With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 29—Family group conference—
‘(1) The 1989 Act is amended as follows.
(2) In section 22 at end insert—
“(9) Before making any decision with respect to a child whom they are proposing to look after the local authority shall, unless it is not reasonably practicable or consistent with the child’s welfare, offer the child’s parents or those with parental responsibility a family group conference to discuss the making of a plan for their child.”’.
New clause 5 deals with family conferencing and overlaps to some degree with new clause 29, which has been tabled by the hon. Member for Stafford and other hon. Members. Both new clauses contain references to a family conference, and that relates to our previous debate on the importance of early intervention and of being able to keep vulnerable families together rather than having children taken into the care system. The importance relates to both the value to the families and the cost savings to society as a whole. The new clause also refers back to the welfare checklist that I proposed as part of new clause 1, which the Minister responded to positively. She did not adopt it, but she is certainly prepared to consider it within regulations.
I will not go into great detail on family conferencing, as I am sure that many members of the Committee, if not all, are familiar with it. Family conferences are family-led, decision-making meetings at which parents, relatives and friends, following significant preparation by an independent co-ordinator, develop a plan for the child’s care that addresses child welfare or protection concerns identified by the local authority. The Family Rights Group’s briefing sets that out well and gives evidence of how it is a proven mechanism. It claims that family conferencing is:
“a means of engaging the family to identify and support care arrangements for vulnerable children and their parents”;
“a way of identifying alternative care arrangements within the family when the parent cannot continue to look after the child, including identifying necessary support packages to avoid the child being received into state care”;
“a means of planning for the child to see members of their family and return home to their family network from state care wherever possible”;
It claims that such conferencing should be used prior
“to ‘pathway’ planning for children leaving local authority care.”
I mentioned some of the examples of best practice on the model of family conferencing and family support run by certain children’s organisations, not least of which is NCH, which has a good track record of some impressive projects. I recently visited its Phoenix service in Merton, which works intensively with families that are reaching crisis point. It can take them on board quickly and provide them with intensive, 24-hour support, seven days a week, whatever the crisis might be. At the end of the period the family is linked into existing local services. The intervention involves defusing the immediate, precipitate crisis that led to the service referral, with support workers engaging the family, children and/or young people, liaising with other agencies, assessing the problems, developing specific, measurable goals and helping everyone in the family to acquire the skills to achieve them. That gets all gets all the family members together around a table—literally or metaphorically—to sort out what outside, holistic support will be required to get the family back on its feet. Based on an average placement time of three years for a child who is taken into the care system, NCH estimates that such a family intervention service could offer cost saving of £127,140 per intervention, which is significant. That really is investing to save—there are financial savings and it makes financial sense, but the family could also be saved and kept together.
The Government are positive about such organisations and they are keen to disseminate best practice, but not enough kinship placements are initiated by local authority social workers. One good way of promoting that, other than the through the measures that are already in the Bill, is to ensure that family conferences take place as standard rather than as an exception. There is a bit of postcode lottery regarding the availability of family conferencing. If we were to put a measure in the Bill that stresses the preventive attraction of family conferences so that there would have to be good reasons why a family conference was not attempted or viable, there might be many more kinship placements; better still, many more families could be kept together, and fewer children would have to be taken into care, with all the expense, angst and trauma that that can bring about. New clause 5 is straightforward and I am happy to recommend it to the Committee.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair again, Mr. Pope. I rise to speak to new clause 29, but it is similar to new clause 5, which is why they are grouped together.
In the unrelenting positive mode that I have been in during our proceedings, we should first acknowledge that the law will be strengthened by clause 9, which we have dealt with, because it requires local authorities to have regard to family placements with relatives and friends and kinship care. We should recognise that part of the battle has been won before we deal with the new clauses on family group conferences.
New clause 29 is slightly more elegantly drafted than new clause 5, but I would say that. I do not personally claim the credit for it; it is entirely thanks to the work of the Family Rights Group. The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham referred to its briefing when discussing new clause 5 and he stole the rest of my thunder by referring to the National Children’s Home briefing, so there are no briefings left that I can refer the Committee to.
New clause 29 would amend section 22 of the Children Act 1989, which is the section that clause 9 will amend to make references to kinship care in a more prominent place. I am seeking in new clause 29 to complete a movement that the Government have already begun in clause 9 by requiring family group conferences to take place. To reiterate what the hon. Gentleman said about the benefits of family group conferences, they apply all through the journey that leads—potentially—into and out of care. A family group conference at the right time when a family crisis is building up could help to identify the problems and solutions without care ever becoming necessary, and the child involved could stay with its parents or close family. If that is not possible—we still want to avoid care if possible—we could look at whether the wider family could cope with a package of support. A family group conference would be valuable even if a child temporarily goes into care, because the problems that caused that could be solved to enable a child to return home. When a child comes to the end of period in care, when, for example, they become an adult, there could be situations in which the wider family is absolutely the right place to support a person who returns as a new adult. A family group conference could still bring together family members who could contribute to that successful transition from being in care to becoming an independent adult.
At every stage of the process, family group conferences are useful. The hon. Gentleman did not mention today something from the Family Rights Group briefing that he mentioned on the first day of our proceedings, which is that recent research has found that only 4 per cent. of family and friends placements are initiated by social workers. That is modern research from 2008 so that is up-to-date information. It demonstrates that a lot of social workers are not used to convening family group conferences and are perhaps not convinced of their benefit. A little tilt in the right direction in the Bill would help to make that more of a routine consideration.
As the hon. Gentleman said, the NCH briefing paper that hon. Members have received is not about family group conferences, but about the success of the NCH intensive family support service. As he says, it demonstrates not just an effective outcome, but a cost-effective way of dealing with problem cases. The quotation that he gave about cost savings was related specifically to a study in Glamorgan, where there were 15 cases of intensive support with NCH. Each of those interventions produced a potential saving of £127,000. Multiplied by 15, that is a saving of about £2 million for one local authority in Wales. If that were scaled up to the rest of the UK, we could be talking about a third of a billion pounds. That is how exciting and important it is for us to give serious attention to this proposal.
On the outcomes side of the NCH briefing, it reports success not just in Merton, but in Plymouth, where 94 per cent. of young people referred did not enter the care system and in Tower Hamlets, where 88 per cent. of the young people remained with their families. There is potential that alternative approaches, if used at the right time with the right consideration and the right package of support, can avoid children being taken into care unnecessarily or children being detained in care for longer than is necessary for their welfare.
I am pleased to support both new clauses. They push Ministers to finish the job that was well started in clause 9. However, the end will not be achieved unless we ensure that social workers routinely consider in every case whether a family group conference would be of assistance.
I rise to speak briefly in support of new clause 5. When I was an Essex county councillor, I did some research into family group conferencing. It originated in the Maori community in New Zealand, where it has been greatly beneficial in keeping children out of care. That has also been seen in this country and elsewhere. It combines the good will and effort, not just of the nuclear family and the extended family, but of others who form part of the child’s social network. I urge the Minister to give serious consideration to supporting adding the new clause to the Bill.
I have signed up to elegance. Both new clauses are important. Rather than repeat what has been in the numerous briefings on this matter, I would just like to emphasise that early intervention is all-important. I was reading about the “Public Law Outline” the other day and consideration of family conferencing is a requisite. However, I was concerned whether that was happening at the point of crisis. It is not stated in the new clauses, but to my mind, if possible, family conferencing should kick in at a much earlier stage than I understood it would under the procedures of the “Public Law Outline”. Intervening early to bring the family together helps to deal with all of the points that we have made about kinship care. It also highlights at that early stage whether there is enough support for the family, financially or otherwise. We have discussed that issue and the Minister has committed to a consultation on appropriate guidance.
I quoted various figures on Second Reading. It is clear just from looking at the figures that the amount spent on family support has some relation to the number of children being taken into care. There might not be a direct one-to-one relationship, but the statistics are quite clear. It is staggering that we spend three times as much on looking after children in care as we do on family support as a whole. We are talking about a whole package, but the family conferencing aspect is a really important part of it. There clearly is that aspect of invest to save.
I, too, was struck by the 4 per cent. figure that came in one of our briefings: family and friends placements were initiated by social workers in only 4 per cent. of cases. That is quite staggering and shows what a long way we have to go along this route. These amendments are important to break this pattern. To reiterate, the important point for me is that family conferencing should ideally come much sooner than a crisis point in the family.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford for recognising that one of the major thrusts of this legislation and the wider package in the White Paper is to increase substantially the number of children who can be cared for somewhere within their birth families or with friends who are known to them. That is an objective that we share. I certainly understand the reasons behind this amendment, with its hope that an automatic consideration of family group conferencing might be another catalyst for increasing the number of children who can go into some form of kinship care.
I hope that hon. Members will also recognise that in addition to this Bill, we are trying to move forward with a whole range of options that are specifically focused on supporting parents at an early stage when they are getting into difficulties. That is not necessarily at the stage at which family group conferencing would be considered now when there is a question whether a child can be accommodated within their own family or might need some alternative accommodation. There is a wide range of parenting interventions, including the piloting of new, intensive parenting programmes, increased support for relative carers and some very specific models, such as multi-systemic therapy for adolescents at high risk of entering care or custody and intensive fostering. We are promoting a whole range of options, which includes family group conferences.
The problem with family group conferencing from the point of view of these amendments is twofold. First, it is a complex service to administer. It requires a high level of skill and confidence from the practitioners who are organising it. That is why we have already started to promote the development of expertise, knowledge and skills in family group conferencing, commissioning a programme of regional training events, for example, to equip managers and practitioners with the necessary skills to develop the use of this model. That is very different from putting a requirement in primary legislation for a family group conference for every family. It goes completely against the spirit, the letter and the culture that we have tried to inculcate and develop since the Children Act 1989, which imposes a general duty on local authorities to provide a range and level of support services that are appropriate for children in need, including to promote their upbringing in their family.
Generally family group conferences are seen as a very valuable element in the range of local services. We want to see them used more widely. We are putting in the resources to promote the expertise that will enable that to happen. To put a single method in the Bill above all others, including some that are being developed, would be contrary to the spirit of section 17 of the 1989 Act. It would limit the flexibility of local authorities and would be quite prohibitive for them in their attempts to meet children’s needs on an individual basis. That is not to say that I do not think family group conferences are important or that they should be used more often. I do. We have highlighted that in “Care Matters” and have included references to family group conferences in “Working Together to Safeguard Children”, which we published in 2006. We have also included references in the revised volume I of the Children Act guidance that was published this year.
Putting that method in the Bill gives it pre-eminence and means that the local authority should consider it above any other methods that they would use. That is the point I am trying to make in relation to the 1989 Act. I understand that stakeholders have concerns and I would like to join in the references made to NCH because it has done a great deal to take forward improved methods of working with children and families. We have adopted many of those methods—not only family group conferencing, but family intervention projects, which I will mention in a moment.
I recognise that stakeholders feel there is a way to go in developing the skills and knowledge in the field to deliver effective family group conferencing services. In November 2006, with help from stakeholders, we funded the publication of a tool kit, which aimed to support the use of family group conference projects and assist new agencies in setting up those kinds of services where none exist. In December last year, we published a family group conference reader, which contains a wide-range of essays from experienced practitioners on research, policy and practice perspectives. We have also launched guidance to local authorities, which emphasises that support should be available to families at the earliest point it is needed.
I was just coming to that point. For three specific reasons, the right way to promote the use of family group conferencing is to do what we do already: suffuse our documents with references to family group conferences; continue to develop the knowledge, training and expertise required; and put the method in the context of a focus on early intervention and prevention. However, we should also recognise that it is not the only method. In relation to the point at which family group conferencing is used at the moment—in the context of a child possibly being accommodated—we are developing other options that bring families together at a much earlier stage, for example, when children show difficulties that are identified in primary school. We also have the family pathfinders project, the family intervention projects that NCH has helped us to develop, and the family nurse partnerships, which for the first time identify the need to support disadvantaged mothers at the point of birth. That support continues to be provided by a specially trained health visitor over two years to try to prevent the need further down the line for a family group conference to discuss whether the child needs to be accommodated.
For those reasons, I do not want to fetter local authorities with one particular method. I support the method when it is necessary and think that it can achieve some excellent results, but in relation to the panoply of intervening much earlier in families and the wide range of alternatives that are now being developed, we should stick with the spirit of the 1989 Act.
I say to the hon. Member for Upminster that the amendment to new clause 5, which requires family group conferencing to be considered where appropriate, adds nothing to the existing requirement in section 17 of the 1989 Act for local authorities to consider whatever is necessary, as appropriate.
I am looking for a way forward that does not involve primary legislation. My right hon. Friend mentioned the publication “Working Together to Safeguard Children” and the tool kit, which is welcome. Clearly, when the Act is passed, it will include new guidance incorporating what we have said about clause 9 and the new consideration of kinship care. Am I right in saying that when social workers consider taking care proceedings, they have a kind of handbook so they can check everything they need to before and so they have evidence they have done so? Would my right hon. Friend undertake to consider those different documents in the round, to see whether together we could apply that focus that she mentioned suffusing all the documents, with consideration of how the family group conference might be a helpful tool in kinship care cases, for example?
I am certainly happy to reiterate that, as my hon. Friend said, I will undertake to continue to suffuse all the relevant documents with a reference to family group conferencing and a range of other methods, to ensure the early intervention that members of the Committee rightly want to see. I share that objective, but I hope that the Committee will accept that it would not be right to specify one particular method in the Bill. We can, however, use the other available mechanisms to inform and shape social work practice—the guidance that my hon. Friends referred to—and I undertake to do that. I hope, therefore, that my hon. Friends will feel able to withdraw the new clause.
I am slightly disappointed, to start with, about the reference to the more elegant of the proposed new clauses—I did not come into politics to be elegant. I came into politics to get something done, to create meaningful legislation and I am perfectly prepared to cast aside elegance in the pursuit of brevity and succinctness, of which our new clause is the epitome. It goes to the heart of the matter slightly less elegantly, but more practically, than the new clause tabled by the hon. Member for Stafford, but I did not seek to undermine it in any way and I shall not do so now. Both new clauses would add something to the Bill.
I was disappointed by the Minister because I do not think that the new clause would fetter, as she put it, the ability or flexibility of social workers and local authorities and I was not convinced by her response to my request regarding what other matters would be deprioritised by inserting the new clause. My hon. Friend the Member for Upminster made some pertinent points about the origins of family conferencing and how important and effective it has been, in the second reference of the day to New Zealand, from which we can clearly learn quite a lot.
I shall not press the new clause, but if we were to come back to this issue on Report—the hon. Member for Stafford has mentioned possible uses within the tool kit or with guidance elsewhere. Given that the Bill may not Report for some months, it might be useful for the Minister to report back on the use of family group conferencing and how it is growing. It is currently happening according to a postcode lottery and too few placements are kinship placements, which would have a far greater likelihood of success if they resulted from family group conferencing—if it was still necessary for the child to go into the care system. On that basis, the Minister’s comments on that would help. The Minister may have sympathised with what we are trying to achieve, but many of us think that the proposal needs to have more force and a bit more bite.
Our new clause would not fetter the chronology of that process at all, it just states:
“Before a child is committed into care, the local authority must, where appropriate, offer a family group conference and”— perhaps it should read “or”—
“any other reasonable intervention which may alleviate the need for a child to be put into care.”
The family group conference could be the first thing to take place, it could be the very last thing to take place and if it was not successful then care proceedings might be triggered, or it could happen partway through the journey of dealing with a vulnerable child. I do not agree that the new clause would fetter the process. I will rephrase the new clause for Report. I will be grateful if in a few months’ time, perhaps at Report, the Minister could detail how the use of family group conferencing is growing. If it is not growing or if the figures are stalling, still low or unrepresentative of cases up and down the country, we will want to pursue it more aggressively.
I am always keen to be positive and helpful. A long time ago when the hon. Gentleman moved new clause 1, which, with its looked-after children welfare checklist, also referred to the desirability of keeping children with their families with the correct package of support, the then Minister offered to brigade the different laws and guidance to show us that those points were covered. This dovetails into that, because when we want to know about family group conferences, we want to know about how they relate to the points in the hon. Gentleman’s welfare checklist, do we not? It is reasonable to ask the Minister be ready by Report to be able to tell us about family group conferencing practice on the ground.
The hon. Gentleman makes a helpful point and I am always keen to be reasonable, as he knows. In the interests of reasonableness and of speeding along the Committee’s activity, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.