‘or submit a written explanation of why such a placement was not desirable or achievable’.
This is an obviously vital clause at the heart of the Bill. Largely rewritten in the House of Lords, it deals with the mechanics of how children in care are placed, giving priority to children being placed with extended family members if possible and making stipulations about distances from where the child comes from and about trying to maintain continuity of education and so on. That goes to the heart of what the Bill is about and is very welcome to the whole Committee and to those of us who over many years have drawn attention to the enormous disruption caused by the lack of stability in the life of a child in the care system, which can only exacerbate the many problems that such a child will already have. We welcome very much the level of commitment that clause 9 indicates, but once again we want to try to tighten the provision to get some greater definition in the Bill.
Amendment No. 6 relates to the proposed new section 22C(7) that section 9 would insert into the Children Act 1989, which is about the hierarchy of extended family members. Many of us would agree that some such form of hierarchy is needed for children who must be taken from their birth parents or parent into care, for however long a time, and that wherever possible, the best alternative, if there is no threat of harm to the child, is for them to be placed with another family member, close relative or close friend—someone with whom there is already familiarity and a relationship of trust. Failing that, the next choice would be non-related foster parents or perhaps specialist foster parents, if the child has complex needs or disabilities, or other kinds of foster parents, and then, if those were not available, and if it was appropriate, placement in a residential care environment.
In many cases, the residential care environment might be the best option. I do not in any way mean to put it at the bottom of the pile, but many of us have seen children who have been sent first to residential care simply because of the unavailability of suitable foster care closer to home. I hope that we can get the right balance in the future, but it must be horses for courses, and a question of what is in the best interests of the child.
In proposed new section 22C(6) of the 1989 Act, the Government have set out what they mean by an extended family placement, defining it as
“placement with an individual who is a relative, friend or other person connected with” the child, who has been recommended by the local authority. We are trying to make that the absolute default position, and to require that if it is not possible the fact should be properly accounted for.
Although finding a placement with a kinship carer has for some considerable time been a preference—kinship care is described in section 17 of the Children Act 1989—in too many cases, it is still not happening. There have been various studies, perhaps the most definitive of which suggested that only 4 per cent. of placements initiated by social workers are with an extended family member who comes within the provisions of new section 22C(6). I think that I pointed out earlier the contrast with places such as Denmark, where some 45 per cent. of such foster care placements are with extended family members. There seems to be a bit of a discrepancy. Yet it has been estimated that between 200,000 and 300,000 children in this country are living with relatives who are not their parents, and only a small proportion of those are looked-after children. That has implications, of course, for private fostering registration schemes, which we shall be returning to later in our consideration of the Bill, if some of us get our way.
Most people acknowledge that there are clear advantages to kinship caring and placements with family members. The Family Rights Group has set some of those out in its brief, which it has provided to hon. Members. The brief details well-evidenced advantages in children who cannot live with their parents being raised by family and friends. It lists those advantages:
“Children in family and friends care tend to be in more stable placements that those placed with unrelated foster carers.”
“Children feel loved and report high levels of satisfaction.”
“Children appear to be as safe and their behaviour is perceived to be less of a problem when compared to children with unrelated foster carers.”
“Children placed within their family can more easily maintain a sense of family and cultural identity.”
“Contact with family members is more likely to be maintained.”
Therefore, that arrangement presses a lot of the right buttons. Familiarity with the carers tends to lead to greater short-term and long-term stability. For children who come from particularly traumatic family homes, a second chance of a stable upbringing is absolutely what they need.
There are some difficulties, which the Family Rights Group has also pointed out. A few of those are:
“Family and friends carers are more likely to be older, in poorer health and in more disadvantaged circumstances when compared to unrelated foster carers, yet receive significantly less support.”
“Some family and friends carers incur large legal costs in securing the care of children at risk of ill treatment.”
I am sure that many hon. Members will have had such cases in their constituency surgeries, often grandparents who want to take on responsibility for a grandchild whose parent has typically had drug or drink problems and is unable to look after the child. However, they face an uphill battle, struggling to make the case that they are capable of looking after the child to a social worker, to the local authority, and then having to go through the legal rigmarole, especially if it may ultimately be an adoptive placement. We should surely be making it easier rather than harder for people who are prepared to step into the breach and take on a child who would otherwise fall exclusively on the public purse, either with a non-related foster carer or in a home, at much greater expense and with much less chance of stability.
The group also points out:
“There are wide variations between local authorities in policies, support, finance and attitudes toward family and friends care, and in numbers of children placed with family and friends”.
“Access and entitlement to support, including financial support is based on legal status and not on need, resulting in some carers suffering significant financial hardship.”
“Assessment depends on legal status rather than need, thus risking inconsistent and inappropriate assessments. Some family and friends carers are subject to full fostering assessments that are essentially geared to non relatives while others have no assessment.”
We do not make some of those placements as easy as we might, and there is a big differential in how they are treated in different parts of the country. Surely we need to send out a clear signal with this Bill that that group of people should be given preference wherever possible, where it is in the interests of the child and where there is no risk to the child. Obviously, if part of the reason for removing a child from a family is the interference of extended family members who have exacerbated the problem, such a placement would not be in the best interests of the child. However, there are often other extended family members who could step into the breach. It is a mystery to me why that form of placement does not happen more readily in this country, compared with other countries. I have already referred to Denmark.
The brief we received from the National Children’s Bureau presented a few potential answers to the question of what the barriers to using kinship carers may be. It mentions that
“social worker power can be lessened by kin placements.”
Do some social workers see them as a bit of a challenge? Is it much easier to take the child completely away from a family environment, to give them a completely clean break in a placement with a foster carer directly employed by the local authority and with no connection to the family? The brief also mentions that
“the complexity of family relationships and kin loyalties” are considered
“more difficult to work with than non-kin foster care.”
Is that because social workers have such an enormous work load? We described earlier the great stresses on them and it is less likely to be problematic if a child is placed with a non-related foster carer. In many cases, do social workers
“see kin as part of the problem, rather than the solution, and therefore not favour such placements”?
“in children in kinship care compared to those in non-related foster care, and kinship caregivers tend to see themselves in more of a parenting role than do non-related caregivers and recognise the importance of their role in facilitating the child’s relationship with its family.”
A child has a better chance of returning to the family home with the birth parents or parent if extended family members are used—for example, if a mother with a drink or drug problem goes through rehabilitation and can take on the parental role again.
The family drug and alcohol court being trialled in Wells street by District Judge Crichton is an interesting experiment, which is based on an idea from California. The Government, to give them their due, have recently agreed to fund that pilot. I have seen videos from one of the courts in Santa Barbara or Santa Monica and it is a very interesting approach. The parents typically have a drink or drug problem and face care proceedings. In the past, the parent may have been given a last chance to get their act together or else the child would be taken into care. However, to get his or her act together that parent needs rehabilitation for the drink or drug problem, medical treatment, and often housing assistance as well. If a person is not in stable accommodation, they often go off the rails and other problems that are symptomatic of the underlying difficulty may come into the open.
The judge in the family drug courts assembles a group of professionals from various agencies—the local council, housing authority, health authority, drug rehabilitation service, social services and perhaps somebody from an education environment—to put together a package of care that should enable that person to rehabilitate themselves, if, when faced with the threat of losing a child into the care system, they are serious about wanting to do so. That is the last chance saloon. They will be enabled to rehabilitate themselves, and, if they show themselves as being up to the job and take advantage of the package of care, the child will be able to stay with that parent.
The holistic approach is very exciting. I am sure that the pilots in Wells street will be successful. Too often we look at the problems in isolation and tackle the symptoms rather than the root causes, which can result in parents in miserable circumstances facing the tragedy of losing a child. Often the support of an extended family member, or even respite care in a temporary placement, can aid somebody to get the treatment and assistance that they need to get their act together so that they can recover sufficiently to get their child back. Kinship carers are key on all levels of temporary or long-term placement and support.
The amendment says that the default position must be that a far more extensive pursuit of a family or friend placement should be undertaken. If, after an exhaustive pursuit of that placement, it is not possible to place the child
“with an individual who is a relative, friend or other person connected with” them, as set out in new section 22C (6), a written explanation should be provided and made available to the relevant parties.
We speak to people whose children have been taken into the care system. I quoted the Ofsted report, which said that birth parents do not feel that they have been engaged in the process and do not understand why their children have been taken away or why they have been placed with somebody completely detached from the family, particularly if there is a family member—typically the child’s grandparent—who is prepared to take on the responsibility. It is perfectly reasonable to place a specific requirement on the social worker responsible for the child to submit a written explanation if it is not possible to place the child within the terms of subsection (6)(a). They should account for why that was not possible and outline under what terms it might be possible to do so in future.
We want to strengthen what the Government are trying to do under the connected persons provision and ensure that there is an increase in the 4 per cent. of placements that are currently made with kinship carers. If that is not increased, we need to know why. I do not know, and I am sure that the Minister does not know, why we do not have more kinship placements. That is the reason for the amendment and I commend it to the Committee.
I genuinely have no difficulty with the spirit of the amendment. I hope that I can explain how the extra leverage that the hon. Gentleman proposes through the requirement of a written record is accommodated in the care planning system that is being established. According to the figures that I have been given, 9 per cent. of looked-after children are placed with parents and a further 11 per cent. live with related foster carers. That is 20 per cent altogether. It is not enough, but it is rather more than the 4 per cent. that he mentioned.
It is extremely important that local authorities make the right placement decisions for the children that they look after. Such decisions go right to the heart of whether they are providing the best possible care. They will affect the ability of those children to maintain relationships with their birth families, their friends and their local communities. They will affect their chances of reunification. They will also impact on their progress in the longer term.
Enabling children to live with people who they know and trust wherever possible is key to influencing their life chances for the better. If they cannot live with their parents, the arrangements should first and foremost be with family and friends for those within and outside the care system. The Bill provides a clear hierarchical framework to support such arrangements while allowing flexibility for decisions that reflect individual circumstances. We have to do that and I know that hon. Members will appreciate why. The continuing role of family and friends as carers is one the key factors that will be taken into account. Most importantly, placement decisions should be made in the interests of the child.
As the hon. Gentleman said, clause 9 is the product of much consultation and of detailed consideration by many experienced people in the other place. As it is crafted, it will ensure that decisions are made in the way that I have described. It includes much of section 23 of the 1989 Act, but it is much clearer about the kind of considerations that will apply to placement decisions.
Where placement with parents is not possible, the clause requires a local authority to place the child in the most appropriate placement available. The determination of that is subject to a number of constraints. First, subsection (7) requires that the decision be taken in accordance with the local authority’s other duties under part III of the 1989 Act, with particular regard to their duties under section 22 to safeguard and promote the child’s welfare, to ascertain and give due consideration to the child’s wishes and feelings and to those of other relevant persons.
I am setting out the sequence of the legislation and how it works together to provide clarity. When considering the placement options available to it, the local authority must give first preference to placement with a relative, friend or other person connected with the child. That reflects our commitment to the principle that children should, wherever possible, be brought up in their own families and communities.
Sometimes, such placements will not be in the child’s interests, and although we recognise that they might not always be possible, we must make a real push to ensure that local authorities always consider the potential for relatives or friends to care for the child. They should not only do that at the first stage of decision making, but revisit the issue at every subsequent stage. That reflects the commitment that we made in the “Care Matters” White Paper to put in place a gateway approach, and that is what I want to see. At every stage of the process, there should be a gateway mentality, with people asking whether the child should be with family and friends.
I am listening carefully, but could the Minister outline the process from the point when we introduce the Bill? How will this new culture—the new regulations—operate in practice? Some authorities are excellent at dealing with such issues, but the good practice is not spreading, and I do not feel that simply introducing the legislation is enough. What back-up actions is the Minister thinking of?
That is an important point that goes to the heart of my response to the amendment. The back-up procedures that we are putting in place will start to inculcate what the hon. Lady rightly calls a change of culture, which is what is needed in some local authorities.
For example, as part of making the proposals a reality, we published the new volume 1 of the court order guidance in January. The guidance introduced a requirement that relatives and friends should, as far as possible, be considered as potential carers in all cases, as part of the care plan that is lodged with the court at the outset of care proceedings. About 60 per cent. of children are looked after as a result of going through court proceedings, so we have a potentially strong lever here. The guidance that the courts now have makes it clear that they are required to check that the care plan has thoroughly examined and assessed whether there is a possibility of the child living with family or a friend. If not, the courts are required to ask why not. That is one important lever.
Another important lever, which relates to the proposal in the amendment, is that all local authorities are now required to use the integrated children’s system. That is an electronic system or template setting out in great detail the content of the care plan. Under the ICS, the care plan for a looked-after child requires the social worker to record evidence of the wider family’s capacity to care for the child as one of the family and environmental factors. That includes the practical efforts that have been made to ensure that such placements could happen.
Our intention is to make kinship care a reality in practice, and all of us on the Committee share that intention. Under the ICS, we are requiring social workers—this is true of all the care plan, but particularly where children do not go through the court processes and the court does not examine these issues—not only to mention their assessment of the wider family’s capacity to care for the child, but to give evidence in a particular place in the care plan to support that assessment.
It will be recorded in the care plan, so it will be available to the social worker’s supervisors, but it will also be available and very clearly evident to the independent reviewing officer, who will be able to see easily whether the questions about the potential for family care have been examined thoroughly and, if the child is not to be placed there, why not.
The guidance that we produce—we are rewriting all the guidance—will also require social workers to notify the parents in writing about the care plan, as well as the child, other carers, representatives of other agencies involved with the child and others with a sufficient interest in the child. There is an intention to notify them, if not of the contents of the document itself—I will get a specific answer on that—certainly of the conclusions of the care plan and why they have been drawn.
I think that we agree completely that the decision-making process relating to that question needs to be clearly recorded and easily accessible by the other people within the system, including the IRO, the court, the child’s parents and carers and the child himself or herself. Through those two processes—the court process and, more generally for all children, the requirement to record the care plan in the ICS—that record will already be included.
However, we will not stop there. As I have explained, the significance of clause 9 is that we are bringing together all the requirements for care planning in one set of regulations. As we update the statutory guidance and develop those regulations to drive forward practice—that is the issue, as hon. Members have rightly said—as part of the delivery of the “Care Matters” programme, we will ensure that the requirements in clause 9 to consider family placements are fully reflected in the new guidance and regulations and that they mirror what we have included in the revised court order guidance where children are subject to family proceedings.
I just want to check whether a particular situation would be covered in regulations. I have a case involving a grandparent who is too ill and too old to take on long-term care of the child. The grandparent accepts that the child cannot stay. The child is likely to go to foster care and maybe, eventually, to adoption, but my constituent would like to remain the child’s grandmother throughout. It has been difficult to argue that with the local authority. Can Minister tell me whether the regulations can give me any comfort? It is another layer where a grandparent might lose their status, and there is no reason why they should.
As the hon. Lady will appreciate, it is difficult to comment on individual cases. I do not know why that child is in care, whether there were any safeguarding issues with the family or anything else, but it is in the spirit of what we are including in the Bill and my passionate belief that we must enable children to keep their links with their birth family wherever and whenever that is conducive to their well-being. If that particular case gets to the adoption stage, issues will need to be worked out about adoptive parents and how that can be managed. However, in many cases, adopted children, with the agreement of all concerned, now keep in contact with their wider birth family. I would certainly like to see that trend continued and developed.
In conclusion, I agree completely with the two main arguments put by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham about the importance of enabling contact and enabling children as far as possible to live with family members or friends and the importance of maintaining effective records of decisions. The record should be one of the levers that keep the system charged and focused on the importance of the question and of considering it carefully for each child. Although he was a little sceptical and thought that I was going to brush aside his comments, I hope that he accepts that I agree with the spirit of the amendment and that we have provided for what the amendment would require in the various recording arrangements that are already embedded in the system. To require a separate written report outside that system would add to the bureaucracy and the need to use laptops when we are trying to streamline the system so that social workers can keep proper records in a way that reduces the record-keeping demands on them.
I do not think that I can provide better evidence than the speculations in the research cited by the hon. Gentleman. The practice is very good in some local authorities. The reasons that he cited from the NCH can be felt in some local authorities and one can feel that it is more difficult for social workers in those authorities. It is a reality that they have to untangle and make sense of what might be long histories of relationships between adults in the families. There may be difficulties between potential carers and the parents. Within that, the social workers have to determine what is in the child’s interests. I am not arguing that social workers should not try to work through those issues, but I can understand that making good decisions can seem difficult for them.
It may be that there is genuine antipathy towards family care in some places. We have to cut through that completely and make a very strong statement that this is what children say that they want and that this is what we know is in the best interests of children. I hope that, with the support of Committee members, we will start to inculcate the change of culture that is clearly necessary through the provisions of the Bill. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept those points and my assurances and will withdraw the amendment.
There are clear discrepancies in the evidence. I quoted from the Farmer and Moyers research, which found that social workers initiated only 4 per cent. of family and friends placements. I have seen other research by grandparents’ groups, which suggests that it is as low as 1 per cent. Other research suggests that the figure is 11 or 12 per cent.
There are also big discrepancies between local authorities, which is a real problem. This issue goes back to the tables of differential multiple placement records. A child who needs to be placed into the care of a local authority faces the same sort of problems whether in Cornwall, Stoke or Barnet, which are the three authorities that we cited earlier. The problems may be of a different magnitude, but interestingly, the research that I quoted suggests that there tends to be a greater willingness for extended family members to come forward as potential carers in more deprived areas. It is a problem on a number of levels that certain local authorities have different experiences and produce very different outcomes in how they place or look after the children in the care system, whether in foster care, kinship care or whatever. That merits closer assessment by the Government.
I am assured by the Minister that what I am trying to achieve is already being put in place. However, it is important that the message goes out from this short debate that this issue is a priority. It is not just another piece of paper on which the social worker responsible is supposed to tick various boxes; it is an important priority.
I cannot remember what the Minister said. Would she like to remind us what the figures were, or has she forgotten as well? [Interruption.] Anyway, there are big discrepancies among all the different figures. The Government might like to undertake research to get to the bottom of it and why it is going on. [Interruption.] We will read it in Hansard tomorrow.
A clear directive needs to go out as part of the guidance within the ICS. A culture change is required, which is why the thrust of the amendment was that it must be the default position, without which the responsible social worker must be forced to make a serious assessment of why it was not possible. The reason why I also queried whether that should be available in some form to the parents as well goes back to the Ofsted study that I quoted earlier. Parents and extended family members feel very much in the dark about why decisions have been taken. Many of the cases that we get in our surgeries involve grandparents who cannot understand why they have been rejected as foster carers or even adoptive parents when, on the face of it, they are the ideal person. Are they just getting the brush-off from a social worker who may be lazy, risk-averse or completely stressed out for all sorts of other reasons and unable to give the priority suggested in the directions?
On the basis that the Minister has said that there will be a culture change and we will hopefully start to see a radical improvement in the figures, which in turn will lead to greater stability among the placements so that there will be fewer placements with fewer different, unconnected bodies, I am happy to take her at her word. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
‘or siblings to be placed together and maintain that placement for as long as is reasonably practicable and in the interests of C’.
New clause 4—Sibling contact—
‘After section 34 of the 1989 Act insert—
“34A Sibling contact
(1) Where it is not consistent with the child’s welfare to be accommodated with a sibling, the local authority shall take all reasonable steps to ensure the child can maintain contact with his or her sibling on a regular basis.
(2) The local authority shall take all reasonable steps to ensure the child can maintain contact with any other siblings.
(3) Subsections (1) and (2) shall not apply if the child or the sibling objects to it and the authority is satisfied that the child or sibling has sufficient understanding to make an informed decision.”’.
New clause 30—Sibling contact (No. 2)—
‘(1) The 1989 Act is amended as follows.
(2) In section 34(1) after paragraph (a) insert—
“(aa) any sibling of his;”.
(3) In Schedule 2, paragraph 15(1) after paragraph (a) insert—
“(aa) any sibling of his;”’.
It is me again, I am afraid. The amendments all deal with clause 9, but now we move to the also vital subject of siblings. Again, we may bandy around figures, but one thing is accepted—the Minister alluded to it just now, as did I—about connections with birth family members: it is absolutely essential that wherever possible, a child should be able to benefit from continued contact with a sibling, whether or not they are taken into care.
As we know, in certain families, some children are taken into the care system and some remain with the birth family. In the worst circumstances, children can be spread among different care placements. Surely it must be a fundamental principle that wherever possible, if there is more than one child, it is in the children’s best interests that they should be placed together. That puts great pressure on foster placements. If four children are taken away from a family, it is not easy to find a specialist foster placement for them, particularly if they have challenging behavioural problems or learning disabilities or a particular ethnic background that needs to be taken into account. However, surely the preferred position—it is what is supposed to happen—must be that those siblings should remain together.
The clause and proposed new section 22C(8) give a hierarchy of priorities. A child should be able to be kept near their home and may be prioritised for placement with a sibling wherever possible. The terminology could be misconstrued. That is why amendment No. 7 suggests adding the words “or siblings”. Technically, my reading of it is that subsection (8) refers to only one sibling even if a child is part of a group of three or more siblings. For completeness and to avoid misinterpretation, we suggest that subsection (8)(c) should state:
“if C has a sibling or siblings for whom the local authority are also providing accommodation”.
That is the technical purpose of amendment No. 7.
I turn to amendment No. 8. Subsection (8) refers to siblings being able “to live together”. What does that mean? Does it mean that they are together for one day? Does it mean that they see each other occasionally, that they are close by but are still “together”? That, again, could be misinterpreted. What is meant by the subsection is that the children should be placed together in the same placement, with the same foster family or in the same kinship arrangement, in the same premises. We therefore suggest that instead of the siblings living together they should be
“placed together and maintain that placement for as long as is reasonably practicable”.
Under a strict reading of the provision, an authority that put those two or more children together for a day or a week would have fulfilled that qualification. I am sure that it is the Government’s intention that they should be placed together for as long as possible, in order to provide stability.
Those are points of clarification. The amendments would not take anything away from the Bill, but they would make what is intended more evident.
The hon. Gentleman is uncharacteristically ungenerous in not admitting that the clause is a good development. Can he not bring himself to say that, with or without his minor amendments, it is really good that we want to put children with their parents or other family carers and, failing that, that they should go to the most appropriate placement, which includes living with their siblings, if they have any, whenever possible?
The hon. Gentleman is being uncharacteristically churlish. I started by saying clearly that the clause was welcome. It has been rewritten and greatly improved. We very much approve and support, as I have said, the hierarchy of kinship care. We approve of the detail on putting siblings together. I am trying to improve it further, in order to ensure that it is not open to misinterpretation. The hon. Gentleman and I share the same goal. Although it is always good to hear from him, he is being slightly churlish at this juncture. I am trying to give credit where credit is due.
New clause 4 takes a belt-and-braces approach. It places a duty on an authority to “take all reasonable steps” to ensure that if the siblings cannot be placed together because of problems—the siblings may have suffered a traumatic time and cannot live together; that may be one reason why the home has broken down—whenever possible there should be the means for those siblings to keep contact if they desire it. Again, both sides have spoken of the desirability of retaining some family contact whenever possible. The local authority should take all reasonable steps to ensure that the child can “maintain contact” with other siblings, but with the get-out provision in subsection (3) that if the child does not want it, it will not be forced on them.
I rise to ask the hon. Gentleman about a welfare get-out from contact between siblings. I very much support his point—indeed, I hope to speak in a moment to a new clause on sibling contact—but we would not want to force sibling contact when it is contrary to a child’s welfare. Clearly, we are not going to force them to live together if it is against their welfare, and new clause 4 recognises that point with its proposed new section 34A(1) of the Children Act 1989. However, the Bill does not say that there would be contact subject to the welfare of the child. It refers to “taking all reasonable steps”, and we could argue that it would not be reasonable to enable contact if it were against the child’s welfare. However, that is not explicit in the Bill. The hon. Gentleman just said that his proposal has a proviso about consent but it is not the same as the welfare of the child. Does he agree that there is a bit missing from the Bill?
Yes. That is a good point. The Minister has lots of civil servants who could go through the detail of the Bill, and somewhere the terminology will demonstrate that it involves the welfare of the child rather than just consent. The hon. Gentleman is quite right to raise the issue, and I can envisage a situation in which a young boy wants to see his sister and has no objection to it, but the child may have been separated because, for example, there was some inappropriate sexual behaviour between the two and it would not therefore be in the best interests of the welfare of the child for those two children to be brought together occasionally. The question is not just about objecting because the child does not want contact; there is a welfare factor in respect of both children or more siblings. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and perhaps in his amendment he will take account of it, too. I entirely take his point on board.
There is a wider issue within the amendments, too. Local authorities should not just enable contact; they should promote it. Other than in the circumstances that the hon. Gentleman and I have just described, it is in the best interests of the children to maintain such contact, particularly if they are unable to maintain kinship contact with the older generation of their family. A sibling may be the only family member who comes into a child’s environment at all, so there should be a duty on local authorities not only to enable contact but to promote it—to make it a practical reality, particularly if the siblings are not able to stay together. If the foster placement were in danger of breaking down, perhaps because of insufficient support for the family in respect of their special needs due to dealing with a complicated set of siblings, the prime consideration should be whether an alternative foster placement, which did not keep those two or more siblings together, would be preferable to keeping the existing placement.
The three amendments, grouped with new clause 4, would only add detail and definition to the Bill. They are absolutely intended to achieve the objectives that I am sure the Government want to achieve—quite rightly and praiseworthily, having included clause 9. On that basis, I hope that the Minister will accommodate me by saying that this is a good idea and the Government accept it.
I rise to speak to new clause 30, which is grouped with amendment No. 7. Like the hon. Gentleman’s amendment, the new clause is about ensuring that local authorities facilitate contact between siblings if they are not accommodated at the same place. The formulation in the new clause is slightly narrower than that which the hon. Gentleman attempted, because it would simply amend section 34 of the 1989 Act. It already includes the full panoply of a local authority allowing reasonable contact between a child and various groups of named people, but it does not include naming siblings. The amendment would include siblings on the list. The 1989 Act says that where a child is in the care of the local authority, the authority shall allow the child reasonable contact with parents, guardian and anybody with a residence order, and the proposal would add “siblings” to show that the local authority should also allow reasonable contact with a brother or sister.
Yes, because siblings are simply brothers and sisters wherever they are. The local authority’s duty is to the child in its care, so if one child was in care and one was not, allowing contact would be to allow contact with the child that was not in care. I think that that is the point on which the hon. Gentleman wants clarification.
The good thing about amending section 34 of the 1989 Act is that it goes on to provide many safeguards in order to ensure that the contact takes place safely. For example, if the local authority had doubts about whether contact was a good thing, it could refuse to allow it to take place. The person who wanted to object could apply to a court, and the court could make an order or refuse to make an order, depending on the circumstances of the case. In that sense, everything is protected.
New clause 30 would make a similar amendment to paragraph 15 of schedule 2 to the 1989 Act to ensure that the two provisions are consistent, but I read the measure more carefully when preparing to speak to it and I found that the Children Act 1989 is inconsistent. Paragraph 15 states:
“Where a child is being looked after by a local authority, the authority shall, unless it is not reasonably practicable or consistent with his welfare, endeavour to promote contact between the child”— this is the point that the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham made about promotion—
(a) his parents;
(b) any person who is not a parent of his but who has parental responsibility for him; and
(c) any relative, friend or other person connected with him.”
I took the trouble to look at the definition of “relative” in the 1989 Act. I see that it includes brothers and sisters, so brothers and sisters are covered in a schedule to the 1989 Act, but not in section 34—the primary legislation that matters the most. I should have thought that Parliament would be compelled to put that right and make it happen.
The hon. Gentleman made the case well on why sibling contact is important, but it is worth pointing out to the Ministers that their Department published its summary of responses to its consultation on the “Care Matters: Transforming the Lives of Children and Young People in Care” Green Paper last December. In the summary, it said:
“Many of the children and young people we have spoken to thought that it was vital to keep siblings together wherever possible.”
That is where clause 9 helps. The summary went on to say:
“Where this is not possible, maintaining contact with siblings is very important to young people.”
That is a very welcome statement. It is an all the more compelling reason for the Department to think that the amendment should be made.
The children’s rights director, Roger Morgan, published a report in December 2007 that gave the views of 433 children on improving care standards, which said:
“care placements should be designed so that brothers and sisters can stay together”.
That was the children’s fourth main recommendation.
Finally, the Family Rights Group has produced a briefing for members of the Committee in which it stated that NSPCC research published in 2000 entitled “Your shout too!” found that more than one third of children in care felt that they did not see enough of their brothers and sisters. That is compelling evidence of the need for an amendment, and new clause 30 is the right form for making that change rather than the other proposals included in this group of amendments.
I support both new clauses. The point has been made clearly about the great desire for more sibling contact. It is evidenced by a number of surveys, including one by A National Voice, an organisation that is run by four young people in care. That showed that 83 per cent. of children and young people who do not live with their birth siblings would like to see more of them. The critical point is the difference between allowing something and facilitating and supporting it, which is one step further. I would certainly want the caveat of when it was in the children’s interests for that contact to take place and safe to do so, with welfare being absolutely paramount.
Within those parameters, however, we should go that one step further to be truly facilitating. Travel expenses might be provided—I believe that they are—but sometimes more is needed. Making the first contact is a big step, so perhaps a person might need some support to undertake the journey rather than just the cost. I support the thrust of both new clauses and hope that the Minister, should she find the wording unsatisfactory, will be able to accommodate the views that have been expressed with regard to sibling contact.
We are all aware of the importance that looked-after children place on their relationships with their brothers and sisters and the importance of those relationships for their well-being and progress, and in that regard we are all coming from the same point of view. These are the relationships that, for most children, endure throughout childhood and beyond and can provide that much needed stability and emotional support that we are seeking in a child’s life, so I share the sentiments behind amendments Nos. 7 and 8, which relate to the placing of siblings together.
“unless the contrary intention appeals,...words in the singular include the plural”,
and vice versa. I did not know that before today, but think that it deals with amendment No. 7, for absolute clarity.
Amendment No. 8 relates to the placement of siblings together. For looked-after children it can be all too easy for relationships with siblings to be lost by being placed separately, either because the different needs and circumstances of individual family members might lead them along different paths in care or because there are too many children to accommodate, at least initially, in one foster family. We are extremely concerned to ensure that children are placed with their siblings wherever possible and where consistent with the welfare of each child. We expect those placements to be maintained as long as they remain suitable, in accordance with the overarching responsibilities of the local authorities to safeguard and promote the welfare of children for whom they are providing that type of accommodation.
Furthermore, the Bill places an expectation on local authorities to ensure that there is sufficient accommodation of a suitable type across the range of accommodation needs. When we draw up the guidance on how local authorities should fulfil that sufficiency duty and develop their commissioning strategies, we will include references to the possible need to accommodate sibling groups.
The right hon. Lady’s final comment relates closely to the point that I was about to make about the deficiency in the present system of foster carers who are able to take sibling groups of three or more, which accounts for a fair proportion of the children going through the care system. Will she clarify what the Government propose to do to expand that group of foster carers to ensure that sibling groups are not split up simply because there is not provision, despite the spirit of the Bill, for them to remain together within the care system.
I share the hon. Gentleman’s views. As I have said, we are emphasising the need for children to stay with brothers and sisters where it is in their interests to do so, and we are giving local authorities a duty to ensure that there is sufficient suitable accommodation of various types. That duty is given in the Bill, and in the guidance we will refer specifically to the need to anticipate and make provision for a wider range of placements, including those that will enable siblings to stay together.
Where siblings are separated on entry to care, perhaps because of a lack of capacity or because it is physically not possible to place them together at that point, we expect that separation and the reasons for it to be included in the care plan. If it is not possible to place siblings together, IROs should track the arrangements that are being made to reunite them at the earliest opportunity, so that that is in the interest of each child, and that appropriate arrangements are made for contact in the mean time.
Mr. Pope, I apologise for not being here this morning and if I missed anything important that is relevant to my question, but I wonder whether the Minister has any figures that would help the Committee to understand roughly how many children coming into care did so as two or three siblings together. How many children came alone and how many came as two, three or more together? My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich has suggested that, in his experience, a large number of children coming from one family were more likely to be in this position.
I do not have a breakdown of the number of siblings and how many were in each grouping. The range is broad. Hon. Members may be familiar with a recently publicised case where 14 children in one family were taken into care at various times. Clearly, that is an extreme example of the sort of pressure that there can be on local authorities. Much more normally, where siblings are involved it tends to be groups of two or three. I shall see whether figures are available and if so, I shall let the hon. Lady have them.
The child’s permanence record, which is prepared when a child is being placed away from home long term, including for adoption, requires an enormous amount of detail about each sibling to be recorded to ensure that contact can be maintained or resumed in the future where they are not being placed together. Our intentions are clear. Together with the sufficiency duty that we are requiring local authorities to take on, I cannot see that amendment No. 8 would make any difference in practice to the duty in clause 9 in relation to placement.
The amendment talks about maintaining the placement, but I cannot imagine that local authorities would wilfully not support successful placements—indeed, there would be a huge financial disincentive to doing so. As a further strength, both in the new Children Act guidance that we are completely rewriting and in the first ever statutory guidance to independent reviewing officers, we will reinforce the considerations in respect of sibling placements and the importance of supporting sibling contact.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford, because the inclusion of new section 22C(8)(c), which requires a local authority to provide accommodation for siblings to live together, is a huge step forward. It makes clear our intentions to local authorities, which we will support and buttress in the guidance that we give to them.
The new clauses deal with contact between siblings. Obviously, we are all aware of the difficulties that contact presents for some children and families who are separated. It can generate difficult, mixed feelings; it requires careful planning, organisation and in some cases supervision for that contact to be maintained when they have been separated. Paragraph 15 of schedule 2 to the Children Act 1989, which my hon. Friend had diligently researched, explicitly requires local authorities, as he said, to be proactive in not just maintaining contact, but promoting it—indeed, it is headed:
“Promotion and maintenance of contact between child and family”
Included in that paragraph is a reference to “any relative.” As he said, under section 105 of the Act, the definition of “relative” specifically encompasses grandparents, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts and stepsiblings. The point is that the law as it stands already requires local authorities to maintain contact between siblings. I accept my hon. Friend’s argument—up to a point—that we have to work from section 34 to schedule 2 and on to the definitions in section 105 of the 1989 Act; none the less it is there in statute, and we would achieve nothing more by accepting the amendments.
Is there not a slight difference under section 34, because if the local authority fails to allow the contact that it is supposed to be promoting, as the Minister explained, the person who is dissatisfied—I am arguing on behalf of the other sibling—could apply to the court for an order to make it happen? The one third or so of children in care who have no contact with a sibling, and that sibling, could go to court to force the hand of local authorities that are not doing what they are supposed to be doing.
I agree with my hon. Friend. However, my argument is—I think that his point reinforces it—that we do not need further legislation or changes to it; what we need is the current law to be implemented much more effectively. Although I recognise that there is some very good practice in relation to sibling contact, I agree with him and other Members that it is very patchy. I do not believe for a minute that sufficient priority is given in practice to ensuring that that contact happens. For that reason, we have included the requirement that contacts are reflected in the child care plan, the placement plan and the integrated children’s system, and that the IRO must pay particular attention to that matter. That is what we are trying to do throughout the Bill. Where we need to strengthen legislation, we are doing so, as in new section 22C(8)(c), but where legislative provisions already exist, we should strengthen their implementation.
I have already mentioned the ICS in relation to another clause, and shall not rehearse the details, except to say that there will be specific requirements on social workers to include in the ICS care plan all the details of siblings, including step and half siblings, arrangements for contact and the practicalities of how contact will be maintained. Guidance notices within the records will reiterate and emphasise the importance of that contact. Those new provisions, together with existing legislation, cover the intentions behind the amendments. The real challenge is to use the other measures in the Bill—particularly those on the strengthening of the IRO’s role, which we will get to shortly, and the requirements through the recording systems and the detailed guidance that we will insist on in the care plan—to achieve results in practice.
I hope that the Committee accepts my assurances on those points. We have a job to do that does not require further legislation, or changes to existing legislation. We need simply to implement the levers in place to improve the quality of social work practice.
I’m terribly sorry—that makes all the difference. On that basis, will she explain a reference in new section 22C(10), that
“The local authority may determine...the terms of any arrangements”.
Surely to be consistent that should be “arrangement” on the basis that the 1978 Act requires a reference only to the singular, rather than the plural?
Far be it from me to question parliamentary counsel. I simply refer the hon. Gentleman to what I said, which is that unless the contrary intent appears, words importing the singular include the plural and vice versa. It is a matter of decision in the drafting as to whether the singular or the plural is actually written down, but in either case, it always includes the opposite.
I hope that is clearer than mud to people other than me. Clearly that Act needs revisiting, because if a singular or a plural can be used arbitrarily, without having any effect at all, something is a bit wrong. What if one wanted to refer only to the singular rather than the plural? Anyway, that is for another committee on another day, but I am very grateful for the Minister’s explanation of sorts.
I do not think that the right hon. Lady entirely took my points about amendment No. 8. She assumes that a decent social worker would clearly want to maintain a placement with siblings for as long as possible, but we cannot take it as read that the social worker would always do everything to make it possible to keep siblings together—not just living together but placed together in a sustainable placement that enabled those two or more siblings to live together in a stable family environment for as long as possible. I think we might have to agree to disagree. I do not think that what the Minister says actually achieves our aim in amendment No. 8, but we are very much agreed on the necessary intention.
‘( ) The local authority must ensure that C does not have more than three placements within a 12 month period or more than two placements within the last year of compulsory schooling, or submit a written explanation of why this was not possible.’.
With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 3—Reviews for social worker turnover—
‘A local authority must conduct a review of a child’s experience of care if, during a child’s time in care, he or she has been looked after by three or more different social workers during the course of one single year.’.
Not wishing to appear churlish, let me say at the outset what another good addition the clause, and this particular subsection of the clause, is to the Bill, and that we want to make it even better. I hope that satisfies the hon. Member for Stafford.
There is one amendment and a new clause dealing with the related subjects of multiple placements and multiple social workers. They are on a similar theme. I quoted earlier figures from a table showing alarming differences in the local authorities who have children who have been in three or more placements during the year ending March 2007, which is a cause of great concern. The basic theme of all our discussions on the Bill has been the need to maintain some stability, continuity and familiarity with environment and carers. If a child has multiple placements—we have set a benchmark of more than three in the space of a 12-month period—that cannot be conducive to giving that child a chance of regaining some degree of stability. It is particularly important given the impact on education which is quite rightly also part of the clause.
As constituency Members, we have seen foster placements breaking down for various reasons—in many cases it is because suitable and appropriate support was not given to the foster family to enable them to cope with perhaps a particularly difficult child who has particular behavioural problems or needs—so a new foster placement has to be found. Given the shortage of fostering places—we heard recently that the Local Government Association has identified an immediate deficit of 5,250 foster carers—often it is not practically possible to find an alternative appropriate foster carer in the vicinity. That can mean, particularly within large county authority areas, placing a child many miles away, often at the opposite end of a large county, which makes the maintenance of that child at his or her school practically impossible, or possible only at great expense and with great time taken to ship them from an out-of-area placement to a school. My local authority is West Sussex county council, and I have no reason to think that West Sussex is any better or worse than other authorities are.
We need to do a lot more to ensure that multiple placements are avoided at all costs. When one looks at the table that I quoted from this morning showing that a quarter of children in the care system in Cornwall and one fifth of children in the care system in Stoke-on-Trent had three or more placements in the previous year, one becomes deeply alarmed. That figure needs to be reduced considerably. That could mean sharing the best practice of places such as Barnet, which are able to do something about the number of placements.
The two issues are interlinked. Some years ago, Barnet very boldly decided to invest in its social work work force, particularly child social workers. It launched a recruitment campaign called, “Got a new Barnet?” It attracted social workers, gave them special allowances to enable them to live in the area and focused on the welfare of its children in care. It developed a buddy system, whereby every child in care was buddied up with an officer from the local authority, from the chief executive down. That person would be the “pushy parent” in the background looking out for that child’s educational achievement, health records and so on, and asking awkward questions of the relevant department, social worker or officer when that child appeared to be achieving less than expected. The scheme proved to be very successful.
In Barnet, the number of looked-after children going to university or into equivalent further education is about 12 per cent., compared with 1 to 2 per cent. of the looked-after children population as a whole. The last time that I checked with the former director of children’s services, the vacancy rate in Barnet was less than 4 per cent.; it is 20 per cent. in other London boroughs. Barnet identified as a priority, and invested in, a well motivated, well resourced and well rewarded social work work force. That led to much lower turnover in the work force, a much better service for the children they were there to look after, and an investment in foster carers, which meant that more foster placements were likely to succeed than to break down. Such action is not rocket science and certain authorities are better than others at doing something about the problems.
We need an extra safeguard to avoid multiple placements at all costs. I refer back to the office of the children’s rights director for England’s report that I and the hon. Member for Stafford quoted from earlier. It is very rich in appropriate statistics on the attitudes of young people in the care system towards social workers. According to that report, children said that their social worker moved them when they were just settling down—a major gripe. Others said that a big issue was that social workers kept changing. One child is quoted as saying:
“I have had around 30 social workers in 10 years.”
The office of the children’s rights director heard from many young people about how important it is not to keep having new social workers.
As I mentioned earlier, many children said that they had no say in the selection of their social worker, even though they rightly identified that it is important to get on well with one’s social worker. There was a way to change the social worker if the relationship was not working from the child’s perspective—that might happen if the child felt that the social worker was overpowering them, or if they did not feel that their views, worries or feelings were being listened to. The children’s rights director also heard that careful matching was needed to get the right social worker for each child. The young people who proposed that said that they had not had any choice in who would be their social worker, even though getting on with them and trusting them was vital. One of the quotations says that
“social workers are like young people—you have your good and bad ones”.
Amendment No. 9 would make it an absolute exception for a child to have more than three placements in the space of 12 months. Ideally, they would stay in the same placement and the local authority would do everything possible to enable that. If a child had more than two placements in their last year of compulsory schooling, when continuity is vital to their achievement in their studies and examinations, a written explanation would be required.
As with the earlier amendment, it may be that the Minister will tell me that this provision will be included in new guidance. It would be reassuring if it were required in a different form. If it is not, the aim of avoiding multiple placements, which can be so damaging, is a minimum requirement of acceptability.
Similarly, new clause 3 would require that if a child had been looked after by three or more different social workers in the course of a year, the local authority must account for it. It should not just be brushed under the carpet of all of the pressures on the social work department. It may well be a requirement in the performance assessments of social worker practices that they are assessed on how few placements they are able to achieve for one of the children for whom they are being paid a bonus, as was set out in the recommendations, or they could be assessed on whether children have had the continuity of just one social worker wherever possible. If it is likely, as I envisage, that these terminologies will be applied to the new social work practices, surely we should ensure that they apply equally to social workers within the existing local authority remit.
Hopefully, these are constructive and positive proposals that will give greater definition and detail in the Bill to what the Government are trying to achieve and the goals that we all share. They make it explicit that multiple placements and the use of multiple social workers has been unacceptable for too long. A very strong message must go to the relevant departments that everything must be done to avoid those things so that we get more figures comparable with the likes of Barnet, rather than authorities at the other end of the spectrum.
As the hon. Gentleman rightly says, stability is critical for children in care. That is why stability is one of the four key principles that underpin the “Care Matters: Time for Change” White Paper and that are at the heart of the Bill. We know from our own children that they should be able to rely on stable relationships, and that applies particularly to looked-after children. They should be able to attach to people, to trust people and to gain consistent support from their carers and social workers. That kind of stability is essential in allowing looked-after children to thrive and achieve.
It is particularly crucial to minimise disruption during the two years of key stage 4, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned. Such disruptions can have a dramatic effect on the ability of children to achieve their educational potential, particularly if they have to change schools.
Most children who remain looked-after for more than a year stay in the same placement. We want to increase the proportion of children in long-term, stable care placements, because we know that that leads to the best outcomes. At the other end of the spectrum, we want to reduce the proportion of children facing three or more placement moves in a year. That is why both the measures are part of the national indicator set for local authorities and feature as a part of many recently finalised local area agreements. Since they have been part of the national indicator set, it is gratifying that there have been year-on-year improvements in relation to both—not fast enough or big enough, but the measures are none the less beginning to have a lever effect on local authority practice. Coupled with clause 9, that will further strengthen our leverage for ensuring continuous improvement at the local level.
Decisions about a child’s placement must be taken in the light of that child’s needs and circumstances. I have no difficulty with the amendment’s intentions, but I would like to put two issues to the hon. Gentleman. The first concerns the amendment’s practical effect. It would enshrine in primary legislation an assumption that it is normal or acceptable for a child to face three placements in a year as long as there are no more than three. Clearly, that is absolutely contrary to his intention, but to enshrine that figure in a Bill would not be helpful. Indeed, for the large majority of children, it would set the bar far too low. Where it is in their interest, children should ideally have a single placement where they can develop relationships and find stability and continuity. For a very small minority of children, there can be good reasons why several moves in a planned progression might be needed to prepare them for permanent attachment.
On that point, the Minister will acknowledge that that is clearly not what I want to achieve. Ofsted’s figures provide tables concentrating specifically on three or more placements. That has already been set down as a benchmark by her own Department for what is not acceptable. We need to set a threshold somewhere, whether at two, three or whatever, above which it is absolutely not acceptable. With all the incentives to push it down even further, we need to start somewhere.
I agree with the spirit of what the hon. Gentleman says. Arguably, if we were setting the national indicator set now, we might have defined it rather more ambitiously than three or more placements. He is right that that benchmark is enshrined in the national indicator set and reinforced in guidance, but my point was that I would be worried about putting that permanently in legislation. We need to be more ambitious than that for most children. Putting it in the Bill might, over time, normalise it as an acceptable benchmark. We want to ensure that most children’s number of placements is far lower.
Surely the Minister is aware from the figures quoted by my hon. Friend that the number placed twice is far too high. We know that the figures are low for one, but I am not sure that they are low enough. Where are the rest? Are they like that or like this, or somewhere in between?
The majority of children who remain in care for more than a year stay in the same placement. We also know that a substantial number of children—about 40 per cent., I think—are in care for a year or less before returning home. We are talking about a small minority of children, but none the less a substantial one. As of 31 March 2003, 14.8 per cent. of looked-after children had had three or more placements. By 2007, that had fallen to 12.3 per cent. of children in care. It is a minority, and it is falling, but it is still too many, and we want to reduce that as much as we can.
It seems that there are three aspects of a child’s circumstances that might cause several placements. Otherwise, the issue is the skill with which the placement is made, and the pool of foster carers or of social workers, which we discussed in depth. What is the Minister doing to encourage local authorities to recruit a larger pool of foster carers, with a wide variety of skills? That is an ingredient that we need.
The hon. Lady will be familiar with those aspects of the “Care Matters” White Paper for which we do not need legislation and which we are therefore not discussing here. There is a wide variety of proposals there, designed to enable local authorities to recruit a wider range of foster carers, and also to give foster carers more training and more status within the family of carers for looked-after children. The hon. Lady raises an important point, because unless that situation is improved—particularly in some areas where the situation is worse—the consequences will ultimately be felt by the children themselves. We are trying to avoid that.
I remarked that there is a minority of children for whom several planned moves may be needed, either because of their own circumstances or because they are in special situations. I met a young man last week; it was tremendous to meet him. He is in an intensive fostering project and has been through three carers. He was about to move on from anti-social behaviour to all sorts of serious crime. Having a series of moves with trained people, and staying with the last set of parents for almost a year, has transformed him. That was fantastic to see. There will be special situations such as that, and we want to ensure that we allow for those. Such planned placement changes are already required to be reflected in a child’s care plan. What we need to do here is to reinforce the clear messages about stability, and as the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham said, we will do that again in the guidance that is being rewritten.
New clause 3 will strengthen the reviewing process, to ensure that it is rigorously focused on whether the care plan that the local authority puts forward is the most appropriate and responsive way to meet the child’s needs. I am sure that Members are aware that independent reviewing officers already have the power to report it to senior managers if actions from review are not being carried out, including where a change in social worker is delaying the implementation of decisions made at review. There is already a requirement for regular reviews: three in the first year and then every six months. That is a minimum requirement. The IRO can direct further reviews as he or she thinks necessary. Therefore I hope that Members will accept that in the specific context of a child experiencing an unacceptable number of changes in their social worker, we should strengthen both the reviews that are already in place and the role of the IRO, rather than focusing on triggering additional reviews. That will enable those who ought to be examining those changes for children to do so much more effectively. When we reach clause 11 we will perhaps talk about some of that in more detail.
Reviews should always consider whether the child’s placement offers the stability that they need, with secure attachments. Holding additional reviews in isolation from the focused activity that needs to take place in the local authority to recruit and develop social workers, will not necessarily address the real issue here, which is needing to increase the number of social workers where there are shortages, and achieving a range of expertise. As I said on Second Reading, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families has taken measures outside the Bill to help local authorities address some of the issues of vacancy and turnover rates of social workers. There was a package of measures backed by substantial resources to enable local authorities to do more of the kind of work that authorities such as Barnet have undertaken with great success in improving recruitment and retention.
With those assurances, I hope that the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham will feel that we agree with the purpose of the amendment. On new clause 3, I do not think that adding further reviews to an already demanding set of reviews with the potential for the IRO to demand more would help with the problem. I therefore hope that he will withdraw the amendment.
I am delighted and relieved that the Minister is with us. Her favourite buzz word today appears to be “lever in” or “leverage”. All of these measures are beginning to lever in the extra requirements, which is good.
I do not want to place greater bureaucracy on local authorities or on social workers. The greatest incentive for local authorities or social workers not to have to account for multiple placements or the use of multiple social workers would be that bureaucracy. That is where the incentive lies.
The Minister places great store by the IRO. Given that we have not reached that part of the Bill, I think that we will have an interesting debate on the exact nature of the teeth that the IRO will be given and how accountable he or she will be able to make local authorities or social workers who do not achieve the improvements in outcomes that we want.
This has been another useful debate. It has teased out that the Government are thinking along the same lines as us, but that these requirements are taken care of elsewhere in the Bill. On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: New clause 1—Welfare of looked after children—
‘When considering or maintaining placement for a child a local authority or other responsible body shall have regard in particular to—
(a) ascertaining the wishes and feelings of the child;
(b) the desirability of retaining the child in the family home wherever it is the child’s best interests and that an appropriate package of care and family support has been made available to that end;
(c) the likely effect on him of any change in his circumstances and environment, and the benefits of his remaining close to home wherever possible;
(d) any harm which he has suffered or is at risk of suffering;
(e) ensuring all options for kinship care have been explored and an assessment of their parenting capacity undertaken;
(f) maintaining contact with siblings and other family members wherever practicable and in the child’s best interest;
(g) maintaining continuity of appropriate education, accommodation and standards of healthcare;
(h) the appropriate level of access to the responsible social worker being maintained;
(i) where the required changes have been specified and not achieved.’.
New clause 27—Support for family and friends carers—
‘(1) The 1989 Act is amended as follows.
(2) After section 17B insert—
“17C Support for family and friends carers
(1) This section applies to a person (“P”) who provides full-time care and accommodation for a child (“C”) for more than 28 days but who is not—
(a) a parent of the child, or
(b) a local authority foster parent.
(2) A local authority shall assess P’s need for financial and other support under Part III of this Act to care for C in any of the following circumstances—
(a) where the child comes to live with P as a result of a plan made following an inquiry under section 47 (local authority’s duty to investigate);
(b) where the child comes to live with P following an investigation under section 37 (powers of court in certain family proceedings);
(c) where P has secured a residence order or special guardianship order in order to avoid the child being looked after, and there is professional evidence of impairment of the parents’ ability to care for the child;
(d) where P has obtained a residence order or special guardianship order arising out of care proceedings;
(e) where P is providing accommodation for the child and then secures a residence order or special guardianship order.
(3) The local authority shall provide such support as is required to meet the needs identified by the assessment referred to in subsection 2.
(4) The local authority shall appoint a named person who shall have responsibility for coordinating the provision of support to persons to whom this section applies.”
(3) In paragraph 1 of Schedule 2 (identification of children in need and provision of information), in sub-paragraph (2)(a)(i) for “17,” substitute “14F, 17, 17C,”.’.
First, having chided the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham, it behoves me to say what a wonderful clause this is. Congratulations to the Government and the other place for getting it into its current order. It is a very welcome clause.
I will speak briefly to new clause 27. It goes along with the thrust of the clause that in future, local authorities should think first about supporting parents and other family members in caring for children who would otherwise be in danger of being taken into the care of the local authority. If local authorities have to step in and use their statutory powers to take a child into care, they should immediately look at whether they can rehabilitate the child back to the parents or other members of the child’s family and that should be done as quickly as possible.
New clause 27 draws attention to the one lacuna in clause 9, which is the practical support that will be given to family members who take on the very important task of looking after one or more vulnerable children on behalf of the whole family. It would deal particularly with physical and financial support when it is most needed. When local authorities take a child into care, whether they place the child with a family member, a foster carer or in residential care, the panoply of support and money is available to the people giving the care. When family members rally round and take on that responsibility, there is no entitlement or direct duty for them to be given support and money to do that important work.
To ensure that the practical aspect of the enterprise is not overlooked, new clause 27 would require the local authority to carry out an assessment of the needs of the family members who are looking after those children at the outset and see what support, financial and otherwise, would be necessary to ensure that they could do their job to the best of their ability. Otherwise, the risk is that the placement will break down and the local authority will have to come back and exercise those statutory powers and take the child or children into care.
We have willed the ends in the clause, but at the moment we are not willing the means to ensure that it is carried through into practice. I hope that the Ministers can say that they are sympathetic to closing a gap in what is otherwise an extremely welcome provision to ensure that families are properly supported by the local authority when they rally around to take on this awesome responsibility. Local authorities, instead of exercising their care powers, would be exercising their ability to support families and keep them together.
I agree with much of what the hon. Gentleman has said, but I want to concentrate on new clause 1, which is grouped with the clause stand part debate. New clause 1 is intended to be helpful and constructive to the Bill and is based on previous legislation, and I think it is quite a good wheeze. It would place on the face and at the heart of the Bill—if it is possible to do both—the equivalent of the welfare checklist that is enshrined in the Children Act 1989, which remains as important a piece of legislation as it was when it was innovated under the last Government. Key to that legislation was the concept of the paramountcy of the child and the focus of various aspects of welfare on the wishes and feelings of the child.
The Bill has been criticised for not going far enough and for not containing detail that is explicit enough to require local authorities to pursue the legislation right up to the spirit in which it is intended. In many cases, local authorities will be reluctant to spend more or invest more resources than they need to in order to comply with the new legislation, which is understandable, given the competing requirements on their budgets from all sorts of other children’s services requirements. That is the reason for our previous arguments over the term “having regard to.”
It would be suitable, appropriate and helpful for the Bill if a welfare checklist giving the nine criteria set out in new clause 1 was used as a benchmark against which a local authority could be measured in order to see whether it had fulfilled the spirit of the legislation rather than just carried out the minimum requirements. That would be measured in relation to the impact on the welfare of the child, which is the most important consideration and the reason we are all here. We thought that it would be helpful to suggest a welfare checklist that cannibalised the list from the 1989 Act and was made germane to looked-after children.
I will briefly run through the nine criteria listed in new clause 1. Item (a) states that a local authority should have regard in particular to
“ascertaining the wishes and feelings of the child”,
which we are all familiar with from previous legislation. It is right that children should be consulted on matters such as the appointment of their social workers, as we mentioned earlier. Many children feel excluded from decisions in relation to which they might have views of their own, and which could be relevant to their being able to get on with their social worker, which is in turn important for the success of the placement or of their relationships that they are building.
Item (b), which deals with
“the desirability of retaining the child in the family home wherever it is the child’s best interests”,
would back up the kinship care priority hierarchy in clause 9, which we have debated. Again, against the checklist, has a local authority pursued as fully as is practicable the possibility of keeping the child within the family rather than taking the child away? Item (b) contains the preventive measure. As I have said, it is too often perceived that social workers’ first contact with a vulnerable family is when care proceedings are about to be initiated, not—as should happen—when things are starting to go wrong in a family and they need help and support, resources or whatever.
Community Service Volunteers, of which I am proud to be a trustee, has piloted a project using voluntary social workers, whose role is to liaise with the family as a family support resource, a relationship that is often difficult when it involves dealing with somebody who also has the power to initiate care proceedings to take a child away from a family. Social workers are regarded with a degree of suspicion on the doorstep, particularly on a first referral, so the role of voluntary social workers can involve working with the family to ensure that everything is being done and liaising with the local authority and the official social worker to ensure that the family has support and can be kept together wherever possible.
As a benchmark before care proceedings take place, the new clause asks whether the local authority has done everything practicable to ensure that the child can be kept with the family, that the family can be kept together and that taking the child away from the family, however temporary or permanent the basis, is not an obvious option. The desirability of trying to keep the family together with the child in the family is the second benchmark.
The third benchmark is
“the likely effect” on the child
“of any change in his circumstances and environment, and the benefits of his remaining close to home wherever possible”.
Clause 9, although we have not debated it in detail, mentions the desirability of keeping a child close to a familiar environment wherever possible and in the best interest of the child and the child’s welfare. Even though things might have broken down with the family or birth parents, it is in the child’s best interest to retain some accord with familiar friends, perhaps at the same school, or with kinship carers.
Before taking a child away from their environment, both in terms of their personal relationships and their physical environment, has an assessment been done of whether that is in the child’s best interest? In some cases, it clearly will be, such as if the child is being victimised or bullied or is under threat of physical or mental harm by remaining in a very damaging environment. Has an assessment been made? That is the third benchmark.
The fourth benchmark will be familiar from the 1989 Act:
“any harm which he has suffered or is at risk of suffering”.
Clearly, the welfare of the child is the basis for that. The fifth concerns ensuring, as we have debated at length, that all options for kinship care in the hierarchy criteria have been explored, including an assessment of the kinship carer’s parenting capacity. The Minister has told us that that will happen under the new arrangements, so that criterion should be quite easy to satisfy.
The sixth concerns
“maintaining contact with siblings and other family members wherever practicable and in the child’s best interest”.
Again, it replicates, but on a benchmark basis, what we have debated.
The seventh is
“maintaining continuity of appropriate education, accommodation and standards of healthcare”.
We have touched on the continuity of remaining at the same school, particularly in the sensitive key stage years of exams. Stability of accommodation should also be a factor, as well as standards of health care, should the child have some illness, such as a long-term condition or a disability, that would make any move harmful.
The eighth check is
“the appropriate level of access to the responsible social worker being maintained”.
Again, it deals with criteria that we have touched on, whereby the multiple appointment of social workers is clearly detrimental.
The final check is
“where the required changes have been specified and not achieved.”
There is a lot of repetition on the checklist, but it is meant to be held up as a benchmark, so that when there is a question mark over whether a child has received the very best support and ended up in the most appropriate and beneficial placement, the onus will be on the appropriate authority to measure its performance against that checklist. Did it really pull all the right levers and exhaust all the right possibilities before deciding that the child could not stay with the kinship carer, or that it should be placed in a completely new or physically distant environment?
The hon. Gentleman mentioned that there is already a welfare checklist in the 1989 Act, but there is no reference in the new clause to the way in which its checklist would interact with the Act’s checklist. What is his thinking? Why do we need two checklists, with some checks that are the same and some that are different? It would be a recipe for confusion if the situation either was not clarified or was completely different. [Interruption.]
Yes. Checklist or checklists. You say tomayto, we say tomato—it’s all the same thing, is it not?
The hon. Gentleman makes an appropriate point, however. I do not want to replicate provisions so that one has to go through two different checklists, but the checklist in new clause 1 is germane to looked-after children. Clearly, the 1989 Act will retain its appropriateness and its sections on the welfare of the child their paramountcy, but we are dealing specifically with children in the care system, whereas the 1989 Act deals with more than just those children. The new clause has its place.
No doubt the Minister will say that she cannot accept the new clause for the reason that the hon. Gentleman just gave—that it causes confusion or it replicates. However, it is a genuine effort to measure whether local authorities are achieving what the legislation wants them to achieve—its spirit. With reference to “have regard to”, they may have been doing less, and not achieving the very best outcome for the child, than they would have done if they had had to measure up to the checklist before us.
The hon. Gentleman’s answer is wrong, and I am sure that his hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich, the family law barrister behind him, could tell him that the welfare checklist in the 1989 Act relates to circumstances whenever a court is asked to make a decision. It could take place in private family proceedings or in public care proceedings. It could also take place when a local authority seeks a care order, or when someone wants a variation of an order, wants to bring an end to an order or wants contact with a child who is already in care. So, when the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham says that his welfare checklist relates only to children in the care system, and that the list in the 1989 Act relates to some other children or to children generally, he is just wrong.
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for doing the Minister’s job for her. It might be more accurate to say that the new clause relates to children in the care system as set out in the Bill—that all the new factors that the Bill brings in should be measured against the checklist. It is an innovative attempt at being more appropriate to the changes that we all welcome in the legislation, so that local authorities can be properly measured. The welfare checklist—with its vagueness in certain areas, for obvious reasons going back now 20 years—could be tightened up by the more detailed provisions before us. I fully appreciate that competing priorities are a possibility. However, when it comes to judging whether a local authority has done its job in promoting kinship care or sibling care, and in keeping children closer to home, which the Bill will bring about, it is that checklist that will have to be used to see whether local authorities have measured up.
The hon. Gentleman is right in so far as we are talking about the same pool of children, but we are talking about new legislation and new requirements. If we are serious about wanting to ensure that those requirements make a difference, we need a test against which local authorities should be prepared to be judged, one against which their performance could be found wanting—or found to be fulfilling the real spirit of the legislation that we are all so eager to bring in. On that basis, I am keen that the new clause should be considered by the Committee.
I welcome clause 9. I have not yet had the opportunity to express those warm words. It is significant that there is so much common ground among Members. We all agree on the outcomes that we wish to achieve, but it is the mechanisms that will ensure they can be achieved that are under debate.
I speak in support of new clause 27. The payments that might be made to kinship carers vary between local authorities, but they are made at a time when the carers desperately need support. I am aware that some authorities can be more generous with the budget made available to them by social services, and that others are not.
There are all sorts of reasons why a kinship carer may be short of money at times of crisis, and that might put pressure on the relationships that we are talking about—relationships that we want to flourish. I know of an example in my constituency. A grandmother had to pay considerable babysitting fees so that she could keep her one night out every week. That did not seem unreasonable, but I was surprised at how much she had to pay. It ate up the entire sum that she was given by social services. I mention it because a grandparent taking on a 14-year-old girl and not wishing to leave her at home unaccompanied is very worthy but expensive. We need to consider the matter further. I imagine that we will be discussing it again when we reach clause 24, but the new clause fits in well at this stage because of the necessity, when appropriate, of giving all the support that we can for kinship care.
I might also say a few warm words on new clause 1. The principle that the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham is trying to achieve is rather interesting. I am not sure about the exact details, and the title seems to throw things into disarray, but we nevertheless need more in the Bill than what we have now that will give a stronger message to local authorities. Something like new clause 1, perhaps with a different title, might become as significant as the welfare checklist was in the context of the Children Act 1989, not least because the Bill is meant to be another landmark piece of legislation in a highly specialised area.
The new clauses deal with two different things, and they need to be approached carefully. I hope that the Minister will pick up on them and not dismiss them entirely.
New clauses 27 and 1 are clearly intended to ensure that, as we discussed earlier, local authorities should better consider the needs of children being cared for by family and friends, and when that is happening we need also to consider the needs of the parents themselves. However, it is important to note that many excellent services are already available in the best local authority areas, whether provided by them or third sector partners. We have to ensure that those services are available no matter which area of the country people live in.
Chapter two of “Care Matters” sets out how we intend to make significant improvements to the support for carers who are either family or friends. In particular it sets out in statutory guidance the expectations of an effective service to those carers. That will address issues that authorities need to consider when they are commissioning services, such as widening support to include financial benefits to which carers may be entitled, and an appropriate assessment process in which the relative is approved as a foster carer. Obviously, we will consult widely as we develop the new framework to ensure that we get it right.
It is important to remember that section 17 of the Children Act 1989 already places a general duty on local authorities to safeguard and promote the welfare of children in need in their area and to promote their upbringing by their families by providing a wide range of services that are appropriate to children’s needs.
As the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole mentioned, we are already seeking, through clause 24 of the Bill, to amend section 17(6) which, at the moment, restricts the making of payments to exceptional circumstances. We will no doubt debate that clause when we get there, but the intention is to give local authorities a wider discretion to provide financial support on a longer-term basis if they are satisfied that to do so would safeguard the child’s welfare.
We want to see more relative carers receiving financial and other support from local authorities when it is needed. The serious problem with the amendment is that it would, in effect, remove the discretionary aspect of section 17 for this category of children and family carers and effectively give family carers an entitlement in law that birth parents, who may have similar difficulties, currently do not have.
We have to be very clear that it is not the role of local authorities to provide general income maintenance for families, and nor are they resourced to do so. Carers who are family or friends are already entitled to a range of financial supports similar to those that parents are entitled to when caring for their own children, such as child benefit and tax credits. Neither of those are affected by any payments made under section 17. Carers can qualify for other benefits on broadly the same terms as parents generally. If they are bringing up a child on their own and unable to work, they may claim income support on the same basis as other lone parents. The main problem—I very much understand the intention here—is that the measure would give an entitlement in law to family carers that birth parents do not have. That is why I cannot accept this particular amendment.
Turning to new clause 1, there is a great deal to be said for all the principles underpinning the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham. In fact, when we looked, they were nearly all included in other pieces of legislation, particularly the Children Act. If they were not, they were included in the Bill. I think that the hon. Gentleman has put forward a very powerful proposition that all such principles should all be brigaded in one place. We all reflect and understand the way in which the welfare check list in the 1989 Act has been readily understood and is on the tips of the tongues of everyone who works with children; they know about all the measures because they are in one place, in a list, and it has had a powerful impact. Although I do not think that we should include this amendment in the Bill because the issues already exist—and I can send the hon. Gentleman the collation that we have done—in other pieces of legislation, the idea of brigading all of the elements together in one place is an excellent one. I assure him that, when we set out the new care planning guidance, I and the Under-Secretary of State will set out a list of key principles, including any that we might have missed that might be elsewhere in legislation.
That will have the same effect as a check list, such as the one in the 1989 Act, although in this case the list will be set out in guidance, given that very specific provisions exist in law already. Brigading those themes in one place will have a powerful effect by setting out very clearly the principles that we think should govern every aspect of social care work practice in relation to looked-after children. Indeed, the list in his new clause underpins the Bill’s four themes—good parenting, stability, the voice of the child and higher aspirations for children. I hope, therefore, that he accepts my assurance that we will set out that list at the beginning of the care planning guidance.
Will the Minister also look at proposed new section 22C(6)(d) dealing with placements? According to the explanatory notes, placements may include, for example, supporting young people to live independently in rented accommodation, residential employment, or in supported lodgings/hostels.”
Will she make explicit whether proposed new subsection (6)(d) will be subject to the Ofsted inspection process? Furthermore, a case was brought to my attention of a 15-year-old girl placed be her local authority in bed and breakfast accommodation. Will she make it clear in guidance that accommodation under the subsection must be suitable and appropriate.
I understand the spirit of my hon. Friend’s interventions. I shall have to write to her on the technical detail, and I shall do so before our next sitting, if she will accept that.
Mine was not the lead new clause, but I would still like to reply briefly to the Minister, who gave a very gracious answer. Whatever the mechanics of my proposal, and however it might conflict with provisions elsewhere in legislation, it was a genuine attempt to brigade—as she put it—the key principles, which are appropriate for the children and affected in the Bill. If she is happy to set out such a list in the front of the care planning guidance protocols, I would be delighted, and I look forward to seeing the fruits of our labours.