Secretary of State’s intention to issue a direction. This would explain the underlying reasons and provide the affected local authorities with an invitation to respond. Only then would the Secretary of State take a final decision to issue the direction. In considering the issuing of any direction, I expect the new adoption leadership board to play a key advisory role.
Amendment 5 would largely reduce Clause 3 to an intervention power to tackle individual local authorities. But this is not the purpose of Clause 3 which, as I have said, is intended to tackle whole-system failure. Nor would such an intervention power be necessary. As noble Lords are aware, the Secretary of State already has the power to intervene if the performance of individual local authorities requires it.
We have already seen a welcome increase in the number of adoptive parents recruited. This is a testament to the efforts of adoption agencies to rise to the challenge. Simply having Clause 3 in the Bill has undoubtedly helped to galvanise agencies, as referred to by my noble friend Lord Storey, but Amendment 5 would simply undermine this stimulus to further progress. I therefore urge the noble Baronesses not to move it.
Turning to Amendment 4, the Government do not agree that directions to “one or more descriptions” of local authorities under new subsection (3)(b) should also be subject to the affirmative procedure. New subsections (3)(b) and (3)(a) provide the Secretary of State with the flexibility to take swift, decisive action if required. For example, to answer the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, they could be used to direct a small number of local authorities who were resisting a successful regional initiative, driven by other local authorities, to collaborate and work more efficiently. A direction given in this way would be the result of a dialogue with the affected authorities. It would thus be an iterative process, not a unilateral declaration.
I can confirm to my noble friend Lady Hamwee that it is not the intention to use new subsection (3)(b) as a method of achieving the aim of new subsection (3)(c) without the affirmative procedures. My noble friend also asked whether the direction has to be about all the functions in subsection (2), or merely some of them. She is right; it can be about all or any of the three function in that paragraph.
I understand that the noble Baronesses, Lady Hughes and Lady Meacher, and the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, wished to make the case for the affirmative procedure and I have agreed that this should apply in relation to new subsection (3)(c). I am also surprised that Amendment 4 does not encompass the March 2015 milestone. This is an important staging post to ensure the reforms have maximum impact. I therefore ask the noble Baroness, Lady Hughes, to withdraw her amendment.
I thank all Members who participated in this debate. It is an important issue and it is right that it was aired again on Report. The noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, characteristically put her finger on one reason why this is important: the danger of allowing any Government, now or in the future, to interfere in a heavy-handed way with local authority functions without parliamentary scrutiny. That is the key issue.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Hamwee, Lady Eaton and Lady Walmsley, and the noble Lord, Lord Storey, all felt that there was no need for the affirmative resolution in relation to new subsection (3)(b). The Minister’s statement has just put on the record that the Government would not use new subsection (3)(b) as a way of progressively working through local authorities in this country, and thereby achieving new subsection (3)(c) through successive application of new subsection (3)(b). That was a very helpful statement to put on the record and it gives some reassurance. However, I say to the noble Lord, Lord Storey, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Hamwee, Lady Eaton and Lady Walmsley, that the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, pinpointed the danger of that. Although the Minister said that new subsection (3)(b) could be used for small groups of local authorities, equally, it could be used for large groups of them in exactly in the way that the noble Baroness identified: all metropolitan districts or all boroughs, and so on. It would take only two or three directions of that nature to encompass all the local authorities in the country.
However, the Minister’s statement putting it on the record that the Government will not do that is helpful. With that, I think we have consensus across the House; this was evident in Committee and in the meetings that have taken place since. That consensus is on the principle of parliamentary scrutiny—particularly when the Government are implementing significant change in public services, which they would be if they applied new subsection (3)(c)—and that implementing change on that scale, involving all local authorities at once, should have the affirmative resolution procedure. It is very good that the Government have at last conceded the strength of feeling in the House on that issue and agreed the affirmative procedure in relation to new subsection (3)(c). Having achieved that, and with the Minister’s statement in relation to new subsection (3)(b), I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment 4 withdrawn.
Amendments 4A to 4C
Moved by Baroness Hamwee
4A: Clause 3, page 2, line 33, after “requiring” insert “one or more named”
4B: Clause 3, page 2, line 34, after “England” insert “, or one or more descriptions of local authority in England,”
4C: Clause 3, page 2, line 36, at end insert—
“(1A) The Secretary of State may by order require all local authorities in England to make arrangements for all or any of their functions within subsection (2) to be carried out on their behalf by one or more other adoption agencies.”
Amendments 4A to 4C agreed.
Moved by Baroness Hamwee
4D: Clause 3, page 2, line 43, leave out from beginning to end of line 2 on page 3
Amendment 4D agreed.
Amendments 5 and 6 not moved.
Moved by Baroness Hamwee
6A: Clause 3, page 3, line 2, at end insert—
“(2) In section 140(3) of that Act (statutory instruments containing subordinate legislation that are subject to the affirmative procedure), before paragraph (a) insert—
“(za) under section 3A(1A),”
Amendment 6A agreed.
Moved by The Earl of Listowel
7: After Clause 6, insert the following new Clause—
“Looked after children: duty to provide information about support on returning home to care of parents or others with parental responsibility
(1) Except in circumstances prescribed by regulations, a local authority must provide the information specified in subsection (2) to—
(a) any person who has contacted the authority to request information about “return home support services” for a looked after child returning home to the care of P; and
(b) any P within the authority’s area, to whose care a looked after child has returned, who has contacted the authority to request any of the information specified in subsection (2).
(2) The information is—
(a) information about the return home support services available to people in the authority’s area;
(b) information about the authority’s duties under section 22(3A) of the Children Act 1989 (“return home support services”: personal budgets) and regulations made under it;
(c) any other information prescribed by regulations.”
My Lords, I shall speak also to Amendment 8. Before I do so, I join in thanking the Minister for the helpful meetings that he arranged between Grand Committee and Report and for the extremely encouraging meeting with the new chief social worker. As vice-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Looked after Children and Care Leavers, I agree with his analysis that the biggest difference to be made for these children and their families is in raising the status of child and family social work and recruiting and retaining the best workforce for them. Finally, I thank the Minister, the Minister for Children and Families and the Secretary of State for moving forward with the staying put amendment, which will make a huge difference to many young people leaving care. I am so grateful for that but I will not go further now because of the need to move forward.
Amendments 7 and 8 would ensure that when young people return from care to their biological families they have the support that they need to be successful in doing that. I will quote briefly from a letter published in the Telegraph yesterday, which had among the signatories Peter Wanless, chief executive of the NSPCC, Dr Maggie Atkinson, the Children’s Commissioner for England, and Dame Clare Tickell, the chief executive of Action for Children. The letter said:
“The Government has moved decisively to improve prospects for adopted children by offering an entitlement, in the form of a personal budget, to services for them and their parents. But most children who are taken into care are not adopted. They will return home where research shows that half of those who entered care as a result of abuse or neglect will suffer further harm unless changes are made. Too many young people end up in a revolving door of care that is damaging for them and has a significant cost for local authorities. The support offered to adopted children should also be made available to those who return home after a stay in care. Support should be driven by need and not by legal status”.
The purpose of my tabling this amendment again is to secure an assurance from the Minister that we can meet subsequently and discuss this issue and look at the welcome work that the Government are doing and some of the gaps that remain. I hope to establish a timeline for change. I will come to the problem in just a moment but I would be grateful for an opportunity to meet officials and, I hope, the Minister and any interested colleagues to look at how to take this forward and to monitor progress. It is moving in the right direction at the moment but it needs to move further and faster.
The problem, as laid out in that letter, is that the NSPCC conducted some research a year or so ago and was horrified to find that half of young people returning home from care were then returned to care fairly shortly afterwards. The needs of the families were not being addressed. They were still alcoholic or misusing drugs and those children were being returned home to unsafe places. Furthermore, what one finds in these circumstances is that children who are returned home, then taken back into care, then sent home again and taken back into care are damaged by that. In the worst cases, they lose all trust in adults and become people who are dependent on the state. They may be in prison. They are very damaged and it is hard to help them to recover from that damage.
I am extremely grateful for the actions that the Government have been taking following that NSPCC report. In their consultation which looks at permanency for children, they have looked at returning children from care and dealt particularly with the issue of accommodated children. There are new measures, including that there should be a plan established by each local authority for those children returning from care. I am grateful for the fact that they have set up a working group, which includes the NSPCC, to look at just this matter. There is one other step which the Government are taking and for which I am also grateful. I was pleased to meet officials and to hear from them that there will be opportunities to meet further with them and the NSPCC following this debate.
I really am grateful for the measures that the Government are taking but I am concerned that there are still some gaps. In particular, the consultation which has just been completed deals only with accommodated children. That is the majority of children who return from care but a substantial minority have either interim care orders or full care orders, and those are not currently covered by the measures proposed by the consultation. While local authorities have the power to ensure that young people returning from care to their biological parents have the equivalent to the personal budgets we are giving to adopted children—the equivalent of a guaranteed range of services to support those families—there is no obligation on them to do so. Given the many responsibilities that local authorities have and the shortage of resources, the concern is that many will not do that. Finally, there is no consistent assessment of young people and their families before they return home from care to ensure that they are returning to a safe place where they can be secure and have a good, settled life.
I hope that we can discuss those gaps further subsequent to this debate. I look forward to the Minister’s response. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am going to propose Amendment 9. Perhaps I may do that first—I am not intending to close down the debate.
Amendment 9 which stands in my name is on the subject of maintaining sibling contact. The amendment would require local authorities to give specific consideration to enabling children in care to remain in contact with their siblings. Many noble Lords here today will remember that we had a very good, if disturbing, discussion on that in Grand Committee.
First, we were confronted with some stark statistics. Some 63% of children in care whose siblings are also in the care system are separated from them. Surprisingly, those living in children’s homes are much more likely to be separated than those in foster care. What is more, children care very deeply about this separation; 85% said that it was important to keep siblings together and more than three-quarters said that councils could do more to help brothers and sisters keep in touch with each other. Secondly, we heard a number of moving individual stories of the distress caused to children who were separated from and unable to contact their siblings. For many, the relationship was more important than that with their parents and was a particular bond when they had been through a traumatic family break-up or protected each other in an abusive family. Often the elder children felt a particular responsibility for their younger siblings and were desperate when they could not check that they were okay; they had almost a quasi-parental concern for them. Although there will be occasions, of course, when children need to be separated for very good reasons, it seems that in the remaining majority of cases a lack of priority or perhaps just practical issues have been allowed to develop as an excuse for contact not happening on a regular basis. Our amendment would make that sibling contact a priority in social work practice and would give the requirement the additional weight of being in the Bill.
When we debated this in Committee, and in subsequent discussions, the Minister showed sympathy for the problem but resisted the need for primary legislation.
He drew our attention to the current requirement for children’s individual care plans to set out the arrangements for sibling contact. He has also drawn up updated guidance on sibling contact for children in care. Of course, we are very grateful for that additional work. However, the point is that the previous guidance had little effect on practice on the ground, as the statistics have shown, so it is hard to imagine that the updated guidance will be any more effective. That is why we believe that emphasising the importance of this issue in the Bill can send a stronger message to those who are currently routinely failing to nurture sibling contact.
The Minister also referred to the views of an expert group, which looked into this issue and concluded that more needed to be done to improve practice on the ground. Obviously, we agree that more can be done in terms of advice, training and good practice dissemination. I do not know when that group reported its findings, but, again, so far there appears to be little evidence of a major improvement in sibling contact as a result of this.
That is why we believe that our amendment could act as a catalyst for change and help to drive the change in social work practice on the ground that we all desire. We have to find the right balance between key principles being set out in primary legislation and the detail that can be spelt out in statutory guidance. This is becoming an ongoing theme of our debates on the Bill. There may be a contradiction in the position adopted by the Minister and the Government if we compare their views on this to the position adopted on the ethnicity issue that we debated only an hour or so ago. There the Government took the view that if it was in the Bill people would take it very seriously and therefore they needed to remove it from the Bill so that it would not be taken so seriously. On the other hand, we are saying that people are not taking it seriously because it is only in secondary legislation so we need to put it in the Bill. However, the Government are very resistant to that, even though they are sympathetic to our arguments. There is a dichotomy about how we deliver that change on the ground.
We believe that the right to sibling contact for children in care, unless there is a specific and justified reason where it is not appropriate, is sufficiently fundamental for it to be in the Bill. We therefore hope that noble Lords will support our amendment.
There are other amendments in this group—Amendment 7, which was very ably introduced by the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, and Amendment 10, will be introduced by the noble Baroness, Lady Young. Those amendments were debated in Committee and received considerable support. Both the noble Earl and the noble Baroness made very coherent cases and I am sure that we will have a good debate on those amendments again. I hope that noble Lords will continue to support them.
I hope it is convenient to follow the noble Baroness now on the sibling point so that these points are kept together. My name is on Amendment 9.
As I said in Grand Committee—there are people in the Chamber who may not have heard this so forgive me for saying it again—children came to talk to us in the Select Committee on Adoption Legislation. These children had been adopted or looked after, who were or had been in care. Perhaps the most important issue they raised with me and with another noble Lord on the Select Committee was their relationship with their brothers and sisters. They made absolutely clear the importance of those with whom they had already shared a family life. One girl, who was aged about 15 or 16, said, “I don’t expect to see the children born to my parents after I left home, but I really do need to stay in touch with those I knew”. Another boy, aged about 10 or 11, said, “I looked after my younger brother and sister. I am so worried about what is happening to them; nobody will tell me. I wake up each night and think: are they all right? Why can’t I find out what is happening and why can’t I see them?”. That was an adopted child who was extremely happy in his adoption placement but who remained extremely worried about the children who remained at home.
So this is a really important point, and as the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, said, if it is in primary legislation, it will have that added bit of importance. Social workers do not always recognise this, and neither do adopters. It is very important that the message is put forward: it is not that children should see their former natural parents, which may be totally inappropriate; but in certain cases there will be children who should see those they have had to leave behind. It is that group of children for whom the amendment has been tabled. It is a very important point, particularly where the child has been adopted. The new adoptive parents may well not appreciate the importance unless it is up front. They are not going to read social work practice—that is the last thing in the world they are going to read. They may not want any relationship. However, for both the social workers and the adoptive parents, this is an important factor in the welfare of the child about whom we are talking. It really matters.
My Lords, in speaking to Amendment 10, I, like other noble Lords this afternoon, place on record how grateful I am for the help of the Minister and his officials in trying to get to grips with this issue of access to records for care leavers, especially as it was not originally part of the Bill. I understand why we needed some considered negotiations around the subject. I found those very useful, as did my colleagues from the access to records campaign group, which comprises professionals from the Care Leavers’ Association, the British Association for Adoption and Fostering, the Association of Child Abuse Lawyers, the Child Care History Network, the Post Care Forum and Barnardo’s. It is also supported by the fostering and adoption charity, TACT.
Some of the key issues that this amendment seeks to address are the lack of consistency across the country’s local authorities in the way they deal with giving access to records to care leavers, and also, importantly, how they deal with the issue of redaction of those records. A number of care leavers gave us evidence of how they received notes from their past which were essentially incomprehensible because of the amount of redaction that had taken place. Again, that seems to depend on whereabouts you live in the country. That should obviously not be the case. In the amendment, we call for clear, effective statutory guidance and the opportunity for care leavers to access support once they have accessed their records.
That is another important point. I am not sure that all noble Lords are aware how difficult that experience can sometimes be for people. It does not matter what age you are. This is not just for young people who have recently left care. Many older people also have that experience. At the moment, no kind of support is necessarily offered to them. Of course, care records must be properly maintained and every effort made to trace records from decades ago as well as more recent ones. That ties in to my earlier point about the ages of people seeking their records. In fact, colleagues at the Care Leavers’ Association say that the average age of those seeking its help in looking for their records is around 35 and goes up to a 90 year-old—who found her records, triumphantly. Whatever age you are when you eventually get your records, if you are fortunate enough to do so, the experience can be difficult.
During meetings with officials, it emerged that both the Minister—the noble Lord, Lord Nash—and the Minister for Children and Families agreed that the current wording on access to records in the care planning statutory guidance could be strengthened. Colleagues from the access to records campaign and I have worked with officials on that particular subject. It is also my understanding that Ministers have agreed to work with us on a programme to ensure that front-line managers and staff are aware of the new guidance. Again, that was raised earlier this afternoon in relation to how statutory guidance is used and the extent to which people take it seriously. We need to ensure that they do—once we have, as I hope, developed some new guidance in this area.
That activity will include supporting a round table for local authorities and voluntary sector organisations, and sending messages via the department’s various communication routes to relevant bodies which can raise that issue with their local authorities and make sure it is firmly on the agenda. We also understand that officials have spoken to the National Care Advisory Service, which runs the National Leaving Care Benchmarking Forum for managers. It said that it would be happy to run a session where the managers talk about how to improve their local practice, based on the proposed revised guidance and best practice. Could the Minister confirm my understanding of that? Also, would he be prepared to ensure that the voice of older adult care leavers is heard during all consultation processes and that an assessment of the effectiveness of strengthened statutory guidelines is carried out?
My Lords, having listened to the comments on the other amendments in this group, I am very interested in what the Minister will say in reply. I certainly have considerable sympathy with what has been said. However, I added my name to the amendment of my noble friend Lord Listowel and it is on that amendment that I wish to press a little further.
The Government’s consultation on permanence goes some way to ensuring that voluntarily accommodated children receive the support they need, but, as was made clear from the reference to the letter in the Telegraph, an awful lot of important bodies in this area, as well as academics, support the need for further action. As others have said, the Government’s attempts to improve the adoption system should undoubtedly be praised. However, adoption is not the outcome for the majority of looked-after children. Instead, most children placed in care return home to parents or carers. In 2012, 10,000 children went home after a stay in care compared with just 3,440 who were adopted.
However, many children go home without a proper assessment of their and their parents’ support needs prior to leaving care or after they have returned home. For example, in cases where children were returned to households with a high recurrence of drug and alcohol misuse, only 5% of parents were provided with treatment to help them address their substance abuse. The lack of these types of support services often results in children going back home to face a significant risk of experiencing further abuse. In fact, research by the NSPCC shows that around half the children who came into care because of abuse or neglect suffered further abuse when they returned home. Recent DfE statistics show that a third of children who return home subsequently go in and out of care twice or more. Suffering from or being at risk of further abuse, and moving in and out of care, only compounds these children’s already traumatic childhoods and can cause significant long-term harm.
The NSPCC believes that a child should only return home from care when there has been a comprehensive assessment of that child’s needs and effective support is provided for children and their parents, in particular to tackle the underlying problems—as well as drugs and alcohol, there might be domestic violence, mental health conditions or generally poor parenting. Research shows that such an entitlement is unlikely to place an additional burden on local authorities—it could save them money, given the high financial cost of failed returns home. In one case highlighted in the recent DfE data pack, the total social care costs were £22,068 due to the child having frequent episodes in care. That was as opposed to an estimated cost of £13,124 if support to tackle substance abuse had been provided to the child’s parents.
The Bill provides an important opportunity to address this issue and ensure that local areas are required to provide such an assessment and the subsequent necessary support. I very much hope that, along with these other amendments, the Minister will give welcome attention to what best can be done under these circumstances.
My Lords, I have a lot of sympathy with these amendments, particularly Amendments 7 and 8 in the name of the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, and especially the need for greater support for children returning home from care. As other noble Lords have said, the new proposals that the Government recently put out are very welcome and are certainly a good step in the right direction. I commend them for making these proposals. However, as we have already heard, almost half of children who return home re-enter care, and a third have gone in and out of care twice or more. It is a vicious circle and the impact on the child can be devastating.
Since we are now on Report, I restate an interest as chair of CAFCASS. We have already heard that much of the problem is that the very problems of the parents that have resulted in the children going into care in the first place generally remain unresolved. Unless there is more help and support available to the family, particularly to the parents, to help them deal with those problems—be they to do with substance misuse, domestic violence, mental health or alcohol abuse—the chance of the child coming home successfully to the parent and having the sort of loving and stable household and help that they need is slim indeed. I look forward to the Minister’s comments on what more can be done to address this issue.
My Lords, I support my noble friend’s Amendment 9, which puts contact between siblings in the Bill. I apologise to the House that I was unable to take part in this Bill’s proceedings in Committee because I was engaged on the Care Bill. However, I was on the Select Committee on Adoption Legislation and I echo the points made by the chairman of that committee, the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss.
On the basis of my six years as a director of social services, I have a general point about why the Minister should concede on Amendment 9. While I was director, the Children Act 1989 was passed. That was a classic example of Parliament saying in a Bill that decisions about children should be taken on the basis of the best interests of the child. In the overwhelming majority of cases where siblings are separated, the best interests of the child are to maintain that contact. Sibling contact is often a private child’s world, which is not always well observed by adults, whether they are social workers or other adults involved in that child’s life. Maintaining that contact is overwhelmingly important to children. My noble friend has shown that the option of putting it in guidance and relying on best practice has had a good run for its money and it has not worked. We should return to some of the ideas in the Children Act 1989 and put in the Bill the obligation to help maintain contacts between siblings when they are separated. These contacts are in the best interests of the children and very important to them. It costs very little to put that in the Bill.
I support Amendments 9 and 10. When the noble and learned Baroness was talking, I remembered that when she was meeting children—she shared with the House some of their moving comments—I was in the next room meeting the carers, mostly social workers. When we talked about contact generally, not just with siblings, several of them said that the problem lay in adopters not wanting to know, preferring to see their children as part of the new family and wanting to leave the past behind. Therefore I take very seriously the point that she and other noble Lords have made about the importance of having this in the legislation. Guidance has not been enough and I do not see that it will be enough.
In support of Amendment 10, in Committee the noble Baroness, Lady Young, gave such an important explanation of the need to know one’s identity that, without wanting to embarrass her, I feel it should be framed. It said a lot about the specific issue about which I was concerned, about descendants of adopted people and, as she has just mentioned, the need of older adults to know about their heritage and background. What she has said seems in line with adoption practice and with Amendment 1, which we have agreed. It is an important way to move practice forward though statute.
My Lords, I thank noble Lords for putting down these amendments and for their commitment in this area. We focus here on three areas that greatly impact on the lives of children in care and care leavers. I thank the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, for his thanks to my noble and honourable colleagues. Noble Lords will note that my honourable friend, the Minister for Children and Families, is at the Bar of the House. We appreciate his presence.
I start with the important issue of children who return home from care, addressed by the amendment of the noble Earl. I thank him for his acknowledgement that support for those returning home is a key priority for the Government. We agree that much greater attention is required to ensure that both the statutory framework and local practice are improved significantly. We are working closely with an expert group, including organisations such as the NSPCC, which are making an invaluable contribution to this work. I hope noble Lords will be reassured that we are strengthening the statutory framework for voluntarily accommodated children since we believe this is particularly weak. We are exploring whether the current statutory framework needs to be strengthened for other children who return home, including those who were previously on a care order and 16 and 17 year-old care leavers. We are also working to improve practice for all children who return home, whatever their legal status while they are in care or when they return home.
The noble Earl raised the issue of children on interim care orders. We are aware that the Alliance for Children in Care and Care Leavers has raised concerns about children who return home following an interim care order, and whether the new proposals to strengthen the statutory framework will apply to this group. We shall continue to work with the expert group and others to explore how to ensure that we improve the statutory framework where necessary for all children regardless of legal status. I hope he finds that reassuring.
The noble Earl and other noble Lords asked about personal budgets. The current statutory framework provides sufficient flexibility for local authorities to provide personal budgets if they think this is the best way to meet a family’s needs. We do not think that it would be appropriate to assume that this will be necessary in all circumstances. Therefore, we believe that decisions about financial support and how this is provided should be taken on a case-by-case basis. I hope that he is reassured that it is possible to give that kind of support.
I can assure the noble Earl that we shall continue to work with the NSPCC and other voluntary sector organisations through our expert working group as we develop and implement our programme of work. We should be delighted to meet him to discuss matters further. We know there is a long way to go, but we are committed to ensuring that all children receive the support they need to return home to their families where this is the right way to secure permanence for them. I hope that in due course the noble Earl will be content to withdraw his amendment.
Amendment 9 on sibling contact was introduced by the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, and is supported by other noble Lords. We are in complete agreement that contact between siblings is of great importance to children in care. I hear what my noble friend Lady Hamwee and others have said on this. We take this very seriously. We believe that the concerns that noble Lords have raised are an issue of practice and are best tackled through strengthening statutory guidance, improving local authority practice and monitoring impact through Ofsted reports. I noted the comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hughes, when we were discussing this in the round table about the difficulty that existed in taking this forward before.
We are therefore making our expectations of local authorities clearer in statutory guidance. Noble Lords will be well aware that statutory guidance is not merely advice; local authorities must comply with statutory guidance unless there are exceptional reasons which justify a departure. The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, asked how we will ensure that this makes a difference, which is the crux, and which was highlighted by her noble friend in earlier discussions. We will need to monitor the impact of our revised guidance and our planned programme of work in the short and long term. The noble Baroness is right about that. It must make a difference. The revised Ofsted inspection framework includes specific wording on sibling contact and will be an area that it will look at in its inspections of children’s services. We will use its reports to highlight areas of good practice and address areas of poor practice where the need arises.
Influenced by our discussions in Committee, we have produced a revised draft of our statutory guidance which emphasises the key points raised by noble Lords. We very much appreciate the experience that they fed in in Committee. These changes include a specific requirement for the care plan to set out arrangements for the promotion and maintenance of contact with siblings and for consideration to be given to whether staying-put arrangements may be beneficial to maintaining sibling contact when an older child leaves care. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, for her thanks to us for incorporating these points.
We appreciate the comments from our discussion at the round table last week. They were very helpful. We appreciate that there is further work to do. We are very keen to involve noble Lords who are interested in taking this work forward in coming weeks to ensure that the guidance is as clear and robust as it can be. Clearly the noble Baroness, Lady Hughes, with her formidable experience as a former Children’s Minister, which she manifested at our discussions the other day, would be very important to that.
We want to make sure that the changes we make to the statutory guidance as a whole encompass all the necessary changes and that we have had sufficient time to consult sector partners, consider our wording properly and check its consistency with our other guidance. Taking this into account, we will progress with publishing this guidance as soon as possible in the new year.
When the guidance is published, we will work through independent reviewing officers and others to improve local practice. The revised Ofsted inspection framework includes specific wording on sibling contact, so we will monitor Ofsted reports on the impact that we are having.
I hope that noble Lords will recognise that we share their very real concerns and will work with us to take forward practice most effectively and that therefore the noble Earl will be willing to withdraw his amendment in due course.
Amendment 10 was tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Young. It is on access to records for care leavers. Having considered the issue further following the debate in Committee, we recognise that we need to improve the statutory guidance in this area. We thank the noble Baroness for her involvement in this. She gave her time very generously in facilitating meetings with officials and voluntary organisations. They have been very helpful for the department as we have drafted our new guidance. We would like to thank the voluntary organisations—the Care Leavers’ Association, BAAF and Barnardo’s—which took part in the meetings, for sharing their knowledge and expertise in this area. We especially thank the noble Baroness, Lady Young, for making sure that all these groups were brought together so that we could hear the case that they needed to make.
We would like to continue to work with them and others on finalising the revised guidance. The draft guidance is on our website, and we would welcome comments from noble Lords and others over the coming weeks. The revised guidance will emphasise the importance of good record keeping and the values and principles that should apply when supporting people in accessing their records. I assure the noble Baroness, Lady Young, and my noble friend Lady Hamwee that this will apply to supporting care leavers of all ages. They made that point very cogently.
I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Young, is keen to ensure that the revised guidance, when finalised, is properly implemented, and we will make sure that those working in the sector are aware of it. As well as placing the guidance on our website, we will work closely with the National Care Advisory Service, which facilitates the National Leaving Care Benchmarking Forum of care leaver managers. I assure the noble Baroness, Lady Young, that we will also work with care leaver managers, independent reviewing officers and children in care councils to raise the priority given by local authorities to this issue.
In addition, in order to help embed the guidance in practice, we will participate in a round table with local authorities and the sector to discuss good practice on this subject, as the noble Baroness, Lady Young, suggested. We will also monitor what Ofsted inspection reports say about local practice on this important issue. I again express our appreciation to the noble Baroness, Lady Young. We hope she will continue to work with us and that she will not move her amendment in due course.
I hope that I have reassured noble Lords of our commitment to improving support for children in care and care leavers and that they will welcome our commitments to improve statutory guidance on sibling contact and care leavers’ access to records. I urge the noble Earl to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for her careful reply. It was encouraging to hear what she said about interim care orders and about treating all children similarly, notwithstanding their legal status. I am grateful for the opportunity to meet her and officials to discuss this matter.
I have great faith in the Department for Education as it deals with these matters. I have worked in this House for 15 years, and to my mind the current ministerial team and the way it works is remarkably effective, so I have faith that things will soon begin to improve for these children. Of course, we will need to watch very carefully that this happens. I am most grateful to my noble friend Lady Howe, the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, and other noble Lords for their support of this amendment. The noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, is the chair of the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, and she would perhaps save considerably on its expenditure if we could get this right and children were not moving in and out of care, as happens now. There is a real cost argument as well as a child welfare argument here.
I remind noble Lords of the work of Delma Hughes, a care leaver who was separated from her five siblings, who has spent her life providing therapeutic work to vulnerable young people. She has set up a charity, Siblings Together, which enables young people who are separated in care to spend holidays together. I was very pleased to see in the draft statutory guidance that attention was drawn to the need to allow young people to have the benefit of such facilities. I am most grateful to the Minister for her reply and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 7 withdrawn.
Amendment 8 not moved.
Clause 7: Contact: children in care of local authorities
Amendment 9 not moved.
Amendment 10 not moved.
Clause 9: Promotion of educational achievement of children looked after by local authorities
Moved by Lord Nash
11: Clause 9, transpose Clause 9 to after Clause 80
My Lords, the small government amendment I have tabled will move Clause 9 from Part 1 of the Bill to the new Part 5, which is about the welfare of children. This will mean that the provision will be in the same part as other clauses that relate to looked-after children.
Before the noble and learned Baroness speaks to her amendment, it might assist the House if I confirm the Government’s position on enabling young people to remain with their former foster carers, commonly referred to as “staying put” arrangements. Last week, we announced our intention to propose an amendment to the Bill at Third Reading to place a new duty on local authorities to support every care leaver who wants to stay with their former foster parents until their 21st birthday.
I am fully conscious that many noble Lords have dedicated their life to public service, whereas I am a relative newcomer to this. Indeed, up until 10 years ago I spent my life in business focused, frankly, on money. However, about 10 years ago some philanthropic juices started to flow—better late than never you might think—which was initially sparked by two events which happened, as so often serendipitously occurs, in close proximity to each other that made a profound impact on me. First, I visited an organisation which was involved in looking after children in care who were particularly challenged and had fallen out of many other placements or, as the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, described it, had experienced a revolving door of care. This organisation provided intensive care for these children. I remember when visiting them being struck by how intensive this support was.
Shortly thereafter I visited the charity Amber, which looks after young people, many of whom have been in care and many of whom some years after leaving care have become homeless or been in prison. Amber takes these young people for an intensive residential course to rehabilitate them into society, teach them how to apply for a job, be interviewed, how to dress and show manners et cetera. The charity has a very high success rate of getting them into jobs permanently. When visiting this charity and talking to the young people, I was struck by the contrast between the often very good care that they spoke about receiving—not always but often it was very good care—and how, when they became adults, society seemed to drop them like a hot brick. Following this, I spent some considerable time understanding the plight of children leaving care, and I am delighted to say that we have moved a long way since then, thanks to the very good efforts of the previous Government and this Government.
Therefore, when the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, first started to talk about staying-put arrangements he was, as far as I was concerned, pushing against if not an open door at least one that was off the latch on well-oiled hinges. I discussed the matter with my honourable friend the Minister for Children and Families who—as the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, said, I am delighted to see is in the House—particularly following the latest disappointing figures from the staying-put pilots, had absolutely no hesitation in feeling that this was something we should do. We then spoke to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education, who agreed to it in a heartbeat. Therefore I am delighted to bring forward the amendment today.
I know that many from across both Houses share our commitment to doing better for these most vulnerable young people, but I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute particularly to the noble Earl, Lord
Listowel, for his commitment to increasing and improving the support available to care leavers. The way he presented the case for this new duty during our debates and in our meetings shows that he is a powerful advocate for this group of vulnerable young people. Indeed, I would like to thank the many noble Lords who spoke on this issue in Grand Committee.
Over recent years, I think we have all come to realise that young people often are not ready to leave home at 18. We rarely expect our own children to do so, so why on earth should we treat those in care differently? This issue has moved up the agenda, from the work started by the previous Government, including by the noble Baroness, Lady Hughes, to the significant step forward that we will make in the Bill. I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Hughes, for initiating the pilots, which have so informed our thinking on this matter.
My honourable friend the Minister for Children and Families has made improving support for looked-after children and care leavers one of his main priorities since joining Parliament—initially as chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Looked-After Children and Care Leavers and now as a Minister. From last autumn, he has led a drive to promote staying put and to encourage local authorities to make this more widely available. As he said in the other place, we wanted to wait for this year’s figures to see what progress had been made. At Grand Committee, those figures had just been released and the increase was minimal. I explained our disappointment that they had not increased as much or as quickly as we hoped.
I would like to thank the sector, particularly the Fostering Network, for its work with officials on the evidence base which has so informed our decision. The new duty will come into force from April 2014. We will be giving local authorities £40 million over the next three years to put the support arrangements in place.
When we made the announcement on introducing this new duty, a number of voluntary organisations immediately supported the move. I will quote two of those. Janet Rich of the Care Leavers Foundation said:
“Step by step this Government has demonstrated that it truly understands the difficulties which face care leavers as they set out on the journey towards adulthood. Today’s announcement is another positive step on the journey towards State-as-parent acknowledging the duty they owe to this uniquely vulnerable group of young adults”.
Natasha Finlayson of the Who Cares? Trust said:
“This is absolutely fantastic news for thousands of young people in foster care, giving them vital security and support at a crucial time in their lives. It represents the most significant reform to the support children in care are given in a generation”.
I hope that noble Lords will welcome the significant change that we are proposing for care leavers. This will allow them to leave stable and secure homes when they are ready and able to make the transition to independence. I beg to move the government amendment, which moves Clause 9 to Part 5 of the Bill.
My Lords, I ask for guidance as to whether we can now speak on Amendment 12, which the business paper incorrectly describes as “g12”—a government amendment. I think it is confusing people.
My Lords, I was completely confused. There was a moment when I thought I was getting out of control because I know this is not so far a government amendment.
I start by expressing my own gratitude to the Government for the way they have approached care leaders, from the Secretary of State downwards to the Ministers standing over there and sitting here. We on our side are enormously grateful for the fact that the plight of care leavers has been recognised and, I cannot resist adding, the particular plight of the trafficked children who at the age of 18 were possibly going to be in a very parlous state.
I do not know if I am in the loop, and of course as a Cross-Bencher I do not hear what happens in the usual channels, but I get the impression—I hope I am right—that the Minister proposes to bring forward an amendment at Third Reading that would bear some resemblance to the current Amendment 12. If that is so, I am absolutely delighted. I very much look forward to seeing what that amendment will be, what it contains, and whether it contains what the noble Baronesses and I, who put our names to this amendment, would hope to find there. However, for the moment, if that is what the Minister is going to do, it would be a total waste of your Lordships’ time for me to say anything more about Amendment 12.
My Lords, before the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, rises, I will say one or two words and not delay the House. The Government have recognised how dear this issue is to the hearts of so many noble Lords, including to myself. I am very pleased that they will bring forward an amendment at Third Reading. I wanted in particular to congratulate the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, and the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, who have both led the charge on this.
As the Minister said, the pilots were initiated by the previous Labour Government, and we would certainly have extended the provision across the country had we been able to and had the general election not intervened. I will not rehearse the benefits that the pilots have identified, but they are significant. However, despite those benefits, as the Minister said, figures show that depending on local authorities voluntarily to move in this direction and enable young people to stay put is not working.
I reiterate what the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, said. While the Minister has today given us some reassurance about the terms of the amendment that they will bring forward, we need to see it as soon as possible. The amendment that has been tabled envisages continuation of accommodation for young people up to the age of 21 unless there are very specific practical reasons why that is not practicable. In other words, the amendment that has been tabled would move the centre of gravity on this issue and make it much more the norm that a young person in care would stay with foster parents rather than not. That is what we would like to see in the government amendments. Can the Minister give us an assurance that the amendment will be published in good time so that we can consider it?
My Lords, I am most grateful to the Minister for informing us of the Government’s proposal to bring forward their own amendment at Third Reading to introduce the staying-put amendment. I was very grateful to him for his preparedness to listen. Our first meeting had to be postponed because of family illness, but he was very prepared for us to meet again to discuss this, he listened carefully to concerns and we met on subsequent occasions. I was most encouraged by his attention and his responsiveness to my concerns and to those raised by other noble Lords.
I was also very moved in Grand Committee by the strong support from all around the House, from so many noble Lords who are parents and grandparents, who recognised that they look after their own children until the age of 25 or 30. The average age of a child who leaves home is 24 or more. However, many young people who leave care move out at age 16, 17 or 18. I am so grateful to all your Lordships that this change has come about.
In the evaluation that was done on this following the pilots in the 10 local authorities that the noble Baroness set up under the previous Government, 24% of young people stayed put. Those who stayed put with their foster carers towards the age of 21 were twice as likely to be in education and more likely to be at university. Those who did not benefit from staying put, who did not stay with their foster carers, were more likely to have multiple changes in habitation immediately after leaving care and to have far poorer outcomes. As Natasha Finlayson, chief executive of the Who Cares? Trust, said, this is a huge change in the lives of many young people leaving care—one of the biggest changes we have seen in many years. It is very much to be welcomed.
I want to raise one issue at some point with the Minister, which Natasha Finlayson raised in her comments, on dealing with children in children’s homes. They would not be touched by the legislation as it stands, and I understand that it would be a considerable extra cost to allow young people to stay in their children’s homes past age 18. However, it has been suggested that there might be a method of connecting young people in residential care with foster carers towards the end of or early on in their stay in residential care so that, if they chose, they could move on to a fostering arrangement as they moved towards the ages of 18, 19 and 20. I hope that the Government might look at that. Perhaps that is something for guidance rather than statute, and therefore perhaps not for the amendment the Government will bring forward at Third Reading. However, I hope that they will consider it.
I am particularly grateful to the Secretary of State who, at a time of serious austerity, was prepared to come forward with £40 million to enable this to happen. I very much wanted that to be achieved, but felt some concern for the directors of children’s services, who would have to make some very difficult choices in the short term to make this possible. As regards this matter I am therefore extremely grateful for the actions of the Minister, to the Minister for Children and Families, and to the Secretary of State.
My Lords, I can confirm that we will lay an amendment at Third Reading and that we will produce it in good time before that. We did not lay it today as we wanted to get the wording right. We want not only to ensure that the wording is legally correct but also that there is a consensus around it, both in Parliament and in local government and the sector. We will take account of all the comments made by noble Lords as we develop the amendment and start to work on statutory guidance. We will be consulting with interested Peers, local government and key voluntary sector organisations over the next few weeks on the wording of the proposed amendment. Officials will be happy to arrange a meeting with noble Lords to discuss the detail of the amendment.
The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, commented on care leavers who leave residential care. In general, as noble Lords will know, children’s homes do not seek to provide a permanent “family-type” placement, and few placements in homes last very long. However, there is nothing to stop local authorities from providing staying-put arrangements. However, our proposed duty will only apply to care leavers who leave foster care placements. As the noble Earl said, it is a great deal more difficult and expensive to provide staying-put arrangements in children’s homes. You would have vulnerable adults in homes with much younger vulnerable children. However, we are supporting Catch22 with a grant of £200,000 over two years to help improve support and outcomes for young people who leave residential care. The project is working with six providers in the north-west of England and learning will be disseminated nationally. I will be very happy to discuss that project with the noble Earl in more detail.
I hope that our decision to table an amendment on staying put at Third Reading will reassure noble Lords that we are committed to introducing legislation in the Bill on this issue. I therefore urge the noble Baronesses to withdraw their amendment and I beg to move the minor government amendment that would transpose Clause 9.
Amendment 11 agreed.
Amendment 12 not moved.
Moved by Lord McColl of Dulwich
13: After Clause 9, insert the following new Clause—
“Child trafficking guardians for children who may have been victims of human trafficking
After section 26A of the Children Act 1989 insert—
“26B Child trafficking guardians for children who may have been victims of human trafficking
(1) A child trafficking guardian shall be appointed to represent the best interests of each child who might be a victim of trafficking in human beings if the person who has parental responsibility for the child fulfils any of the conditions set out in subsection (3).
(2) The child trafficking guardian shall have the following responsibilities to—
(a) advocate that all decisions relating to the child are made in the child’s best interest and, where reasonably practicable and consistent with the child’s welfare after ascertaining the child’s wishes and feelings in relation to those decisions;
(b) advocate for the child to receive appropriate care, safe accommodation, medical treatment, including psychological assistance, education, translation and interpretation services;
(c) assist the child to access legal and other representation where necessary, including, where appropriate, to appoint and instruct the solicitor representing the child on all matters relevant to the interests of the child;
(d) consult, advise and inform the child victim of the child’s legal rights;
(e) keep the child informed of all relevant immigration, criminal or compensation proceedings;
(f) contribute to identification of a plan to safeguard and promote the long-term welfare of the child based on an individual assessment of that child’s best interests;
(g) provide a link between the child and various organisations who may provide services to the child;
(h) assist in establishing contact with the child’s family, where the child so wishes and it is in the child’s best interests;
(i) where appropriate liaise with an immigration officer handling the child’s case in conjunction with the child’s legal representative;
(j) accompany the child to all police interviews; and
(k) accompany the child whenever the child moves to new accommodation.
(3) Subsection (1) shall apply if the person who has parental responsibility for the child—
(a) is suspected of taking part in the trafficking of human beings;
(b) has another conflict of interest with the child;
(c) is not in contact with the child;
(d) is in a country outside the United Kingdom; or
(e) is a local authority.
(4) In subsection (1), a child trafficking guardian may be—
(a) an employee of a statutory body;
(b) an employee of a recognised charitable organisation; or
(c) a volunteer for a recognised charitable organisation.
(5) A person discharging duties as a child trafficking guardian shall not discharge any other statutory duties in relation to a child for whom they are providing assistance under this section.
(6) Where a child trafficking guardian is appointed under subsection (1), the authority of the child trafficking guardian in relation to the child shall be recognised by any relevant body.
(7) In subsection (6), a “relevant body” means a person or organisation—
(a) which provides services to the child;
(b) to which a child makes an application for services; or
(c) to which the child needs access in relation to being a victim.
(8) The appropriate national authority—
(a) shall by order set out the arrangements for the appointment of a child trafficking guardian as soon as possible after a child is identified as a potential victim of trafficking in human beings;
(b) shall by order set out requirements for the training courses to be completed before a person may discharge duties as a child trafficking guardian;
(c) shall by order set out the arrangements for the supervision of persons discharging duties as a child trafficking guardian;
(d) shall by order set out the arrangements for the provision of support services for persons discharging duties as a child trafficking guardian; and
(e) shall by order designate organisations as a “recognised charitable organisation” for the purpose of this section.
(9) A person’s appointment as a child trafficking guardian for a particular child under this section shall come to an end if—
(a) the child reaches the age of 18; or
(b) a durable solution for the child has been found based on an individual assessment of the best interests of the child.
(10) In this section, a child is considered to be a “potential victim of trafficking in human beings” when a referral has been made to a competent authority for a determination under the identification process required by Article 10 of the Trafficking Convention (Identification of Victims) and there has not been a conclusive determination that the individual is not such a victim.
(11) For the purposes of subsection (10), there is a conclusive determination that an individual is not a victim of trafficking in human beings when, on completion of the identification process required by Article 10 of the Trafficking Convention, a competent authority concludes that the individual is or is not such a victim.
(12) In this section—
“parental responsibility” has the same meaning as section 3 of this Act;
“competent authority” means a person who is a competent authority of the United Kingdom for the purposes of the Trafficking Convention;
“trafficking in human beings” has the same meaning as in the Trafficking Convention.””
My Lords, I will begin with the story of a boy from Vietnam whose parents needed to borrow money for essential medical treatment. They were later forced to hand over their son to the gang that had loaned them the money. He was brought to the UK and forced to cultivate cannabis to work off the debt to the criminal gang that had brought him here. I will also tell the story of the girl from Nigeria who was told that she was being brought to the UK to go to school and receive an education. Instead, she was forced to do work around the house where she was held captive. Her passport was taken from her, she was not allowed to leave the house, and she was even made to eat separately from the rest of the household. Not only was she used as a domestic slave and violently beaten, but she was sexually abused by the man of the house and by his friend, became pregnant and was forced to have an abortion.
These are just two of very many stories. Over 500 children and young people believed to be victims of human trafficking were identified in the UK Human Trafficking Centre’s A Strategic Assessment on the Nature and Scale of Human Trafficking in 2012. It is with these children in mind that I move Amendment 13 today.
The research commissioned by the Home Office following that debate was undertaken by the Children’s Society and the Refugee Council and the resulting report, Still at Risk, was published on
I will first restate the arguments for child trafficking guardians, as I set out in February 2012, and then consider the findings of Still at Risk. Before I do so, I want to be really clear about the rationale for the child trafficking guardian as set out in Amendment 13. Sometimes we can get into a bit of a muddle when considering the appointment of guardians, thinking that they conduct a role that an existing body or agency should conduct. If the guardian proposal is seen in this way, arguments in favour of it are inevitably seen as a criticism of existing agencies. This, however, is to misunderstand fundamentally the role of child trafficking guardians, which is different from that of any existing actor or agency.
The child trafficking guardian model is based on the UNICEF guidelines and international best practice because the problems that child victims of trafficking experience have remarkable similarities from country to country. Rescued victims are children in a foreign country who have to engage with multiple state agencies such as the courts, the police, local government, education and so on. In each agency they have to deal with a different set of people. They have to retell their painful story again and again. This is disorientating and distressing for the children and in this context of being passed from pillar to post children become alienated and particularly vulnerable to retrafficking.
This is not a distinctly British problem. It is a problem of being a trafficked child in a foreign country and having to engage with different state agencies. The child trafficking guardian solution provides an entirely new role that no existing agency provides. It does two things. First, the child trafficking guardian, while regulated by law, is independent from those state agencies that make decisions about the child’s immigration status or which finance a child’s care. Trafficked children are invariably afraid and tend to distrust authority figures representing the state. A child trafficking guardian can speak to and for the child without any other conflicting interest. Secondly, the child trafficking guardian is not a new level of bureaucracy with which a rescued trafficked child must engage to be processed by the state in addition to the police, courts, local government and so on. Rather, their role is to be a constant in an ever changing world and to accompany the rescued trafficked child as they relate to all the different state agencies. To enable the child trafficking guardian to do this, they have legal recognition so that all the agencies are obliged to recognise them, allowing them to accompany the child. They also have the right to speak on behalf of the child if the child requests it so that the child does not have to repeat their painful stories again and again if they do not want to.
Having established the rationale for child trafficking guardians, I now turn to the problem I highlighted in February 2012, which child trafficking guardians are designed to address, and the findings of the resultant research. I argued that we badly needed to make provision for child trafficking guardians because of the extraordinarily large number of rescued trafficked children who were being lost from local authority care—301 out of 942 trafficked children looked after between 2005 and 2010. I pointed out that this national disgrace was hardly surprising given that our child trafficking provisions did not and do not comply with the international best practice set out by UNICEF. I also examined each provision in the Children Act that the Government have argued has the effect of providing a child trafficking guardian function, explaining why it does not provide this function and I will briefly recap, explaining why this is still very much the case.
First, independent advocates appointed under Section 26 of the Children Act act only on the child’s behalf in relation to the care that a child receives from a local authority. Quite apart from the obvious and immediate problem that Section 26 advocates do not engage with a child’s interaction with any other state agencies, a child is not appointed an advocate from the moment they are identified as possibly being a trafficked child, which is key requirement of the EU anti-trafficking directive. The advocate is appointed only if the child wishes to avail themselves of this opportunity. Moreover, there is currently no guarantee that the advocate provided for a trafficked child who requests one would have any knowledge or understanding of human trafficking, even with the proposed new statutory guidance. Secondly, independent visitors can be offered if a local authority considers a child would benefit from such support but this is simply a befriending role. Thirdly, independent reviewing officers do not accompany or support the child in their interactions with all state agencies. They meet them only to talk about their care plan.
When I made the same points in Grand Committee the Minister referred to each of these roles without addressing my arguments that none of them amounts to the provision of a child trafficking guardian. However, she did refer to one additional role, that of the child social worker. I have already explained that the child trafficking guardian is a unique, separate and complementary role to that of other professionals caring for a trafficked child. It is not appropriate to expect social workers to fulfil the role of a child trafficking guardian, physically accompanying rescued children in all their interactions with the state. A child trafficking guardian alongside a trafficked child will enable social workers to provide the best support for all the children in their care.
Having set out these arguments, I agreed to withdraw the amendment in response to the promise of research. That research, published in September, makes for deeply distressing reading. The researchers found a great variation in the quality of the care provided to trafficked children. There are examples of best practice by local authorities and caring, supportive social workers but many other children had multiple social workers or social workers who were unfamiliar with human trafficking and the risks of retrafficking, resulting in children being placed in unsuitable accommodation.
Of very specific and direct relevance to my amendment of
“the immediate provision of intensive, one-to-one support for these children by an adult who the child can form a trusting relationship with and who could help them to make sense of the different processes and professionals that they encounter, would reduce the risk of the child going missing”.
There can be no pleasure in being proved right when, because of the time taken to produce the report, we have lost nearly two years—two years when rescued trafficked children could have been assisted by the provision of a child trafficking guardian, but have not been. It is for this reason that I and my co-signatories have seized the first opportunity since the publication of the report to retable the version of our amendment which I commend to the House.
Having already defined the role of child trafficking guardian, I will pick up on just two features of Amendment 13. First, the training, skills and expertise of a child trafficking guardian are extremely important. The strength of the system proposed by this amendment is in the specialist care and support that these guardians would provide. Proposed new subsection (8) of the amendment would require that guardians meet the training requirements set out by the Secretary of State and that appropriate structures for supervision of the child trafficking guardians are put in place. Secondly, in the current economic climate, the Government must rightly take into account the need to spend public money wisely and most effectively. Amendment 13 seeks to give the Government flexibility both now and in the future for how these guardianship services are provided by enabling this to be done through public sector employees or the employees or volunteers of recognisable charitable organisations as designated by the Secretary of State. Creating a new public sector agency to provide these services could be expensive, but equipping and empowering charities and volunteers to fulfil this role could be very cost effective. Some may have concerns about the role of volunteers but I have already emphasised the importance of training and supervision enshrined in the amendment. This country has a long-standing system of volunteer magistrates and well trained volunteer child trafficking guardians could provide similarly excellent support to children who have been trafficked.
While I was, of course, grateful for the Minister’s response to this amendment in Committee, I was none the less extremely disappointed. The reasons she gave for not supporting it were exactly the same as those advanced by the Minister responding in February 2012 without in any way responding to my critique of that reasoning. It was almost as if the Still at Risk report had not been commissioned.
I recognise that the Government are taking steps to reform social work and to improve statutory guidance for local authorities caring for trafficked children following the Still at Risk report. However, I return to the fact that this same research, which was commissioned by the Government in response to our original proposal for child trafficking guardians, has demonstrated not only the need for the various changes the Government are proposing for the guidance but also the need for a system of child trafficking guardians. For the sake of children such as those whose stories I shared earlier, we must take on board all the recommendations of the Still at Risk report.
In conclusion, I note that in the 18 months since we first considered this issue, the Joint Committee on Human Rights, the Group of Experts on the Council of Europe convention against human trafficking and the US State Department Trafficking in Persons Report have all recommended we introduce a system of child trafficking guardians. We must not miss this opportunity. I beg to move.
My Lords, my name is also on this amendment. This is a goal which the noble Lord, Lord McColl of Dulwich, and I have pursued for not far short of two years. If I may put it rather bluntly, we were fobbed off last time. The fobbing off produced the report to which the noble Lord referred, which only underlines the importance of bringing this amendment back in a slightly different form, as he said. In speaking to it, I declare an interest as the co-chairman of the human trafficking parliamentary group and a trustee of the Human Trafficking Foundation. I am also very much involved with Frank Field MP and John Randall MP in an inquiry into modern slavery with a view to advising government on the proposed modern slavery Bill. However, this amendment is appropriately tabled to the Children and Families Bill as it deals with children. We are talking about children and young people under the age of 18.
The Government have produced excellent guidance on unaccompanied trafficked children and other vulnerable children and, as far as it goes, I have nothing but praise for it. However, it does not begin to meet the amendment that the noble Lord and I are putting forward. The excellent guidance presupposes that social workers and independent reviewing officers will be able to give a trafficked child what is needed to help that child from the moment of identification of the child having been a slave until the moment that that young person’s future is determined. How on earth is a social worker with a child accommodated under Section 20 of the Children Act—not even with parental responsibility—to do more than treat him or her as a looked-after child among many other looked-after children?
Trafficked children go missing and are retrafficked. Some local authorities do not even know that a missing trafficked child has been identified as having been trafficked. Therefore, they do not alert the police to the fact that this is a particularly vulnerable child who might be picked up if immediate action is taken to try to find that child. All too often these children are treated like any other missing children, many of whom run in and out of care and are technically missing but may return after 24 hours. That is a totally different group of children.
The statutory guidance does not provide what is needed, which is continuity, regularity, responsibility and a trusting relationship from the moment the child is identified to the moment his or her journey to whatever solution is arrived at is met. We have to bear in mind that this will generally be a foreign child, as the noble Lord, Lord McColl of Dulwich, said—I do not apologise for saying it again—because English children who are slaves are dealt with differently. The foreign child will probably speak no English and will have been brought into this country and enslaved in a wide variety of ways such as labour exploitation, prostitution or domestic servitude. Whichever method is used, the child is identified and is then known to be a victim. The child will not necessarily speak English and will not have papers. It will be difficult to work out exactly how old the child is and whether he or she is 15 or 18. Different arrangements apply according to the child’s age. The child will almost certainly be traumatised and, as the noble Lord, Lord McColl, said, frightened. He or she will have been told that they must not talk to the police, social services or to anybody else because they will put the child back on a plane or a boat and send them back to the place where people—very often the parents, as the noble Lord, Lord McColl, pointed out—have sold that child into slavery because they need the money. That is not just the case with Vietnamese children; it is across the world.
Therefore the child is already in a very poor state and there is a danger, which is occurring, of the child being abused—I use the word “abused” deliberately—in the administrative process. This is a blot on the landscape of the United Kingdom. There is administrative abuse if the system does not adequately care for the child. What is needed is not well meaning officials who come and go—and there will not be a social worker or independent reviewing officer available all the time—but somebody on the end of a telephone, to whom the child can speak or leave a message. If that child goes missing, having been given to one of these independent people, they will then be able to get in touch with the police and say, “The child has gone missing. Please pull out all the stops to try and find the child”.
The sort of thing you want is a constant presence for counselling, therapy, mental health issues, education, immigration and a host of other things that this traumatised child who has been rescued from slavery has to go through in our administrative process before a decision is made. What is asked for is not someone to see the child every day of the week, or probably not more than once a week or once a fortnight, but someone to whom the child can turn, who can ring up and find out from the foster parent or whoever, how the child is getting on; someone who the child knows will be a constant presence in this period from identification to resolution. The excellent guidance does not provide that one person.
I know what the Government have been saying. The Minister said to us last time that what they do not want is yet another tier on top of all the other tiers. However, each of the other tiers is involved only from time to time. What we are talking about is somebody who will be constantly in the background—and in the foreground—when it is necessary. There is nobody for a child in that position at that moment and it is not good enough. To say that this is an extra tier is absolutely to misunderstand—if I may be polite about this—what is actually being asked for: not another tier, but a specific person to be there instead when that person is needed.
There is no shortage of agencies that would be prepared to take on this role for what I suspect would be quite a modest sum, but what they must have is the statutory power to require the agencies to give them the information that is needed. They must be able to be in touch with the police, social workers or the Department of Health, because unless they have statutory power, those other agencies will not listen to them. There will be well meaning volunteers who will not make much progress. Therefore, this is absolutely crucial. Time and again we have been fobbed off. Now is the moment not to be fobbed off any more.
My Lords, I was pleased and proud to add my name to this amendment. I do so having been pleased to support the noble Lord, Lord McColl, and the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, in their past attempts to deal with this gap in the way that we deal with young people who may have been trafficked. Both the noble Lord and the noble and learned Baroness have done an immense amount to improve the lives of young people who have been trafficked and changes are being made. However, as both have said today, there is still this gap.
If we think of our own children, not having been trafficked or been the victims of slavery, but put into a similar situation in a foreign country, unable to understand the language and for whatever reason having to deal with a multiplicity of different agencies, they would not cope. Today we are talking about children who are not just vulnerable, but probably traumatised, who may have suffered degradation in some way, yet who are still supposed to deal with a multiplicity of agencies. It is deeply unfair to expect them to do so.
This amendment would ensure that these children had one person—a constant in an ever-changing world—who they could trust and to whom they could turn whenever they felt it necessary. On the day when we have been paying tribute to Nelson Mandela, a man who was full of compassion, this is a matter of compassion and of fulfilling our obligation to these children who have suffered. Yes, as the noble and learned Baroness pointed out, these are foreign children, but that fact does not matter. These are young human beings who, for whatever reason, are now in this country and we have an obligation to ensure that they are properly cared for. One of the means of doing that is to ensure that they have a person there who can be their advocate and their support.
As noble Lords have said, there are agencies, people in the voluntary and charitable sectors, who are willing and able to provide this service, and, as the noble and learned Baroness said, it is not a question of another bureaucratic tier. This is something that does not exist and needs to exist. Not only will it not cost a lot of money, in the end it could actually save money, because it means that these children will not fall through all the gaps and into crisis, as they might have done. This is a means of saving money. We have an obligation to do our best for these children and I am pleased and proud to support this amendment.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord McColl, referred to the Joint Committee on Human Rights. In Grand Committee I picked up that reference and spoke briefly about what the Joint Committee had said about the Scottish experience of guardianship, which went broader but included trafficked children. In response, the Minister expressed a degree of scepticism, perhaps, about that experience. Once again, the chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights has followed up our debates with a letter to the noble Baroness. I shall read part of that letter. It stated:
“I would like to draw your attention to the recommendation made by my Committee in its First Report of this Session, on the Human Rights of unaccompanied migrant children and young people in the UK, (HL: Paper 9 and HC 196), which dealt with guardianship and on which the Committee had taken evidence. This states (at paragraph 175):
‘We welcome the findings from the Scottish Guardianship Service, which demonstrate the value that a guardian can add for unaccompanied asylum seeking and trafficked children. We recommend that the Government commission pilots in England and Wales that builds upon and adapts the model of guardianship trialled in Scotland. The guardian should provide support in relation to the asylum and immigration process, support services and future planning, help children develop wider social networks, and ensure that children's views are heard in all proceedings that affect them. The Government should evaluate the case for establishing a wider guardianship scheme throughout England and Wales once those pilot schemes are complete’”.
The letter from the chair to the Minister continues:
“In your contribution to the debate in the Lords you suggested that the Scottish scheme had had mixed results, that it had not 'cracked' the problems that it was intended to address, and that it would add another layer of complexity”— other noble Lords have talked about this—
“ to how these things are currently handled.
The results of the guardianship scheme, however, were largely positive, as was evidenced fully by the independent report undertaken by Professors Heaven Crawley and Ravi Kohli (who both advised my Committee during its inquiry into unaccompanied migrant children). These positive results led the Scottish Government to endorse the Guardianship Service, and support it with funding for a further three years at £200,000 per year”.
I would add here that Aileen Campbell, the Minister for Children and Young People in the Scottish Government, has said:
“The Scottish Guardianship Service gives asylum seeking children a voice and makes sure every young person involved understands and participates in decisions that affect them”.
The letter goes on:
“There is of course no question that the issues surrounding guardianship are complex and that it took time for the Service in Scotland to bed down and achieve some enduring coherence for vulnerable children in difficult circumstances. However, the independent report, in large part, is very clear that Guardianship was a safeguard for unaccompanied migrant children, and its design and implementation were exemplary”.
The report throws some light on this question of an additional layer of complexity. It found:
“The young people saw Guardians as helping them to understand what others did, especially when there were ‘too many people’ in their lives. This is an important perception by the young people of a key element of the Service—namely that the Service played a key role not because there were too few professionals in their lives, but because sometimes there were too many. The noise generated by these constant engagements and expectations, where young people were required to repeat some form of their story to an endless queue of professionals”— a point that the noble Lord, Lord McColl, made—
“needed to be reduced to a sound that young people could hear, sometimes in sequence, and sometimes in a harmonised way. The Guardians did this” in a number of ways. The letter concludes:
“My Committee believes that the Government should look at this again”.
I really hope that the Government will look at this again. There have been some very powerful speeches in support of the amendment and I very much hope that noble Lords will not be fobbed off again.
My Lords, I support the amendment and declare an interest as chairman of the Children’s Society. The noble Lord, Lord McColl, has already mentioned the report, Still at Risk, published jointly by the Children’s Society and the Refugee Council.
The amendment raises an important matter. Doubts over a child’s age, their lack of documentation or uncertainty about their immigration status impede a child’s ability to access effective support to meet their welfare needs. For example, 10 of the 17 young people mentioned in the study had their ages disputed. Some had undergone multiple age assessments before it was agreed by the authorities that they were, in fact, children. Disputing a child’s age has serious safeguarding implications for them and can put them at serious risk. In the Still at Risk report, it was found that failure to recognise that they were children or victims of trafficking resulted in three of the young people who were interviewed being sent to adult prison, and two to an immigration removal centre. Several of the young people in the study did no know which country they were in because of the tight control exerted over them by their exploiters. The guidance on the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child states:
“Agencies or individuals whose interests could potentially be in conflict with those of the child’s should not be eligible for guardianship”.
The Children’s Society and others believe that local authority children’s services are indeed such agencies. A common problem for separated migrant children, including child victims of human trafficking, who may have entered the country without documents or on false papers is that their age is disputed by the Home Office and by local authorities, and that these agencies are unwilling to support them. Until the age of a person is verified, they should be treated as children, not adults, for the purposes of accessing support.
The case for guardians, as set out in the amendment, is supported by many international and domestic bodies, including the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, the Council of Europe expert group on trafficking and, most recently, the Joint Committee on Human Rights in its inquiry into unaccompanied migrant children and young people. That is supported in the long-standing position of the Refugee Children’s Consortium, a coalition of more than 40 non-governmental organisations working with children caught up in the immigration system. I urge the Minister to think carefully in the response to the amendment, which is an important initiative that is much needed by the research called for earlier.
My Lords, I have to say to my noble friend that in 2012 I was not entirely persuaded by a similar amendment. I made supportive comments but wondered whether it was right to be pushing it at that stage—indeed, the noble Lord did not do so. I have changed my mind. I realised that time moves on and the fact that I am not going to repeat a number of points that have been made does not mean that I do not agree with them; I agree with them very much indeed.
It is difficult enough for trafficked adults—or, indeed, other adults who come up against the state—to deal with multiple agencies. For a traumatised child it is unbelievably more difficult. The distrust of state authorities has been mentioned and it seems that retrafficking happens because very often the trafficked child knows only his or her traffickers. They have been taught to trust the traffickers, who have said, “If there is a problem, here is the phone number. You contact us”. Of course that leads to the child leaving whatever care they are in, going back to the traffickers and being retrafficked.
Consistency and constancy have been mentioned. I want to talk about authority, whereby a guardian has authority not just to hear but to speak for the child—to contribute to the discussions and to have to be listened to by the others who are taking part in discussions and moving towards decisions. That legal recognition is particularly important, for instance, in dealing with immigration officers who are handling a child’s asylum case, in the national referral mechanism, and in instructing a solicitor. I say that from my experience; I have not dealt with anyone who has been trafficked but as a solicitor taking instructions you have to hear the instructions from the person who is entitled to give them. I have been in this situation with clients in many different fields where I am told, “That’s what so-and-so wants”. I need to know it from that person. You cannot assume it unless the person with clear authority gives the instruction. So the statutory power, the statutory authority, and the legal status are very significant.
Finally, I want to make a rather hard-headed point. You have to support victims and survivors of this sort of situation to enable them to be good witnesses when giving evidence. Unless we can achieve that, it will be that much harder to get convictions. My hard-headed point is that it is in the interests of attacking this despicable trade that I also support this amendment.
My Lords, this debate has made very clear the commitment across the House to improving the support received by trafficked children. My noble friend Lord McColl has made a very powerful case once again. We recognise that not enough has been done and that we must do more. I pay tribute to my noble friend Lord McColl, the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, and others for their determination to ensure that trafficked children, who are so very vulnerable, are properly protected. Noble Lords have made their concern extremely clear. We agree that these children are indeed among the most vulnerable and it is clear from what noble Lords and others have said that they are not being supported as they should be, so how is this best achieved?
We remain concerned that the introduction of guardians for trafficked children, alongside those persons who should already be working in the interests of the child, is not the most effective way to tackle the local problems that are clearly manifest here. Where local systems are not working as they should be to support the best interests of trafficked children, we need to address the causes of those problems. Others with extensive experience of the needs of trafficked children agree. Children and Families Across Borders, an organisation with considerable expertise in this area, has told us that introducing guardians would not improve the inadequate service that some trafficked children receive. Instead, they believe that a clear commitment to, and strong focus on, professional development by local government employers and others is required. This would help to improve practice and ensure that social workers understand the particular needs faced by trafficked children in their care. It is not clear that appointing another individual to speak for a looked-after child or to help them navigate the care system is the answer. Central to the role of a social worker is ensuring that the child’s best interests are protected. If that is not happening then that failure should be addressed. Introducing guardians could actually result in making things worse, with other professionals thinking they do not need to concern themselves as much about a trafficked child because their guardian is looking after them.
I note that my noble friend Lord McColl mentioned the variability of support and the best practice that can be seen among some social workers. He pointed to other cases of very poor practice and we fully agree that these must be tackled. We recognise that local authority performance with regard to trafficked children is clearly inconsistent. To address this inconsistency, we have proposed new regulations so that, when a trafficked child comes into the care system, the crucial information that they have been trafficked must be recorded on care plans. Under these new regulations, local authorities would be required, in planning and reviewing care for a trafficked child, to consider the specific and complex needs that may result from the experience of having been trafficked. This requirement would also extend to pathway planning for a trafficked child when they cease to be looked after. Social workers should support trafficked children to access mainstream and specialist services and this should include accompanying them to meetings with other professionals, as my noble friend Lord McColl highlighted. We will make this clear in the proposed new statutory guidance. To underpin the proposed new regulations regarding trafficked children, we have, as I say, drafted new statutory guidance. This sets out our expectations of how local authorities should go about providing the required support and we would welcome noble Lords’ views on how to make this draft guidance stronger. As noble Lords will be well aware, statutory guidance is of course not merely advice that local authorities can choose to ignore as they please. They must comply with statutory guidance unless there are exceptional reasons that justify a departure.
When they first enter care, trafficked children are particularly vulnerable, as noble Lords have made clear. They might not initially recognise that they are victims of a crime, or might believe that their best interests lie with their traffickers. The first hours and days are crucial in protecting a trafficked child from going missing. The new statutory guidance describes some of the steps that local authorities should take to protect against this risk, such as temporarily removing their phones to ensure that they are not in contact with those who can do them harm, providing 24-hour supervision, or employing previously trafficked children to assure the victim that they are safest in local authority care. The guidance provides a clear definition of a trafficked child and describes steps that should be taken when a child is identified as having been trafficked. This vital role is one that local authorities, with partners including the Home Office and police, fulfil—or should fulfil—as part of their child protection duties.
The noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, talked about missing children. Some of the things that I have just said are intended to try to stop those children going missing. However, we have also put specific advice in our revised guidance on trafficked children, including how to prevent them going missing and how to support them when they are found.
Children who have been trafficked into this country from overseas may require specialist support in dealing with immigration questions or proceedings, as noble Lords have made plain. The amendment says that guardians will assist the child to access legal representation, appointing and instructing a solicitor where necessary, and my noble friend Lady Hamwee picked up the issue of legal representation. However, independent reviewing officers should already ensure that any child in their care has access to the appropriate legal support. In our new statutory guidance, we will now go further and require that such support should be provided by a suitably qualified solicitor or immigration adviser. Any immigration advice or legal support would be in addition to the child’s right, as a looked-after child, to independent advocacy.
Part of making children feel safe when they have been trafficked from overseas is ensuring that they understand their situation and the support provided to them. Our new statutory guidance will require that, where interpreters are required, they should be trained to understand the particular risks faced by trafficked children. Helping children to overcome cultural or language barriers so that they can express their wishes and feelings is a role that is already carried out by independent advocates. The new statutory guidance notes the importance of commissioning specialist advocacy services to provide this support.
The noble Baroness, Lady Lister, brought up the discussion that we had in Committee about Scotland. I was very interested in the fact that Scotland has guardians, and that is why I asked how it had worked out. She probably knows that the Scottish guardianship system is much smaller than would be required in England because it covers just 80 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. Scottish guardians essentially fulfil the role played by independent advocates in the English system but with specialist immigration skills. Our proposed statutory guidance requires that, where a trafficked child requires specialist immigration advice, it should, as I said, be provided by a solicitor or adviser with the relevant competences.
I thank the JCHR for its letter, to which I shall be responding, and for its engagement in this matter. It highlighted several aspects of the Scottish model for consideration in England, as the noble Baroness noted, including provision of support in relation to the asylum and immigration process, support services and future planning, helping children to develop wider social networks, and ensuring that children’s views are heard in all proceedings that affect them. These are, indeed, very important, and that is why each of them is addressed in our new guidance. It is also why, where local practice is good, those aspects are already provided through the existing care system without recourse to the additional role of guardian for trafficked children. Of course, we take very seriously the letter that the JCHR has written and, as I said, I shall be writing in response.
There was quite an emphasis in Committee and, to some extent, in the discussions this evening on stability of care. We agree that these children need stability and continuity. The new statutory guidance would require local authorities to prioritise trafficked children so as to provide the greatest likelihood of their building a sustained relationship with their social worker. These are the most vulnerable children and they are precisely those for whom social workers must do most in providing understanding and support.
I have described here only a portion of our proposed new guidance, which covers a range of issues to ensure that trafficked children receive the right care and support. We would welcome suggestions from noble Lords on whether the guidance should include other issues. It is hugely important that we get the support for these children right, and we very much look forward to continuing discussions with noble Lords about how best to do that. We recently sent both the draft regulations and the guidance to noble Lords and they are available on our website. In particular, we would like to discuss with my noble friend Lord McColl, and with any other noble Lord who might wish to join in, the opportunities offered by the regulations. I am delighted that we have in the diary a meeting with my noble friend Lord McColl later this week. Our discussions are clearly very important for this group of children.
When officials shared the drafts of the guidance with representatives of the Children’s Society, the Refugee Council, and Children and Families Across Borders, they all found much to welcome in the guidance. I hope that noble Lords will find the same when they read the drafts and that they provide a sound basis for further discussion when we meet shortly. I therefore hope that my noble friend will be willing to withdraw his amendment.
I wonder if I could ask the noble Baroness what she meant by regulations. She has been talking about statutory guidance, but she also said regulations. Does she mean statutory instruments?
From authorities far higher than me, the answer seems to be yes—regulations.
Could the noble Baroness also confirm that discussions or consultations about the guidance have taken place with Children and Families Across Borders, because I understand that they were not terribly happy about the discussions that they had been having with the Government on this issue, and that as an organisation they have been passed from pillar to post? I would like confirmation that they have been properly consulted on their views.
My understanding is that they have indeed been consulted, and that consultation will no doubt continue, because it is extremely important that we get this right. The noble Baroness is right to highlight it. I will of course look into this further, and if they have got concerns we invite them to engage with us, because all of us want to get this right.
My Lords, I thank everyone who has taken part in this debate, especially the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, and everyone else who has been working on this subject. I am afraid the response is very disappointing indeed, and it does very little to help these poor trafficked children. The guidance does not provide for a child trafficking guardian, and I would therefore like to test the opinion of the House.
My Lords, we are looking forward to discussing this further with my noble friend Lord McColl and with other noble Lords.
Consideration on Report adjourned.