My Lords, the elected House has disagreed with Amendment 9 by a substantial majority of 130. The noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, has subsequently tabled Amendment 9B. While removing the requirement for accreditation of child contact centres and services in relation to public and private family law cases, it still requires the Government to introduce a set of national standards to which organisations and individuals would be required to adhere—in effect, a form of indirect accreditation.
I am grateful to the noble Baronesses, Lady Finlay and Lady Burt of Solihull, my noble friend Lady McIntosh of Pickering and the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede, for taking the time yesterday to speak with me about the revised amendment. While the Government recognise that the provision of child contact centres and services is vital in supporting families and enabling parents to have contact with their children, this amendment remains problematic for a number of reasons.
First, there is not an issue in relation to private law cases of parties being referred to non-accredited child contact centres. That is because there are protocols in place, involving the judiciary, magistrates and Cafcass family court advisers, which require them only to refer parties in private law cases to NACCC-accredited child contact centres when referring parties in those private law proceedings for supported, supervised contact and handover contact. That protocol has been in place with the NACCC since 2000 and was revised a few years ago, in 2017. The memorandum of understanding between Cafcass and the NACCC has been in place since 2018. Cafcass has assured the Government, as well as NACCC, that it is compliant with that memorandum of understanding.
However, in light of what was said on Report, I have written to the President of the Family Division and to the CEO of Cafcass requesting that they raise awareness amongst their colleagues and officials of the judicial protocol and memorandum of understanding which has been agreed. I understand that the NACCC is updating that judicial protocol. It will be agreed with the President of the Family Division and reissued to the judiciary and magistrates.
Further to that, Jacky Tiotto, the chief executive of Cafcass, has responded to my letter to her confirming that she will write to all Cafcass operational managers and family court advisers, reminding them of the importance of the memorandum of understanding. While she is unaware of any evidence to suggest that Cafcass staff are not complying with the requirements, she emphasised that Cafcass is committed to working effectively with the NACCC to ensure that every child receives the best possible service.
That is in relation to private family law. I turn now to public law family cases where children are in the care of the local authority. Comprehensive statutory provisions are already in place determining how local authorities should discharge their duties, including in relation to meeting statutory requirements to maintain contact between a child and their family.
In that context, Section 22 of the Children Act 1989 places a general statutory duty on the local authority in relation to children looked after by it to safeguard and promote the child’s welfare. Section 34 of that Act establishes the presumption that there should be continued contact between the child and their family while the child is in the care of the local authority. It places a duty on local authorities, subject to certain provisions and to their duty to safeguard and promote the child’s welfare, to allow contact between a child in care and their parents. Details of contact are set out in a child’s care plan, which is governed by the Care Planning, Placement and Case Review (England) Regulations 2010. Those regulations set out the role of independent review officers to ensure that contact is supported. They will consider whether contact commitments in care plans have been implemented and whether the child is happy. In 2015, the Department for Education published guidance on care planning, placement and case review; further statutory guidance was published in 2018. That is the statutory architecture.
I turn now to the safeguards in place before each contact between a looked-after child and a parent is made. Whenever contact is arranged by a local authority, the social worker should undertake a full safeguarding risk assessment, meeting the requirements of the guidance for the assessment of contact produced by each local authority. A broad range of factors is looked at: the risk of physical, sexual and emotional abuse, including domestic abuse, and neglect; the risk of abduction; whether there is a history of violent or aggressive behaviour and whether the child or supervisor is at risk; and the parent’s ability to prioritise the children’s needs above their own. In outlining all that, I seek to reassure the House that there is already adequate statutory and regulatory provision in place.
I have spoken about private and public law proceedings. In addition, I should mention that parents can self-refer to contact centre services. NACCC officials themselves have suggested that very few parents actually do that, so any concerns that parents may be self-referring to non-accredited centres are not borne out by the evidence, and certainly not to any significant scale.
What is the essential argument behind the amendment? Those supporting it argue that there are large numbers of unaccredited child contact centres and services, posing significant risk to children and parents around safeguarding and the risk of domestic abuse. The NACCC provided some initial data on the number of unaccredited contact centres, but the current evidence base is insufficiently robust to support legislating on the issue. While I am grateful to the NACCC for compiling the data, I have to note that some of the “unaccredited” contact centres initially identified by it in fact turned out to be regulated by Ofsted or the Care Quality Commission. There is plainly more work to be done to understand the issue. The Government remain ready to work with the NACCC in this regard, but outside this Bill. In particular, I am ready to explore further whether there is a case for ensuring that there are appropriate arrangements in place for anyone who seeks to set themselves up as a provider of child contact services to be subject to criminal record checks.
I can therefore assure your Lordships’ House that the Government are committed to ensuring the highest levels of care and safeguarding where circumstances have necessitated involvement with the family justice system. However, given existing mechanisms within private and public family law, and the extensive regulatory environment which I have set out, without further evidence of a problem we do not believe that this amendment is warranted at this time.
Given my commitment to continue to work with the NACCC on this issue, and to explore further the question of criminal record checks for freelance providers, I respectfully urge the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay of Llandaff, and all noble Lords, not to insist on their amendment. I beg to move.