‘(2A) In each of subsections (1) and (2), after ‘responsible authority’ insert ‘within one working day.’.
We now come to the subject of out-of-area placements, which has arisen already during the Committee, and reflects a concern which I and the my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster mentioned previously—what happens with children who are placed out of area in terms of notification of responsible agencies in that area
A child would typically be placed in a children’s home and somewhere around 11 to 13 per cent. of children in the care system are in a residential home, but it also involves care homes, independent hospitals, NHS hospitals or residential schools, including maintained boarding schools, non-maintained specialist schools, independent boarding schools and colleges, as set out in the guidance. What this amendment is seeking to do is tighten up the notification process.
What happens at the moment is that if Stoke, for example, places a child in a residential home in my own authority of West Sussex, for example—I have already mentioned some 700 children in my county are estimated to be there having been placed by an outside authority—then good guidance, reinforced by Lord Warner some years ago when he was the responsible Minister, is that the authority where that child is placed should be notified that that child is placed there. That must be good practice on the basis that there is a child with particular needs who finds him or herself out of a familiar area.
In Worthing we now have at least 10 independent children’s homes, many including children who are from completely different environments and from quite a long way away. I have to say that things are getting better and inspection regimes for some of these children’s homes are improving, but if something goes wrong, it is usually the local children’s services department who gets put in the frame, even though that child is not their responsibility, or the local police have to pick up the pieces, or the local magistrates then deal with a child who has committed some offence if it has gone really wrong.
I think I cited earlier in the Committee today, and on Second Reading, the response from the probation service union, giving an extraordinary figure of something like over 80 per cent. of children who had appeared in the magistrates court had been in the care system but placed out of authority area, and the first the probation service union had heard about it was when the probation service officers were in court.
That cannot be any good for all of the local agencies involved who then have to come forward and step into the breach for somebody who is not strictly speaking their responsibility. It is not good for people living in the vicinity of some of these residential homes when things go wrong, as happened to us in Worthing but, ultimately, it is not good for the child as well. The child is being let down.
The purpose of amendment No. 15 is to tighten up the reporting mechanisms so that when a child is placed in an authority area outside the placing authority, there is a strict, defined duty of the placing authority to notify the authority area in which that child is placed—nominally, the director of children’s services would be the contact point—that that child has been placed there and we have suggested that it should be within one working day.
I have been listening very carefully to what the hon. Gentleman said. It seemed that he was talking about out-of-area placements in relation to clause 18, which is what is covered by clause 9, new section 22C. That deals with out-of-area placements in terms of a new duty to place within an area. Clause 18 concerns placements by education or health, which is a mechanism to involve children’s social services in those placements.
I quoted the list of different agencies that this will require. The principle is the same as we discussed in clause 9, that whichever the likely agency dealing with something when it goes wrong should be notified. At the moment, they are just not being notified, either at all or until after a long period of time. The purpose of this probing amendment is to specify that they should be notified and ordinarily, it should be done the following day, or within a day of that child being placed in that area. It may have been more appropriate to have discussed it under clause 9 as well, although I think we touched on it in the debate we had around that. Whether it goes in the Bill or whether it will be tightened up in guidance, it should be the normal practice that a receiving authority is notified about a child from the care system within their area as a matter of course, simultaneously, if not in advance of that child being placed there so that they are aware in case anything goes wrong and they are hauled out all of a sudden to pick up the pieces.
The amendment was designed to further tie down the exiting duties, as modified by the Bill, to notify the director of children’s services of the responsible local authority where a child is provided with accommodation for health or education reasons for more than three months. I am sure we will get into the wider debate about the needs of this group of children and the services they should receive when we debate the new clauses towards the end of the Bill. I know a number of hon. Members are interested in those matters, but for the purposes of the present debate, I shall confine my comments to the subject of this clause and this amendment.
We do accept that some evidence suggests that children’s social care teams are not always notified when children are provided with long-term accommodation by health authorities or education departments. In other cases, accommodating authorities have claimed that the notification was made, but the responsible local authority took no action. We do not have any evidence that effective multi-agency working and appropriate involvement of social service professionals is inhibited by any lack of time limits on these notifications. Whether notifications are made within one working day, or any other particular time, is not really the issue here. The real issue is whether the existing notification mechanism is an effective means of ensuring that children’s services authorities consider the child’s social care needs. The amendment does not address that issue.
As children’s trusts embed further joint working and multi-disciplinary teams become the norm across the country, we would expect problems with notifications to become a thing of the past. In the short term, however, we agree that more needs to be done. That is why we have introduced clause 18, which will help ensure that the notifications are made. It will ensure that they are made specifically to the director of children’s services of the responsible authority. That reflects their importance and will ensure that the responsible authority responds appropriately to the notification.
We are going further in clause 19 by requiring the local authority to take specific action in response to a notification. That means that there is a new duty to visit all such children. We will ensure through regulations that the visit is not a one-off but is regularly repeated to provide an ongoing supervision of placements by the children’s social care team. We have not stopped there. We are working with health colleagues by using the proposed new framework for children with continuing care needs to provide practical guidance to help bodies and local authorities work together to address the social care needs of children who are placed in long-term residential care.
I understand completely the sentiment behind the amendment. It is important that all agencies and all parts of a local authority are involved in and aware of children with complex needs at the right time. However, I do not think that the amendment is necessary. On that basis, I hope the hon. Gentleman will withdraw it.
I am grateful for the Minister’s clarification. This process was not deemed to be necessary before, but clearly the system was not working before. That is why he sent out additional guidance, not least after a delegation of colleagues from Worthing went to see him about the problems with notification. I hope that this situation will improve. He made it clear that he takes on the principle of what we are proposing. However, the situation must be properly monitored and chased up in practice.
West Sussex and Kent, the two authorities that I mentioned, still have to estimate roughly the numbers of children who are involved. They should have a much clearer handle on how many children from the care system are placed in their authorities and more importantly, exactly who those children are. The Minister is right that a senior responsible figure, such as the director of children’s services should know who is in his or her area and what requirements or needs they have.
I am happy not to pursue this matter at this stage. However, we will have to see the proof of the pudding in due course. That will be that local authorities are able, when asked, to account for the children in the care system within their authority area. Only when we get to that stage will we have some comfort that the joint and inter-agency working that we all support is happening in practice for the best interests of the child. On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
It seems appropriate to use the opportunity of a brief clause stand part debate to clarify that clause 18 will make a minor change to section 85 of the Children Act 1989 to help improve the performance of the current notification arrangements. It will require placing authorities, that is those exercising education functions and health authorities, to address the notification to the director of children’s services. To reiterate, this is not about out-of-area placements as in clause 9. Clause 18 concerns placements by education or health authorities and it provides a mechanism to involve children’s services in relation to such a notification. It also picks up minor consequential amendments to section 86 of the 1989 Act that flow from amendments introduced in the Care Standards Act 2000.