Now we have some real amendments—well, they are probing amendments, rather than real ones, so I shall not detain the Committee too long. We have had a good debate on the concept of social work practice already, but I am concerned about getting on with it. Amendment No. 1 would reduce, therefore, the duration of the pilots from five to three years, and amendment No. 2 deals with a technicality that the Minister will probably say is not required. In the working party report, which Professor Le Grand chaired, the time recommended for pilots was at least two years. The recommendation stated:
“The Group’s view is that pilots would need to run for at least two years, if not longer, to provide a sufficiently robust assessment. Also, the Group proposes that there should be nine pilots to provide a robust assessment”.
I am concerned that it will take too long. Why should it take at least five years to assess whether the pilots have worked? Would it not be possible to speed things up by having an assessment after three years? Those three years may turn out not to be long enough—all sorts of reasons for extending the period might be raised during the development of the schemes—in which case there is nothing to stop the Government asking for more time. It could probably be done by regulation. However, I to do not want to see the pilots eventually being set up and running for at least five years, with a further period of assessment being required, further queries bring thrown up and further legislation being required in order to give force to the status of these social worker practices.
On the basis that we could find out whether or not the schemes will be a success, the amendment would reduce the time specified from five years to three. It is a probing amendment, and if the Minister can give us good reasons for why five years has to be the absolute minimum, I shall be happy to take it as read. The purpose of the amendment is to put the Minister on the spot, to challenge the time scale and not the principle.
I note that my noble Friend Baroness Sharp moved similar amendments in the other place. When I read that debate, I was concerned about the second point being made—that things could drag on way beyond the five years. That point needs to be addressed this morning, which is why I partially support the amendment. My worry is that three years might not give enough time for a robust assessment, so I want to know how it can be extended if necessary. I share the fears that have been raised. I can see things dragging on for about ten years, which would be ridiculous. I therefore seek some assurance from the Minister.
The first amendment seeks to limit the piloting to three years. The other seeks to ensure that the pilot period does not start until after the powers under clause 1 have been commenced. I acknowledge that the intention is to seek some reassurance that we will pilot the approach of social work practices in a timely fashion and seek further clarification on the timetable for the operation of the pilots.
The timetable for piloting social work practice was set out in some detail in the other place, in the debate referred to by the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole. However, I shall repeat it because it is important to understand the rationale behind the timetable and the five-year period.
Clause 6(2) allows for clause 1 to be brought into force by reference to a particular local authority or authorities in order to enable the selection of local authorities to pilot the social work practice model. Unless clause 4 is brought into effect within five years of Royal Assent, clauses 1 to 5 will cease to have effect. We therefore have five years to establish the pilots, allow them to run, make a thorough evaluation of them prior to deciding whether to roll out the power to make arrangements under clause 1 to all local authorities. Five years is a reasonable period to undertake that work. Reducing it to three years would compromise the effectiveness of the pilots and risk disrupting children’s lives by not allowing for the appropriate transition periods.
The subsequent timetable for the pilots is as follows. Subject to the successful passage of the Bill, we will move to identify local authorities to take place in the pilots. Those local authorities will begin commissioning social work practices in early 2009, subject to the Bill receiving Royal Assent—and subject to when it receives Royal Assent. Detailed contract negotiations will need to take place between the pilot local authorities and the social work practice providers, and practical arrangements for transferring cases will need to be put into place.
The aim is to have social work practices up and running, with full case loads, by autumn 2009, and that the pilots then run for two years until autumn 2011. During that period, evaluation evidence will be gathered. In the fourth year, 2011-12, the independent evaluation of the pilots will take place. We will ensure that the evaluation report is made public, and that there is a full and proper consultation before the model is made available to all authorities, if that is the desired option. The full evaluation report will obviously be placed in the Library of the House.
The fifth year is a necessary transition period, because if a decision is taken to make the social work practice model available to all local authorities, we will have to ensure that we get the regulatory regime for social work practices right. We will have to consult on that regime, and give the chief inspector time to prepare the inspection arrangements. Those local authorities that had run the pilots would need to commission social work practices for the post-pilot period, and would need time to do so. If the decision were to not make the model more widely available, the pilots would remain in place to allow a well managed and staged transition of staff and children back to the local authority over that year, to ensure minimum disruption to their lives. That is an essential part of ensuring that we support the lives of the children and young people in the pilot authorities, and it is vital to give sufficient time for that.
I hope that members of the Committee will see that while the pilots themselves will not last for the five-year period, we need five years to do all the things around the piloting, including set-up, evaluation, ensuring that we have the evidence base needed to take the right decisions for looked-after children, and consulting on the way forward before taking important decisions. It is also clear from the Bill that we will need to move promptly on Royal Assent. I hope that that goes some way towards explaining why the pilot in the Bill is set at five years.
Has the Minister envisaged an extension to the pilot scheme—currently with nine local authorities—whereby if, after the first two-year period of more tightly controlled piloting, sufficient interest is shown by local authorities, which will undoubtedly have been exposed to the other pilot schemes by the nature of the cross boundaries between local authorities, they will be allowed to participate in the scheme during that five-year period?
It is not intended at this stage for there to be any more pilots than the ones that we will announce. As the hon. Gentleman says, if this model becomes immediately attractive and highly successful and is lauded universally, there may be a queue of local authorities desirous of taking it up at an early stage. However, the appropriate thing to do is what we have indicated, which is to set up the pilots that have been funded in the “Care Matters” implementation plan, and to properly and independently evaluate them before making them universally available to other local authorities. I hope that my remarks have explained why we need five years from the date that the Act is passed. On that basis, and given that I understand why the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham was probing for more detail, I hope that the amendment will be withdrawn.
I am grateful for the Minister’s helpful comments. It is clear that it is not just some five years hence and then perhaps some after that, but that the Government appear to have a clearer timetable, which is more rapid and concise than I had anticipated. That is to be welcomed.
When the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole rose to give reluctant support I thought that she was going to pitch for four years, and split the difference between three and five.
It is important that if we are to test the approach as a potential attractive new model, we should get on with it. The assessment part of the piloting timetable that the Government appear to have set is relatively small—not the full five years—and that is helpful. I am also encouraged by the Minister’s comments about proper independent evaluation and consultation in 2011-12 as an essential part of what happens and, looking forward to the regulatory regime, the need to construct an inspection regime. That clarification was helpful, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
We have had a fairly good kick around on clauses 1 to 6. Clause 6 is, as I said, crucial to our work on social work practices, because it enables us to test the model. In discussion of the amendments we have had the opportunity to set out in detail how we intend to do that.