New clause 10 - Amendment of section 17 of the

Part of Adoption and Children Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:30 am on 17 January 2002.

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Photo of Margaret Moran Margaret Moran Labour, Luton South 10:30, 17 January 2002

I would like to make it clear that new clause 10 is contingent on new clause 11. In the interests of saving time, I hope that the Minister will accept that the principle of what I am about to say is relatively straightforward and has been discussed elsewhere.

The new clauses are designed to rectify a problem that has developed out of recent case law, which means that local authorities are now unable to provide accommodation to vulnerable children and their families under the Children Act 1989. Shelter, which supports the new clauses, believes that the Children

Act is now unworkable in that respect, and that the outcome of the recent case of A v. London Borough of Lambeth makes it unlawful for local authorities to provide accommodation under the Children Act, so that their only option is to take children into care rather than provide a home for a vulnerable family. Families are being split up; already, children have been removed from some.

I feel strongly about this issue. I cut my political teeth on homelessness and campaigning for the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977. I was working in a social services department at that time. I spent only two years working in social services, although the Committee might like to note that I subsequently worked for 20 years in a housing department. My first job was as a duty clerk: I was responsible for receiving homeless families, offering them a rail ticket away from whichever floor they had last slept on, or offering to take their children into care.

That is one of the reasons why I campaigned for the 1977 Act. That campaign started after the documentary ''Cathy Come Home'', which revolutionised views on homelessness legislation and the rights of the homeless. Little did I realise that more than two decades after my work in housing we would be back in a similar position, except that for local authorities dealing with some of our most vulnerable families, their only option would be to take the children into care. It is ironic that attempts are being made in another place to rewrite ''Cathy Come Home'' with a happy ending.

The Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977 provided the safety net for homeless families. Despite a setback under the Conservative Government, the Housing Act 1996 provided a duty on local authorities to accommodate homeless households that were not intentionally homeless and in priority need. When homeless families were deemed intentionally homeless, the Children Act 1989 came into force to enable a further safety net for some of those vulnerable children to take effect. That Act is especially important, because approximately 9,000 households—the majority families with children—are found to be intentionally homeless every year.

Through long experience in housing, I know that decisions on intentional homelessness are notoriously complex; they can appear extremely unjust and are often challenged. Families may experience financial difficulty and sell their home to avoid falling into debt or repossession. Sadly, many women who flee domestic violence are deemed intentionally homeless because they have abandoned their council home. Such families are among the most vulnerable in our society. Parents in such families need help to get back on their feet, not the fear of their children being removed.

The consequences of being found intentionally homeless are severe. The household is given only limited time in temporary accommodation, usually 28 days, and is often barred from the housing register. In such circumstances, its options may be extremely

limited: for example, such a family may find it difficult to afford the deposit and rent or key money often required by landlords in the private rented sector.

The Children Act provided important means to secure vital assistance for families with children when the housing department was not under a duty to house them. Families are often given assistance by social services authorities under section 17 of the Children Act, which enables those departments to provide deposits and rent up front if necessary. Furthermore, in some cases, accommodation can be provided under section 20 of that Act.

Although a reasonably satisfactory safety net has been provided by the combination of duties placed on housing departments under homelessness legislation and the powers available to social services departments under the Children Act, recent case law suggests that those safeguards have, in effect, been removed. The Court of Appeal decision in April on an application for judicial review by a person, G, found that section 17 of the Children Act merely conferred a power, not a duty, for local authorities to provide assistance, and that the duty of accommodation under section 20 was to house the child, not the parents. The High Court restated that judgment in the case of A v. London Borough of Lambeth in May; the decision was reconfirmed in the Court of Appeal in November.

Those decisions will have a significant impact on homeless families who seek assistance from social services departments. Because of the judgments, social services authorities are likely to provide help in far fewer cases, and when help is provided, an offer to house the children separately—that is, to take the children into care—is much more likely under section 20.

Clearly, parents will not want to be separated from their children. In practice, families confronted only with an offer to take the child into care will desperately search for an alternative that will enable them to stay together, no matter how inadequate or short term it is. Often, the most vulnerable families will be lost to the system; housing departments and social services will lose contact with them. Some families with great difficulties may be lost in terms of the care that can be afforded to vulnerable children, so placing the children at further risk.

Shelter has already gathered evidence that since the judgments social services departments have significantly reduced the assistance that they provide to homeless families under the Children Act and, in some cases, limited their assistance to an offer to take the children into care. One example is that of a north of England family with four children, two of whom have special needs. The family was evicted from its home because of rent arrears of about £1,000. The father, who has a drink problem, left the mother to look after the children. Having found the family intentionally homeless, the housing department put them up in bed and breakfast for 28 days.

At the end of that period, the social services department was approached. It refused—twice—to

assist. In the meantime, the mother managed to find accommodation: a farmer allowed the children to sleep in a caravan and the mother to sleep in a car next to it. The department eventually suggested that the children go into voluntary care during half term, so that the mother could search for accommodation. She accepted the offer, and despite receiving no additional assistance from social services, she managed to find new and suitable accommodation. However, the department refused to return the children until an unspecified future date.

The mother was given permission to see the children for two hours a week, and she was not allowed to see them on Christmas day. As well as being separated from their mother, the children were split up. One was placed at a residential school, two had been placed in one foster home, and the other with different foster parents. One child was put on the child protection register because of the mother's homelessness. The latest information on the case is that two of the children are back with their mother, and that a meeting is planned to resolve the future of the other two.

It is not satisfactory that children can be taken into care and split up in that way, leaving no possibility of the mother reuniting her family in the near future. The case raises serious welfare issues, because the Children Act sets out the legal responsibilities of social services authorities to protect children in need. One of the central principles of that Act is that the best interests of children are kept to the fore and that families are kept together wherever possible, with children taken into care as a last resort.

Shelter has found many other similar examples. There is concern about the legal ramifications of such judgments. The view of a leading barrister is that the effect of the two cases

''is to change radically the way in which authorities can be required to accommodate the carers of children. Firstly, claimants cannot rely on section 20 as imposing a duty on authorities to house the parents or carers of such children. Secondly, although section 17 requires an authority to assess a child's needs, it does not give rise to a duty to meet those needs''.

Concern is widespread among children's charities, not least the National Children's Bureau, which has said that

''it is a nonsense for the law to be used as a vehicle to tear families apart and damage the children it is trying to protect''.

The issue has been discussed in both Houses during the passage of the Homelessness Bill. It was referred to in another place yesterday: Lord Falconer acknowledged the need to change the Children Act, as well as strengthen the Homelessness Bill, to ensure greater joint working between housing and social services departments to protect the most vulnerable homeless people.

New clause 11 would amend schedule 2 to the Children Act. It would overcome the fact that social services departments can no longer provide housing assistance to both parents and children by adding a specific power to provide assistance in securing accommodation under section 17 of that Act. It would also allow social services departments discretion to provide a range of services in line with

the type of assistance that they have traditionally provided under that Act.

New clause 10 would amend section 17 of the Children Act, and would provide for social services departments to take reasonable steps to meet the needs that they have identified. That is required to overcome the fact that the court dealing with the case of G found that section 17 did not require an authority to do anything to meet a child's needs, even though it might require the authority to assess them. Without such an amendment, there is concern that it would still be lawful for an authority not to provide any help to meet the needs that it had identified.

I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity to close loopholes that put children at risk. The new clauses are intended to rectify the difficulties arising from recent case law.