Duty to consider children’s views in service improvement
‘After section 22 of the 1989 Act insert—
“22H Children’s views in service improvement
(1) Each local authority shall establish a Children in Care Council or other collective mechanism to ascertain the views of children they are looking after about the services these children are receiving.
(2) Regulations shall prescribe the functions, composition, powers and resources of the Children in Care Council or other mechanism.
(3) The director of the children’s services and lead member for children’s services shall give due consideration to the views expressed by the members of the Children in Care Council or other collective mechanism.
(4) The director of children’s services and lead member for children’s services shall report annually to the Children in Care Council or other mechanism on the steps they have taken in response to the views expressed by its members.”’.—[Annette Brooke.]
Annette Brooke: I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
This is about the participation of looked-after children. I do not want to undermine the great strides forward that have been made generally in terms of taking on board children and young people’s views and listening to them. But it is vital that we make sure that children’s views are fully taken on board in service improvement. The new clause calls for each local authority to establish a children in care council or other collective mechanism to ascertain the views of the children they are looking after about the services they are receiving.
We must acknowledge that it is not prescriptive to say that every local authority shall have a children in care council. There are obviously other ways of accessing children’s views. It may not be appropriate for a very small authority to have a children in care council. However, there should be a collective mechanism to bring children and young people together to engage in debate on a fairly regular basis, not just once a year. That would enable them to have a dialogue with the lead member of the council and the director of children’s services.
The purpose of the new clause is to place a duty on local authorities to provide a collective mechanism for children in their care. It would obviously be helpful for the director of children’s services and the lead member for children’s services to be able to give due consideration to the views of such groups, to report on their responses and to give action to the views expressed.
I was honoured and privileged, along with the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich, to attend the all-party parliamentary group on adoption and fostering yesterday. I met a virtual head teacher for the first time. I was looking forward to that moment and it was impressive to hear him talk about his work in the local authority where he is effectively head teacher for 500 looked-after children. In any school situation, it would be good to have a school council among a group of 500 children. With all of the good work going on with the virtual head teacher, it would be superb to have a children in care council. I can see that it would really work with those sorts of numbers.
Following that meeting, I am even more inspired about this idea. I am very keen on school councils and like to promote them when I go round schools. Now that we have virtual head teachers, I do not see why a virtual head teacher should not be empowered, or have a duty, to set up a council.
Lord Adonis claimed in the House of Lords that it was unnecessary to legislate for children in care councils because we have existing regulations for children in care to be consulted about service provision. My briefing points out that what is in existence is only an annual one-off event for the children and young people’s panel. A children in care council would be ongoing with continuous participation and existing ideas could be built upon. Consultations are narrowed by specific questions, where as a children in care council would be pretty open-ended. The views of children in care would be heard directly by the people who are vital to the provision of services: the director and the lead member.
Most of all, this proposal focuses on the specific views and experiences of children in care. Throughout the Bill we have made the point that we must keep focusing on the particular needs of children in care. I emphasise that I am not suggesting that the new clause should result in a children in care council for every local authority. I can see that there would be variations. However, I think that it would be excellent to have a commitment in the Bill to listening to the views of looked-after children.
The new clause is compatible with article 12 of the convention on the rights of the child. It would bring out debates on local needs and it could spread accountability to children in care. How often do we hear young people say, “Well I said such and such, but it did not make any difference.”? Regular interactive meetings with young people would enable them to follow something through. They would be able to find out why good ideas that they had raised had not been implemented. They would be able to find out the reasons and chase people up to get on with the job. I commend the new clause to the Committee for serious consideration.
I, too, met the virtual head teachers when they came into the Department and virtually all of them turned up on that occasion. It was interesting to hear about the progress on the pilots, which are an important initiative. I can assure the hon. Lady that I agree with everything she said, except for the need for the new clause. We are deeply committed to ensuring that looked-after children and care leavers who are entitled to leaving care services are properly consulted on the services they receive and involved in helping to shape and improve them. That is why we made the commitment, as she knows, in the “Care Matters” White Paper to introduce children in care councils in every local authority.
We are embedding that commitment by spelling out in statutory guidance our expectation that every local authority should have a children in care council or an equivalent structure to ensure that looked-after children and young people are able to put their experiences of the care system directly to those responsible for service delivery, and I recently met some young people in south Gloucestershire who are doing exactly that. We will ask Ofsted to report on those participation arrangements as part of the planned inspection programme focusing on children in care, and that will begin in 2009. The new clause is unnecessary because the reforms that it seeks to legislate for are already underway.
I hope that I shall still be in Parliament to check up on that progress. We have been told that so much is in hand, in guidance or that it will happen, so I am rather heartened to hear that there will be a specific inspection on that matter, because it is important that there is a clear way forward to ensure investigations on whether local authorities are following through. During the course of the Committee’s proceedings, we appear to be imposing rather a lot of guidance and regulations on them. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.