Functions of the Panel

Children and Social Work Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 12:00 pm on 15 December 2016.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Emma Lewell-Buck Emma Lewell-Buck Shadow Minister (Education) (Children and Families) 12:00, 15 December 2016

I beg to move amendment 36, in clause 13, page 11, line 9, leave out

“unless they consider it inappropriate to do so”.

This amendment would ensure that the Practice Review Panel publishes a report on the outcome of any review.

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment 37, in clause 13, page 11, line 11, leave out subsection (5).

This amendment is consequential to amendment 36.

Photo of Emma Lewell-Buck Emma Lewell-Buck Shadow Minister (Education) (Children and Families)

Amendment 36 would ensure that the new child safeguarding practice review panel publishes a report on the outcomes of a review. The current wording of the Bill allows the panel to pick and choose the cases it deems necessary to review, but does not compel it to publish a report if it does not think it is appropriate.

It is not appropriate for a national board to weigh in on highly sensitive local cases and then refuse to publish its findings. If the new panel goes ahead, preferably with guaranteed independence from the Secretary of State, it must do so as transparently as possible. Child death and serious cases of abuse have to be treated very carefully, especially by a new national panel which will naturally be met with some suspicion by front-line practitioners in particular, who might expect the panel to act as yet another mechanism for publically blaming and shaming them when things go wrong. That is not a baseless fear; social workers have had to learn the hard way, with previous instances of central Government interference in local cases. I am certainly not opposed to rigorous national oversight of serious cases—the more we can review and learn lessons, the better it will be for vulnerable children—but if lessons and improvements are very much the purpose of the exercise, the panel must have a duty to publish its report in every case it takes on.

The Government’s reason for creating this new panel is that it will pick up on cases that have wider implications than just those for the local authority, while ensuring that local authorities do not repeat mistakes that might have led to a child death or serious abuse. I want to know how the Minister can ensure that the national or local interest can be served if the reports are kept under lock, in secret.

Subsection (5) of the clause compels the panel to publish any suggested improvements arising from its report, even if it does not think that the publication of the report is appropriate, but that does nothing to solve the problem because improvements suggested out of any context are unaccountable. Who will guarantee that the suggested improvements arise from evidence presented to the panel? Amendments to mitigate the involvement of the Secretary of State in the business of the panel offer some reassurance, but the fact remains that if the mistakes are not published, suggested improvements cannot be properly owned by the managers or front-line practitioners that need to implement them in the local authority in question and nationally.

Under the Bill as it stands, the panel could publish a list of improvements to front-line practice that would leave practitioners open to public blame without recourse to a public document that explains their role. If front-line practice is at fault, that too needs to be made clear. I look forward to the Minister’s comments.

Photo of Edward Timpson Edward Timpson Minister of State (Education)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for South Shields for the amendments and the important issues that she has raised. As I said a few minutes ago, the Wood review into the role and functions of local safeguarding children boards published earlier this year highlighted a number of long-term issues with the current system of serious case reviews, including reviews being of poor quality, taking too long to complete and failing to identify required improvements to front-line practice.

In response, the Bill establishes a new system of national and local child safeguarding practice reviews to help resolve those issues. National reviews will be undertaken by the child safeguarding practice review panel into cases identified as raising issues that are complex or of national importance that it considers it appropriate to review. Commissioning of local reviews will remain with local areas and will be carried out into cases where local safeguarding partners consider that there are issues of importance in relation to the local area and that a review should be carried out.

Amendments 36 and 37 relate to subsections (4) and (5), which set out the requirement on the child safeguarding practice review panel to publish reports unless it considers it inappropriate to do so. If, on rare occasions, it does consider publication inappropriate—for example, where publication might lead to risk or distress for children or adults involved in the case—the panel is required to consider what information it is able to publish about improvements to be made following the review. As in the current serious case review system, reports commissioned by the panel will need to be written from the outset with the presumption that they will be published, and reports should be written in such a way that publication will not be likely to harm the welfare of any children or other individuals involved in the case.

There is a small hint of irony here. I remember in my early days as a Member of Parliament being asked at the last minute to go on “Newsnight” to press the then Labour Government on why they still held the line of insisting on not fully publishing serious case reviews and asking only that executive summaries be published, as that was deemed to be sufficient. I am pleased that the hon. Lady has moved her party to a more enlightened position. We recognise, as I think she does, that there will be very exceptional circumstances where the publication of the full report may not be in the best interests of the child concerned or siblings and other family members. In those cases, it is important that, against the presumption in every case that it should publish the full report, the panel is able to exercise its professional judgment and discretion not to do so. The panel should also consider information that it is able to publish about implications for future practice.

Photo of Edward Timpson Edward Timpson Minister of State (Education)

I knew that the hon. Gentleman would not be able to resist.

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Labour, Birmingham, Selly Oak

I just want to ask the Minister about a very simple point. I agree with what he is saying and I remember the occasion to which he referred. Given that part of the purpose of the measure is to improve learning and understanding, in cases where it is deemed inappropriate to publish the full report for the reasons he gave, will academic bodies have access to that information, or will they be excluded from access as well?

Photo of Edward Timpson Edward Timpson Minister of State (Education)

Will the hon. Gentleman confirm what he means by “information”?

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Labour, Birmingham, Selly Oak

When the full report will not be published for the reasons the Minister mentioned, will it be available to academic institutions? Will they be able to make full use of the full report or will they be denied access?

Photo of Edward Timpson Edward Timpson Minister of State (Education)

The report that will be published will be the redacted report, which will then be publicly available. We want to ensure that as much learning as possible can be extrapolated from that report. That is why we are setting up the What Works centre, which will be a repository for all serious case reviews. Practitioners and academics will be able to use the findings from those reviews to inform their own understanding and practice.

Photo of Emma Lewell-Buck Emma Lewell-Buck Shadow Minister (Education) (Children and Families)

I will not detain the Committee much longer on this point. I completely understand the Minister’s response that it is not always appropriate to publish such reports, but he did not comment on the fact that social workers are very anxious and scared that this might be used as another stick to beat them with. I hope that he will make some comments in the public domain or make some reference to that later in the Committee.

Photo of Edward Timpson Edward Timpson Minister of State (Education)

I am happy to repeat what I have said before: this is not a blame game. One problem that has arisen is that in the past, a serious case review, which is about learning from things that have gone wrong and having an open and honest discussion about how things can improve—an acceptance of failure—has turned into a finger-pointing exercise. That is not always in every case helpful in really getting to the bottom of what has gone wrong. We are absolutely not trying to turn the clock back to that type of approach. The aim is to have a very clear way to ensure that we learn and change the way in which we deliver practice for children, so that they are protected as much as possible.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Emma Lewell-Buck Emma Lewell-Buck Shadow Minister (Education) (Children and Families)

I beg to move amendment 41, in clause 13, page 11, line 30, at end insert—

“(7A) When exercising its functions under this section, the Panel must, in particular, have regard to—

(a) concerns relating to child safeguarding resulting from contact arrangements in families where one of the parents of the child in question has perpetrated domestic abuse, and

(b) the implementation of Practice Direction 12J in child contact arrangements.”

This amendment would ensure that the Child Safeguarding Review Panel must have regard to circumstances around child contact arrangements that involve parents who have perpetrated domestic abuse. Practice Direction 12J (Child Arrangements and Contact Orders: Domestic Violence and Harm) aims to ensure that contact ordered with a parent who has perpetrated violence or abuse is safe and in the best interests of the child.

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment 42, in clause 14, page 12, line 13, at end insert—

“(c) the child dies or is seriously harmed by a perpetrator of domestic abuse in circumstances related to child contact.”

This amendment would ensure that local authorities in England have a duty to notify the Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel when a child dies or is seriously harmed by a perpetrator of domestic abuse in circumstances related to child contact.

Photo of Emma Lewell-Buck Emma Lewell-Buck Shadow Minister (Education) (Children and Families)

Amendments 41 and 42 would strengthen the role of the child safeguarding practice review panel in cases where domestic violence has been a feature. They would ensure that contact was safe for the child, and that in the terrible circumstances where a child dies or is seriously injured by a perpetrator in circumstances related to that contact, the local authority must notify the panel.

Women’s Aid’s recent “Nineteen Child Homicides” report, launched as part of the “Child First: Safe Child Contact Saves Lives” campaign, revealed the scale of the challenge for child protection in families where one parent is abusive. Child contact arrangements should always be made in the best interests of the child and to protect the safety and wellbeing of the child and the parent with care. However, there are significant concerns that the current system managing child contact decisions is not consistently upholding that principle, resulting in significant child protection concerns within families where there is a perpetrator of domestic abuse. The Bill is a critical opportunity to improve child safeguarding practice and help to prevent avoidable child deaths and harm as a result of unsafe child contact with dangerous perpetrators of domestic abuse.

Existing research provides strong evidence that in making arrangements for child contact where there is a history of domestic violence, the current workings of the family justice system support a pro-contact approach, which can undermine the best interests of the child and the safety and wellbeing of the parent with care. That frequently exposes children and women to further violence, causes them significant harm and prevents recovery. The impact of witnessing previous or continuing domestic abuse is in itself a form of child abuse, but the significance of that is often minimised by the family court system. In my experience, that is most likely because those making the decisions in court have never had to witness at first hand the harm that has been done, as social workers have to day in, day out.

On average, only 1% of applications for contact are refused, even though domestic abuse is identified as an issue in up to 70% of family proceedings cases—those are only the cases where domestic violence is disclosed. In three quarters of cases where courts have ordered contact with an abusive parent, the child suffered further abuse. There is nothing worse than having to visit a child who is crying, visibly shaking and terrified and letting them know that the court has ordered they have to see the very person who caused them that harm. Some children have even been ordered to have contact with a parent who has committed offences against them, and in some tragic cases children have been killed as a result of contact or residence arrangements. There are clearly significant safeguarding concerns resulting from the management of current child contact arrangements, which should be considered in efforts to improve child safeguarding practice.

In January this year, Women’s Aid’s “Child First: Safe Child Contact Saves Lives” campaign to stop avoidable deaths as a result of unsafe child contact with dangerous perpetrators launched alongside it the “Nineteen Child Homicides” report. The report highlighted 19 cases of children who were killed by perpetrators of domestic abuse in circumstances related to unsafe child contact. Those homicides took place in England and Wales and were outlined in serious case review reports. All the perpetrators were men and fathers to the children they killed. Later on, I will table new clauses to improve statutory support for victims of parental homicide. I hope the Committee will consider those.

The Under-Secretary of State for Justice, Dr Lee, who is responsible for family justice, said:

The Women’s Aid report makes for harrowing reading. No child should ever die or live in such dreadful circumstances, and it is incumbent on all of us to consider whether more can be done to prevent such tragedies. The report underlines the need to prioritise the child’s best interest in child contact cases involving domestic abuse, and to make sure that known risks are properly considered.”—[Official Report, 15 September 2016; Vol. 614, c. 1116.]

The amendments would do exactly what the Minister’s colleague asked for.

Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Labour/Co-operative, Walthamstow

What my hon. Friend talks about is incredibly important. One of the most upsetting cases I ever had to deal with as a Member of Parliament was one where social workers were writing letters in support of a woman’s perpetrator staying in the country because they felt it was in the children’s best interests to remain in contact with their father. As a result, she was put at direct risk, even though he had directly attacked the children, as well as her. We have to get this right and recognise the danger that perpetrators can present to the entire family. We must see it as being in the best interests of the children to keep the mother alive. The amendments would do exactly that and prevent such a scenario.

Photo of Emma Lewell-Buck Emma Lewell-Buck Shadow Minister (Education) (Children and Families)

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention and her support for the amendments. She is exactly right. I know from experience of the family courts that parents’ rights can often take precedence over the child’s rights, especially in the realms of who has more in the human rights arena.

The Women’s Aid report examines circumstances in which abusive fathers had contact with their children and investigates the lessons that can be learned for Government policy. Key findings were that two mothers and 19 children, ranging from one to 14 years old, were killed intentionally. Those fathers also had access to their children through formal or informal child contact arrangements. For 12 of the 19 children killed, contact with their father had been arranged in court in a similar way to that mentioned by my hon. Friend. For six families the contact was arranged in family court hearings, and for one family it was decided as part of a non-molestation order and occupation order. In two families, the father was even granted overnight contact. In an additional two families, a father was granted a residence order, which means that the children were allowed to live with him.

All of those fathers were known perpetrators of domestic abuse. Nine of the 12 perpetrators were known to have committed domestic abuse after separation from the child’s mother, including attempted strangulation, sexual assault, harassment, threats, threats to abduct the children and actual abduction. They all indicated high-risk perpetrator behaviour. Of course, I agree that the responsibility for the deaths of those children lies squarely with the person who killed them, but research identifies key lessons for the child protection system in relation to child contact in families where there is one abusive parent.

Photo of Tulip Siddiq Tulip Siddiq Shadow Minister (Education) (Early Years)

The shadow Minister is making a passionate speech about an issue close to my heart and, I am sure, to those of many in Parliament. I want to draw her attention to research on the risks to ethnic minority women in particular, and horror stories about refugee children who have seen their mothers abducted by fathers and abandoned in their country of origin without their children. Is she aware of that research?

Photo of Emma Lewell-Buck Emma Lewell-Buck Shadow Minister (Education) (Children and Families)

I thank my hon. Friend. I am not aware of that research but would like to discuss the matter further with her. It is critical to the Bill that the aim of improving local safeguarding is based on lessons learned from these tragic cases.

We need to understand that domestic abuse is harmful to children, even when they have not been directly physically harmed. There needs to be a culture change within the family court system to ensure that children’s experiences of domestic abuse and its impact on them are fully considered and that practice direction 12J, which instructs courts to ensure that where domestic abuse has occurred any child arrangements orders protect the safety and wellbeing of the child and the parent with care, and are always completely in the best interests of the child.

Another concern is the professional understanding of power and control—of the dynamics of domestic abuse. Coercive control was a dominant feature in many of those cases, yet the report found a lack of professional understanding in statutory agencies and family courts about how power and control can manifest in an abusive relationship. The report recommends that the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service and child protection agencies and the judiciary should have more specialist training in that area.

There also needs to be an understanding that the point at which a survivor leaves an abusive partner is highly dangerous, yet time and again parental separation is seen by agencies as an end of the abuse and a reduction in the risk, when in fact that is the very time that the risk has intensified. As always in these cases, poor information sharing was identified as a major factor.

We need to support non-abusive parents and challenge abusive parents. In many of the serious case reviews, it was unclear whether the mother had been offered or referred to any specialist support, even when the abuse was known to police and social services. Statutory agencies often put the onus on the non-abusive parent to protect their children and end the relationship, rather than hold the perpetrator accountable. Communication between family and criminal courts must improve, and there must be the safeguard that no unsupervised contact is granted to a parent who is awaiting trial or involved in ongoing criminal proceedings for domestic abuse-related offences.

I know full well that the Minister understands the importance of the amendments. If he does not support them, I hope he will explain what his Department will do to protect children fully from harmful contact, and how we can guarantee that the child safeguarding practice review panel will know about the serious harm done to children by domestic violence.

Photo of Kate Green Kate Green Labour, Stretford and Urmston 12:30, 15 December 2016

It is a great pleasure to serve on the Committee with you in the Chair, Mrs Main. I want to reinforce what my hon. Friend said and ask a couple of questions.

I hope there has been a shift from the attitudes I have detected in the past few years. The Minister was right to emphasise that the best interests of children are the fundamental guiding principle that underpins the legislation, but in recent years I think the balance has moved to some degree towards a presumption in favour of contact. Indeed, at times that has been almost explicit in some of the language I have heard from some political and other figures. It would be really helpful if the Minister made clear again that the presumption for contact, if it exists, is very much secondary to what is in the best interests of the children.

Contact often is in the best interests of a child, but, as my hon. Friend pointed out, it is difficult to make that assumption when domestic abuse and violence have been present. Domestic abuse and violence cut across all social backgrounds, all economic backgrounds and all cultures and classes; the system needs to be aware of that. It should not be making assumptions that more articulate and authoritative men should in some way have their assertions taken at face value. I sometimes feel we see such examples in our own casework when particularly articulate cases have been made. Again, this is a good opportunity for the Minister to say how he envisages the panel will be able to spread good practice and awareness of such issues in responding to my hon. Friend.

My hon. Friend made a point about training professionals and mentioned in particular those in the family justice and family support system. In fact, a wide range of professionals who come into contact with children need to be alert to the signs of domestic abuse and violence. It would be interesting to hear from the Minister about how the safeguarding panel could help to spread that knowledge and awareness as widely as possible across a whole range of professional disciplines.

As my hon. Friend said, we do see forms of domestic abuse and violence well beyond the physical, such as coercive control and the undermining and humiliating of women in the family, through which a mother’s self-confidence and self-esteem can be whittled away. That needs to be recognised when making decisions about the best interests of the care of children and their relationship with both parents. If the Minister feels unable to accept the amendments, I hope he will say how he intends to shift the balance back to where I think we agree it must be, with the best interests of the child paramount in contact decisions. A presumption of contact is not the place to start, least of all when domestic abuse or violence is present or feared.

Photo of Edward Timpson Edward Timpson Minister of State (Education)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for South Shields for her amendments, which raise important, difficult and sensitive issues. She rightly made some insightful, wide-ranging points. I suspect that my response will not necessarily do justice to them all, but I will do my best.

One thing that the hon. Lady and I have in common is that we both have experience of dealing with these types of cases in the family courts and the children’s social care system. We have seen at first hand the extreme pressure on those who take part in those proceedings—particularly those who have been victims of domestic abuse, whether as children or adults.

I have been involved in many contact cases, injunctions, non-molestation orders, occupation orders and finding of fact hearings that have centred around the issue of domestic abuse. One thing that has always struck me is that, in some parts of society, there is the presumption that domestic violence happens only in certain homes, but it can happen anywhere and in any home. That is why, when we did a big national campaign to help people understand what the signs of abuse look like, which we hope to repeat in the new year, we made it clear that domestic violence is not the preserve of some communities; it happens in every community, class and walk of life.

We need to grasp more widely the culture change that the hon. Lady spoke about in relation to the family courts. We can have the best system, regulations and laws in place, but if beneath them there is a reluctance to engage with the reality of domestic violence—both its prevalence and the devastating impact it has on the victims—we are never going to be able to tackle it and prevent it from being a feature of so many people’s lives in the future. I fully echo many of the points that the hon. Lady made.

We need to work together collectively, both at a local level and nationally. Like many members of the Committee, I have been involved with my local Women’s Aid and other support groups, as well as with men who are victims of domestic violence, to understand the reasons behind it and what we can do, at every point where those people come into contact with the community around them, to support them. As the Minister for Vulnerable Children and Families, I want to ensure that we most protect children. They must never have to suffer the consequences of being involved in such violence or seeing it around them.

Photo of Maria Caulfield Maria Caulfield Conservative, Lewes

The Minister is making some excellent points. Does not the argument of the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston justify clause 12 and having a national panel? A wide range of professionals, not just those involved in individual cases, need to learn the lessons. The only way to do that is to have a national panel and to feed out the evidence so such cases and domestic violence are taken much more seriously.

Photo of Edward Timpson Edward Timpson Minister of State (Education)

My hon. Friend makes a good point. She re-emphasises the purpose behind having a more systematic and comprehensive way of pulling together that knowledge and understanding for cases involving an issue of national importance and relevance, such as domestic violence. That would give all practitioners, whether they work in social work, the health service, schools or the charitable sector, access to well-researched and practical advice about how they can respond better should they find a child or a family in those circumstances. I do not underestimate the scale of the challenge that we face in ensuring that we are doing all we can across society and across Government to meet the real need that is out there.

These important issues were debated in the House on 15 September in response to the publication of the Women’s Aid report entitled “Nineteen Child Homicides”, to which the hon. Member for South Shields referred. As the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend Dr Lee, made clear then, it is incumbent on all of us to consider whether more can be done to prevent such tragedies.

As the hon. Lady said, the Women’s Aid report graphically underlines the need to prioritise the child’s best interest in child contact cases involving domestic abuse and to ensure that the risks are properly considered. I am happy to remind the Committee of what I said earlier, which I hope this reassure the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston: the paramount consideration is always the welfare of the child in any case where they are relevant. That is the key principle that guides the decision making in any judgment made by any court.

My concern about the amendment is that it risks giving the impression that reviews undertaken by the panel could stray into matters that are properly for the independent judiciary. Given previous comments about the need for the panel to be independent, I also think there is a risk of highlighting one particular matter to the exclusion of all others. As I said earlier, the law is clear: the family court’s overriding duty is the welfare of the child. Decisions about child contact are made by the court, based on all of the evidence, and with the child’s welfare as the court’s paramount consideration. It would be constitutionally improper for the panel, as an administrative body, to seek to review such judicial decisions.

Photo of Kate Green Kate Green Labour, Stretford and Urmston

I understand the Minister’s point about the independence of the judiciary. However, it will be difficult for the reports and reviews conducted to be meaningful if they cannot, in some way, take account of the effect of the decision-making process. How does the Minister see that tension being resolved? Does he envisage that any report by the panel would be unable to say anything about court decisions?

Photo of Edward Timpson Edward Timpson Minister of State (Education)

If the hon. Lady was to look at any serious case review now, she would see a clear timeline setting out the facts of the case that stated what the decisions were and what lay behind them. It is up to the panel members to call those who have been part of that particular case to come forward with their evidence, in order to inform that report—subject to any medical reason that would preclude them from assisting. The purpose of the clause is to make sure that we get as full and frank disclosure within the report as possible, to inform both the panel’s recommendations and the subsequent learning that we want to spread across the system.

The hon. Member for South Shields referred to practice direction 12J, which covers child arrangements and domestic violence and harm. It is judicial guidance to the family court on how to deal with allegations of domestic violence or abuse, and is issued by the president of the family division, with the agreement of Ministers and in accordance with process provided for by the Constitutional Reform Act 2005.

The explicit reference in a statute to such a practice direction, which the amendment would introduce, assumes a specific content for the direction. However, practice directions being made in the way I have outlined are open to amendment, revocation or replacement by further directions, so the hon. Lady’s amendment would aim at what is likely to be a moving target. It is worth noting, in this regard, that the president of the family division has already asked a senior High Court judge to review the operation of practice direction 12J in the light of some of the concerns raised by Women’s Aid. I am happy to share any further information I can glean from the Ministry of Justice and my colleagues in that Department with the hon. Lady.

Finally, I turn to amendment 42. It seeks to add to the circumstances set out in subsection 1 of clause 14, under which a local authority must make a notification to the child safeguarding practice review panel. As in my response to the previous amendment, I recognise the concerns about domestic violence and the risks that can be posed to both children and adults by potentially unsafe contact arrangements. The hon. Lady is right to highlight the risks to a particularly vulnerable group of children. Great consideration was given to defining the circumstances under which a local authority must notify the panel in order to come up with the criteria as currently set out in the Bill.

Inevitably, any such definitions cannot be exhaustive, include all circumstances or cover all settings in which children might suffer injury or harm. However, the intention has always been that all cases in which a local authority knows or suspects abuse or neglect, including cases in which factors such as those outlined by the hon. Lady are a feature, must be notified to the panel under the general duty to notify cases of death or serious harm.

With that explanation, and following the helpful debate that explored some of the wider issues around the subject—I am sure we will all want to return to that at a later date, if not in the Committee, then in the House—I hope that the hon. Lady will withdraw her amendment.

Photo of Emma Lewell-Buck Emma Lewell-Buck Shadow Minister (Education) (Children and Families)

I thank the Minister for his response. Like me, because of personal experience he totally understands the complexity of contact between children and parents through the courts. I appreciate that this matter may need discussion with his colleague at the Ministry of Justice. I hope he will commit to that and report back to us.

The reality is that the wrong decisions are being made, and those decisions are costing lives—the lives of children and women. In this place, we should and can always do more. I hope he will give us an update in the near future on what the Government are doing in this area. On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Emma Lewell-Buck Emma Lewell-Buck Shadow Minister (Education) (Children and Families) 12:45, 15 December 2016

I beg to move amendment 35, in clause 13, page 11, line 31, leave out subsection (8).

This amendment would remove the role of the Secretary of State with regards to giving guidance on serious child safeguarding cases to be reviewed, therefore ensuring the local authority’s independence for this process.

We believe it is inappropriate for the Secretary of State to provide any guidance as to which serious cases are to be reviewed by the panel. Policy makers cannot be policy enforcers. There has to be a separation of the two to guard against policy being used to target specific local authorities. The panel will need to tread carefully in order to be seen as a constructive ally and critical friend of children’s services, and therefore political neutrality is vital.

It will be impossible for the panel to make a credible claim of political neutrality if the Secretary of State is able to choose which serious cases are subject to review. For the same reasons, the Secretary of State cannot be seen to interfere in reviews that are under way either by deciding whether a review is making adequate progress or by rubber-stamping reports as being of adequate quality. If the Department wanted to consider an annual audit of all reviews to ascertain quality and function, that would be another matter, but on a case-by-case basis this involvement of the Secretary of State cannot reasonably be deemed acceptable, and I hope the Minister agrees that it could well hinder the efficient working of the panel.

Photo of Edward Timpson Edward Timpson Minister of State (Education)

Once again, I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her amendment, which seeks to remove clause 13(8), which enables the Secretary of State to give guidance to the panel on the circumstances in which it may be appropriate for a national child safeguarding practice review to be undertaken by the panel. I assure hon. Members that any such guidance will not undermine the panel’s independence. The Secretary of State will not be able to direct the panel to carry out a review, and the panel will have sole responsibility for deciding which cases it should review, determining whom it appoints to carry out the review and the publication of the final report.

Subsection (8) also states the Secretary of State’s ability to set out in guidance matters to be taken into account when considering whether a review is being progressed to a satisfactory timescale and is of satisfactory quality. Earlier, the hon. Lady quite rightly raised, as did I, the two issues of the variable quality of serious case reviews and the length of time many were taking before being published. There are sometimes legitimate reasons for cases not being published in a shorter timescale—for example, because there are ongoing criminal proceedings. However, there are still some unacceptable delays in publication.

We want to ensure the two aspects of the current system that have not been functioning well are kept closely under review, so that we have a better functioning system. As I set out earlier, we are committed to addressing the apparent weaknesses in the current system of serious case reviews, including the poor quality of final reports and the length of time it takes to complete and publish reports. This guidance will help the panel to avoid the deficiencies in the current arrangements, but it will not undermine the panel’s decision-making processes.

Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Labour/Co-operative, Walthamstow

The Minister is talking about the length of time cases can take. Will he say a little more about how he thinks the clause will change that?

Photo of Edward Timpson Edward Timpson Minister of State (Education)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for probing that point. The current panel does not have any direct power to force a publication to be completed within a period. So we are left in a situation where there is an attempt to nudge and cajole but ultimately no ability to sanction a specific end date for a report to be published.

There are circumstances in which not months but years go by before we get the learning out of a case. In some local areas, and now at national level, we may need to know much more quickly if we are to make sure that other children will not fall through the net as a consequence of similar basic practice failures that result from not publishing a report that shows where things went wrong.

The new process will permit a closer, robust way of preventing unnecessary delay in publication; clearly, we want the quality of reports to be maintained, but we want them to be produced in a timely way, so that lessons can be learned as soon as possible. I hope that that explanation reassures the Committee about the Government’s intentions.

Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Labour/Co-operative, Walthamstow

Forgive me, but it would be helpful if the Minister would clarify what he means by “closer” and “robust”. He has made a powerful case and I think that we would all agree that the length of time taken can be a problem. I am not clear from what he said how he thinks it will be resolved—what the close and robust process will be. How will it be different?

Photo of Edward Timpson Edward Timpson Minister of State (Education)

First, it will be set out in the guidance that accompanies the Bill, so for the first time there will be a clear mechanism with a trigger for a report to be published by a certain date. That does not currently apply and at the moment there can be a drift, without any way to try to bring the process to an end.

The detail will be in the guidance. I am happy to provide the hon. Lady with a draft as we continue to develop it, but the underlying principle remains the same—to get a way of avoiding unnecessary delay in the publication of reports, so we can get the learning out there into the working environment as soon as possible. On that basis I ask the hon. Member for South Shields to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 13 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 14 and 15 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Does the Committee wish to continue?