Power to test different ways of working

Children and Social Work Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 12:00 am on 10 January 2017.

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‘(1) The purpose of this section is to enable a local authority in England to test different ways of working under children’s social care legislation with a view to—

(a) promoting the physical and mental health and well-being of children, young people or their families,

(b) encouraging children or young people to express their views, wishes and feelings,

(c) taking into account the views, wishes and feelings of children or young people,

(d) helping children, young people or their families gain access to, or make the best use of, services provided by the local authority or its relevant partners (within the meaning given by section 10(4) of the Children Act 1989),

(e) promoting high aspirations for children or young people,

(f) promoting stability in the home lives, relationships, education or work of children or young people, or

(g) preparing children or young people for adulthood and independent living.

(2) The Secretary of State may by regulations, for that purpose—

(a) exempt a local authority in England from a requirement imposed by children’s social care legislation;

(b) modify the way in which a requirement imposed by children’s social care legislation applies in relation to a local authority in England.

(3) Regulations under this section may not be used so as to remove any prohibition on a local authority in England arranging for functions to be carried out by a body whose activities are carried on for profit.

(4) Regulations under this section may not be used to exempt a local authority in England from, or modify, its duties under—

(a) section 17 of the Children Act 1989 and Part 1 of Schedule 2 to that Act (duty to provide appropriate services to children in need);

(b) section 20 of that Act (provision of accommodation for children who appear to require it for certain reasons);

(c) section 22 of that Act (duty to safeguard and promote welfare of looked after children etc);

(d) section 47 of that Act (duty to make enquiries and take action to safeguard or promote welfare of children at risk);

(e) section 10 of the Children Act 2004 (duty to make arrangements for promoting co-operation to improve well-being of children);

(f) section 11 of that Act (duty to make arrangements to ensure that regard is had to the need to safeguard and promote the welfare of children).

(5) The Secretary of State may make regulations under this section relating to a local authority in England only on an application by that authority.

(6) Subsection (5) does not apply to regulations under this section that only revoke earlier regulations under this section.

(7) Regulations under this section may be made in relation to one or more local authorities in England.

(8) Regulations under this section may include consequential modifications of children’s social care legislation.’—

This new clause would give the Secretary of State a power to enable local authorities in England to test different ways of working under children’s social care legislation for one of the purposes mentioned in subsection (1). Subsections (3) and (4) include safeguards on the use of the power. The power may only be exercised on an application by a local authority. See also the following, which are related: NC3, NC4, NC5, NC6, NC7, NC8 and NC9.

Brought up, read the First time, and Question proposed (this day), That the clause be read a Second time.

Question again proposed.

I remind the Committee that with this we are discussing the following: Government new clause 3 —Duration.

Government new clause 4—Parliamentary procedure.

Government new clause 5—Consultation by local authority.

Government new clause 6—Consultation by Secretary of State.

Government new clause 7—Guidance.

Government new clause 8—Annual report.

Government new clause 9—Interpretation.

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

It is a pleasure to have you in the Chair this afternoon, Mr Wilson. I am sure that Committee members have been spending their lunchtimes thinking carefully about what we spoke about this morning, and wondering what more I would say this afternoon. To ensure that we make good progress, I will address the specific points made before our break.

If I understood the hon. Member for South Shields correctly, she was questioning, as part of her response, whether the principles set out in the new clause were binding. I reassure her that any use of the power may be only for the purposes set out in the new clause, and for no other reason. That will also be clear in the statutory guidance. She also raised the issue of the Human Rights Act 1998; as with all legislation, new regulations would need to be compatible with the Act. The House also scrutinises all legislation.

Other hon. Members asked about situations in which a pilot was successful—as they will be in every case, we hope—or not successful. I will take a few moments to explain those two situations. All successful pilots will be evaluated so that we understand the impact and whether there is a case for permanent changes to the legislative framework. Such evaluation will be ongoing through the process, with a full review after three years.

If seeking to extend an exemption for a further three-year term, the Government would be required to report to Parliament. That would happen where the pilot has clearly demonstrated benefits, but the Government need additional time to decide whether it would work across the country. If, following a successful pilot, the Government decide that they would like to make the change for all local authorities, all the usual process would apply, including consultation and full parliamentary scrutiny. The pilot, however, is only the first step towards helping us build the evidence base on which we may want to make further changes in future.

Photo of Kate Green Kate Green Labour, Stretford and Urmston

Will the Minister clarify whether the evaluation would be independent? A concern expressed this morning by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak was that local authorities might be evaluating their own pilots—marking their own homework.

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

Part of the evaluation is through the expert panel, which is involved in ensuring some independent oversight of the pilot, but it would need to be evaluated locally, as well as nationally. In addition to local government, the Department will keep a close eye on the development of the pilot; I will say a little more about that later.

If a pilot is not successful, it will be monitored locally, as well as nationally by the Department, to ensure that there are no adverse impacts on children. For example, we can track the relevant performance metrics, and random case audits are a helpful tool as well. As I mentioned in answer to the question from the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston, the expert panel will scrutinise the proposed monitoring arrangements locally and by the Department to ensure that they are robust in what they are evaluating. If the Department gains intelligence through those processes that a pilot is not working in the best interests of children, that would be investigated and acted on immediately.

All regulations can be revoked through the negative procedure at any point. To answer a question posed earlier about whether a pilot can be terminated within the three-year period, I should say that it can be revoked at any point, should that be deemed necessary. That is clear in regulation. We will also want assurance in the application from a local authority that it will end a pilot immediately if there is evidence of an adverse impact on children.

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

I am not sure whether the Minister will include this in his comments, but is not putting in the provision that a pilot can be revoked at any point if it is causing harm to children a backward way of doing things? Will he not accept the comments made by me and my hon. Friends that there should be robust consultation? The Bill should be built on the evidence now—not after the fact, to remedy mistakes once they have been made.

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

I understand what the hon. Lady says and take it in good spirit, but it misses the point of what these clauses are about: building an evidence base. We cannot future-proof all of children’s social care on the basis that we are already seeing failure—I will come to the geographical spread of success and failure across the country—irrespective of the fact that we have a very rigid and complex legislative framework within which all these local authorities have to work. In itself, that framework is providing the inconsistencies that it is meant to prevent. What we are trying to do in the Bill, in a careful and controlled way, is enable different ways of working that are not about what local authorities have to do but about how they do it. That is the purpose of the new clauses.

Hon. Members also asked what would happen if there was a situation where more than one local authority was in a pilot. New clause 9 makes provision for combined authorities to apply for use of the power set out in it. The hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston asked in particular about the Greater Manchester combined authority, which I think involves 10 local authorities that are currently working on their own devolution settlement. Of course, that may involve children’s services, because I understand that such services are part of their agenda. Where there is a combined authority, we will want to see any application made under these provisions, just as we would for any individual local authority.

Similarly, if a local authority was running a pilot and subsequently became a combined authority, it would need to reapply for any change or extension of the pilot. We will make sure that that is set out in statutory guidance, because that would clearly be a change in circumstances in respect of what would have been approved originally by Parliament. As a consequence, the authority would need to seek further approval.

The hon. Member for South Shields also returned to the issue of profit making. As I have said before and will say again now, the power to innovate has absolutely nothing to do with profit making in children’s social care. The clauses make it clear that it cannot be used to revisit the established position on profit, and we have also been clear that pilots are granted on the basis of achieving better outcomes for children and not on efficiencies. I do not see any evidence that this process could be linked to profit making and we will make it clear in statutory guidance that the local authority will be expected to use the financial impact assessment as part of its application, detailing the expected costs and benefits of a pilot. That information will also be available to the expert panel when it scrutinises applications.

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

I have a point that I want to clarify quickly. The Minister said that new clause 9 refers to the situation of a combined authority, as established under section 103 of the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act 2009. Would it be possible for local authorities that do not fall within that state of affairs to come together? We have examples in London of local authorities that are already working jointly. Is there provision in what he is proposing for that kind of combination to exist? Also, regarding a specific combined authority, would it be possible for a Mayor to override his view about what provisions should apply?

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

The answer to the hon. Gentleman’s first point is yes, but of course the authority still has to comply with all the elements put in the applications and the process that follows in respect of the scrutiny of the application, and whether it is approved. There need to be very clear lines of responsibility and accountability within that, because ultimately it is the local authority that is responsible for providing those services; it holds that function.

As for the hon. Gentleman’s question about the Mayor, it is not one that I have been asked directly before; I know that it is becoming more relevant in some parts of the country. My initial view—I will clarify it later; if he does not mind, I will take some time to do that—would be that this is something approved by Parliament, which cannot be superseded by a Mayor or their powers. However, I will certainly seek to ensure that the hon. Gentleman gets chapter and verse on that point.

I also wish to consider the issue around consultation, which hon. Members have raised. The Department has had a period of very open consultation about the power and it has spoken with a wide range of organisations, including representative bodies of social work, local government, the voluntary sector, children’s organisations and others. Those meetings have been instrumental—indeed, critical—in forming our thinking on the new clauses, but we will of course continue to consult as we develop the detail of the process. We have committed to consult publicly on the statutory guidance to accompany the clauses and, as I have said before, there will also be consultation on each individual use of the power.

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

Does the Minister not accept the information I shared with the Committee earlier: that there are far more organisations, practitioners and experts who are against the new clauses than are for them? More than 100,000 people have signed a petition against the measures. If the Minister really wanted to listen to the sector and the public, would he not be going back and deeply re-thinking the new clauses? Even the NSPCC has said:

“Despite numerous conversations with ministers and officials, the evidence for the need for this power remains unconvincing and does not justify the potential risks of suspending primary legislation.”

More than 50 organisations in this country who are experts in the field share that view. Why is the Minister not listening to them?

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

Of course I respect all the views expressed about the Government’s view on any policy. I am not somebody who will not listen; in fact, I dare suggest that I have a good track record of listening to those who have views on matters that fall within my portfolio. The truth is that no legislation under her party’s Government or this one has ever passed where people have expressed only one side of the argument. Can the hon. Lady tell me any different?

It is my job to listen to both sides of the argument but to come to a considered and informed view as a decision-maker in a position of responsibility to make legislation. I have already alluded to the many representations I have had that I cannot ignore, from the likes of the Local Government Association and the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service. I also mention the support from the Children’s Commissioner for the new clause, which I did not mention before. There is a balance to be struck. I accept that this is not an uncontroversial piece of legislation. It has provoked strong views, but is one on which, on balance, I think we have come to the right conclusion.

Photo of Simon Hoare Simon Hoare Conservative, North Dorset

Unless I am misreading new clause 2 and onwards, it would provide a power to enable local authorities to explore an innovative way of working: there is no compulsion. If they decide not to do that—if they do not want to do innovative, blue-sky work or whatever we wish to call it—there is no obligation for them so to do. It is an enabling power; it is not an enforcing power.

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

My hon. Friend is right: the whole purpose is to ensure that this is a grassroots movement from a local level. There is no direction from Government about how local authorities decide they would like to provide the services they are responsible for. If no local authority applies, that is the end of the matter. The reason we are debating the clause is that local authorities have come forward and said that they want to be able to do that. It is important that we listen to those who are on the frontline, charged with making decisions and bringing policy into action, when they come to Government with a very clear view about what they think needs to be done.

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

I take the Minister’s point about consultation; there are always two sides to the argument, but the balance is heavily weighted against him on this measure. Other colleagues may correct me if I am wrong, but I have always held the belief that there is a history in this House of making child protection legislation—legislation that protects our most vulnerable children—on more of a cross-party consensus, as was the case with Children Act 1989, which is the flank of legislation used by all practitioners and all agencies when discharging functions in relation to protecting children.

The Minister said that local authorities are coming forward. I do not want to embarrass anyone, but when I asked one local authority that he had cited before as coming forward what power it wanted to be exempt from, it could not say. Is it not the case that there is just not enough support out there for these measures at all? The new clauses should be scrapped.

Photo of Edward Timpson Edward Timpson Minister of State (Education) 2:15, 10 January 2017

No. I fundamentally disagree with the hon. Lady. To answer the earlier question from the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak, the likes of Leeds City Council—one of our flagship children’s services councils—North Yorkshire, Lincolnshire County Council and the tri-borough, are all local authorities that have a strong track record in delivering high quality children’s social care. They understand the huge benefit that innovation in their services can make and has brought and they are at the front of the queue among those who want to trial many of these new ways of working. The tri-borough has said that it is

“excited about the ‘power to innovate’ clauses within the Children and Social Work bill. We believe this builds on the Munro Review of Child Protection in helping us to reduce unnecessary bureaucracy and to enable social workers on the front line to spend more time working with families and less time sitting in front of their computers and filling in forms.”

North Yorkshire says that it

“welcomes the opportunity…On behalf of the wider LA sector we are keen to safely explore whether there are freedoms from current national requirements which could be used to enhance local practice.”

I am not prepared to ignore the views of those who I know are at the front of children’s social work, delivering excellent services, who are still looking to improve and can help others to do likewise.

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

The Minister is being generous. I am also grateful for the information he has provided about the authorities looking for the opportunity to innovate. Can he tell us what kind of exemptions they are seeking? What are the powers that they feel are currently restricting their innovating practice and which they are seeking to be freed from?

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

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman took the time to read the letter that I sent round to all Committee members, which set out a number of examples of how local authorities think the power can be used. There is no presumption that those would be granted, of course: any application would need to go through robust scrutiny before it was agreed, as I have set out.

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

I am just answering the question from the hon. Gentleman, if the hon. Lady could be patient for a few moments. If the hon. Gentleman rereads the letter, he will remember that it talks about testing changes to the planning processes, trialling new approaches to the independent reviewing officer, more agile approaches to adoption and fostering assessments, and looking at different approaches to assessing friends and family carers.

Of course, the whole point of the new clauses is that it is not me telling local authorities, “This is what you must do”; it is for them, over time, to come up with their own ideas about how they think they can improve their services. It is not what they have to do, but how they do it. If that is a concept that some struggle with—not necessarily the hon. Gentleman, but perhaps some in his party—I am afraid we are never going to have a meeting of minds; we are not going to find the consensus that, I agree, we are able to reach in the majority of cases on child protection.

There is a fundamental disagreement about what we are trying to achieve and the way we go about it. I am absolutely sure that the approach we are taking will do what local authorities want and what Eileen Munro set out in her report almost six years ago.

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

The Minister is being extremely generous. I read his letter in depth and the fact sheet that went with it. As I said in my opening comments, there are four examples that would get rid of vast swathes of legislation that protects children. Evidence from CoramBAAF to this Committee debunks every one of those four examples and highlights the extremely dangerous pitfalls there would be if that were to take place.

The Minister keeps quoting Eileen Munro, as if in her review in 2011 she recommended dispensing with primary legislation. She never did. That is what the Minister is trying to do, but Eileen Munro never recommended that.

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

I am sorry that the hon. Lady takes that view, because I was under the impression that the review into child protection carried out by Professor Eileen Munro in 2011 was widely welcomed and respected across the political spectrum. That is exactly what is reflected in the many Hansard reports I have read from across the House, in which hon. Members all lauded a report that finally got down to the nuts and bolts of why we need to have a system that, as the tri-borough rightly expressed in relation to this clause, gets social workers out working directly with families and away from being in front of a computer at their desks.

The reason why I keep quoting Eileen Munro is that she was the person charged by Government to provide an independent review, which has been considered, scrutinised and generally approved by this House as the way to go. I am often held to account for how many of Eileen Munro’s recommendations we have implemented, so I place credence in what she has to say about what we are trying to do, because she has already considered it and come up with a solution for Government, in her independent capacity. She says:

“I welcome the introduction of the power to innovate set out in the Children and Social Work Bill. This is a critical part of the journey set out in my Independent Review of Child Protection towards a child welfare system that reflects the complexity and diversity of children’s needs.”

I cannot ignore that, because it demonstrates that her report is still relevant in many ways. I would like to know whether the hon. Member for South Shields agrees with the Munro report. If she does, but disagrees with what Eileen Munro is saying now, what has changed? What is different? I cannot see where the logic would take us.

That is why it is important to allow local authorities such as Hampshire, North Yorkshire, the tri-borough and others—such as Richmond and Kingston with their “Achieving for Children” in Richmond—to try out new ways of working. They might not know, at the moment, exactly what those will be, but they need the opportunity to try them in a controlled, safe way. The Bill provides that without removing swathes of legislation. It enables them to trial or pilot a new way of working, exactly as was done with social work practices under the last Labour Government. Then a decision can be made about whether to go forward with it.

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

The Minister seems to be painting the picture that I disagreed with Eileen Munro’s recommendations. I certainly did not. In fact, I strongly supported recommendation 10 that councils should have a legal duty to provide enough early intervention services, which this Government rejected. He listened to my opening comments. He knows why I disagree with the new clauses, and he knows why thousands of people outside this House do as well.

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

I am not sure what question the hon. Lady wants me to answer on the back of that, but I can reassure her that Eileen Munro said in her conclusion:

“A move from a compliance to a learning culture will require those working in child protection to be given more scope to exercise professional judgment in deciding how best to help children and their families.”

I still do not understand what there is in our clauses, according to the hon. Lady, that contradicts that approach.

There are a number of other issues that I want to cover before I conclude, because it is important that every question asked by an hon. Member receives a response. One question was about which of the measures would be within the scope in the Bill. IROs in particular have been mentioned as an example; it is only an example. There has been some debate about the possibility of relaxing IRO support. The local authorities interested in that approach are talking not about getting rid of the role in its entirety but about using it more flexibly; it is an important distinction to make.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak asked where improving outcomes is now in relation to the Bill. We have expanded the requirements that we set out in relation to new clause 2, replacing them with a more detailed set of requirements to ensure that the outcomes that we are seeking for the relevant children, whom I listed earlier, are much more clearly defined. We have also extended the consultation requirements on local authorities to go beyond safeguarding partners to include other relevant persons, particularly in relation to children and young people. The hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston mentioned schools, which are important and which we must ensure are part of the consultation where relevant.

Depending on the impact that the use of a power will have, it might be appropriate for local authorities to consult publicly, as they would in other circumstances. If the Secretary of State were dissatisfied with the extent of consultation, she could ask local authorities to widen it before agreeing to grant an application.

I risk of falling out a little further with the hon. Member for South Shields. She unhelpfully raised the link between funding and local Government support for these new clauses. I can categorically say there is no link between them and funding received by any local authority. The chief social worker was simply urging the profession to take this opportunity. I am sorry that the hon. Lady chose to try and suggest, or at least insinuate, otherwise and I hope she will disassociate herself from those comments.

In closing, I want to reiterate two points that must not be overlooked. First, this power is about grass-roots innovation. It is all about believing in and trusting professionals to test new approaches, and it is hard. The purpose of the power is to improve the services we deliver for children. If we look at who is calling for this power, it is not private companies or failing children’s services seeking to cut costs, but some of our country’s most inspirational leaders and innovative charities. To characterise this as something that is intended to take away support from children or even enable privatisation is to misrepresent our ambition and undermine the integrity and professionalism of staff who work with children on the frontline.

The new clauses being debated by the Committee today are significantly different from those debated in the other place, and I hope the Committee recognises that the Government have listened and taken substantial steps to put safeguards in place around the power. I remain ready at any time to discuss these new clauses further, but in the end, they are a genuine attempt to help local authorities test different approaches and better ways of working in the interests of children. I urge the Committee to support them.

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

I want to make some brief concluding comments.

If Government Members want to vote for this, they should be able to articulate with total conviction and clarity which primary legislation—out of the lists provided by concerned organisations and individuals under threat— they are and are not comfortable with a local authority, even their own, opting out of. They must be able to articulate why they are happy to give local authorities the opportunity of opting out of supporting disabled children in their area or visiting vulnerable children in their area and why they are satisfied to do so against a groundswell of objection outside and inside the House, even among Government Members. What culpability are they prepared to accept when children in their area have been harmed as a result and claim redress from the state?

The Minister asked for support, but he has not articulated a case, built on strong evidence and stakeholder engagement, for why these clauses are needed. He has not offered any comfort or explanation to people who are seriously concerned about the threat that these clauses pose to vast swathes of legal protection, on which the most vulnerable children and young people rely. I have not been reassured that the endgame is not the marketisation of social work.

These clauses have been the main thrust of the Bill from the outset. They epitomise this ideologically driven Government at their very worst and set a precedent, as Liberty, CoramBAAF and others have said in their evidence, for changing the fundamental rules on how our country’s laws are made and how we are governed, which MPs on all sides of the House have always adhered to. I am deeply disappointed that this Minister, of all people, is going along with this. We on this side will never, ever go along with it.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time.

The Committee divided:

Ayes 10, Noes 5.

Division number 11 Seasonal Working — Power to test different ways of working

Aye: 10 MPs

No: 5 MPs

Aye: A-Z by last name

No: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly agreed to.

New clause 2 read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

New Clause 3