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New Clause 21

Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:45 am on 26th March 2009.

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Children to be seen separately

‘After section 16 of the Children Act 2004 insert—

“16A Children to be seen separately

(1) The children’s services authority shall secure that, when any child who is the subject of—

(a) an investigation under section 47 of the Children Act 1989, or

(b) a child protection plan agreed by the Local Safeguarding Children Board

is visited by his or her key worker, the child shall if practicable and reasonable in the circumstances, be seen separately from his or her parent or care-giver.

(2) Where the child is not seen separately from his or her parent or care-giver under subsection (1) the reasons for not doing so shall be recorded by the key worker.

(3) The key worker referred to in subsections (1) and (2) is—

(a) in the case of subsection (1)(a) the lead social worker appointed by the children’s services authority; and

(b) in the case of subsection (1)(b), the key worker appointed by the Local Safeguarding Children Board.”’.—(Mr. Laws.)

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

It is me again.

Photo of Siôn Simon Siôn Simon Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills

The hon. Gentleman said around four hours ago that he was speaking for the last time.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families)

No, what I very carefully said was that it was my last major speech, not the last time that I would speak. Having said that, I apologise to the Committee, because we have been sitting for a very long period. Members of staff and others, including Labour Members, have been patient and the Ministers have moved into their finishing-straight positions.

I had assumed that the new clauses were not of crucial importance and that we could discuss them at a later stage, but this morning, when I looked at new clause 21, which is inspired by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole, I saw that it is actually rather important. Despite the fact that the Committee has been sitting for a long period, it would be unsatisfactory if we did not discuss the new clause, because it relates to the concerns highlighted by the baby P case and Lord Laming’s report. The new clause contains an important suggestion for Ministers, and I would appreciate a response from them. I therefore ask for some tolerance from the Committee while I  outline some of the new clause’s key elements. After the Minister responds, I promise that I will not detain the Committee longer.

As I have said, the new clause is inspired, and was drafted, by the NSPCC and my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole, who has considerable expertise on the issue. The new clause would introduce a statutory duty to ensure that a key worker sees a child separately from his or her parents. Some members of the Committee will probably know why the new clause is important and topical.

Section 47 of the Children Act 1989 requires a local authority to make inquiries when a child is suspected to be suffering or likely to suffer from significant harm. A child protection plan is drawn up when the local safeguarding children board decides that a child is at significant risk of harm. Examples of when seeing a child separately might not be practicable or reasonable are when parents refuse consent, when the child refuses to be seen alone or is plainly distressed at the prospect, when the child has recently been seen separately, or if the child is asleep during the visit. It is not envisaged that the key worker would necessarily see the child for long or that the child would be subjected to any medical or forensic examination or interrogation. The purpose of recording the reasons for the inability to see the child is to allow for persistent obstruction by parents to be highlighted. Even sensible reasons, such as the child being asleep, might become of concern if persistent.

Currently, there is no law on seeing children separately, but both legislation and guidance note the importance of obtaining children’s views and perspectives. Section 53 of the Children Act 2004 placed a new duty on local authorities to ascertain and give due consideration to the wishes and feelings of children before providing services under section 17. The statutory guidance on child protection, “Working Together to Safeguard Children”, emphasises the central importance of the child in safeguarding procedures, and we have seen that in the baby P case and some of the other cases highlighted recently. That document states:

“Some of the worst failures of the system have occurred when professionals have lost sight of the child and concentrated instead on their relationship with the adults. The child should be seen by the practitioner and kept in focus throughout the work with the child and family. The child’s voice should be heard and account taken of their” perspectives and views.

The guidance emphasises that assessing the risk of significant harm depends on effectively communicating with children and young people, including those who find it difficult to do so because of their age, an impairment, or their psychological or social situation. The local authority children’s social care has legal responsibility for section 47 investigations, which it says should always involve separate interviews with the child who is the subject of concern. The key worker appointed at the child protection conference should regularly ascertain the child’s wishes and feelings in relation to that situation.

Ministers might well ask why those obligations should be in the law rather than in statutory guidance. The NSPCC, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Dorset  and North Poole and I believe that they should be a legal duty for two reasons. Firstly, seeing the child separately from the parents is the only way in which the key worker can reliably fulfil their duties under section 53 of the 2004 Act. Seeing the child separately is also central to the effective protection of children. On reading the serious case review of the tragic baby P case earlier this year and last year, the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families noted in his press conference statement that:

“The Inspectors also highlight a failure to talk directly to the children at risk; and where children were not seen alone, it worries me greatly that the Inspectors find little evidence of management follow-up to ensure that children suspected of being abused were properly heard and able to speak up without fear.”

As one of the few, sadly, who has been able to read the baby P serious case review, I can confirm that that is one of the major considerations, and one of the major concerns that anyone looking at the detail of how that case was handled would have. It is clear from the three official overviews of child serious case reviews that the guidance on the need to see children is not sufficient. The overviews all note that there is little to no evidence that children subsequently murdered or injured were ever seen or talked to directly. They stress the importance of that point. The overview relating to the earlier period—the 2001-03 documents—deals with the failure to protect vulnerable children because of the loss of focus on the child or their circumstances. That issue came up in Lord Laming’s recent review.

Such a provision would help key workers in their extremely difficult task of simultaneously supporting and policing parents. It would allow the key worker to explain that they are simply following the law when requesting to see a child alone, and that that does not imply a lack of trust in the parents. That is an extremely important point, given that many parents about whose children there are protection concerns will be quite sensitive about the circumstances in which those key workers see the child alone. A strong parent-child attachment is critical to the child’s healthy development, and it is essential that key workers can nurture proper relationships with parents, which can be done only if there is transparency.

I hope that you understand, Mr. Chope, why I felt it necessary to give a proper airing to this important and substantive new clause. I do not necessarily expect it to be included in the Bill immediately, but I hope that the Minister will respond to it positively.

Photo of Sarah McCarthy-Fry Sarah McCarthy-Fry Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families 12:00 pm, 26th March 2009

In what is probably our last exchange on this Bill, I would like to thank the hon. Gentleman for his very generous comments to me yesterday.

This is an important new clause on a matter that we take very seriously. It is essential that social workers can see a child alone when making section 47 inquiries or when the child is subject to a child protection plan. As the hon. Gentleman said, the Government’s statutory guidance, “Working Together to Safeguard Children”, makes it clear that section 47 inquiries should always involve the allocated social worker, who is also the key worker, undertaking separate interviews with the child who is the subject of concern. “Working Together” also addresses a situation in which a child cannot take part in an interview, because of their age or level of understanding. If the child is very young, and therefore  unable to communicate verbally, the social worker must carefully observe the child with their family and, if appropriate, with other adults or care givers. “Working Together” also states that the child protection plan should be explained to, and agreed with, the child in a manner appropriate to their age and understanding.

Social workers are expected to make all reasonable efforts to persuade parents to co-operate with section 47 inquiries. However, if parents refuse access to the child, or if the social worker is concerned that they cannot see the child alone, the local authority has powers, under the Children Act 1989, to apply for an appropriate court order. The local authority may apply for a child assessment order, and the court may direct the parents or care givers to co-operate with an assessment of the child’s health and development. If there is a risk to the child’s life or a likelihood of serious, immediate harm, the local authority may apply for an emergency protection order, the making of which will ensure that either the child remains in a safe place, such as a hospital, or is removed to a safe place, for example with foster carers. When the order is made, the local authority should quickly commence section 47 inquiries. Following such inquiries, the local authority must consider what action to take to protect the child. That includes deciding whether to initiate care or other proceedings, or to let the order lapse and the child return home.

Local authorities and social worker are expected to record their work with a child and family accurately and in a timely manner. Those records should include whether the child is seen and who else is present. The guidance states clearly that key records, such as section 47 inquiries and child protection plans, should be recorded in a manner consistent with the relevant exemplars in the integrated children’s system. The social worker should also record the child’s wishes and feelings. The child protection review record for the child who is the subject of a child protection plan records the dates on which the child was seen since the last review and whether they were seen alone. In the planned revision of “Working Together,” we will ensure that that same recording commitment is made explicit when a child is the subject of section 47 inquiries.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that we take the matter seriously. We believe that it is already embedded in statutory guidance and that the local authority has the necessary powers to take appropriate action. On that basis, I hope that he will withdraw the motion.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families)

I am grateful to the Minister for her response. It was important to air that issue; we will want to return to it on another occasion, when we will have a full opportunity to expand on some of the points. I thank her for the positive way in which she has responded not only to the new clause but for the past 24 to 48 hours—I have lost track of how long it has been. All the Ministers, to be fair, have been extremely constructive, positive and helpful to the Committee, but I particularly appreciate her response, given that she has had to deal with the Bill over such a long period with so few breaks and with four Opposition spokesmen against her.

If you will allow me, Mr. Chope, I would also like to thank Government Members for their involvement and Conservative Members for their co-operation with us on many issues, although not all. I thank you and Mrs. Humble for the way in which you have chaired our  proceedings over the past few weeks, particularly you for chairing our proceedings and steering us over the rocks during the past 48 hours. Finally, I thank all the others who have supported the Committee during the past few weeks, and the past 48 hours in particular: the staff, police, Clerks, Hansard reporters and officials from the Department. They have done such a good job, particularly in the past 48 antisocial hours. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the Chairman do report the Bill, as amended, to the House.

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

It is usual at this point in the Committee stage of a Bill to extend the courtesy of thanking all the people whom the hon. Gentleman just listed. In this case, there are exceptional reasons why we should offer those courtesies, and with great feeling. I shall not rehearse the sometimes tetchy exchanges that we have had in the past hours; those are on the record anyway. I want to be much more positive.

The Bill is not an easy one—it is a long and complicated one. At times, it more than tried the patience of all those involved. I am extremely personally grateful to you and Mrs. Humble for your forbearance, Mr. Chope, particularly your own forbearance under the strains that you have had to bear during the past hours. However difficult it may have been, hon. Members from both Front Benches have demonstrated extreme competence and professionalism in scrutinising the Bill. At times, they may have felt that they were not given as much opportunity to prepare as they could have been given, because of the number of amendments and so on, but they have gone about their business in an extremely constructive way, and the Bill benefits from that level of scrutiny.

The progressive hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton has been exemplary in that regard. It is unkind that the hon. Member for Yeovil has been labelled Johnny No-mates; I am sure that he has some. Similarly, I feel that it is equally unfair for people to suggest that the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings might be verbose and regressive in contrast with the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton. I thank the other members of the Committee, especially the Whips, and am particularly grateful for the interest shown in this Committee at the most senior level by the Whips Office.

I thank my officials, from John the apprentice in the Bill team all the way through to the lawyers, the policy officials and the rest of the Bill team; the Hansard Reporters and Badge Messengers; the police and security staff; the refreshment staff and other staff of the House who have sustained us over the past 27 hours; and particularly the Clerks, who I know bear a great strain in keeping us on the straight and narrow and advising all of us, and especially you, Mr. Chope. This is a good Bill, and I am proud to propose that we should report it to the House.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools) 12:15 pm, 26th March 2009

I want to add my thanks to those of the Minister to House officials, police and doormen, for all their work over the past few weeks. My thanks also to the Clerks, Mr. Shaw and Mr. Davies, for their work  and advice, and thanks to the Hansard writers and the staff of the House for their patience, particularly over the past 48 hours. On behalf of all the Members of the Committee I would like to thank both Chairmen, Mr. Chope and Mrs. Humble, for their studious and fair chairmanship during what has been a long and troubled Committee.

I offer my deepest sympathy to the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport on the loss of her father—it must be a terrible time for her. I am grateful therefore to my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness who stayed away while she was away—if not him, then somebody else to take his place during the Committee.

I would also like to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne for his lively contributions to our proceedings and my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke for helping out with her specialist knowledge on early years and children’s issues, and of course a great big thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings for his erudition and his careful scrutiny of the DIUS parts of the Bill. I have worked on three Bills with him and it is always a pleasure, despite our occasional disagreements on philosophy.

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene, because this gives me an opportunity to right a wrong. I forgot to mention the Children, Schools and Families Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North, and the Innovation, Universities and Skills Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington. They have done an admirable job on their first occasion to lead on a Bill as Ministers and I am extremely grateful to them.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

Finally, I would like to say a big thank you to my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster for his huge help, particularly during the past 24 hours, which without him would have been extremely difficult. This whole Committee has been difficult for me. The burden of Committee proceedings falls on the Opposition and this has been the most extraordinary Bill Committee I have served on in my 12 years in the House, and I have served on many during that period. We have had Ministers voting the wrong way on clause 49—not just once but twice—we became inquorate, and we had Labour Members failing to turn up for a 9 o’clock start and as a consequence losing three votes. Those things are forgivable and one could maintain a sense of humour about them if it had not been for what then happened, which was a totally unnecessary long session out of sheer petulance, an approach I am sure will be monitored outside this House and about which I am quite cross and angry—as are other members of this Committee. We met from 9 o’clock on Thursday through to 4.30 in the morning, with periodic breaks, and from 8.15 this morning until 12.20 today. We met for just four hours today. We could easily have concluded our deliberations next Tuesday, especially with a longer sitting, as had been agreed on Thursday. We have now finished this Committee and yet we have a full day’s Committee left in the programme motion. The cost to the House of Commons in terms of taxi fares and other expenses will run into thousands of pounds—something I hope to find out about through the Speaker’s Office.

More important even than that, is the disruption to staff who work in the House. More than the disruption, which they are used to periodically, at no point was any clarity given so that they could phone their families and tell them what was happening to their working day, which I find deeply uncaring and surprising coming from Members of a party which claims to be caring for people in their working lives. I find it rather offensive and difficult to understand. Ministers claim that there has been filibustering—I know what filibustering is, I have been in the House long enough to identify it. Although the hon. Member for Yeovil goes on a bit sometimes, as does my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings, neither of them was doing anything other than his normal thorough scrutiny of the Bill, which as the Minister said involved 256 clauses, 16 schedules and more than 200 Government amendments.

Hostility to parliamentary scrutiny is a sign of arrogance and of the final months of a tired and dying Government, as is the failure of Government Back Benchers to be bothered to get out of bed to be here for the Committee’s 9 o’clock start. That is all I want to say on that matter, Mr. Chope. I thank you and Mrs. Humble for your careful chairmanship of the Committee. I hope we never again have proceedings in Committee so poorly managed by Ministers and so petulantly directed from the Government Whips Office.

I am grateful to my hon. Friends for their support and to the hon. Member for Yeovil for his support on some of our amendments and for his very valuable contributions to the scrutiny of the Bill.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

Before I put the question, I wish to express my very great appreciation to my co-Chairman for all her work in Committee. I must congratulate her on her foresight in accepting so readily my invitation, which I gave to her almost 24 hours ago, to take over the Chair from 4 o’clock on Thursday. I do not think that even she could have realised the extent to which that obligation would extend. She has enabled our proceedings to go extremely well, and I am glad that she has been able to fulfil some of the commitments that she already had for today.

May I also thank the Clerks, the Hansard reporters, the Badge Messengers, the police, catering staff and all other servants of the House who have been involved in helping us in our proceedings. Sometimes I think that the thanks given are almost ritual, but in this case they are extremely heartfelt. I would like to put on record my apology to the Members of the House and officials to whom I gave information on the basis of information provided to me, which was that the proceedings would be adjourned when we got to clause 215. I passed that information on to them and it turned out to be erroneous.

During today’s proceedings I have put on record my concern at the nature of communications with the Chair. I am sure that other members of the Chairmen’s Panel will wish to discuss it. It is absolutely essential that the Chair is recognised by members of the Committee as having an important part to play in being informed of what is happening. I just put that on record again.

I do not think that the Committee would have been able to operate on automatic pilot, as it did on one occasion when I was a member of a Committee chaired  by Mr. Ted Leadbitter. In the early hours of the morning, he was in the Chair asleep and, when he woke up, he congratulated the Committee on having been on automatic pilot without troubling him. That is a reminder of the fact that it used to be pretty commonplace for Committees to sit through the night. It is not so common now, but perhaps new precedents have been set in the consideration of this particular Bill.

I can tell right hon. and hon. Members that I gain some comfort from the fact that members of the Committee are now more familiar with some of the rules of procedure and Standing Orders than they were at the outset of our proceedings. That can only be to everyone’s benefit. We will find out in due course how our proceedings have been treated in terms of precedents and whether Committees have sat continuously for longer. I recall—again, many years ago—when the Greater London Council  Paving Bill was being debated. I think that it went on for a day and a half sitting continuously, and at the end of it all, the British Printing Industries Federation sent those of us who had participated in all Divisions a certificate of thanks because we had contributed so significantly to the profits of the printing industry. I am not sure whether any of us will qualify for such a certificate as a result of our deliberations, but I hand out a hint to the printing industry—if it wishes to proceed in that way. Without further ado, I shall put the motion to the Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill, as amended, to be reported.

Committee rose.