Moved by Baroness Finlay of Llandaff
21: Clause 55, page 35, line 28, at end insert—“( ) ensure all child contact centres and organisations that offer child contact services are accredited in accordance with national standards in relation to safeguarding and preventing domestic abuse as specified in regulations made by the Secretary of State.”
My Lords, I am most grateful to the Minister for meeting me and the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, and the noble Baronesses, Lady McIntosh of Pickering and Lady Burt of Solihull, over this vexed issue of child contact centres.
A little history is important here. In 2007 the Department for Education commissioned the National Association of Child Contact Centres, the NACCC, to develop national standards for child contact, but no regulatory framework was created. The NACCC and the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, Cafcass, agreed a memorandum of understanding on service delivery accreditation standards and safe- guarding protections to keep children safe. This cross-party amendment builds on the work of both. They, along with Women’s Aid, Family Action and Barnardo’s, all support this amendment.
The amendment aims to ensure that these standards protect children wherever they have facilitated contact. The NACCC, Cafcass and key sector providers, including the Salvation Army, Barnardo’s, Family Action, Relate, Action for Children and Core Assets, all do an outstanding job and these third sector organisations agreed by consensus in 2019 that regulation is required by the sector.
Accredited child contact centres and services have clear procedures and staff training and support staff in decision-making where risk may be present, including in safeguarding children and preventing domestic abuse. Sadly, it is not uncommon for one or both parents to have deep-seated problems, including risks of problems with alcohol and/or drug abuse, and the risk of ongoing abusive behaviours.
However, many centres and services currently fall outside the oversight of local authorities, NACCC or Cafcass because the current regulatory framework is only voluntary and patchy. Such unregulated provision of centres and voluntary child contact services unfortunately leaves this field open to those of malintent, including paedophiles and those from extremist factions.
I ask noble Lords to ask themselves why anyone who really cares about children would not want to be fully trained in child development and safeguarding. Is it acceptable to leave children already traumatised by being victims of or watching abuse in situations of increased risk? The amendment closes the loophole by providing the Secretary of State with powers to specify regulations and delivery.
As the Minister requested in Committee, we provided an initial review of evidence to the Minister. I am most grateful to the Minister for meeting us. In the list of over 50 centres advertising on the internet, we found some operating without oversight. Local authorities have a duty when commissioning under Section 34 of the Children Act 2004, but financial stringencies and the lack of universal standards contribute to variability. Importantly, not all services are local authority-commissioned.
For example, one child contact centre had NACCC accreditation withdrawn due to safeguarding and health and safety concerns, including Disclosure and Barring Service checks that were not up to date and poor storage security of personal information and records. After the removal of accreditation, the centre accepted a high-risk supervised referral where the father was on the sex offenders register, but the centre could not provide adequately supervised services. It continues to advertise as NACCC-accredited and take referrals from solicitors.
There are also a significant number of child contact centres with no website presence. In the time available, the NACCC could do only a desktop study and so could not ascertain how many are still operating. For example, I have been informed by the NACCC of at least two that are operational, but their details cannot be found anywhere online.
Without oversight and clear standards, there is no way of verifying how these child contact centres and services are operating, and no levers to close them down. Compounding this, the courts’ awareness of the judicial protocol on child contact is patchy, so inappropriate referrals continue to be made.
The motivation behind this amendment is to ensure the safest environment in child contact cases, to allow regular contact between absent parents and children, and to ensure that appropriate safeguards are in place. All this amendment does is provide the Secretary of State with powers to specify regulations and delivery standards. We cannot let a Bill on domestic abuse proceed without ensuring the safeguarding of those children, already victims in family breakdown, in situations where abuse may be ongoing.
I hope the Minister will be able to tell me that this amendment will be accepted or that the Government will return at Third Reading with an amendment of their own, or give a firm undertaking to bring forward the necessary regulatory standards. At the moment, children are at risk in unsupervised and dangerous situations. The specific question is therefore this: when will the Government lay before Parliament the regulations required to protect children in child contact services? Without an answer to this, I will feel forced to test the opinion of the House. I beg to move.
My Lords, I declare my interests as vice-president of NACCC and the co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Child Contact Centres. I am delighted to join the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, and the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, in supporting the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, in this amendment. I thank her for bringing forward Amendment 21 at this stage. I refer to my previous attempt to plug this legislative loophole in the Private Member’s Bill that I brought forward in 2016-17.
Life is full of choices, and, regrettably, children do not choose when their families will split and break down and their parents separate. What is important for children’s well-being, and in keeping with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, is that children continue to have contact with both parents following a family breakdown. Often at that time, the absent parent in particular may suffer severe stress from the family breakdown and encounter substance or alcohol abuse. It is extremely important in those circumstances where a child cannot see the absent parent in their own home that they have a safe haven of a secure contact centre, or related services are provided, where contact can safely take place. That is why the terms of this amendment are so important. It is a very simple, straightforward amendment to ensure that all child contact centres and organisations that offer child contact services are accredited in accordance with national standards in relation to safeguarding and preventing domestic abuse, as specified in regulations made by the Secretary of State.
I too am grateful to my noble friend the Minister for the two meetings he has held with us and for sharing the text of the letters he proposed to send, which I will come on to in a moment. At present, as the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, has explained, while the National Association of Child Contact Centres has been asked to set standards, the regulations required have not yet been put in place. This remains one area of family law which is unregulated. It is essential that the memorandum of understanding between Cafcass and NACCC, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, referred, be respected by all referrals, and that the judicial protocol also to be followed by family courts is adhered to in all referrals.
I am concerned that my noble friend the Minister appears not to appreciate that child contact centres are the only group that do not have requirements in law, whereas all others—for instance, childminders and nurseries—do. At the moment, anyone can set up a child contact centre. The amendment seeks to ensure that the standards for public and private law provision are the same.
There is evidence that court referrals are, at times, to centres that are not accredited by NACCC or overseen by local authorities, as is required by the judicial protocol. It is also true that awareness by courts of the judicial protocol on child contact is, at times, patchy.
The motivation behind the amendment is to ensure the safest environment in child contact cases, to allow regular contact between absent parents and children, and to ensure that appropriate safeguards are in place, including in instances where a parent may have alcohol or substance abuse issues, as I set out earlier.
While I welcome the proposal of my noble friend the Minister to write to the President of the Family Division and the chief executive of Cafcass, I believe that this is not going far enough. We have a one-off opportunity here to plug the legislative gap, and letters alone will not implement the provisions and put in place the legal framework that we seek to achieve.
I end with a plea to my noble friend the Minister, and all noble Lords, to ensure two things: first, that the same standards will apply for both public and private provision for all child contact centres and services; and, secondly, to accept Amendment 21, providing the legal basis to bring forward the regulations required to achieve this. I believe that this is the only way that we are actually going to do justice to providing a safe environment for the innocent children in a family breakdown, by providing them with a safe haven in which to meet the absent parent. If there is anything short of a full commitment from the Minister in these circumstances, I urge the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, to test the opinion of the House.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for meeting the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, and other supporters of this amendment, including me. There is no agenda here: we just need children to be safely supervised during contact by properly trained people who can spot the signs of stress and distress in children.
On the first day of Report, I spoke to Amendment 15, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, about the need for training for all who come into contact with victims. Child contact centres are a very strong and sensitive example of the need for training. As the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay said in Committee, the quiet child is not necessarily the happy child. Trained professionals know how to spot the difference and what to do. There are many examples like this, where a trained professional could, and should, intervene to help, to signpost and to stop potential harm being done.
The main issue here revolves around whether unaccredited centres are operating and in what circumstances. We know that court referrals should be made only to accredited centres, but does every member of the judiciary know? The Minister has attempted to reassure us about that. What about non-court referrals? I discussed this with Barnardo’s. Anyone can make a referral to a child contact centre—a social worker or other professional working with the family, a parent, the child who wants contact with their parent, and Barnardo’s itself. Who is making them pick an approved centre, especially when they are likely to be more costly?
Anyone can start up a contact centre. The noble Lord, Lord Wolfson, in his remarks in Committee, asked for proof that unapproved child contact centres were operating. As the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, said earlier, this has proved difficult to obtain, because there is no obligation on them to register.
In January, the Government launched an independent review into children’s social care. Will the Minister commit to including child contact centres in this review? As it stands, this is not good enough. If the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, decides to put this to a vote, we on these Benches will support her.
My Lords, as the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, said, the Minister has been generous with his time and has spoken with the group twice. The purpose of this amendment is well understood by the contributors to this short debate and by the Minister. The purpose is simple: it is to close a loophole, to make sure that all child contact centres reach the necessary standard, that there is some form of overview and accreditation and that there are consequences if that standard is not reached.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, succinctly put it, we know that, as far as the courts are concerned, only accredited child contact centres should ever be used. However, what about other referrals to child contact centres? What about private referrals or referrals by local councils or other organisations such as Barnardo’s?
In the discussions that we have had with the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson, he has asked for proof that there is a problem. As the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, said, it is difficult to provide proof, because you are looking for organisations and child contact centres that do not necessarily advertise their services. If they run into problems, they can easily withdraw the advertising and re-emerge in another form, but with the same people running them. At the moment, there are no consequences for people playing fast and loose with the system, if I may put it like that. There needs to be some consistency across the range of services and regulated services that children use. This anomaly needs to be addressed and I can see no better place to do it than in this Bill with this amendment right now. I and my party will support the amendment if it is moved to a vote.
My Lords, as I indicated in Committee, I fully recognise that the provision of child contact centres is extremely important to supporting families and enabling parents to have contact with their children, while at the same time providing a safe environment that protects children and adults from potential harm. As the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, put it, there is no agenda here, in the sense that we all have the same aim. The question is the best means of achieving it.
It is essential that all children experience the same high level of care and safeguarding where circumstances have necessitated their involvement with the family justice system and child contact centres or services. I thank noble Lords and the National Association of Child Contact Centres for their engagement with me and my officials since Committee. I have met, on a number of occasions, several noble Lords who have spoken in support of this amendment. I have found those discussions extremely helpful and I am grateful to them for the time that they gave to discussing the issue with me in more detail.
This amendment differs from the amendment debated in Committee, because it provides that the child contact centres should be accredited in accordance with national standards to be specified in regulations laid by the Secretary of State. The amendment in Committee did not specify who would set the accreditation standards. I continue to question whether the statutory accreditation proposed in this amendment is required or would provide a more effective form of regulation than that which currently exists through the NACCC accreditation framework and the statutory regulations governing local authorities.
I extend my sincere thanks to the NACCC for the useful overview of the current landscape of unaccredited child contact centres and services in England and Wales that it produced following Committee. That review was conducted at some pace and has been used to inform further discussions on this matter. While I accept and take on board the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, and the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede, that it is hard to identify evidence in this area, it is fair to say that the work that was done was at a somewhat high level.
Since the last debate, and following meetings with the noble Lords sponsoring this amendment, I committed to writing to the President of the Family Division and the CEO of Cafcass, requesting that they raise awareness among their colleagues and officials of the judicial protocol and memorandum of understanding that has been agreed between the NACCC and Cafcass. The protocols that are in place require the judiciary, magistrates and Cafcass family court advisers to refer parties to accredited child contact centres only. I have shared the draft text with relevant Peers and I will send letters to the President of the Family Division and the CEO of Cafcass after this debate.
Again, as I detailed in Committee, local authorities are able, in limited circumstances, to commission unaccredited child contact services. However—and this is an important point—any services that they commission in discharging their statutory duty to allow reasonable contact between a child in their care and parents fall within Section 22(3)(a) and Section 34 of the Children Act. Those provisions require local authorities to ensure consistency with safeguarding and promotion of the child’s welfare. Therefore, respectfully, I do not agree that there is a legislative gap in this area or, to use the word used by the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede, a loophole. Rather, the Government remain convinced that, given the regulatory and compliance mechanisms already in place with regard to local authorities, a requirement of mandatory accreditation for such services would impose an additional layer of costs and bureaucracy on local authorities, which already face significant resourcing pressures.
As I indicated in Committee, the Government continue to be willing to work with the NACCC and other interested parties to keep the situation regarding child contact centres and services under review. The work undertaken by the NACCC provides a good starting point from which to build a more robust evidence base around this issue, which would cover both public and private law. However, I am not persuaded, despite the rapid and, as I have said, informative work of the NACCC following Committee, that we today have enough evidence on which to legislate for the accreditation of child contact centres and services at this time.
Given what I have said this afternoon and my clear commitment to follow up on this debate with the President of the Family Division and the chief executive of Cafcass, I hope that, despite the comments that she made in her speech introducing the amendment, the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, will be content to withdraw it.
I have a request to ask the Minister a short question from the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering.
My Lords, may I address head on two points that the Minister has raised? First, the case has been made of how difficult it is to access the evidence and whether it is in the public interest to put this in the public domain. This is an extremely sensitive area and we have done our best to provide the evidence on the two occasions when my noble friend has requested it. Secondly, there is a legislative loophole. The Government undertook to come forward with regulations to establish the regulatory framework to set the standards in place and they have failed to do so. For what reason have the Government not brought forward these regulations and why are they not prepared to bring them forward at this time? I am at a loss to understand why that is the case.
I will be brief. On the first point that my noble friend raised about evidence, I accept that people have done their best in the short time available. However, with respect, the points that I made about the high-level nature of that evidence stand. At the moment, we are not persuaded that there is a need to legislate in this area. On the second point about the loophole, I would be repeating what I said earlier. For the reasons that I set out, the position at the moment is that the use of unaccredited child services is rare. In circumstances where they are used by local authorities, that would be covered by their statutory duty under the Children Act. In those circumstances, we are not persuaded that the amendment is required or would even necessarily be effective.
I am most grateful to the Minister for his fulsome reply and for trying to get to grips with this issue, but I point out that it has been 14 years since the need for standards was originally raised. I did not mention some cases in my speech today because I have not been able to check them out in detail—we could not track down the details of the services—but I have names of services that I would be prepared to share in confidence with the Minister. I believe that there is evidence that this area is unregulated, that there is a gap and that children are at risk now, today. If we are dealing with domestic abuse, we must not leave children vulnerable. Therefore, I wish to test the opinion of the House.
Ayes 310, Noes 237.