Family Justice Bill Sponsored by UK MP John Hemming

Family Justice Bill

This Bill was defeated in the UK Parliament (see here), but we have included it here to give readers an idea of the child protection system in the UK. For instance, this Bill has provisions for grandparents to be informed and to have a say in child protection cases, which tells us now even grandparents are not permitted to participate in the decisions on their grandchildren when the parents are seen to fail in the system.

We are also reproducing below the entire debate on the Bill in the House of Commons on 26 October 2012. For Indians and others outside the West who are bewildered by their child protection regimes, hardly able to believe that such a vicious State machinery was brought into being in the name of children, this debate will give some insight into how things came to such a pass, and hopefully, educate us in how to avoid the folly, not only of Western child protection, but of the wider choices we make as a society that lead us to these perverse ideas of child protection.

John Hemming Liberal Democrat, Birmingham, Yardley 9:34 am, 26th October 2012

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

It is indeed a privilege to propose legislation in a private Member’s Bill. When I found out, through the usual process of an immediate torrent of lobbying phone calls and e-mails, that I had the opportunity to promote the sixth private Member’s Bill this Session, I was certain about what I would like to propose. I spent some time considering it, however, and was pleased to receive an offer of assistance from Ron Bailey, who has considerable experience of private Member’s Bills and assisted me greatly in a number of ways, particularly in meetings with groups outside Parliament. I also declare an interest as chair of the Justice for Families campaign, which campaigns for improvements in this policy area.

My conclusion was to propose legislation that would improve life for children and families. I was aware that there is a serious problem with the quality of expert evidence in family court proceedings, and that therefore had to be part of the Bill. I was also aware that there are problems with the treatment of children in care, so that issue had to be included in the Bill. Additionally, I have for years been concerned about the impact of increasing energy prices on families, and that is also part of the Bill. I am concerned about how certain procedural aspects and judicial proceedings assist public authorities in covering up malfeasance by public officials, so in one sense, this Bill could be called the “No more cover-ups Bill”.

When I tabled the name and short title of the Bill, I was unaware of events and issues that have arisen over the summer and make the urgency of this Bill much greater, and I will come to those points later.

Photo of Lorely Burt Lorely Burt Chair of the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party

Does my hon. Friend agree that in putting together three elements in the Bill, he seeks to use this opportunity to get three bites of the cherry?

Photo of John Hemming John Hemming Liberal Democrat, Birmingham, Yardley

This is about justice for families in the wider sense. Our society should be based on making life better for families in this country, and making people’s lives easier through better judicial proceedings, fewer cover-ups and cheaper energy bills is all about justice for families.

Over the summer, I worked mainly outside Parliament to consult bodies interested in these matters. As a result of those consultations, I aimed to compromise and ensure that, in a very contentious area, my Bill had support from a broad swathe of opinion. That I have managed to do; the only collective group set in opposition is the Association of Directors of Children’s Services.

Photo of Nadine Dorries Nadine Dorries Conservative, Mid Bedfordshire

May I back the hon. Gentleman on that point? Mothers across my constituency have asked me specifically to support this Bill because they feel that it contains the measures they need to help them through the court system.

Photo of John Hemming John Hemming Liberal Democrat, Birmingham, Yardley

I thank the hon. Lady for that support. Many people wish to see the Bill proceed, and the Association of Directors of Children’s Services is the only collective body I know of that is opposed to it.

The group 4Children said that it supports many of the aims of the Bill, in particular the emphasis on the role of the extended family in supporting vulnerable children and children in care. It stated:

“Our family commission in 2010 called for all families facing family court proceedings to be offered a family group conference, so we warmly welcome in particular the provisions in part 1 of the Bill.”

The British Association of Social Workers said that, although it will not support the Bill formally, most elements relate to good practice, and we have made changes following consultation with it. I have also spoken with the Government who, even if the House gives its assent to Second Reading today, remain in control of the Bill’s progression. For a Bill Committee to meet will require a motion tabled by the Government.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood Conservative, Bournemouth East

The hon. Gentleman has mentioned a number of organisations that support his Bill. He named one group that does not, but did not say why. For reasons of clarity and inclusivity, will he elaborate on why that group has concerns about the Bill?

Photo of John Hemming John Hemming Liberal Democrat, Birmingham, Yardley

I circulated a copy of a letter from the Association of Directors of Children’s Services that stated merely that it opposed the Bill although did not explain why. I have provided all its reasons for opposing the Bill—perhaps it will give me other reasons. One aspect that would cause concern is the independent scrutiny of children in care that is built into the provisions, but the association has not explained why it opposes the Bill. I circulated a copy of its letter to all Members, and I would be happy to read that out if the hon. Gentleman would like me to do so.

Photo of John Hemming John Hemming Liberal Democrat, Birmingham, Yardley

No—the hon. Gentleman is quite happy. This is a contentious area, and it is challenging to find a measure that will take the issue forward without any stakeholder raising a major concern. The Bill is substantially supported by the people to whom things are done—the children and the families—but the people in overall control, the directors, are not so enthusiastic about it, but they will not explain why.

I have always said to the Government that I am willing to compromise on the details of the Bill. I am sure that the Government agree with me on the objectives, and some of the clauses have been deliberately phrased to facilitate improvement in Committee, because that is where we need to work on the details of how to deal with the issues in the Bill. As is often the case, there are siren voices in Whitehall calling for delay and suggesting that everything could be dealt with in a later Bill. That implies that there is no urgency and gives the impression of a bureaucratic machine attempting to repel all boarders on the basis of “not invented here” syndrome. Is that an adequate reason to prevent the progress of the Bill?

The previous Government, admittedly of a different hue, made attempts to deal with the issue of transparency in 2005 and in 2009. Although those changes—made through statutory instruments—made improvements, they were not adequate and problems remain. The creation of the independent reviewing officer has not protected children in care well enough. The problem is essentially that an employee of a local authority is not independent of the local authority. Whitehall still does not recognise the managerial conflicts of interest to which employees of public agencies are subject.

The question for the House and the Government is why now. Why not listen to the siren voices calling for delay and the Sir Humphreys calling for the Bill to be exterminated on Second Reading? Earlier this year, Professor Jane Ireland’s study of expert evidence raised concerns about the quality of psychological reports in two thirds of family court proceedings. However, things have moved on.

During the summer, the Slovak Republic became officially concerned about the way in which Slovak citizens had been treated by the English and Welsh family courts. On 23 August, a statement was published on the Slovak Justice Ministry website which, translated by Google Translate, is headed, “Declaration on adoptions case of Slovak children without the relevant reasons in the UK”. The key to this declaration, according to JUDr Marica Pirošíková, who is the Slovak Republic’s representative at the European Court of Human Rights, and to JUDr Andrea Císorová, who heads up the central authority in the Slovak Republic—their equivalent of our Official Solicitor—is that the decisions to forcibly adopt Slovak children, who are Slovak citizens, living in the UK away from their families, are illegal. In case hon. Members do not know, JUDr is the abbreviation for doctor of law for Slovak citizens. The Slovak ambassador has also expressed his concerns to me, and I have been told that the Slovak Republic has identified 40 cases in the English courts, involving 89 children, in which it is unhappy with the lawfulness of the process.

It is worth spending a little time to explain how all of this works. Under the international conventions on child protection—the Hague convention and Brussels II bis—the courts in the area in which a family is habitually resident are the courts that have jurisdiction in respect of the laws for child protection. England is out on a limb in comparison with the rest of Europe in having a child protection system in which the most likely outcome for a child under five leaving care is to be adopted. In the year to 31 March 2011, 5,200 children under five left care in England, 1,900 were adopted, 1,110 were subject to residency orders or a special guardianship order and only 1,100 returned to their parents. That is a substantial shift from 1995, when it was the norm for children to return to their parents. There is no sense arguing about the merits of that at this point. The key to the transparency aspect of the Bill is to ensure that there is greater academic scrutiny of the merits of such decision making, which, essentially, is absent at the moment.

Over the summer, we have had a change in that the Slovak Government have publicly expressed concern about 40 cases, involving 89 children, but they are not the only Government to be concerned. Justice for Families has recently had contact with Hungary, the Czech Republic and Latvia about cases. Two weeks ago, a case was reported from Haringey in the London-based newspaper Polish Express, obviously in Polish. This case has all the symptoms of similar Slovak cases and I would not be surprised if the Polish Government became involved in the near future.

Yesterday I received a letter from Isil Gachet, who is the director of the office of the commissioner for human rights in the Council of Europe. It refers to concerns raised with the commission about the process for the placement of children for adoption in the UK. The key part of it is that the commissioner for human rights, Mr Nils Muižnieks, had received information from various sources on this case. It states:

The Office of the Commissioner is therefore closely following on the situation regarding the placement of children and adoptions in the UK. However, I would like to stress that the Commissioner’s mandate excludes the possibility for him to investigate into specific cases.”

It also draws attention to an inquiry on human rights and family courts by the Council of Europe.

If the Government seriously wish to argue that there is no urgency in introducing greater academic scrutiny in family court proceedings, they need to explain how they can ignore—

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood Conservative, Bournemouth East

I am following the hon. Gentleman’s argument carefully. He started by mentioning the “not invented here” syndrome, which I have also come across and which is very frustrating, but is he aware of what the Government are doing? The Minister may wish to intervene later to confirm this, but I understand that in January the Government are planning to look at provision for families and children in the law courts. Has the hon. Gentleman taken that into account?

Photo of John Hemming John Hemming Liberal Democrat, Birmingham, Yardley

I accept that the Government are progressing issues. To be fair, I have been working on these proposals with bodies outside Parliament, so I have not gone into the minute details of the Government’s proposals. My concern comes back to the issue of academic scrutiny, although other aspects come into it as well. I wish to see progress in this area, but I am not too bothered about how we achieve that. I would prefer it if the Bill were considered in Committee. If a lot of the clauses are dropped in Committee because that seems appropriate, so be it. What is important is that we achieve the outcome of a reliable judicial system with decisions taken on the basis of the best academic knowledge available at the time. That is not what we have at the moment. It is the outcome I am focused on—getting a better system—and I am not particularly bothered about how we do that.

If the Government are to oppose the Bill, they need to explain how they can ignore the serious concerns of other countries. In June, we were aware of the maltreatment of girls in care and the prosecutions that had resulted. However, the true enormity of the magnitude of abuse of children in care over many decades, not all by Savile, had not been revealed at that point. I was personally aware of the cover-up at Haut de la Garenne, and I highlighted that in September when I referred to the banning of the US journalist, Leah McGrath Goodman, who had been excluded from the UK in an attempt to stop her reporting on the saga at Haut de la Garenne. I did not, however, know exactly what had been covered up. The Government may try to argue that the existence of the independent reviewing officer means that there is no urgency about making any changes. However, the cases in Rochdale and Rotherham, as well as the case of the children in A and S v. Lancashire County Council, demonstrates clearly that the existence of an employee of a local authority who is called “an independent reviewing officer” is not sufficient to protect children from abuse while under state control. Can we really accept that there is no urgent need to ensure that children in care are listened to? The recent report from the children’s rights commissioner revealed that children in care had been running away—and one was living in a cave—because they had not been listened to.

A further issue, which has arisen since June, is the revelation of the cover-up at Hillsborough. I would not claim that the Bill would definitely have prevented that: however, the provisions on judicial review will make it easier for more ordinary people to ensure that public authorities do what Parliament has said they should do and facilitate the revelation of cover-ups at an earlier stage. Making it an offence to threaten and prevent people from talking to regulators or elected representatives would help to prevent cover-ups, many of which succeed because people are intimidated into not reporting things to the appropriate authorities.

Photo of Lorely Burt Lorely Burt Chair of the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party

We understand that more public figures are to be questioned in the wake of the Jimmy Savile scandal. Does my hon. Friend agree that his Bill might have been a great help in this instance? Had it been around, the children might have been listened to, not punished for reporting the abuse?

Photo of John Hemming John Hemming Liberal Democrat, Birmingham, Yardley

Indeed, some of the children were punished for complaining; that is the scandal. If one aspect of the Bill would prevent cover-ups, it is the part that would make it an offence to punish or threaten somebody to prevent them from talking to their MP or going to the police. In America, that is an offence, but in England it is not, and that allows bullies to use all sorts of techniques to prevent people from complaining.

We should protect people’s right to complain. Interestingly, a key clause in the first amendment to the US constitution is the right to petition all aspects of the state. It means that the courts cannot prevent people from talking to elected representatives. That sort of provision is perhaps in article 5 of the Bill of Rights, but we do not really enforce it in law. We have many situations in which people are intimidated in an attempt to prevent them from complaining. Yes, some complaints are wrong, but it should be for the police to decide if a report is wrong, not for somebody else to decide to punish children for complaining about their maltreatment.

Photo of Nadine Dorries Nadine Dorries Conservative, Mid Bedfordshire

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that large organisations, as we have seen recently with the BBC and various parts of the NHS, breed a culture almost of intimidation? We have seen the problems that whistleblowers have, and we have seen it in other areas too. Big organisations, particularly those belonging to the state and Government, seem to breed this culture of intimidation to prevent people from protesting.

Photo of John Hemming John Hemming Liberal Democrat, Birmingham, Yardley

That is very true. If Parliament wishes its laws to be enforced, it needs to protect people who want them implemented, but at the moment we do not so. We have seen it with the Savile saga, but that is not unique. Let us remember all the bullying and threatening that went on to cover up Hillsborough. That is another example of a cover-up that succeeded in part through intimidating people.

Photo of Jim Cunningham Jim Cunningham Labour, Coventry South

I support the hon. Gentleman. We had a case some years ago—I will not go into it now, because this is an intervention—involving the NHS in Coventry and a doctor who was a whistleblower. The whole thing ended up in court, and he is still suspended.

Photo of John Hemming John Hemming Liberal Democrat, Birmingham, Yardley

That is the problem. Unless we allow people to complain and we protect people’s right to complain, the rule of law cannot apply, because we do not know that somebody has infringed the law. This applies in all areas.

If the Government decide to knock out all but one of the clauses, leaving only protecting the right to complain, that will be progress. There are many clauses, but they do not all have to go through. I would like a lot of them to progress, but, at the end of the day, the Government are in control. There is no doubt about that. If we keep only one, however, let it be the one about the right to complain, protecting whistleblowers, preventing cover-ups and protecting children who complain. These children were not only ignored but punished—their punishment was only the withdrawal of privileges, but still that cannot be right. Parliament cannot tolerate such a thing.

Photo of Nadine Dorries Nadine Dorries Conservative, Mid Bedfordshire

It is true that children who complain must be protected, but we are not only talking about the removal of privileges from children. Adults can lose their jobs, livelihoods, careers and homes, if they decide to do the right thing, take the higher moral ground and complain. Their punishment prevents others from coming forward, and that is how the culture grows and the cover-ups happen.

Photo of John Hemming John Hemming Liberal Democrat, Birmingham, Yardley

The hon. Lady is exactly right, and we almost endorse that by our laxness in protecting people with valid grievances.

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

The hon. Gentleman, who raises some important issues, said that his Bill contained many clauses but that he was not particularly bothered which ones went forward. Why is energy efficiency part of the Bill? I do not know whether he was after the world record for a piece of legislation with the widest scope, but what on earth does energy efficiency have to do with all these important issues?

Photo of John Hemming John Hemming Liberal Democrat, Birmingham, Yardley

It is about improving the quality of life for families, and it fits within the short and long title of the Bill. We are here to improve the quality of life for families. I think of the Longitude Act 1714, when Parliament took action to encourage innovation that produced all the work of the Royal Observatory. That is a good example of how Parliament can improve things. I do not think that anyone will disagree that reducing families’ energy bills will improve life for families, and that is what the Bill is about. I will come to that in more detail later, however.

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

To help the hon. Gentleman, I was wondering whether it would be in his best interests to focus on what he felt was most important in the Bill, which presumably is the stuff he is talking about now, rather than spraying far more widely and possibly running into trouble in Committee and on Report.

Photo of John Hemming John Hemming Liberal Democrat, Birmingham, Yardley

I accept the hon. Gentleman’s point that on Report it might be quite challenging, because people might wish to stop the whole Bill in order to stop certain aspects of it, but that is a decision for later. As it stands, the Bill contains many useful clauses, all of which would achieve positive things for families and people in this country. I would like them all to progress on to the statute book, but I am realistic and will have to work with the Government. I will also need the House’s support on Report, because without that the Bill will not get on to the statute book. I have to be realistic about that. The clauses are in the Bill, however, because they are good clauses for families in this country.

I was talking about Hillsborough. The siren voices of Whitehall should not be listened to. Action is needed now. The Bill cannot progress after Second Reading without the Government’s support, so they should not fear its progressing beyond today. I am happy to work with them and to compromise in order to improve the lives of children and families, but we must start now.

The Bill has three parts, which at first sight might appear different but which all have an underlying philosophy centred on the word “justice”. The general theme and overall purpose of the Bill is to help ensure justice in three areas: in the family justice system, which includes the Court of Protection; in related areas where there are injustices that need to be dealt with; and for families who suffer the injustice of cold homes and fuel poverty.

Part 1 concerns the family justice system and the work of children’s services authorities and related matters. The interim report of the family justice panel found in 2011 that the system was not working and that it had identified much the same problems as the previous seven reviews of family justice carried out since 1989. The House of Commons Justice Committee reported on 14 July last year and spoke of its doubt about the current system’s ability to cope with future challenges. Both the Munro review of child protection published last May and the final report of the family justice review published last November highlighted the need for urgent reform. The latter said:

“We found general agreement with our diagnosis: a system that is not a system”.

A clause-by-clause explanation of the Bill will illustrate some of the improvements to the system that it seeks to make.

Clause 1 deals with the point at which most families will commence contact with the family justice system or their local children’s services authority. This will currently be at a case conference or, more accurately, a child protection conference—a meeting of professionals who decide what steps the local authority should take in respect of a child who might be deemed at risk. However, children, if old enough, and their families might be excluded from the meeting or might not see the reports being discussed, so decisions may be taken without their input. This means that the meeting will not have as much information as possible when making difficult decisions, such as to take children into care.

Another practice, called family group conferencing, is now developing. This approach involves the children, where old enough, the families and, where appropriate, the wider families, and it has widespread support in the social work and child care fields.

In evidence to the family justice review, the British Association of Social Workers said:

“Some aspects of the Public Law Outline have also helped to promote more positive engagement with families (i.e. there has been increased use of Family Group Conferences which can be very effective in empowering of families if used appropriately and practitioners have received the necessary training to equip them to undertake this work). These reach out to engage in a way that says to families, ‘you have the knowledge and expertise, we want to work with you to make things better for you and your family’. There should be increased roll-out of this approach. It requires very little adjustment in terms of skills, but it does require a different attitude/values set.”

Barnardo’s told the House of Commons Justice Committee inquiry into the operation of family courts that a

“better option” is

“a requirement to have family group conferencing…our experience of one” such service

“was that for 27 families for whom care proceedings were considered none of those children went into care.”

Page 93 of the Justice Committee’s report concluded:

“We were very impressed by the account of Family Group Conferences in Liverpool. It is a matter of regret that a service with an apparent 100% success rate is being cut back.”

Subsections (1) to (3) of clause 1, while not abolishing child protection conferences, as they may be deemed necessary at times, establishes as the norm the wholly different approach of a family group conference by requiring that families are offered such a facility. A family group conference is defined as

“a family-led decision-making meeting, convened by an independent co-ordinator…in which a plan for the child is made by the family, involving the child (if old enough), the parents, and potentially extended family members and friends which addresses any concerns about the child’s future safety and welfare”.

Subsection (2) then gives the family six weeks to come up with a family plan for the child, and this is submitted to the children’s services authority, which has to approve or disapprove it. In the latter situation, under subsection (3), the children’s services authority is required to “try to reach agreement” with the family on a revised plan. If this is not possible, the view of the children’s services authority will prevail, but pursuant to subsection (4) the child or the family can appeal that decision to the scrutiny committee of the local authority.

This is in line with the view of the former children’s Minister, Tim Loughton, who told the Education Select Committee on 12 June this year:

“This is particularly important when it comes to adoption proceedings and other forms of permanence, where…the consequences are far reaching. I am…conscious…as to what further safeguards we might…institute…a sort of appeals mechanism.”

Subsection (6) provides for emergencies by stating that the children’s services authority is not under an obligation to offer a family group conference

“in the event of emergency action being required to protect a child”.

Subsection (5) deals with the provision of information to children and families. Since 1999, Government practice guidelines for children’s authorities, entitled “Working Together”, state that

“the local authority has a responsibility to make sure children and adults have all the information they require to help them understand the processes that are followed when there are concerns about a child’s welfare.”

In practice, this may not be happening. According to page 5 of the Norgrove family justice review of November 2011:

“Children and adults are often confused about what is happening to them. The need to address this will rise.”

Page 4 of the Adoption UK response to the family justice review states:

“From the perspective of adopted families Adoption UK often hears of limited information and explanation being provided to families about what will be happening and why.”

Paragraph 2.26 of the Munro review of child protection states that families

“are confused…and they don’t understand the processes”.

Gingerbread’s evidence to the Justice Committee, reported under question 78, on 25 January 2011 was:

“We surveyed about 453 single parents…over half found the system dreadful and poor; about 73% find it difficult to navigate.”

The House of Commons Justice Committee investigated in some detail the need for guidance to be given, especially because of the increasing number of litigants in person. It reported the unanimous view of judges that this slowed things down, thus causing severe wastage of court time, and so concluded:

“This will require guidance to be developed to accommodate the challenges posed by a larger number of litigants in person.”

Subsection (5) of clause 1 deals with this matter by requiring:

“Any child or parents or other relatives of the child attending a Family Group Conference must be given in advance a publication explaining the childcare system and how it may affect them in the future and referred to an independent advice and advocacy organisation.”

We recognise that in these difficult times the cost implications are important, and in this regard, I draw attention to the words of the BASW quoted earlier:

“It requires very little adjustment in terms of skills, but it does require a different attitude/values set.’

As regards the staffing impact, the results of the family group conference approach, quoted by Barnardo’s, are also relevant: no children were taken into care, so less spending of money resulted.

The Munro inquiry highlighted a report from Oxfordshire county council children’s services authority:

“These types of evidence-based programmes are expensive to set up but there is increasing evidence that, by avoiding the need for looked after children to move to more intensive and expensive placements, they not only provide better outcomes for children and young people, but are cost effective…Collectively in Oxfordshire, these intensive programmes have contributed to lower than average numbers of Looked After Children and resulted in identifiable savings within the existing Children and Young People’s budget. They have helped to address general recruitment issues for foster carers, resulting in an 11 per cent rise in fostering. All types of carers (including foster carers and adopters), have reported improved levels of support, resulting in improved long term stability (67-75% in 2009/10), reduced adoption breakdowns and quantifiable savings in excess of £400,000.”

Photo of Nadine Dorries Nadine Dorries Conservative, Mid Bedfordshire

I would like refer to his comments about the importance of making information available to those going through the system. I can quote a constituency case, although not a name, of parents and adoptive parents being told during the process of contact with the previous family not to miss a contact session because they will not get their placement and the child might be taken from them. It is important that parents, adoptive parents and foster parents have something in writing—in an easy to understand way—about what exactly to expect from the system, so that when this culture of slight intimidation or bullying kicks in, they actually know what their rights are in the process.

Photo of John Hemming John Hemming Liberal Democrat, Birmingham, Yardley

The hon. Lady is entirely right. One of the difficulties that sometimes arises is that people are told to do one thing at one stage, but when they have done that, they are told that it was the wrong thing to do. If things could be put in writing so that people knew what they were supposed to do, they should not then find that they are punished for sticking to it. That happens far too often. There are too many cases where people are not given adequate information.

Photo of Steven Baker Steven Baker Conservative, Wycombe

From the way the hon. Gentleman sets this out, it sounds as though there is a substantial element of arbitrary power. Will he reassure me that his Bill would eliminate all such areas of arbitrary power so that people could have certainty?

Photo of John Hemming John Hemming Liberal Democrat, Birmingham, Yardley

The hon. Gentleman is right that there is too often an element of arbitrary power. The difficulty flows from insufficient academic scrutiny of the whole process—in other words, things are left to the discretion of individual practitioners, all of whom have their individual attitudes. When someone moves from one practitioner to another, the arbitrary power will often be exercised in a different way. I spoke about this to Professor Sue White, a professor of social work at Birmingham university. She is concerned about the change in practice that does not seem to be evidence-driven, but she is not allowed access to family court proceedings unless she is actually involved in the individual case. The ability to do proper peer-reviewed research on the decisions taken and what is happening on the ground is simply not there. The system just goes on.

I try to look at the reports from a scientific point of view, and find that some of them do not hold water. As I said, Professor Jane Ireland’s work pointed out that two-thirds of the reports she looked at were either poor or very poor, which is not adequate for the purpose of making life-changing decisions. That lack of intellectual rigour leads to arbitrary power, as the hon. Member for

Wycombe (Steve Baker) says. The introduction of intellectual rigour would make that go away and get us back to the rule of law rather than some people having massive discretion. At the moment, we do not have the rule of law setting out what should happen in these situations. That is what gives rise to many different problems in many different areas.

Photo of Nadine Dorries Nadine Dorries Conservative, Mid Bedfordshire

It is worth mentioning that the change of case worker, social worker or court worker happens frequently, so arbitrary power is exercised in a number of different ways, often resulting in huge delay, which is not in the best interest of any of the children involved in the cases.

Photo of John Hemming John Hemming Liberal Democrat, Birmingham, Yardley

The hon. Lady is right. Delay does cause a problem, although speeding things up and not getting things right is another problem. The most important thing is to get things right. When that has happened, that is the time to do things reasonably quickly.

I now return to the Bill and look beyond the issue of family group conferences. Clause 2 looks at the wider issue of scrutiny—academic scrutiny and the like—to which I have just referred. One issue is that of people having other people with them. McKenzie friends are generally allowed to attend court, but it can be a very intimidating process for families. If a young mother is not allowed to take her own mother to court with her for support, the court will not be a very good environment.

A case in, I believe, Finchley involved a Czech family, but the court would not allow a representative of the Czech embassy to attend the court hearing. That strikes me as very strange. Given that it is possible for a person to talk confidentially to almost anyone and ask for advice, why is it not possible for one or two people to sit with that person in court? It would make the whole process more effective, because it would provide psychological support.

Family courts sit in secret. It is generally accepted that anonymity is required, and that demands a certain amount of secrecy. It is not possible for the newspapers to publish all the details of a case. It is true that one of the Slovak cases is being discussed publicly on prime-time television in the Slovak Republic, but if it were on YouTube, YouTube would be subject to a court order to prevent the television programme from being seen in England. I think that the principle of anonymity is reasonable, but beyond that, dangers arise. The lack of academic scrutiny, which I mentioned earlier, is critical.

Photo of Steven Baker Steven Baker Conservative, Wycombe

It seems to me that it is not necessary to have secrecy in order to have anonymity. Does the hon. Gentleman propose any measures that would make it possible for the necessary information to be available to academics, so that trials would not be secret but anonymity would be protected?

Photo of John Hemming John Hemming Liberal Democrat, Birmingham, Yardley

That is the purpose of clause 2(2), which allows academic research to be involved in family court proceedings. The former children’s Minister said that we needed more transparency in the courts, and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children has said that it supports efforts to make the family courts more transparent if they do not make it more likely that children will be identified. The Bill achieves that sort of balance.

Proceedings in the family court can be daunting and intimidating for people taking part in them. The report of the recent family justice review by Professor Norgrove found that

“the common complaint” was

“that the courts are daunting and intimidating places for families”.

Detailed research by the London Safeguarding Children Board established that when families arrive in court to see a large number of lawyers and professionals lined up,

“professionals need to understand how intimidating it is”

for parents

“to be so ‘outnumbered’.”

Clause 2(1) permits parties to have two friends with them to support, advise or advocate on their behalf. In fact, only one of them, the McKenzie friend, will advocate, and obviously if a lawyer is present a lay person will not be required. Much of the evidence that I cited in relation to clause 1(5), including the conclusions of the Justice Committee, demonstrates the need for that.

Clause 2(1) also ensures that the confidentiality of the proceedings is maintained by making the two friends subject to the same confidentiality rule as the party to the proceedings. The protection already exists; the Bill merely provides for someone to be present to offer support—not necessarily to advocate or offer advice, but simply to be there. That is important. Why should a young mother, aged 19 and threatened with the removal of her child, go to court alone? Why can we not allow her mother to go with her? What is wrong with allowing her mother to sit next to her? What is wrong with allowing a representative from the Czech to accompany a Czech citizen to court? Why do we allow so few people to go there?

Clause 2 (2) deals with accountability by permitting the involvement of bona fide academic research in proceedings in the family courts. The Justice Committee concluded that, while family courts sit in private to protect the anonymity of children,

“there is a danger that justice in secret could allow injustice to children”.

That point was made by Professor Jane Ireland, who carried out research on the quality of expert evidence used in the courts. Her study showed that there was a risk of injustice because one fifth of expert psychologists were not deemed qualified, and two thirds of the reports reviewed were “poor” or “very poor”.

In a recent case in the Court of Appeal, it was ordered that a child should be removed from his family on the basis of incorrect evidence concerning his injuries. The Principal Registry of the Family Division ordered that the toddler be returned to his parents after it was established that he was vitamin D and calcium deficient and had undiagnosed rickets. The issue of vitamin D is very relevant. An excellent firm of solicitors in Birmingham, Brendan Fleming, has helped to identify about eight vitamin D-related cases in which miscarriages of justice are likely to have occurred. It is probable that children have been removed from their parents because mum had a vitamin D deficiency and was breastfeeding at the time. It is currently contempt of court to allow an expert medical person to look at all the documents and write peer-reviewed reports. Why is that? How does preventing the more intelligent people from reviewing the paperwork improve justice?

Subsection (2) also recognises the need to keep proceedings confidential, stating that

“any publication of the research removes all identifying details and… it shall be a contempt of court for any person receiving or publishing information pursuant to this section to reveal the identity of any person whose details he has received.”

The Bill protects anonymity while ensuring that there is an intellectual challenge, and that is surely a massive improvement.

Clause 2(3) relates to grandparents and other wider family members of the child. Subsection (3)(a) enables such people to attend the part of a hearing that involves consideration of whether the child should be placed with them. Currently, a court will decide not to place a child with a grandparent when that grandparent is not present. There has been a great deal of debate about whether grandparents should be allowed to be party to court hearings. The problem is the huge amount of paperwork, which creates a massive burden. However, merely allowing grandparents to be present and to participate in discussion of whether or not they would be adequate carers for their grandchildren would not pose a major problem, and would allow any erroneous concern about their ability to look after the children to be corrected at that point rather than being dealt with on the basis of a report written by a representative of the local authority.

Photo of Nadine Dorries Nadine Dorries Conservative, Mid Bedfordshire

In the event of a crisis, children are often placed with their grandparents in the immediate instance, and the grandparents then find that they are not allowed to participate in the court process that leads to a decision on the child’s future.

Photo of John Hemming John Hemming Liberal Democrat, Birmingham, Yardley

Exactly. I understand the reasoning behind not allowing everyone to be a party, and then lawyers being a party, and so forth. However, not allowing a child’s grandparents to be in the courtroom and answer questions about the problems of looking after that child cannot be right. It cannot achieve anything for the child. Ultimately, we should be focusing on the children and what is best for them. In most cases, it is far better for children to be cared for by their grandparents than to be placed with foster carers. In practice, children are often cared by their grandparents as part of normal life. That is not deemed to be in any way exceptional.

Photo of Nadine Dorries Nadine Dorries Conservative, Mid Bedfordshire

The hon. Gentleman is being incredibly generous in giving way.

One of the problems, and the reason why so many grandparents have to go to court, is the fact that they are not recognised in the benefits system. Foster parents receive far more financial help, as indeed do parents. The grandparents have to go to court in order to attempt to qualify for such help, and, as the hon. Gentleman says, they are prevented from giving any information about the child during the process.

Photo of John Hemming John Hemming Liberal Democrat, Birmingham, Yardley

Kinship caring happens anyway without state funding, but it is much cheaper than foster care at £800 a week, as well as being generally better for the child’s identity in the long run because the child remains within the wider family. Clause 2(3)(b) relates to grandparents who have a long-term involvement with their grandchildren and have information that can assist the court, which is a slightly different pattern.

Subsection (3) recognises that children may be inhibited from giving evidence in front of certain people. It therefore provides that a judge may exclude the grandparents from the part of the proceedings in which the child is giving evidence if, in the judge’s opinion, their presence would inhibit the child. Obviously, there are difficult circumstances in which such discretion is needed.

Subsection (4) allows grandparents to have

“direct and indirect contact with their grandchildren if the child so wishes without this contact being supervised” unless that is not in the best interests of the child. That is intended to rectify a problem that has been highlighted by many grandparents.

In their response to the Norgrove review of family justice, the coalition Government said that

“a child’s ongoing relationships with their grandparents and wider family members should be considered when making arrangements for a child’s future.

The Government supports the Review’s recommendation that the importance of relationships children have with other family members should be emphasised”.

The Conservative older people election manifesto 2010 promised to:

“Reform family law to provide greater access rights to grandparents when families break up…

“Grandparents should be one of the first ports of call when a child needs to be taken into care, but at the moment they are not…We will change that”.

That has not been done yet. Labour’s 2010 manifesto stated:

“we will ensure that grandparents and other family members are always given first consideration for adoption or fostering.”

All I am proposing is that they are part of that decision, so if it is suggested that the child should not be placed with them they will be allowed to argue with that proposal and explain where any misunderstanding may exist.

Subsection (5) proposes to amend the Children Act 1989 to require that children taken into care by their local authority are placed near their home, unless that

“is not in the interest of the welfare of the child”.

It does so because of the plethora of evidence showing that placing children far from their home puts them in greater danger. A London Evening Standard report on 12 September said:

The Standard today exposes the scandal of London children being ‘exported’ to care homes across the country where they are at increased risk of abuse.

Almost two thirds of youngsters taken into care are sent outside their borough and…maltreated and introduced to drugs.”

It goes on to say that police warn that this places the children “in greater danger”.

BBC Radio 4’s “The Report” programme said on 31 May:

“The leader of Rochdale Council says children should no longer be sent to care homes in the borough because their safety ‘is not being guaranteed’.

There are 41 children’s homes in Rochdale, which house vulnerable children from all over England.”

It also said that last year

“an inquiry into Lancashire’s 101 children’s homes…found the council and the police had little knowledge of some of the…homes…It also estimated 21,000 children…were being cared for in areas outside their home local authority.”

It reported Councillor Steen’s view that

“placing vulnerable girls, who are susceptible to grooming, so far away from home, can lead to them” becoming

“‘invisible…so they cannot be monitored or helped.’”

In May this year, a joint inquiry by the all-party group on runaway and missing children and adults and the all-party group on looked after children and care leavers called for urgent action to be taken to reduce that practice of sending children far away from their original areas. Subsection (5) provides that urgent action.

Photo of Nadine Dorries Nadine Dorries Conservative, Mid Bedfordshire

The hon. Gentleman is talking about vulnerable children in care who become invisible and are susceptible to grooming. They not only become invisible, but they lose the networks that they could turn to for support and disclose things to. These children are away from their family, friends, teachers, school, neighbours and community, so even if there may have been somebody to whom they could disclose that grooming was taking place, they have been completely taken away from that comfort zone.

Photo of John Hemming John Hemming Liberal Democrat, Birmingham, Yardley

I agree entirely with what the hon. Lady says about the networks issue. There are so many reasons why this is wrong, but it happens. Urgent action has been called for to fix it, and the Bill provides that.

That leads me successfully to clause 3, which deals with the issue of children in care. We all now know, and it is becoming increasingly obvious on a daily basis, that children in care are not safe. There are always going to be children in care homes, but they are not safe. At the moment, the independent reviewing officer is actually an employee of the local authority. We have talked about how public bodies have a bullying management style, and people are often pressurised. We have talked about how whistleblowers are not protected—the independent reviewing officer’s job is to be a whistleblower in a culture that reacts against whistleblowers.

Clause 3 states that

“if a child in the care of an authority has made a complaint of serious harm—

(a) that complaint shall be investigated and determined by an independent body”.

There is considerable evidence that local authorities have not investigated or have ignored complaints by children in their care.

On 24 September, The Times reported that

“confidential papers showed a decade of abuse in South Yorkshire.”

It said that

“police and child protection agencies have held extensive knowledge of this…for ten years.”

It continued:

“Girls were collected from…residential homes…in Rotherham… Internal care reports and individual case files show that countless girls were betrayed by…police and social services…Confidential documents…reveal how one young girl known by social services to have been abused…was offered classes…to engage her in education.”

It also said:

“As long ago as 1996, a social services investigation uncovered concerns that girls were being coerced into ‘child prostitution’ by…men who regularly collected them from residential care homes.”

It also stated:

“A July 2010 independent review for the Rotherham Safeguarding Children Board…described the offences as ‘child sexual exploitation at the top end of seriousness’.”

Last month, Mail Online reported that Rochdale council and police had had

“127 warnings about sex abuse”.

Its headline contained the words “gang raped dozens of children, finds damning report”.

The article continued:

NHS warned Rochdale Borough Council…on dozens of occasions over six years about sex abuse risks”.

There are numerous other examples of this.

In the Lancashire case—A and S v. Lancashire county council—Mr Justice Jackson concluded that children in care had “suffered real, lifelong damage” but that the council’s actions

“did not come under independent scrutiny.”

Jon Fayle, chair of the National Association of Independent Reviewing Officers, told Parliament that

“the local authority cannot always be trusted to act in the child’s best interest.”

He also said that having an “independent scrutineer” is “essential”. It is also the wish of children to have an independent complaints system. As Maxine Wrigley, the chief executive of A National Voice, told Parliament:

“an independent person to help you, particularly to make a complaint…seems very important to young people.”

Subsection (4) would make it an offence to discriminate against children in care or care leavers. There is considerable evidence that such discrimination is widespread. A care leaver told us:

“I have twice lost my job when my employers have come across my upbringing, despite having more professional experience and qualifications than my managers. We are viewed as mad, bad or sad.”

Another told us:

“I lost my job and at the Employment Tribunal the barrister told them that as a result of being ex-care I would have a residual tendency to fabricate.”

In July, the current children’s Minister, Mr Timpson, launched a report by the all-party group on looked after children and care leavers. It said:

“There was also concern raised that the attitude of teachers towards children in care remains mixed, with some children being labelled as troublemakers simply because of their looked after status.”

A documentary entitled “Barriers to Employment”, made in 2010 by the young people themselves, reported:

“Young care leavers face discrimination from employers because they are stereotyped as being prone to crime”.

The Who Cares? Trust website states:

“The discrimination faced by children in care is brought to life time and time again through our interactions with young people.”

A lot of these things were raised with me by a group of professional care leavers, who had managed to succeed having left care over a number of years. One of them was Ivor Frank, who was brought up in care but is now a family court barrister. His concern was that no remedy was available for care leavers; there was no way they could adequately challenge the system.

It is worth examining what happened in the A and S case. They were two children in the care of Lancashire county council. They were known as “statutory orphans”: they had been freed for adoption before 2005 but had never been adopted. As at 31 March 2011, about 1,300 children had been freed for adoption or placed for adoption more than two years before that date without having then been adopted. If we are going to worry about the adoption of children placed for adoption, we should be examining the situation of those 1,300 statutory orphans. They have been told, “Your parents are no longer your parents” but they have not been found any other parents.

In the case of A and S, when the older boy got to be an adequate age, he found a solicitor who then acted on his behalf. We should not have to wait until these children get to 16—if the NSPCC, as advocate, feels that something is going wrong, it should be able to get an independent review and, if needs be, to take the case to court. That is why subsection (2) proposes a scheme whereby a “litigation friend” can be appointed for a child to take the issue to court. The A and S case was not looked at by the court from the time they were placed in care until about 10 years later, because nobody took it back to court to challenge the authority. An independent reviewing officer was in place, but the local authority obviously does not want to be challenged. In practice, it was concluded that human rights had been abused to the extent of not only maltreatment but the breaking of article 3—the no-torture article. There was inhumane treatment of the children when they were in care—we are not talking about before they went into care.

This issue about a remedy being available for children in care does not mean that everything has to go to court, because it is the facility for something to be taken to court that makes people respond. If the local authority feels it can just fob everyone off and ignore them, it will do so and nothing will happen. However, if the local authority knows that someone can take the matter to court if they want and the authority will be forced to deal with it, it is more likely to respond. That is why subsection (2) is important. If the Government do not like subsection (2), it can go away under statutory instrument at the point at which the Government have found a better way to deal with the issue.

There is no alternative but to have an independent mechanism by which a child can complain—potentially, the general practitioner. If the GP feels that a child in care is not being looked after adequately and there is a serious problem, the GP should be empowered to take that through a proper process that could end up in court. The difficulty with the system at the moment is the eternal question of quis custodiet ipsos custodes? The organisation responsible for the quality of care is the local council. In other words, the council is responsible both for providing the care and for monitoring its quality. We should all know that that sort of system does not work and cannot be allowed to continue.

On criminal records, children in care complain that the police are often called for things that they would not be called for if the children were not in care. A relatively recent prosecution involved a child who threw a bowl of cereal at the carer at breakfast. The real problem is that that prosecution follows the child through life. Events that would have been ignored normally end up in a criminal record for assault. When the child becomes an adult, tries to find a job, gets a Criminal Records Bureau check and is told, “You assaulted someone when you were 13,” it comes across really badly. In fact, the child might just have thrown a bowl of cereal. To be fair, that might not happen that often, but it is the sort of thing that can happen when a child is upset. People do get upset from time to time. A parent would generally not take that through the legal system.

I do not suggest in the Bill that we should force people not to take such things to court. All I am saying is that such things should not follow children through the rest of their life just because they got a bit upset when they were 13. That creates an environment where children get used to a higher level of interaction with the authorities, and that is not a good thing. So clause 3 deals with children in care.

On adoption without parental consent, clause 4 basically says that when parental consent is dispensed with for an adoption, the courts should explain why and give the reasons, because normally they do not. In section 1(4) of the Adoption and Children Act 2002, Parliament laid down legal safeguards to which the courts must have regard that include the child’s wishes, where old enough, and needs; the lifelong effect of the child’s losing contact with the birth family; the harm that the child has suffered or might suffer; the child’s relationship with their relatives and the value to the child of its continuing; the ability of the relatives to provide a secure home for the child; and the wishes of the relatives. Parliament has decreed that that must be considered by the judge, but that does not happen a lot of the time. Clause 4 would ensure that that is considered.

Dr Roger Morgan, the Children’s Rights Director for England, told Parliament that children have a strong message: always look to see whether there are family or friends. That is what children say. If a decision is to be taken to move a child from one family to another, the court should explain the basis of that decision, not just say, “We think that it’s a good idea,” which is normally what the judgments say.

On the other duties of local authorities, clause 5 basically talks about improving the relationship with grandparents and deals with the duties of local authorities and other bodies when children are in care. Although clause 5 would maintain the position established by the Children Act 1989 that the welfare of children is of paramount importance, it would also require the local authority to ensure that the child has access to and contact with both parents and grandparents, unless such contact was not in the interests of the welfare of the child.

As pointed out previously, clause 5 is in accordance with the coalition Government’s policy and in the manifestos of the Conservative and Labour parties. I would personally prefer to go further. A quite serious problem is developing with the assessment of grandparents. At times, the same assessment is used for grandparents as for foster carers. As part of the consultation, we excluded from the Bill a clause that would have said, “If the grandparents of looked-after children have looked after them adequately, do not assess them,” but I should like to see that in law. If we go round assessing everyone all the time about everything, we achieve nothing.

What often happens, as in the example given by Nadine Dorries, is that children are removed from grandparents because they have not been assessed, when in fact there is no evidence of a problem. Obviously, there are circumstances where, perhaps historically, those grandparents have a bad record of looking after children and have been subject to child protection proceedings. However, just to say simply that all grandparents need assessments is not right. Again, as part of the consultation in an attempt to make the Bill less contentious, that proposal was dropped.

On the provisions that relate to the administration of justice, these are again similar issues, some of which are dealt with by the family courts and the Court of Protection, but they are also dealt with more widely. I have previously talked about the right to report wrongdoing, but this goes beyond the whistleblowers charter; it is the business of ensuring that, for instance, the police who threaten the hon. Lady’s constituents in an attempt to stop them reporting problems to her would be committing an offence. If we wish the rule of law to apply, we cannot tolerate people being prevented from complaining. If they are prevented from doing so, the authorities do not know that the rule of law is being breached and therefore no action can be taken.

Clause 7 is one of two “no more cover-ups” clauses. Subsection (1) would ensure that people have the right to complain to regulators, whether the police or anyone else. I have encountered a number of court orders that have been purported to prevent people from complaining to regulators. In fact, notwithstanding the Family Proceedings (Amendment) (No. 2) Rules 2009 No. 857, it is still a contempt of court to report experts who are clearly talking nonsense to regulators at times. However, similar constraints have existed on reported crimes. If such orders are appealed to the Supreme Court, they are likely to be struck down, but it is quite difficult to take cases through the appellate system, hence protection is needed at a lower level.

Photo of Stephen Barclay Stephen Barclay Conservative, North East Cambridgeshire

Can the hon. Gentleman clarify the relationship with the Public Interest Disclosure Act 2010 and say why those who want to report issues to regulators are unable to do so under that Act?

Photo of John Hemming John Hemming Liberal Democrat, Birmingham, Yardley

I understand the Public Interest Disclosure Act as it relates to employment proceedings and particularly to court orders whereby people are banned from reporting things to the Financial Services Authority. One of the difficulties with a court order that prevents someone from talking to someone else is that it stops not just publication but possibly the reporting of a crime.

There was a murder in Australia, and the police there concluded that, notwithstanding injunctions, they could investigate that crime, but the police here concluded that they could not do so because the case was subject to a super-injunction. The Bill deals with that situation.

I am not 100% on the Public Interest Disclosure Act, but I believe that it is mainly to do with employment proceedings.

We have a number of examples. I have had a situation where a doctor was prevented from providing evidence to the General Medical Council to demonstrate that another doctor was treating patients wrongly, because of the law of confidentiality. That cannot be right. The GMC needs to decide on the evidence that it has.

Photo of Stephen Barclay Stephen Barclay Conservative, North East Cambridgeshire

On reporting doctors to the GMC, it is very odd that, for example, the GMC does not see the complaints data held by the Department of Health or Care Quality Commission, but I think that issue is being looked at. Such things can be reported, but the legal risk would sit with the doctor. In other words, doctors are protected by PIDA in reporting to the GMC, but they are often bound by special severance clauses or other confidentiality clauses, which are covered by other litigation. Doctors are covered by patient confidentiality in other respects, not confined by PIDA, but the legal risk sits with doctors, who are often reluctant to take that legal risk.

Photo of John Hemming John Hemming Liberal Democrat, Birmingham, Yardley

I accept the hon. Gentleman’s point, but I could cite a specific case. I have not got the reference on me, but I could give it to him by e-mail later if he is interested. The case involves a published judgment where the court had a court order saying that the doctor is not allowed to provide evidence to the GMC. There is a High Court order to say that that evidence must not be provided. That cannot be right. If that order got to the Supreme Court it would be struck down, but there is a problem with the appellate process and a real challenge with all these things.

Clause 7(2), perhaps the most important part of the Bill, is to prevent cover-ups. Most substantial cover-ups involve people being threatened or pressed to prevent them from complaining to regulators. That clearly happened with Hillsborough and the Savile paedophile network, where children were punished for complaining. Although details of what sort of offence should be involved needs to be left for consideration in Committee, this absolutely key change is needed. The USA already has in its criminal code elements that protect complainants from the prosecution apparatus.

On “Matters relating to court proceedings”, clause 8(1) deals with the problem that Mr Hain faced. The judiciary do at times make use of defamation law, which is entirely right, but people should not face criminal proceedings for making truthful statements about the operation of the legal system.

Clause 8(2) deals with the imprisonment of people in secret for contempt—quite a few people are in prison for contempt. The Official Solicitor is supposed to protect their interests, but nothing much seems to happen. I wrote to him and asked him, “What do you do about people who are in prison for contempt?” and he did not tell me anything—he just said, “I suppose we’re supposed to do something.”

Deborah Paul, a London mother, was imprisoned earlier this year. Those who are aware of her case believe that it was an oppressive act. There is no formal report. Although in theory the step of imprisonment is supposed to happen in open court, in practice, a court flashes into public session in the blink of an eye and goes back in camera—it might as well not bother. Clause 8(2) would protect contemnors from oppressive imprisonment and the abuse of power by the court.

Clause 8(3) would assist in dealing with cover-ups. For people to challenge public authorities, they need particularly deep pockets. The problem is the uncertainty as to what costs they face paying if they lose the application. The court has developed through the common law protection in limited circumstances. A more general application of a pre-emptive costs order would allow people to challenge bodies such as the GMC or local authorities about wrongly given planning permission without having to bet the farm. I would wish for an element of one-way cost-shifting for judicial review, but in the interests of compromise and so that progress is made, I have suggested a smaller shift towards the power of the individual against the state.

Clause 9 is on the activities of the Official Solicitor. As it stands, the Official Solicitor is accountable merely to secret court proceedings. I know of a number of cases in which people have wrongly had their mental capacity removed—they are then submitted to the decisions of the Official Solicitor. RP v. UK—I made an application to the European Court of Human Rights to assist RP and her brother—demonstrates how cataclysmic a wrongful removal of mental capacity can be. RP’s GP and a second expert have indicated that she had mental capacity and was not too stupid to instruct a solicitor, but the system—all the way through—wrongly treated her as somebody who does not have mental capacity.

In order to appeal, a party needs a transcript of the judgment. However, that is often far too difficult to obtain—I am having problems with a constituency case in that respect. The official recording is frequently lost. The simple solution to the problem would be to allow people to take their own recordings, so that they can produce their own transcript.

On clause 11—“Right to assert litigation capacity”—when somebody has been deemed too stupid to instruct a solicitor and has normally had the Official Solicitor appointed as a litigation friend, it is almost impossible to get a solicitor to act to challenge such an appointment. The clause would make it clear that someone can challenge the appointment of a litigation friend. The proposal in RP v. UK that the Official Solicitor should be asked to review the appointment did not work in the case of Lee Gilliland, a gentleman in Bristol who had his mental capacity removed because he did not trust public authorities. He found himself evicted without notice, because the Official Solicitor did not tell him he was about to be evicted.

I would happily accept in Committee that clause 12 —“Ambit of reasonableness and capacity”—is too advanced and progressive for the English system, but it is worth considering. It would make the lives of those who have limited capacity much better. It is based on a clause from a province of Canada that tries to limit the controls exercised on people who are deemed not to have capacity. I am particularly concerned about the imprisonment of people using mental capacity. The deprivation of liberty safeguards are clearly inadequate in that they are overwhelmingly subject to conflicts of interest. I remain concerned about a constituent who was, in my view, wrongly imprisoned using that mechanism in order to prevent the investigation of a crime. However, the issue needs detailed consideration in Committee.

Photo of Nadine Dorries Nadine Dorries Conservative, Mid Bedfordshire

Given that there are court transcribers, one would assume that anybody attending the court would have a right to the transcription when a judgment has been passed in their case. Not only is it not possible always to get a transcription, but when it is possible, it takes a considerable length of time. In that considerable length of time, the appeal is in abeyance and kept waiting—it cannot be lodged.

Photo of John Hemming John Hemming Liberal Democrat, Birmingham, Yardley

The hon. Lady is entirely accurate, but in addition, the tape recording gets lost.


Written transcripts are often creatively edited before release.

Submitted by Jean James

Photo of Nadine Dorries Nadine Dorries Conservative, Mid Bedfordshire




Submitted by Jean James

Photo of John Hemming John Hemming Liberal Democrat, Birmingham, Yardley

Whether it is convenient or not, the fact that the tape recording is lost does not help the process.

In part 3, clauses 13 and 14 aim to reduce fuel bills by being more efficient. When I visited the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, I was impressed by the efforts of Parliament in the 18th century to encourage the development of advanced timekeeping technology in the Longitude Act 1714. That was an early demonstration that Parliament can, through statute, achieve positive outcomes in the development of technology. As someone whose academic qualifications are in science—my first degree is an MA from Magdalen college, Oxford, but I specialised in atomic, nuclear and theoretical physics—I sometimes feel that the physical laws are treated as insufficiently important in the public sphere. I take the view that the laws of physics will always trump the laws of economics, and do not understand a reality in which that is not true.

Two key laws are relevant to energy policy—one is the law of conservation of energy, which is also known as the first law of thermodynamics, and the other is the second law of thermodynamics. The first law says that we cannot get any more energy out of a system than we put in. If we take the chemical energy in a hydrocarbon such as methane, ethane or propane, and oxidise or burn it, no more energy can come out than goes in. We can get a mixture of energy out. We could get a physical force such as torsion to provide motive force, or electricity plus heat, or just heat—and, of course, any residual chemical energy.

Of the second law, Lord Kelvin says:

“It is impossible, by means of inanimate material agency, to derive mechanical effect from any portion of matter by cooling it below the temperature of the coldest of the surrounding objects.”

That means that there is a limit to how much work, such as torsion, can be obtained by burning a fossil fuel or other hydrocarbon. The rest of the energy goes as heat. Interestingly, the maximum efficiency of an ideal heat engine—the Carnot cycle—is calculated as the ratio of temperatures in degrees Kelvin.

The combined-cycle gas turbines that we use for a lot of electricity generation manage an efficiency of 55% in generating electricity and 45% in producing heat by having two heat engines running in series. Attempts are made to make use of the waste energy from power generation by combined heat and power schemes by circulating hot water. Clause 13 develops a strategy for smaller-scale combined heat and power schemes, so that more like 90% to 95% of the chemical energy in the gas can be effectively used, rather than the current maximum, which is more like 50%, particularly when transmission losses are taken into account.

The Bill also involves passive flue gas, which is another step in converting more of the chemical energy into heat for warming water rather than its going out into the air. Clearly, therefore, if we get almost twice as much useful energy from the energy source, over time, we would reduce energy bills by around half, which is a good outcome for families and fuel justice. The economic models that have been issued show that there is no cost to the public purse. If implemented properly, the measure would simply achieve a result. The aggregate cut of energy bills from the use of passive flue gas would work out at about £1 billion a year for the whole country, which is a substantial saving for families and an improvement in fuel justice. All those measures are cost-effective for the consumer and the taxpayer.

However, it is important that a critical mass is created so that the market can make appropriate investments in technology. If we manage to halve energy bills and reduce the winter heating bill, we would reduce fuel poverty. The mechanism improves fuel justice for families.

Photo of Stephen Barclay Stephen Barclay Conservative, North East Cambridgeshire

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point on using energy more efficiently rather than simply producing more of it, but the Liberal Democrats are pushing hard for some of the most costly forms of renewable energy production. Does he support a greater subsidy for better energy usage as opposed to such a large subsidy for production?

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Chair, Speaker’s Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Chair, Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons

Order. May I just say to John Hemming that his dilation on these matters so far has been dazzling? We are all seeking to come to terms with the intellectual ferocity that he has deployed. In responding to that intervention, I hope he will not stray too far away from the core of his most interesting Bill.

Photo of John Hemming John Hemming Liberal Democrat, Birmingham, Yardley

I shall follow your guidance, Mr Speaker. We have strayed quite substantially from the Bill, because it does not propose any subsidies. It merely says that we should, through statute, guidance and regulation, improve efficiency. That does not require Government funding or subsidy; it can be entirely funded through the private sector. There is no debate about subsidy because none is proposed.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood Conservative, Bournemouth East

In response to your guidance, Mr Speaker, I shall try to be more specific. Britain has lagged behind other European countries in the level of insulation in our dwellings and seeking to improve it is an honourable pursuit. However, I am confused by the fact that the hon. Gentleman is pursuing code level 6 insulation when the Government’s target is code level 3. Code level 6 is clearly higher, but would add an additional cost of about £30,000 to any dwelling that will have to come from somewhere—for example, from the local authority or the Government. Why is he saying code level 6 when the Government are saying code level 3?

Photo of John Hemming John Hemming Liberal Democrat, Birmingham, Yardley

The idea is to move in that direction over time. In Committee, I might accept that we could stick with the Government’s limited objectives—[ Interruption. ] Yes, without subsidy. The key objective is to do this without a subsidy. The Bill does not require additional public funding; its aim is to improve the lives of families and family justice in the widest sense.

Photo of Lorely Burt Lorely Burt Chair of the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party

The Bill requires the aim to be achieved by 2020. Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be a sad thing, with all the innovations that are being worked on at the moment, if we were unable to move as far as code level 6 by then?

Photo of John Hemming John Hemming Liberal Democrat, Birmingham, Yardley

I thank my hon. Friend for that helpful intervention. This issue will clearly need detailed discussion in Committee.

Photo of Stephen Barclay Stephen Barclay Conservative, North East Cambridgeshire

I share the desire of Lorely Burt to reach code level 6 and think that it is good to have such an aspiration, but the cost would either fall on those who require affordable housing—the hon. Gentleman’s party speaks frequently on the need for more affordable housing, a view which I share—or be met through diverting subsidy. I accept that the Bill does not require any subsidy, but surely an aspiration to meet code level 6 would lead us to take the view that we might need to reapply the subsidy from one area to another. Perhaps that should happen.

Photo of John Hemming John Hemming Liberal Democrat, Birmingham, Yardley

That might be a debate for Committee. These are all issues of important detail, but the nub of the Bill is not to look for further public subsidy but to focus on how we can reduce people’s energy bills without it.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood Conservative, Bournemouth East

I appreciate what the hon. Gentleman is saying and his knowledge about all these matters of family law and so on is hugely impressive, but we must tie into current legislation and thinking. The Government have made a commitment that by 2016 all new homes will be zero-carbon and I must make it clear that the target for code level 6 already stands as a voluntary target.

Photo of John Hemming John Hemming Liberal Democrat, Birmingham, Yardley

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. The Bill sets a target for 2020 and perhaps in Committee we will feel that we should extend it. Those debates must be held in detail, however, and the principle must be improving efficiency in an cost-effective manner. We are discussing issues of detail, but we need to make progress down this route.

Earlier, I emphasised how the news over the summer highlighted the urgency of taking the actions in the Bill. I conclude that the Bill should urgently make progress to Committee. I am entirely happy to work positively with the Government to make steps towards a better future for children and families and I therefore ask Members to support the Bill.

Photo of Jim Dobbin Jim Dobbin Labour, Heywood and Middleton 10:53 am, 26th October 2012

I congratulate John Hemming on presenting the Bill to the House and on how he has gone through a number of clauses in detail.

The hon. Gentleman and I have discussed some of these issues in the past, including the problems I have had with constituency matters as regards the courts and local authority departments. I speak as the Member for

Heywood and Middleton but also as one of the Rochdale borough MPs and a leader of Rochdale borough council before I came to this House. The hon. Gentleman referred to a recent case in Rochdale that received global coverage, and the local council’s safeguarding children board recently presented its initial report. Members will appreciate why I have a great interest in these matters and strongly support the Bill. I congratulate him on his choice of subject.

A second independent report from Rochdale’s local authority will become available quite soon. The safeguarding children board’s report was transparent and hard-hitting and strengthens the case, in my view, for improvements to child care and the protection of children in not only Rochdale but other local authorities across the country. It presents some 15 recommendations, which are now a matter of public record, that are designed to develop a much more effective strategy for family care.

Members might be interested to hear some of the recommendations and how they might affect local authorities across the country. More than 10,000 staff in agencies throughout the borough have received briefings in respect of recognition and response to sexual exploitation. More than 1,500 staff have had face-to-face training with plans to reach the whole work force by the end of this year. Awareness-raising workshops have been given to almost 10,000 children in local secondary schools and there are plans to deliver similar sessions for parents in schools and community centres. Training for staff who work with young people at risk of child sexual exploitation is happening, too.

The formulation of a multi-agency strategy to ensure a more co-ordinated response to child sexual exploitation is also part of the recommendations. Improvements to the way in which Greater Manchester police and other criminal justice organisations deal with victims of child sexual exploitation is at the top of the list and staff numbers will be increased in the Sunrise team, which is a multi-agency team jointly funded by all agencies and created to prevent and tackle child sexual exploitation. The new procedures to be followed when staff refer possible child sexual exploitation cases are an important recommendation, as is the introduction of one point of contact for referrals of concern. All referrals to children’s social care services for children over the age of 12 will be screened for early signs of child sexual exploitation. More guidance will be issued to professional staff, which is an important point, and there will be more training, too.

Greater Manchester police and the council’s licensing authority will work more closely together and regular multi-agency information-sharing meetings will be held to ensure that services share concerns about possible victims, abusers and hot spots in the borough and develop appropriate responses.

Photo of Stephen Barclay Stephen Barclay Conservative, North East Cambridgeshire

The hon. Gentleman is correct to highlight the importance of training and multi-agency work, but is not one of the difficulties the lack of accountability? The buck does not stop with any single individual in tragic incidents such as that which occurred in Rochdale. What would he like to see happen to improve accountability? It is great to train 1,000 or 1,500 people, but we also need to address the accountability of individuals.

Photo of Jim Dobbin Jim Dobbin Labour, Heywood and Middleton

I fully understand and I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I have the report with me and if he wants to take a look at it at some stage, he will see how the council intends to tackle that problem, which it recognises as important. I should also point out that the leader and chief executive of Rochdale council have both appeared in front of the Select Committee on Home Affairs and further senior staff are due to appear in due course.

Photo of Stephen Barclay Stephen Barclay Conservative, North East Cambridgeshire

Has any individual lost their job as a result of the events in Rochdale? Does he believe that any individual should lose their job? It is all very well appearing before a parliamentary Committee, but what are the real-term consequences for those who are accountable?

Photo of Jim Dobbin Jim Dobbin Labour, Heywood and Middleton

That is certainly an important question that people are asking. The difficulty is that many of the staff involved have retired, as these cases arose a number of years ago. Recently, the head of the department concerned resigned, so things are happening there, but at present, the local authority is reviewing the whole process. It still has another report to come out; after that, it will be fair to accept that members of staff may well lose their jobs because of the affair. That is a possibility, but I do not want to pre-empt the decision of the local authority.

I have referred to better staff training. Partner agencies, such as the police, community groups and schools, must be better co-ordinated. Criminal justice organisations should be encouraged to support entirely young people who have been exploited, throughout the entire process—when reporting the crime and making statements; in pre-trial preparation; when they go to court; and after the trial. The recommendations refer to holding

“Regular multi agency information sharing meetings” to ensure that possible victims and abusers are identified, and proper responses are developed; at present, none of that is happening anywhere, as I understand it. The Rochdale case is not the only one; this is a problem across the country—and indeed the globe, as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley, said.

I illustrate the need for this Bill by referring to a constituency case. A constituent, Mr X, came to one of my surgeries to complain that the local social services children’s unit was threatening to remove the youngest of his five children. The child had cerebral palsy. The other four children were well looked after and were doing very well at school. The department refused to accept that the child’s cerebral palsy was the reason for his unhappiness at school. Even though a consultant paediatrician, with whom I was acquainted, diagnosed cerebral palsy, the diagnosis was questioned by the department and the professionals. They had to bring in an independent paediatrician to verify that the child had cerebral palsy. That was verified, but even then there were question marks. I knew that the parents were a caring, loving couple.

The social worker complained to the family court judge that Mr X was seeking my intervention. The judge ruled that Mr X could no longer seek any help from his Member of Parliament. I raised that issue in the Chamber with the then Solicitor-General, who appeared to support what I said, and thought that the ruling was wrong. When she checked, she found that the judge was within his rights to rule as he did. That is why I am pleased that that issue is tackled, as I understand it, in the Bill. Eventually, the department backed off, but not before Mr X had a massive heart attack and died. It is my view that the worry about the threat of his son being removed, and the possibility of his other four children being removed, caused his death.

Members may remember the perceived satanic abuse cases that suddenly appeared on a council estate in my former council area. That followed similar episodes in the Orkney islands a number of years ago. Professionals were encouraging a theory that some families were involved in satanic abuse. A number of children were removed from their families. The courts tackled the issue, and eventually ruled that there was no evidence to prove the claims, and the children were allowed back to their families.

I use those local experiences as examples of why I support the Bill. I am convinced that there is a need for changes in departments that are responsible for the protection of children, and that family courts need to respond to these challenges in parallel; that is most important. I am absolutely amazed that the Association of Directors of Children’s Services opposes the Bill. I hope that it will eventually see the error of its ways and bring itself into the 21st century.

Photo of Lorely Burt Lorely Burt Chair of the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party

My hon. Friend John Hemming was a little coy when he was invited to speculate on why that august body did not support his Bill. I wonder whether Jim Dobbin has any idea why it does not.

Photo of Jim Dobbin Jim Dobbin Labour, Heywood and Middleton

I can only guess. I feel that the ADCS is absolutely acting as a protective body, and it is protecting its membership; I think that is the only reason why it has made that statement. We will not know otherwise until it clarifies why it has taken that stance.

I have been appointed the United Kingdom’s delegate to the “One in Five” campaign, which is a sub-group of the Council of Europe’s Committee on Social Affairs, Health and Sustainable Development. It is to hold a major conference on trafficking and child abuse.

Photo of John Hemming John Hemming Liberal Democrat, Birmingham, Yardley

To go back to the hon. Gentleman’s point about preventing children from being maltreated, trafficked and so on, does he agree that they need an advocate who is not employed by the local authority?

Photo of Jim Dobbin Jim Dobbin Labour, Heywood and Middleton

Indeed. That is an extremely important point, and I assume that will be part of the Bill.

Photo of John Hemming John Hemming Liberal Democrat, Birmingham, Yardley

I thank the hon. Gentleman for allowing me a second bite at the cherry. Yes, it is part of the Bill to ensure that somebody who has no vested interest in concealing malpractice is an advocate for the child.

Photo of Jim Dobbin Jim Dobbin Labour, Heywood and Middleton

The “One in Five” campaign is convening at a conference in Moscow in November, which I will take part in, and if the hon. Gentleman agrees, I will refer to his Bill on that platform.

Photo of Stephen Barclay Stephen Barclay Conservative, North East Cambridgeshire 11:07 am, 26th October 2012

I want to make three points. First, I shall draw attention to a particularly troubling constituency case relating to a grandparent’s access to his grandson—an issue that the Bill speaks to in part, but I would like further clarification on the subject. Secondly, I want to address the point that arose in exchanges with John Hemming about accountability and the multi-agency approach, and points raised in the last exchange about the introduction of new champions; I want to ask whether, for all the benefits involved, that would not add a further layer of complexity and confusion. I shall seek clarification from him on that in his closing remarks.

Thirdly, in the wake of recent hearings held by the Public Accounts Committee, I want to look at points relating to the cost of living and lower fuel bills, a particularly pertinent issue in the fens and North East Cambridgeshire, the constituency that I have the privilege of representing, where there is a long tradition of independence. As a result of that independence, many local parents do not take up, for their children, the free school meals to which those children are entitled; that has an impact on our schools’ funding. There is the same issue of independence in the elderly community with regard to fuel. Fuel poverty is an acute issue in many rural villages in the fens. The Bill covers that issue, and I shall touch on it.

On the first point relating to grandparents’ access, I think we would all accept that the role of grandparents in society has changed greatly. I want to highlight the case of a constituent. His daughter split from the father of her child. The father is known to have a number of difficulties. The daughter moved away to live near the grandfather. As she was a single mother, with a grandfather very nearby, the grandfather became a quasi-parent—the quasi-father. He had a huge amount of access to his grandson. Very tragically, his daughter died so the relationship of the grandfather to his grandson became even more acute but, because of the limited rights that he had as grandfather, the child has now moved to a different part of the country. The grandfather does not have rights of access, yet the unsuitability of the father is such that the child is currently subject to a child protection plan. For many months a lack of improvement in the care has been noted by protection officers but despite this, very little seems to happen. At a recent court hearing the failure of two expert witnesses to turn up meant that the case was delayed further.

With each month that passes, not only is the grandson playing truant from school, not only are other problems arising because of the unsuitability of the father to care for the child, but the relationship between grandfather and grandson, which was once so strong, is becoming frayed because the grandfather cannot get permission for the grandson to spend time with him. Getting a passport so that he could take his grandson on holiday proved a real ordeal because the father, who was not engaging, had to sign the passport.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley is right to draw attention to the need to reflect in his Bill the fact that the role of grandparents has changed from previous generations, but there is a lack of clarity—perhaps the hon. Gentleman intends to address that in Committee —about how the Bill would work in the real-life case that I draw to his attention, where the mother who was the primary carer has died. The case is not one in which, with parents still in place, the question arises whether the grandparent should have more or less access, but is one where he is the more suitable prime carer of the child than the father, who is known to the family courts and who has experienced difficulties, and where the inappropriateness of that care is reflected in the child’s truancy from school and other measurable metrics.

Photo of John Hemming John Hemming Liberal Democrat, Birmingham, Yardley

One aspect that I may not have emphasised sufficiently was that one difficulty of relying too much on court proceedings rather than a family group conference is that they create an adversarial environment, which a family group conference is less likely to do. Although it does not provide a complete solution to the case that the hon. Gentleman presents as an example, if the issues could be discussed in a family group conference rather than in adversarial proceedings, it might be possible not to create a greater rift among the parties involved, which makes it harder to achieve some form of compromise.

The family group conference approach starts out by looking at what are essentially therapeutic decisions—what is best of for the child, which is not so much a traditional legal adversarial decision as an attempt to answer the question, “How do we best achieve a positive outcome for the child in the circumstances?” If that fails, the case has to go to court. Recognising article 8 rights for grandparents in that context is helpful. The Bill tries to get issues resolved outside court first so that fewer cases end up going to court.

Photo of Stephen Barclay Stephen Barclay Conservative, North East Cambridgeshire

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that clarification and I agree with that intention. One of the impediments to speedy resolution of such cases is the length of time it takes to prepare court papers, with frequent delays in the court process such as the one I mentioned. I endorse the hon. Gentleman’s desire for resolution outside court. On almost all legal issues, I suspect that few hon. Members across the House would demur from that as an aspiration.

Photo of John Hemming John Hemming Liberal Democrat, Birmingham, Yardley

One of the difficulties with contact proceedings is that if things are not working, an application to court is initiated. I accept that the Government are looking towards mediation, but a family group conference, trying to get people together, is an environment in which mediation can occur. One has to look at the system and the entire process—what initiates something and what are the likely outcomes. We have tended to pick little bits in isolation, rather than look at a flowchart of the whole system. The family group conference should be where it starts, not where it goes after an application has been made to court. At that point, in a sense, it is too late.

Photo of Stephen Barclay Stephen Barclay Conservative, North East Cambridgeshire

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that further clarification and I fully support his intention. My question is whether that fits with human behaviour. Throughout all arms of Government we often see policy put forward with the very best of intentions, but it clashes with logic or behaviour at an individual level. If, at that conciliatory meeting, all the players were coming to the table with the best interests of the child at heart, of course one would expect that approach to work and I am sympathetic to it, but how does it work where the father has previously been estranged and is known to have difficulties, yet the bar to removing the child from that father and placing him with the grandparent is so high, because social services see that as such a retrograde step? There can be all the nice conversations in the world; the question is whether we shift the bar at which the child is moved.

Photo of John Hemming John Hemming Liberal Democrat, Birmingham, Yardley

That comes to the question of what is in the best interests of the child. The children’s services authority has decided in the circumstances that in its opinion it is in the best interests of the child for him to remain with his father, not with his grandfather. I tend to share the hon. Gentleman’s view that that seems a perverse decision. However, that decision of the children’s services authority is not subject to any intellectual scrutiny beyond the court hearing. To a very great extent, judges are trapped in a situation in which they have to accept the expert opinion provided to them. The hon. Gentleman may be aware of the Daubert procedure in America, where expert evidence is taken to an expert evidence appeal. I am not suggesting that here. What I am suggesting is that there should be a scrutiny process to look at such situations. What he describes is not unique. I am aware of other similar situations—

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Chair, Speaker’s Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Chair, Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons

Order. Mr Leigh could be forgiven for thinking that he was intervening on the person making the speech. I remind John Hemming that he is intervening on Stephen Barclay. It should be an intervention, not a mini-speech. Has he just about concluded?

Photo of Stephen Barclay Stephen Barclay Conservative, North East Cambridgeshire

I am most obliged, Mr Speaker, for your very courteous intervention on my behalf, and I am more than willing to take an intervention from such a senior colleague as my hon. Friend Mr Leigh.

There are two issues that arise from the worthy intention of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley. First, as I understand it, it is the current position of the courts that the welfare of the child comes first, so proposing a new structure to achieve that aim raises the question whether that is not the existing position. Secondly, the hon. Gentleman seems to be suggesting, paradoxically, that we take an expert witness’s advice to the court, but we cannot trust that advice to be in the best interests of the child’s welfare so we need to put it to some other expert witness. Is that really what he is proposing?

Photo of John Hemming John Hemming Liberal Democrat, Birmingham, Yardley

I am not proposing in the Bill that there is, in effect, an experts appeal. I am proposing that we use the body of expert evidence and the process of peer review to improve the quality of expert evidence. The expert might find, having read the peer review of their evidence, that perhaps they should have given different evidence. The difficulty is that what is in the best interests of the child is not always that clear. We need a better review of what is in the best interests of the child, and such a review does not currently exist.

Photo of Stephen Barclay Stephen Barclay Conservative, North East Cambridgeshire

I put it to the hon. Gentleman that the primary aim should be to improve the quality of the expert witness advice given in the first place, rather than putting it to a second expert witness, which potentially adds a layer of confusion.

Photo of John Hemming John Hemming Liberal Democrat, Birmingham, Yardley

The second expert’s evidence goes to the same court hearing.

Photo of Stephen Barclay Stephen Barclay Conservative, North East Cambridgeshire

Indeed. But the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion means that we would spend more and more money on experts, even though he and I would agree that what we should be doing is spending our scarce resources on the primary focus, which is the interests of the child.

Photo of John Hemming John Hemming Liberal Democrat, Birmingham, Yardley

We already have academics in place doing research, but they are not given access to that particular material.

Photo of Stephen Barclay Stephen Barclay Conservative, North East Cambridgeshire

I defer to the hon. Gentleman’s experience as an academic—he speaks with more authority on these matters than I do—but in my limited experience of discussions with academics I have found that, invariably, what one says is different from what another says. Again, I am not sure why the academic cannot be the expert witness in the first place. The point still stands that we need to ensure that the quality of advice from any expert witness is sound.

Photo of John Hemming John Hemming Liberal Democrat, Birmingham, Yardley

How do we improve the quality of expert witness advice without peer review?

Photo of Stephen Barclay Stephen Barclay Conservative, North East Cambridgeshire

The hon. Gentleman goes to the nub of my argument. Many of these issues go back to that iconic and hugely emotive film, “Cathy Come Home”. Taking a child from its mother is something that no one wants to see. I think that the bar has been set so high because it is felt that it is not in the interests of a child to remove it from its natural parent, in this case an unsuitable father. The blood tie is considered so precious that breaking it requires such a high bar and very rarely happens. In my example we have a grandfather who, in essence, had day-to-day contact with his grandson, alongside his daughter, who was the primary carer. He was very closely involved in his grandson’s life. Following his daughter’s death, he would have been the more suitable custodian, in my uninformed view, but the so-called experts take the view that the estranged father, purely because he is the father, is the person the child must live with, even though he allows the child to play truant, even though the child is subject to care protection and even though the grandfather is an upstanding member of the community.

Photo of John Hemming John Hemming Liberal Democrat, Birmingham, Yardley

As things currently stand, the evidence provided by expert witnesses is not subject to any process of peer review, so over time, their expert evidence will never change.

Photo of Stephen Barclay Stephen Barclay Conservative, North East Cambridgeshire

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says and will seek to make progress.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Chair, Public Accounts Commission

When I was a practitioner in the family courts, my general view was that the content of the evidence of so-called experts was inversely proportionate to common sense.

Photo of Stephen Barclay Stephen Barclay Conservative, North East Cambridgeshire

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. He appears to side with my analysis of the suitability of the grandparents. He makes a serious point, as a former practitioner, about the amount of time experts often have to come to these conclusions. To be fair, the engagement of some of these experts is often so limited that it is difficult.

That brings me to my second point—I want to make progress. It strikes me that in this hugely complex area—the complexity is signalled by the range and scope of the Bill—one of the difficulties is the lack of accountability. What concerns me about the measures the hon. Gentleman puts forward is that he seems to be adding a further layer of complexity by having champions who are in some way more independent. That is another layer.

Photo of John Hemming John Hemming Liberal Democrat, Birmingham, Yardley

The guardian ad litem is already a litigation friend. It is not a question of having a new body; it is a question of having one that is clearly independent of the previous proceeding.

Photo of Stephen Barclay Stephen Barclay Conservative, North East Cambridgeshire

Again, the lawyers present should have a duty to the court. When I qualified as a solicitor it was my primary duty to—

Photo of John Hemming John Hemming Liberal Democrat, Birmingham, Yardley

The litigation friend is not necessarily a lawyer.

Photo of Stephen Barclay Stephen Barclay Conservative, North East Cambridgeshire

I feel that we are splitting hairs. What I am saying is that a multitude of professionals are engaged in the welfare of the child. Do they not have professional duties? Is the hon. Gentleman saying that they are compromised, or that he cannot trust that their vested interests will not get in the way of the interests of the child?

Photo of John Hemming John Hemming Liberal Democrat, Birmingham, Yardley

The evidence from the case of A and S v. Lancashire county council indicates that that is the case; that the independent reviewing officer was not sufficiently independent.

Photo of Stephen Barclay Stephen Barclay Conservative, North East Cambridgeshire

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that clarification, because he makes my point. The point is that we do not address a failure by adding more complexity; we address it by fixing it. The issues that go wrong in life are almost invariably the result of over-complexity. There is a distinction between simple and simplistic. One of the difficulties we have in child protection is the whole range of people involved and the complexity of the different organisations involved. At any one time, one person might be on holiday, another might be off ill, someone sent an e-mail, someone else spoke to someone or did not visit the child, another person has too many cases to deal with and so did not engage properly, or the expert witness did not produce a report of sufficient quality. The point is that when it goes wrong no one is accountable.

A case that rightly drew great concern across the House was that involving the official, Sharon Shoesmith. I draw attention to the fact that the courts—I do not criticise them for this decision—gave Ms Shoesmith a significant payout. When I discussed the case with my constituents at the time, they expressed great frustration, because clearly there had been a huge failure and a child had been very badly let down, but they could not work out who had been accountable.

The hon. Gentleman’s proposal is extremely well intentioned and I share his objective—I hope that all Members do—but my concern is that it would add yet more complexity to an already complex structure.

Photo of John Hemming John Hemming Liberal Democrat, Birmingham, Yardley

My contention is that it would not add more complexity; it would merely ensure that we do not have to wait until a child is considered competent before their complaints can be heard by the court.

Photo of Stephen Barclay Stephen Barclay Conservative, North East Cambridgeshire

Let me give a parallel example to illustrate my point better. The Public Accounts Committee had a hearing for the Care Quality Commission, the body set up by the previous Government to protect many of our most vulnerable—not those in child protection, but those in care homes. Yet for the first two years of its existence it did not carry out a single major investigation. Just one of its predecessor bodies carried out 15 such investigations in the preceding years. The commission even abolished its dedicated whistleblower line, so it passed its responsibilities to general staff, which is why the Winterbourne View case, which was flagged up by whistleblowers on more than one occasion, was missed. It took the BBC’s “Panorama” programme to bring that to light.

What I am driving at is that the answer to the difficulties we face is not the current fashion of having yet more multi-agency work and more partners getting involved and, when it goes wrong, everyone saying that it was not them or, as was suggested earlier, that someone has retired or moved on. That is not a new situation. Twice a week in the Public Accounts Committee we hear of vast sums of money wasted under various Governments, and almost invariably the official concerned has moved on. We have had three permanent secretaries of the Department for Transport since the last election. A former Chair of the PAC is present in the Chamber: my hon. Friend Mr Leigh. I am sure he is very familiar with officials moving on—perhaps retiring—and therefore not being accountable. I support the worthy aims of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley, but his proposals add more complexity to the system, and I question whether that will aid accountability.

Lower fuel bills is a particularly pertinent issue in the fens, and especially the fen villages. I take on board fully Mr Speaker’s direction that it is not the purpose of our debate today to discuss the issue of subsidies, but the best way for us to address fuel poverty is to ensure we better utilise the energy that is being produced. That is why the green deal is particularly welcome.

I should put on record a concern, however. When I spoke last week to one of the green deal assessors in east Cambridgeshire—one of the districts covering my constituency—I was concerned to learn that he is still not in a position to carry out green deal assessments of local homes, and he does not think he will be in a position to do so until the new year because the software is still not in place.

It is laudable to seek to go to level 6 of the code for sustainable homes, but my hon. Friend Mr Ellwood drew the House’s attention to the current provision—level 3. The difficulty is that that cuts across human behaviour. We will not get to level 6 through wishful thinking; we will not get to level 6 because it is the right thing to do and it is a lovely, inspirational aim. We will get there by shifting behaviours. That will come either from expecting people to pay more for their homes—which they are not able to do—or through subsidy. Subsidy will require a shift, particularly in respect of turbines, which are decimating the fens. Bizarrely, the area has now become known as the “forest of the fens”. When the forest protests erupted over a previous Government policy, many electors wrote to me about saving the forest—which is somewhat ironic given that the fens has very few forests and is predominantly flat land.

Photo of Phillip Lee Phillip Lee Conservative, Bracknell

Does my hon. Friend agree that the key point here is subsidy of energy forms? There is little justification for the subsidy of wind farms. There is much more justification for an up-front subsidy of nuclear power. Throughout the country vast tracts of beautiful countryside are being impacted upon by onshore wind farms. I would rather see a concentration of energy generation in fewer sites, and the only way we can achieve that is through nuclear.

Photo of Stephen Barclay Stephen Barclay Conservative, North East Cambridgeshire

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. One of the most welcome moves made by this Government is to give a greater local say on wind farm developments—such as at Tydd St Giles in my constituency, which has galvanised the local population. The vast majority of people are deeply concerned as we already have many wind farms in North East Cambridgeshire. Fenland now produces more energy than it requires for its own needs. The local countryside was asset-stripped of most of its rural services under the last Government, and one of the few things being added to rural communities is something they do not want. My hon. Friend is right: because of the cost and environmental impact of such schemes, we should instead embrace the big-ticket energy solutions that are going to work.

Photo of Dawn Primarolo Dawn Primarolo Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. The Bill suggests a road map for ending fuel poverty; it is not an in-depth discussion of energy generation. I would therefore be grateful if the hon. Gentleman would return to the issues addressed in the Bill. I think Mr Speaker has already given a warning on this matter.

Photo of Stephen Barclay Stephen Barclay Conservative, North East Cambridgeshire

I am most grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, as, with characteristic prescience, you anticipate my closing remarks.

The very cost that the PAC has looked at on a number of occasions is what is driving fuel poverty in the fens: the cost of production is adding an extra tariff that is particularly detrimental to my many elderly constituents. We have sought to help them through an initiative that would, perhaps, be welcomed in Madam Deputy Speaker’s constituency, too. The Golden Age Fair is run by Fenland district council and helps those living in fuel poverty to access the limited grants and other aids that are available. It does so by running a computer programme that helps to analyse people’s living costs.

I commend the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley on his Bill, and I support his aims. Like me, he seeks to address some very real concerns about child protection. However, although the existing structure clearly has flaws that we need to address, we cannot do that by having more experts commenting on experts. We address it by ensuring expert reports are accurate—not by having more complexity, which serves to create less accountability —and by having a simpler, clearer system that will better champion the interests of the children we seek to protect. By having such a system, I hope we will ensure that my constituent, a loving grandfather, will be able to get custody of his grandson—as he wants, and as I believe is in the best interests of the child.

Photo of Lorely Burt Lorely Burt Chair of the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party 11:37 am, 26th October 2012

I support the Bill. I will speak mainly about clause 1, but first let me say that clause 2’s provisions are based on the personal experience of my hon. Friend John Hemming, who campaigns tirelessly and fearlessly on behalf of his constituents and others. I know how angry he was when a constituent was threatened over even speaking to him. To say he feels passionately about injustice—especially when perpetrated against those least able to fight for themselves, such as children—is an understatement.

Madam Deputy Speaker, you missed a wonderful explanation of thermodynamics, which I am sure will be to your eternal loss. We do not need an explanation of thermodynamics, however, to understand that making energy-cost savings of £1.1 billion by 2020 is an extremely laudable aim.

We are living in strange times. The Savile scandal is not only still rumbling on, but there are now suggestions that more public figures will be exposed. The press is reporting that we are now trying to substitute transparency for trust, because people no longer trust our public institutions. It seems that trust is becoming an old-fashioned word. The foundations of trust are shaken to the core when the actions of well-loved figures are uncovered—unfortunately, discovered too late for many people—and that is why this Bill is so important. We cannot have trust without transparency, and that is very pertinent to elements of the Bill.

A particularly helpful aspect proposes family group conferences which would give the extended family a say in resolving problems in a consensual manner instead of decisions being made in what can appear to be a rather high-handed manner by people who are not specifically involved with the family. Section 1 of the Children Act 1989 enshrined the rule that the court must treat the welfare of the child as the paramount consideration. Under the care and supervision proceedings in the Act, the child concerned can be taken into care only if they are

“suffering, or…likely to suffer, significant harm; and…the harm, or likelihood of harm, is attributable to…the care given to the child, or likely to be given to him if the order were not made, not being what it would be reasonable to expect a parent to give to him; or…the child’s being beyond parental control.

The Act goes on to state:

“Before proceeding with an application, the local authority should always obtain and consider legal advice on whether, in the circumstances of the case and in the light of the available evidence, the court is likely to be satisfied” that the conditions I quoted are met

“and that an order is in the best interests of the child and that making a care order would be better for the child than making no order at all.”

However, that is not always the case, because sometimes, as we have discussed, the expert evidence is based on opinion, which cannot be challenged. The purpose of my hon. Friend’s Bill is to ensure transparency so that the reasoning behind the opinion can be tested. He cited the example of an expert opinion in a case where a child was taken away from their mother because she took the view that the child—a baby—should be fed on demand. It is scandalous that someone could give that opinion without any kind of challenge.

The provisions on proceedings in the family court and the Court of Protection would clarify the role of the friend and/or the McKenzie friend. They would also ensure that grandparents and other members of the wider family may have a say and offer their own perspective. Grandparents have knowledge of the situation and an interest in a positive outcome. They feel strongly about family break-up, but as things stand, although they do not have any say in the family court, they are often literally left holding the baby. The McKenzie friend system assists parents in the family court, who are often in need of a legally trained friend of the family or someone who has a little more expertise and advice to give. Not every parent can afford to have a lawyer in the family court, and that is against the spirit of what it is supposed to provide. Such psychological support, whether it is practical or results merely from the person being there, can be extremely valuable.

Photo of Jim Cunningham Jim Cunningham Labour, Coventry South

The hon. Lady is making a very good case, and I totally agree with her. In many cases, the authorities can pay for their legal advice but the appellant cannot. She is therefore right to advocate the increasing use of McKenzie friends, if possible.

Photo of Lorely Burt Lorely Burt Chair of the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. We see examples of this in many walks for life. I have been involved with a group called the Association for Shared Parenting, which provides the McKenzie friend system for parents who have been separated from their children and are trying to regain access to them. In the spirit of the big society, we should allow that sort of thing to be permitted much more widely.

On clause 2(5), it is very important that children in whose best interests it is to be in care should be placed locally where there is good reason to do so. We saw tragic examples in Rochdale of what can go wrong. In that context, the contribution by Jim Dobbin was most welcome. If children are placed locally, they still have their local connections and are not so isolated and prey to the apparently flattering but ill-conceived intentions of people seeking to groom them for all kinds of nefarious activities which can ruin the rest of their lives. Under the current system of independent scrutiny of children in care, children can complain to the perpetrators. For example, if the body they complain to is the local authority, and the body responsible for the care that they are given is the local authority, I see no logical reason for opposing the possibility of separating out the two in the interests of fairness and transparency. Earlier I told my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley about the schoolchildren who complained about the molesting activities of Jimmy Savile and were actually punished for doing so. These children must be able to go to somebody independent to whom they can complain.

As we have heard, there can be prejudice against children in care and after they have been in care. It is absolutely scandalous that a child can be branded and disadvantaged for life through, usually, absolutely no fault of their own. They need the protection that my hon. Friend offers in clause 3, subsection (4) of which addresses the prejudice that he described. The protected characteristics to which he refers, which are defined in the Equality Act 2010, are age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, and sex and sexual orientation. It is sad that someone’s having been in care in their younger life should be added to that list, but unfortunately I can see why he thinks so. It is important that any child can make its way in the world without additional discrimination of that kind.

Part 3 contains measures on the cost of living to achieve lower fuel bills. It would require a strategy to be produced by the Secretary of State that would help to end the misery of cold homes for millions of people. I suggested earlier that my hon. Friend was seeking three bites of the cherry, but given the rarity of one’s name coming up in the ballot, we want to address all the burning issues—if you will pardon the pun, Madam Deputy Speaker—that we have been thinking about for a long time. We want it all, basically.

The Bill would provide that the Secretary of State must

“by 2020…require any replacement heating system”— that is, boilers. Apparently, 1.3 million boilers give up the ghost every year, and they are the ones we most need to replace with the best quality boilers that can be envisaged. I say “envisaged” because we are talking about 2020. We are making improvements in the quality and efficiency of boilers all the time, so I do not think—contrary to what Mr Ellwood said earlier—that a band 6 boiler is necessarily too big an aspiration.

Photo of Jim Cunningham Jim Cunningham Labour, Coventry South

The hon. Lady makes an important point, particularly now, as we are hitting the winter, with the change in climate, the bad weather and so forth. She is quite right, because whichever way we put the argument—and without wanting to get too political—one of the issues is that the price of fuel and heating continually goes up, but it never goes down. She is therefore making a valuable point. Most of the families concerned cannot always afford to get their boiler put right, so she has hit on a sensitive issue.

Photo of Lorely Burt Lorely Burt Chair of the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I am sure he will welcome the fact that by that time we will be in a position to use green deal funding, so as not to be a burden on the taxpayer. Although some of the technologies are not quite ready yet, the fact that we can aspire to that is an important aspect of this Bill.

In conclusion, I do not understand the laws of thermodynamics, but I do see that the energy innovations of combined heat and power, and flue gas will make a major difference to household bills in the UK, and I commend all of this Bill to the House.

Photo of Phillip Lee Phillip Lee Conservative, Bracknell 11:51 am, 26th October 2012

May I begin by congratulating John Hemming on bringing the Bill before us today?

It appears to be his magnum opus, in terms of size and breadth, and I wish him well with its progress. I am pleased to be following the contribution by my hon. Friend Stephen Barclay, which I thought was particularly thoughtful and provocative.

I will try to confine my remarks to parts 1 and 3 of the Bill. In broad terms, the Bill has merit. I am always instinctively concerned about over-regulation and creating more and more legislation. As a point of principle, I would very much like to spend time in this House discussing the removal of legislation, because I think we have way too much in this country. My particular bête noire is the tax code, which could do with simplifying some time soon. However, I understand that the central thrust of the proposals in the Bill is to do with family justice, particularly with regard to child protection.

In many ways, the Bill almost appears to have been structured so as to allow me to make a contribution to the debate. I am on the Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change. I am also a doctor who continues to practise in quite a socially deprived part of Slough, in Berkshire, and unfortunately on some occasions I encounter evidence of child abuse. I therefore feel informed enough to comment on child protection. Indeed, in my long—perhaps too long—university career of nine years, one of my theses was 10,000 words on the psychology of the child sex offender, which I wrote in 1992. In preparing that thesis, I encountered statistics about the prevalence of child physical, psychological and sexual abuse in this country, which was really quite sobering. I am therefore not, sadly, surprised at how the figures in the Savile case are growing day by day. Unfortunately, these problems have long blighted our society, so I suspect that the figures will increase and that the number of perpetrators in the public eye will also increase.

All I should say on that matter is this. Given that we have had this problem for a long time in our society and given that we have had many systems in place to try to prevent it from happening, I am reminded of T. S. Eliot’s prose:

“systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.”

He was right: we cannot design a system so perfect, however honourable the approach in trying to do so. All of us—everyone in this House; indeed, anybody who is in close contact with vulnerable people, be they children or adults—have a personal responsibility to point out when things might be slightly awry.

Photo of Stephen Barclay Stephen Barclay Conservative, North East Cambridgeshire

I fully concur with my hon. Friend about the limits of any system. No system can ever be a panacea against future risk. Does he agree, however, that the framework in which systems should be designed should be based on simplicity and clarity? One of the risks of the Bill—this was touched on in my exchanges with John Hemming—is that a complex system could diminish accountability.

Photo of Phillip Lee Phillip Lee Conservative, Bracknell

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention and I agree with him. In addition to being an enemy of over-regulation and over-legislation, I am also an enemy of complexity. Complexity always makes me suspicious. Most things in life are quite straightforward and simple; it is only when people want to hide things that they make them complex.

To follow on from what I was saying about systems, it is important that we point out when we are concerned about the actions of others whatever role we play, be it Member of Parliament, doctor or social worker. Indeed, one thing I have found rather frustrating in the recently evolving scandal is the number of people at the BBC who said that they had suspicions, but that Savile was too big and too powerful. I am sorry; I do not think that is a defence. Ultimately, we all have to be brave enough to point out concerns and follow them through to the end, and if that means putting our jobs and progression in our careers at risk, then so be it. We all make a choice to get into jobs where we have the responsibility to protect vulnerable people. If someone does not want to take that responsibility fully, they should get out of the job.

Photo of John Hemming John Hemming Liberal Democrat, Birmingham, Yardley

Will the hon. Gentleman accept it from me that my objective in the Bill is actually to keep things relatively simple? Will he, as a doctor, say whether he thinks it would be useful to have a system to ensure that when a doctor feels that a child in care whom they are treating is encountering problems, they should have a mechanism for getting answers?

Photo of Phillip Lee Phillip Lee Conservative, Bracknell

Yes, that warrants consideration and has merit. I shall relate two instances that I recall. One was when I saw a 10-year-old child who presented having been self-harming—let us think about the idea of a 10-year-old child constantly using a razor blade on his wrist—and the other was when I examined an eight-year-old child, as I recall, and had to keep noting down evidence of cigarette burns. Both children had been in the care of their biological parents, I recall. It is all very well looking at evidence in the literature, but when one actually meets the child—when one looks at the child’s face and into their eyes—and encounters such evidence first hand, it is a genuinely heart-rending and extremely difficult thing to deal with. Indeed, I had some difficulty containing my anger at some points.

Moving on, as I said, I want to talk about parts 1 and 3 of the Bill. I particularly want to discuss grandparents’ access to their grandchildren. I am sure that the House will be surprised to learn that I had a spare hour at the weekend, and that I chose to spend it watching an episode ofThe Waltons”, the famous 1970s television series. Those who have had the pleasure of watching it will recall that the Walton family all lived under the same roof. The grandparents, the parents and the seven children all lived in the same home. Part of the programme’s charm comes from the sense that the family is taking care of the vulnerable—the very young and the very old.

I was listening to the “Today” programme this morning. It has been running a series of short reports on social care in different countries, and today’s contribution was from the United States of America. I was struck by a suggestion that there could be a return to a Waltons model, with grandparents living under the same roof as their children and grandchildren. I suspect that that will also happen in this country. Putting aside the debate over the need to be able to afford a big enough house to accommodate such an arrangement, I believe that that is the likely direction of travel, given the ageing of our society. That demographic and sociological change could lead to an increase in contact between grandchildren and their grandparents.

Photo of Lyn Brown Lyn Brown Opposition Whip (Commons)

Does the hon. Gentleman see, as I do, any irony in his talking about the Waltons’ rather large family living in rather desperate circumstances, working hard and doing their best, given the current proposals to cut benefits for families that have more than two children? What effect would that have on the impact on children that the Bill is trying to mitigate?

Photo of Phillip Lee Phillip Lee Conservative, Bracknell

I might be wrong, but I was not aware that any of the Walton family was receiving benefits. Indeed, I recall an episode in which Grandma was railing at an individual for coming into the village and suggesting that the state should take responsibility for the family. Grandma’s point was the family had that responsibility, not the state. I would encourage anyone who shares Grandma’s view of the world, because it is a more sustainable model for the future.

Returning to the Bill, I understand that grandparents do not at present have an automatic right to have contact with their grandchildren. The Library note informs me that they may apply to a court for leave to apply for a contact order, unless an exception to the requirement to obtain leave applies. Clause 2(4) of the Bill states:

“Grandparents shall be permitted to have reasonable direct and indirect contact with their grandchildren if the child so wishes without this contact being supervised unless it is not in the interest of the welfare of the child.”

That proposal has merit, and I support it. Grandparents up and down the country are experiencing difficulty in gaining access to their grandchildren—following the divorce of the grandchildren’s parents, for example—and that situation needs to be looked at. Grandparents have an important role to play in the upbringing of children—I believe that “The Waltons” provides evidence of that—and, in the increasingly atomised world in which we live, it is important that they should have that contact. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley is to be supported in progressing that proposal.

I also want to mention Criminal Records Bureau checks, another bête noire of mine. CRB checks are an example of the knee-jerk reactions to awful circumstances that Governments seem to have, rather like the banning of handguns post-Dunblane. Banning them did not mean that they no longer existed. I can think of a whole series of examples in which the Government thought that they could intervene to stop bad people existing and to stop other things occurring.

Working as a doctor, I have had personal experience of CRB checks. I tried to start working at Feltham young offenders institution, but it took me six months to get clearance to work there. It was an absolute disgrace.

Photo of Stephen Barclay Stephen Barclay Conservative, North East Cambridgeshire

May I draw my hon. Friend’s attention to an ongoing issue relating to CRB checks? It involves unnecessary duplication. I represent a constituency on a county border with Norfolk and Lincolnshire, and with the Peterborough unitary authority. We frequently find members of staff, such as taxi drivers taking children to schools in Peterborough and elsewhere in Cambridgeshire, having to apply for multiple CRB checks, which have no value. They merely add cost and often delay the ability of those people to do their work while they wait for the checks to be carried out. Government guidance clearly states that the checks can be grandfathered, but Conservative-run local authorities, including my own, have been reluctant to do that. Does my hon. Friend agree that such cost, delay and unnecessary bureaucracy are not improving child protection?

Photo of Phillip Lee Phillip Lee Conservative, Bracknell

Of course. They lead to the inefficiencies that my hon. Friend has so eloquently described, and they blight the lives of innocent people. A gentleman who came to my constituency surgery had had an allegation made against him by a young child, but the allegation had been thrown out. The child’s father had said that she had made it up, yet the allegation had been recorded on the gentleman’s CRB form. He had never been charged with anything, or convicted. The result was that he was no longer able to do his job, which involved working with children, and he lost his career.

I can understand why we went down the road of introducing CRB checks, but they are clearly not working. They are leading to incredible inefficiencies. I want to put it on record today that in 10 years’ time we will probably look back and see that further scandals involving children—paedophile rings and the like—have taken place, even though we have carried out CRB checks on numerous individuals, the great majority of whom want to do the right thing. The scout leaders, teachers and people visiting schools will have been delayed or prevented from doing their work by those checks.

Photo of Stephen Barclay Stephen Barclay Conservative, North East Cambridgeshire

Given that Jimmy Savile was given keys and his own room at a hospital, one suspects that he would have passed a CRB check. Indeed, he might well have done so.

Photo of Phillip Lee Phillip Lee Conservative, Bracknell

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. As a junior doctor, I worked at Stoke Mandeville hospital, and as a Member of Parliament I represent Broadmoor hospital, which puts me in a unique position. I met Jimmy Savile in a hospital corridor at Stoke, and I have visited Broadmoor. It is beyond comprehension that he was given a set of keys enabling him to move around Broadmoor. The most remarkable decision was to give him responsibility to oversee the management of one of this country’s three high-security hospitals. I would like to know who made that decision at the Department of Health, which was at that time responsible for that hospital. I suspect that Jimmy Savile probably would have passed his CRB check, because he had not been convicted of anything, and that is my point. Why put in a system that will not prevent what it seeks to prevent?

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood Conservative, Bournemouth East

This CRB issue is very important. The fact is that one local authority does not recognise a CRB accreditation from another local authority. For example, my sister taught at one school and yet she had to pass the CRB accreditation process to pick up her children from, and use a minibus at, another school. Would it not make sense to have a CRB system whereby accreditation is recognised nationally?

Photo of Dawn Primarolo Dawn Primarolo Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. I know that Dr Lee realises that he needs to come back to the Bill. Although he and other Members may be tempted to discuss CRB checks in general, they can do so only in so far as they relate to the Bill and not with regard to a rewriting of the scheme.

Photo of Phillip Lee Phillip Lee Conservative, Bracknell

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. In answer to my hon. Friend Mr Ellwood, I have had a CRB check on more than one occasion, which is remarkable. I agree that it would be nice if the checks were portable.

To bring the subject back to the Bill, my point is that we should be cautious about anything to do with CRB. The central thrust of the argument of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley is to protect the child, and I am not convinced that CRB checks do that.

Part 3 mentions fuel poverty. As I have said, I serve on the Energy and Climate Change Committee and, on the day on which EDF has announced an 11% increase in fuel prices, the cost of fuel is of great importance to every family throughout the country. I think that that is why the definition of fuel poverty and, indeed, poverty need to be carefully drawn up. On poverty, most of us can only really talk about the experiences of people we know. My grandfather was born into what I would describe as poverty: he did not have running water or a toilet, he shared a tap with six other cottages, and there was no electricity. That was in the 1930s in this country. He also shared a three-bedroom home with eight siblings. I would describe that as poverty.

Today, I struggle with the definition of what poverty is, and I draw on professional experience in making such comments. I have made home visits to pretty socially deprived parts of Buckinghamshire and Berkshire, one of which was to somebody who had a fantastic plasma screen TV—I think it was bigger than the one that I am fortunate enough to possess—but no carpets. Ultimately, when we draw up a definition of poverty, we have to bear in mind that attitude and choice make a profound difference to how much money people then have left to spend on fuel.

There are some difficulties with the current definition of fuel poverty in the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act 2000. The Library briefing paper highlights how the definition relates to problems with fuel prices, household income and dwelling condition. The conditions of the dwelling are the responsibility of the dwellers to some extent. The individuals in the social housing flat that I visited had made a choice to spend money on equipment for a fantastic audio-visual system and Sky subscriptions, and not to spend it on carpets. Does the fact that they are no longer able to afford a properly insulated flat—which it is not if it does not have carpets—mean that they are in poverty or not? On the definition of fuel poverty, which is what the hon. Gentleman seeks to address, let us not shy away from the reality that there are people in this country who make perverse decisions on priorities for home expenditure. If we can deal with that, we may go some way to dealing with the problems of fuel poverty.

I cannot conceive of a situation whereby anybody in this country is as poor as my grandfather was. If they are as poor, that begs the question: where does the £3 billion-plus per week spent on the welfare state go? We spend a significant sum as a proportion of our gross domestic product on welfare payments, so if there are

families and individuals who are genuinely without enough finance to pay for food and heating, I suggest that the system is not fit for purpose.

Energy efficiency is mentioned in the Bill. I do not need any convincing that improving the efficiency of both residential and industrial properties is the lowest-hanging fruit in trying to reduce families’ energy bills, and indeed in reducing the cost of energy to the country, given that we import so much of it. I totally agree with the hon. Gentleman in that. I expect that there will be cross-party support for that principle. If the finances allowed the Government to subsidise and incentivise anything, I hope that it would be the proper, fuel-efficient insulation of properties. The Government’s green deal is a good start in that direction, and I hope that there will be more work in that area.

I am not 100% sure that microgeneration is the way forward. Combined air conditioning and water heating pumps are a good idea, and I visited a site in Norway where they were being made. I believe that work on that would be beneficial. Ultimately, we need to find a way of generating our electricity in the most cost-effective, efficient and low-carbon form possible. As I said in an intervention earlier, nuclear is the only option that ticks those boxes. I do not know the hon. Gentleman’s personal position, but I know that his party has some reluctance in the nuclear arena. They should revisit the matter, because as far as I am concerned, the science, engineering and everything else points to nuclear being the solution. If we could bring about the most cost-effective possible installation of nuclear power stations, energy prices would become more stable and affordable in the medium to longer term for families up and down the country. The fuel poverty that is mentioned in the Bill would therefore become less of a problem.

Photo of Stephen Barclay Stephen Barclay Conservative, North East Cambridgeshire

Is not the point that my hon. Friend is driving at about the consistency of policy across Departments? Our coalition partners rightly share our desire to address fuel poverty, which is addressed in the Bill, but their reluctance to embrace nuclear is leading to a funding model that will drive up the costs of energy and go against that shared desire. That inconsistency of aims among Departments goes to the heart of his comments.

Photo of Phillip Lee Phillip Lee Conservative, Bracknell

I do not want to stray too far from the subject of the Bill, but if we spend huge amounts of money on our energy, whether via subsidy or not, that will lead to families struggling to meet their bills. We have to revisit how we are setting about securing sustainable and low-carbon energy generation that the country can afford in the medium to longer term. I suggest that there certainly needs to be more work on nuclear energy.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood Conservative, Bournemouth East

The fundamental questions in the argument about fuel poverty are about how we generate energy, the security of supply and the costs, including the knock-on costs to the general public. Does my hon. Friend agree that had the last Government taken some of the bigger decisions about nuclear energy, the cost of Britain’s overall energy package would be lower and fuel poverty would not be such a big problem today?

Photo of Phillip Lee Phillip Lee Conservative, Bracknell

My hon. Friend is spot on. One has only to look at how many Energy Ministers there were under the last Administration to see that energy was never a priority until rather too late in the day. The problem with the majority of forms of energy, particularly the low-carbon ones and especially nuclear power, is that there has to be a decade-long perspective. The idea that we can press a button and then open a nuclear power station the following year is plainly nonsense. Remarkably, in 2003 an energy review by the then Government concluded that nuclear power did not have a role, although by 2007-08 they decided that it did—the policy was all over the place. We know that the current Government received a pretty ropey inheritance across the board from the previous Administration, but the situation regarding energy generation is truly challenging and something we must think about. Despite the fact that our inheritance from the previous Government was so bad, in future we will need cross-party agreement on nuclear power. There is a desperate need for a large number of nuclear reactors.

Photo of Jim Dobbin Jim Dobbin Labour, Heywood and Middleton

As an Opposition Member who has a 27-turbine wind farm in his constituency, I understand and accept the need for nuclear energy to fulfil the capacity that the nation will require in the future. I agree with the hon. Gentleman and let him know that some Opposition Members do support nuclear energy.

Photo of Phillip Lee Phillip Lee Conservative, Bracknell

If I gave the impression that all Opposition Members are to blame, I apologise. When trying to address fuel poverty, energy generation is clearly significant. We are entertaining the idea of paying a significant strike price to EDF for nuclear power stations, and I encourage all Ministers engaged in those negotiations not to pay that but to step back, burn some gas and buy us some time, in order to get it right and so that families up and down the country can afford fuel to heat their homes.

Let me return to social housing and the drive towards energy efficiency, which I am sure the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley agrees with. I attended part of the Opposition day debate last Wednesday, and John Robertson, who sits with me on the Energy and Climate Change Committee, made a valid point about the quality of some social housing flats in his constituency, and how difficult it is to insulate them and introduce the energy-efficient measures that we would like to see in all homes up and down the country. We may have to reflect on such matters when considering how we build social housing in the future, as well as on the amount of social housing that needs to be built.

Our inheritance of housing stock from over the past 30, 40, 50 or 60 years—I am not blaming either side of the House for this—is not up to scratch. If we are to reduce our need for foreign energy imports, and reduce our carbon footprint in the medium to longer term, our housing stock and the quality of our buildings must be improved. That may require significant investment from the private and, I suspect, the public sectors, to arrive at a point where all in this country have energy-efficient homes.

In conclusion, I believe there is some merit in the measures included in this rather extensive Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley.

I support him in that and believe in anything that supports families and keeps them together. Even where there has been divorce, families can still retain some cohesion. We see children from broken homes manifested up and down the country—how many times do we see such cases on our screens on the Jeremy Kyle show and so on?—and children are growing up in environments that have no male or senior family role models. Anything we can do to alleviate or improve that situation gets my support.

Finally, on energy and fuel poverty, I say again that we need to redefine what poverty is in this country. If we do not, how on earth can we set about eradicating any problems that may still exist in 21st-century Britain?

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood Conservative, Bournemouth East 12:24 pm, 26th October 2012

It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Dr Lee, who spoke with such passion and expertise about the various aspects of this wide-ranging Bill. He is perfectly placed to discuss these matters as he sits on the Energy and Climate Change Committee and is also a doctor.

I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in this debate, and I congratulate John Hemming on his success in the ballot. He has introduced a wide-ranging set of ideas—perhaps too many for one Bill, but I will come back to that point. Clearly, he has shown enormous dedication, expertise and effort in preparing this Bill and introducing it today. It reflects an understanding of, and a passion for, a subject that is important to him, and should be important to all hon. Members. Indeed, I am sorry that the Opposition have only managed to conjure up a single offering to the debate, other than a brief intervention from an Opposition Whip. Perhaps now that we are coming to the end of the debate, Opposition Members will rush in to try to make a final contribution. On the other hand, perhaps the lack will be made up for by the shadow Minister’s comments. We certainly look forward to them.

The issues of families in courts and the protection of children in that arena are ones that we all face. We see this through the work of our local authorities, which have to deal with it every day, and in dealing with the families, individuals and children in constituency cases when they are unfortunately forced to deal with the family justice system. I have two particular cases that are still not concluded. One is a divorced father who is seeking access to his child but has been denied the opportunity to develop that relationship. His relationship with his wife has fallen apart, but that should not mean that the child grows up without being aware of who his father is. It has taken far too long for the law courts to recognise his legal right to see his child. I am not in a position to say whether the decision is right or wrong, or how much time he should have with his child, but the process of making the decision must be expedited. We must be able to come to a judgment far faster, so that the stress caused is minimised.

The second issue that has come to my attention—I am sure other hon. Members have bumped into it too—is the time it takes for children to be adopted, once it is clear that they can be adopted. The length of time and bureaucracy involved causes increased stress

for the birth parents, for the parents who wish to adopt and, especially, for the child. Ultimately, it is the child we need to think of in this. In one particular case some years ago, I was involved in providing witness statements on the credibility of one of a couple wishing to adopt. It took more than two years to complete the process, and that is too long to spend making an assessment of whether people are of good standing and conduct and able to take on a child. I know that the Prime Minister has spoken with passion about this issue, and I hope that the Government will address it in the Bills that will deal with these issues in January.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell, who is unfortunately no longer in his place—I understand that he is poorly—mentioned “The Waltons”. Much as it is amusing to remember that black and white series, it had some powerful messages that we can recognise today. It had three generations living under one roof and showed how they dealt with day-to-day problems. While my hon. Friend’s comment may have been a flippant attempt to illustrate some of the challenges that we face today, it reminded me of a discussion I had on Radio Solent this week about war veterans and national service veterans in which grandparents said they did not feel they had the respect of the younger generation. The discussion related specifically to their contribution during the war and after and to the place of grandparents in society, communities and families today. That role, it would be fair to say, has changed over the past three or four generations since the time of the Waltons.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley mentioned the influence of grandparents, access to them and their role in providing stability during unstable periods of life, whether during divorce, resettlement, adoption and so forth. The role of grandparents is fundamental to a more palatable answer to looking after children’s needs. Speaking on Radio Solent, these veterans raised concerns that today’s generation did not look up to them in the same way that perhaps my generation or my parent’s generation did. That shows that the role of the elderly—the seniors, if you like—has changed. Perhaps the distractions of growing up today—television, internet, mobile phones and so forth—and the fact that we live such diverse lifestyles and much further from families and grandparents has challenged the contribution that grandparents make. They simply do not have the same amount of access as they did in yesteryear.

That needs to be revisited. We, as a Parliament, a country and a society, need to underline those values and remind ourselves that we want citizens not only to pay taxes and obey the law but to be part of a community, whether a village society, a residents area or whatever. We need to underline the family bonds and connections that help in the good times and, most importantly, provide security and support in the bad times. That is why I endorse what the hon. Gentleman said about provision of access to grandparents. Children should not be denied access simply because one of the disputing parties decides to alienate one of the family names.

The justice system makes life-changing decisions affecting many thousands of children every year. Churchill spoke passionately about the welfare state and talked about a safety net for society catching those who fall from their place in life and require the support of the state. The trouble with that analogy, however, is that if somebody falls through the net, they will be on the wrong side and will find it difficult to get back. I prefer another analogy: those huddles of penguins in the cold, those communities of penguins sharing body heat, while others are on the outside and exposed, through no fault of their own. They are reliant on the whole community to see them through and to get them back into the centre. If we do not help them, those on the outside of our communities and society will be unable to weather the storm and move forward. That needs to be encouraged. I put my hand up: the Conservatives, in particular, need to emphasise that message more than those on any other side. I am glad to say that the Government are trying to do that.

As I said, the decisions are taking too long, because of unnecessary bureaucracy, which is leading to a lack of trust in the system, increased stress and—let us say it—a waste of taxpayers’ money, which needs to be spent wisely, particularly in these difficult times.

I certainly welcome the spirit of the Bill and what the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley is trying to achieve. I would, however, question the strategy and tactics that he has adopted. He acknowledged that the Bill was busy, and he covered an enormous amount of background, which was given licence but has now been cut down by Madam Deputy Speaker as we wandered away talking about anything from wind farms to child protection orders and all sorts of other aspects that are perhaps related to this enormous Bill. The hon. Gentleman seemed to say, “Fine, there is a lot there, but if needs be, we can drops things in Committee.” He also recognised, however, that the Government are doing a number of things in various areas.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood Conservative, Bournemouth East

The hon. Gentleman shakes his head. I will happily accept his interventions after I have finished my point. In my interventions on him, I alluded to a number of areas where the Government are taking initiatives forward. Most specifically—I hope the Minister will clarify the point when he concludes the debate—legislation is expected in January, which will cover many of the areas that the hon. Gentleman has raised.

Photo of John Hemming John Hemming Liberal Democrat, Birmingham, Yardley

I did not check the draft legislation for the family justice review because I assumed it covered only the family justice review, with which I disagree. In fact, it does cover that and I have now reviewed it. First, I do not think it fixes the problems; and, secondly, I think it creates even worse problems in certain respects. It is obviously always possible to introduce a Bill and I realise that some elements could be introduced later. My argument is simply that on certain urgent issues, the Bill will allow us to start solving some problems rather than just kicking them down the track.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood Conservative, Bournemouth East

I am grateful for that intervention, and I think everyone would agree with his last comment, in that the Bill provides an important opportunity to debate these issues. Not all the private Members’ Bills that we debate on Fridays make it on to the legislative book, but they allow individual Back Benchers to share new ideas, test where the Government are in respect of them at the time and ensure that the public are made aware that we are debating the issues. Subsequently, the

public can enter into the debate and comment. In that, the hon. Gentleman has certainly succeeded. We await the Minister’s comments—we are all salivating for them—before we find out exactly where we are from a Government perspective.

Dare I say it, there must be some sort of agreement between us and Opposition Members. My hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell made the point well—that there should be cross-party agreement on the messages we are sending out and, indeed, to some extent, on the legislation itself. I congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley, and I do not want to detract from the mammoth amount of work he has done, which needs to be acknowledged. Today’s debate is a healthy step forward, but I would like to know more about where the Government sit on a number of the issues. It is important to clarify Government thinking.

In an earlier intervention, I specifically mentioned the family justice review. This is the big piece of work being done by the Government. The foreword is written by my right hon. and learned Friend Mr Clarke, and the Secretary of State for Education. The Government responded to 130 recommendations from the family justice review, which was published in November 2011. It sets out a number of reforms to public and private family law, as well as reforms to the structures and governance of the family justice system. The Government response, which I have in my hand, was produced in February 2012.

I shall not go through all 130 responses, but I would like to share my view of three of them, if I may. The first is on page 28. It states:

“Judges and magistrates should be enabled and encouraged to specialise in family matters.”

The Government’s response is:

“The Government agrees with the Review’s analysis that enabling and encouraging specialisation in family matters will improve judicial continuity and create a more experienced family judiciary. The President of the Family Division has said that he favours a more specialist bench and that consideration should be given to the merits of setting a minimum sitting requirement for family ticketed judiciary.”

That sets out a direction of travel in relation to the time taken by these processes.

The next recommendation states:

“A single family court, with a single point of entry, should replace the current three tiers of court. All levels of family judiciary (including magistrates) should sit in the family court and work should be allocated according to case complexity.”

The Government’s response is:

“The Government agrees with the Review on the benefits of clarifying and simplifying the family courts, and making their operation more transparent, by establishing a single Family Court for England and Wales.”

If I may test your patience, Madam Deputy Speaker, I shall give one more example. The recommendation states:

“There should be flexibility for legal advisers to conduct work to support judges across the family court.”

The Government’s response is:

“The Government agrees that there is scope for legal advisers, who currently work only in the magistrates’ courts, to take on some of the judiciary’s quasi-administrative functions across the whole of the Family Court once it is established.”

I have quoted just three of the 190 recommendations in the family justice review, but those who read the whole document will see that the Government accepted the majority of them. That is a very positive result, but it has yet to be turned into legislation, which is, of course, the next step.

Part 3 deals not with court procedures but with a related but separate subject, namely energy and fuel poverty. As I made clear in an intervention earlier, there is a connection between the amount of energy that we create, where we get that energy from, how we use it, and how much we charge the nation for that process. I agree with what my hon. Friends have said today. Until we make those big decisions about new nuclear build, it will be very difficult for us to ensure that there is security of supply, and without security of supply we shall not be able to control the costs of the power that we generate. We shall have to import more energy, in which event we shall be governed by prices that are fixed outside this country. The consequences of that will affect fuel poverty; indeed, they will affect us all. That is why the Prime Minister announced the week before last that the tariffs would be looked at. I am pleased to see a smile of approval on the face of Mr Slaughter.

The tariffs need to be set in a certain way. First, they must be made far simpler, so that all users can recognise the tariff that they are on if they want to switch. Secondly, people must be encouraged to be on the lowest tariff. The present system is very confusing. I believe that there are 124 tariffs across all the energy boards, and that is far too complicated.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Shadow Minister (Justice)

We have gone from “will be” to “might be” to “could be” to “will be encouraged to be”, and now the tariffs are to be “looked at”. Does that represent another step back from the Prime Minister’s position of two weeks ago?

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood Conservative, Bournemouth East

I can use the first words quoted by the hon. Gentleman: the words “will be”. The Government and the Prime Minister are absolutely firm about their intent. I can write the hon. Gentleman a letter and include those words so that the position is unequivocal.

It is clear that people are being obliged to pay far too much for their energy, and that the process is far too complicated and needs to be simplified. The hon. Gentleman quibbles about the words used by the Prime Minister, but, dare I say it, his Government had 13 years in which to gain control of energy policy and develop an energy strategy. They did very little about it, and we are now having to deal with the consequences. Unbelievably, a third of our coal requirements are met by Russia, which is a bizarre state of affairs in a nation that ought to be able to generate its own power. The important aspect is that we keep the cost of energy and its generation down, which will have a knock-on consequence for all users, including the most vulnerable.

The Bill deals with the building regulations for social housing. It desires a reduction in fuel use, which would mean that fuel bills would be lower. That would be a positive step forward, and the proposal makes sense. However, it ignores the fact that building regulations have changed and are changing. An awful lot of powers are bestowed on local authorities to make these very decisions, rather than to have them made nationally. There is a commitment to introduce a zero-carbon requirement for all new homes built after 2016. [Interruption.] I am glad that the hon. Member for

Birmingham, Yardley has come back into the Chamber, because he may wish to comment on this. The Bill would require that new dwellings comply with the level 6 standard—a very high standard. He may be aware that the Government’s standard is level 3. What is the difference between the two? Level three is deemed as providing the necessary insulation that will save on fuel costs, whereas levels 4, 5 and 6 take us into the bells and whistles. Those levels dramatically increase the cost of the build by about £30,000.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood Conservative, Bournemouth East

That is a wonderful line, but if this reaches Committee, perhaps its members would recognise that level 6 includes things such as rainwater harvesting. That is why I disagree with the provision. Rainwater harvesting may be something that an individual would like, and we would all aspire to use rainwater sensibly as it comes off the roof, but the scale of the social housing problem that we face in each of our constituencies—the shortage has been mentioned time and again in this House—means that promoting level 6 would make things unworkable. So the hon. Gentleman may be wise to amend his Bill in Committee. As I say, social housing is already obliged to comply with level 3, and local councils can demand, for example, where a new housing estate is being built, an increase to level 4, 5 or 6. Councils can impose that as part of the planning application process, but that is done in the town hall, not from here.

In conclusion, the family justice system continues to require reform to reduce delays, and to improve support for families and, specifically, for children. Every two months of delay represents 1% of a young child’s childhood, yet the average case now takes 55 weeks to complete. There is certainly still work to be done, but a lot of homework has been done on looking at these issues: the Munro review’s recommendations on child protection; Martin Narey’s work on adoption, legal aid and civil justice reforms; the family justice review, which I have referred to on a number of occasions; the Government’s response to that review; and now the ideas contained in this Bill. The coalition Government have done an awful lot of homework, but it is now time to legislate, and I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Shadow Minister (Justice) 12:48 pm, 26th October 2012

We have had a wide-ranging debate on a wide-ranging Bill, and I hope that my comments live up to the expectations raised by Mr Ellwood on all these issues, on which I can show off my expertise.

I pay genuine tribute to John Hemming, who has been contentious sometimes and used colourful language on this issue—not today, because he has been on his best behaviour, in trying to get Government support. However, no one can doubt his passion or, indeed, his knowledge, as he has ably demonstrated on all the issues in this detailed and wide-ranging Bill.

As Philip Davies pointed out some hours ago, it is a heterogeneous Bill—it has many elements—and it shows off that detail, but the danger, as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley has realised, is that although some parts of it might please some people, it is unlikely that all of it pleases everyone. I therefore note his plea to the Government in particular that they could fillet it if only they would let it go to Committee. I suspect that my response on behalf of the Opposition will be similar—we like some parts of the Bill very much; we are ambivalent about other parts; and we have doubts about some parts—but if it does get to Committee, we will certainly consider it constructively and seek to amend the parts that we do not like.

I will say a little, perhaps not so much as the hon. Gentleman did, about the Bill’s detail. It brings to the fore some of the overarching—one might say, eternal—themes in the justice system, the first of which is openness. The word “transparency” appears in the short title. Openness will be a contentious issue on the Floor of the House this autumn, when the Justice and Security Bill arrives and we will see what the Liberal Democrats do in relation to that matter.

Openness in the family courts is a difficult issue which requires a balance between what should always be the presupposition in English courts—that matters should be transparent, that the public should have admittance and that matters should be publicly available—and, obviously, the protection of children in particular and of sensitive and personal matters. I am not persuaded that some of the Bill’s provisions contain sufficient safeguards to prevent matters from becoming public which, perhaps, should not become public. I shall say a little more about that and talk about some of the individual clauses.

The second theme is equality of arms. There is an inference in everything that the hon. Gentleman has said about the Bill that there is an imbalance of power between the family on the one hand and the local authority on the other hand. To some extent, that is common sense. There is a difference in resources always. The local authority sometimes plays a dual role. Although it might be a party in proceedings, it has been judge, as well as a party, in its previous dealings with the family.

What concerns me particularly with the legal aid brief for the Opposition are the changes in the family law that are taking place as a consequence of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012—the LASPO Act—and the fact that although legal aid is protected for public law, there are such swingeing cuts in legal aid for family law that the availability of family lawyers, representation and firms that have such expertise is threatened. That is a part of the de-professionalisation of the courts that the Government are overseeing in many different aspects. They say that that can be replaced with mediation in some instances. They say or at least imply that many cases can be conducted by litigants in person.

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman had regard to those matters in proposing the Bill. His solution appears to be that untrained people—McKenzie friends—or some form of non-professional advocacy and support can in some ways replace the help and assistance that the legal profession can provide.

Photo of John Hemming John Hemming Liberal Democrat, Birmingham, Yardley

The idea is to have someone there to provide people with psychological support. Everyone else is not associated with them. They may have solicitors there as well. For instance, the mother of a 17 or 18-year-old young mother could be there, or an embassy representative could be there for foreign citizens.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Shadow Minister (Justice)

I see the hon. Gentleman’s point, and no one would disagree that it might be important to have someone to give emotional support to litigants in a time of great stress—most litigation is a time of great stress, but particularly family litigation. I understand the examples he gives, but he does not deal with the problem that occurs in many cases, namely the inequality and imbalance of arms in private family law, let alone in public family law. That problem is not addressed in the Bill.

The third theme is costs. I noticed with interest clause 8(3), on the risk of costs in judicial review proceedings. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that, as a consequence of part 2 of the 2012 Act, no win, no fee agreements will not be available in all cases—they will not be available in judicial review, and nor will qualified one-way cost-shifting. It is therefore very likely that judicial review will be restricted for persons who do not qualify for legal aid. I suggest he looks at draft regulations on the future provision of legal aid, which suggest that all other remedies will need to be exhausted before legal aid is available in public law proceedings in judicial review cases. The Minister is looking up and showing some interest—

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Shadow Minister (Justice)

Perhaps it was just an involuntary reaction. The Minister might want to consider that point, because those regulations are likely to be debated in Committee within the next few weeks. If we are to have a wholesale restriction not only on those who do not qualify for legal aid, but on those who do, the availability of public law remedies will be severely curtailed. In that respect, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley could have gone some way further on how litigants in family proceedings—we are talking about family proceedings, but it will apply to proceedings more widely—could ensure that they can get access to justice and some protection in costs, particularly when they are up against public authorities.

On the detail of the Bill, the points in part 1 are well made, but I somewhat doubt that the hon. Gentleman’s remedies, which in most cases are statutory requirements on the courts and the fettering of the discretion of the courts, are the right way to proceed. We probably disagree on the family justice review. David Norgrove’s review, which was commissioned under the previous Government but published by and responded to by this Government, is an impressive piece of work. On family group conferences, which is dealt with in clause 1, the review said that

“the benefits of family group conferences should be more widely recognised and their use should be considered before proceedings”.

Separately, the family justice review found that both children and adults are “confused” about the family justice system—a point the hon. Gentleman made well. He and I would agree that family group conferences have an important role, and perhaps a bigger role, to play, but whether there should be a requirement is another matter.

On clause 2, more was said about grandparents than about any other single issue. I suspect there will be very little dissent from any party from the point that the role

of grandparents in both contact and proceedings can be important. However, the family justice review and the Government’s response say that the leave requirement should remain, because it acts as an important safeguard for children and their families, and that that is consistent with the principle that the court’s paramount consideration must be the welfare of the child.

The Government said that they were

“committed to ensuring that children have meaningful relationships with family members who are important to them”, including grandparents. That really moves us on to the issue of sheer parenting, and the balance between the rights of family members and the rights of the child. The hon. Gentleman will be well aware of what the final report of the family justice review said on that:

“the core principle of the paramountcy of the welfare of the child is sufficient and…to insert any additional statements brings with it unnecessary risk for little gain.”

That is a point on which the Government disagreed, but with which we find ourselves broadly in sympathy.

Clause 2 raises the issue of academic research. All that I would say on that—this point was raised by other hon. Members—is that there is a will in the courts to move away from a proliferation of expert reports. The hon. Gentleman says that those will not necessarily be reports given in evidence; I am therefore not entirely sure what the role of additional experts will be, or, if the reports are not given in evidence, how the provenance and authority of experts’ opinions will be judged. I agree with the point made by, I think, Stephen Barclay, who said that we would be better employed in ensuring that a single expert gave good advice than in looking to second-guess or challenge that advice in a variety of perhaps only semi-formal ways.

Photo of John Hemming John Hemming Liberal Democrat, Birmingham, Yardley

Will the hon. Gentleman say how we can ensure that an expert is giving good advice without having peer review at some stage?

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Shadow Minister (Justice)

That is a problem that the courts have to tackle in not just family proceedings but in all types of proceedings. One has to look at the qualifications, experience, expertise and record of experts who come before the courts. In my time in practice, there was a strong trend away from everybody coming along with their own expert—as soon as there are two experts, there are three opinions, if not four or five—and towards trying to focus on a single expert, either agreed by both sides or independent, depending on the nature of proceedings, on whom the court would rely. Moving away from that trend would produce a lot of additional costs and confusion.

The principle behind clause 3 is that for children in care, particularly when it comes to hearing their voices and their serious complaints—this, of course, is a matter of contemporary public concern—there must be an independent voice. The issue really is whether the independent reviewing officers are sufficient. That was considered back in 1989 when the Children Act was introduced. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley doubts that they are sufficient. I note that the opinion of the family justice review is that, provided that independent reviewing officers are sufficiently independent, it is appropriate that they should be employed by the local authority. There is a danger of setting up entirely new parallel processes, public bodies and authorities, and quangos to oversee them. Given his criticism of many of the existing quangos and satellite bodies surrounding the courts, I urge caution in setting up additional ones.

On clause 4, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that good practice should be that where adoption without consent occurs, clear reasons are given. It is important that when traumatic decisions of that kind are taken, they are fully explained. The Court of Appeal has stressed that that should be done. Putting requirements on the courts to do the same thing in all cases, and fettering and removing judicial discretion, is a habit that the House gets into too often.

To sum up my view on part 1 of the Bill, it is spot-on in identifying issues, but it may, perhaps intentionally, be looking to apply slightly over-prescriptive remedies to achieve the hon. Gentleman’s aims. The hon. Gentleman will find me more sympathetic on part 2, where many of his proposals are sensible and identify matters long overdue for consideration. In clause 7 there is no definition of “wrongdoing”, which may be an omission. I am sure he will say that that is a point for Committee, but it is a rather broad term. In the light of every current event from Hillsborough to Savile, the principle of increasing the ability to and facility for whistleblowing and the ability of responsible authority, including Members of the House, to take those matters up is right.

On the subject of scandalising the court, the hon. Gentleman will not be surprised that in the light of what happened to my right hon. Friend Mr Hain, I think he is right about that, but I think I am right in saying that the Government have given undertakings that they will re-examine that during the passage of the Crime and Courts Bill through the House of Lords.

As I said, the hon. Gentleman does not go quite far enough in what he says about costs and judicial review. I am sympathetic to what he says in relation to clauses 9 and 11. Lawyers have a habit of relating anecdotes about their own practice, which is often not broad enough to be able to draw general conclusions from, but I dealt with many cases involving the Official Solicitor and the issue of capacity, and often came to the same conclusion as the hon. Gentleman—that there is insufficient scrutiny of those bodies. It is taken for granted that when a decision is made that the Official Solicitor should be involved or the matter of capacity needs to be dealt with, one moves on and deals with the situation as it is, without sometimes questioning whether those decisions have been properly made or whether those bodies are conducting themselves as well as they could.

I have sympathy also with what the hon. Gentleman says about obtaining transcripts, but his solution is not the correct one. The idea of people going into proceedings with their own recording devices, producing their own transcripts, no doubt in good faith, and those having to be subject to the same rules of confidentiality and presumably to the rules of reporting, is not practical. However, he presents a problem that needs to be looked at—the cost, the ease and the speed of obtaining transcripts of proceedings.

On part 3, I shall be brief. Unlike the prisons Minister, I am not an expert on passive flue gas technology, so I shall just make one or two general comments. The only time today that we got into a bit of party ruckus was on fuel poverty. For the record, it was an issue that the

Labour Government took extremely seriously from the time that they introduced winter fuel payments onwards, and on which a great deal was done. I agree with the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley and I disagree with what Dr Lee said. Fuel poverty is still a serious problem and it should not be a serious problem in the 21st century. Energy pricing and the role of energy companies are matters on which the Leader of the Opposition has taken the lead.

The Prime Minister may have been panicked into a response when he said that everybody was going to be on the lowest tariff, but I hope that when he refines his ideas, we will see some positive movement towards ending profiteering by the cartel of energy companies, and ensuring that, in particular, those on low incomes and those who are vulnerable by reason of age or disability have the funds to heat their properties and that those properties are as weather-tight as possible. In that broad sense, I welcome the fact that he managed somehow to slide those issues into the Bill.

Before concluding my remarks, I want to mention one or two of the other contributions we heard, because they were all interesting. My hon. Friend Jim Dobbin used his local knowledge and his expertise to talk about the terrible events in Rochdale, which perhaps were the most serious child welfare cases that have occurred recently.

Many hon. Members spoke from experience about cases in their constituencies. The hon. Member for North East Cambridgeshire and several others mentioned the important role of grandparents, which I think we all agree on, although I certainly agree with the comments about the paramountcy of the welfare of the child and the need to avoid the proliferation of experts.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley had more than ample support from his friend and neighbour Lorely Burt on most parts of the Bill, but did not perhaps enjoy the same level of support from the hon. Member for Bracknell, who treated us to an interesting televisual spectacle. I do not think that he was entirely frank with the House when he said the he had watched only one episode ofThe Waltons” during a spare hour, because he went on to mention several other episodes and showed a rather prurient and extensive knowledge of the series, which I was a little worried about. However, it seems the only other programme he watches is “Jeremy Kyle”, so perhaps he should stick with “The Waltons”. Madam Deputy Speaker pulled him up at that point—when he started to wax lyrical about how we should ban benefits and unban handguns, it was felt that he was straying somewhat from the themes of the debate.

I am afraid that I do not recognise the pattern the hon. Member for Bracknell described of people on benefits living in luxury and poverty no longer existing in the way it had years ago, and I do not think other hon. Members, including those on the Conservative Benches, do either. If we have made significant improvements in relation to fuel poverty, it is thanks to previous Governments, including the previous Labour Government, and the consensus that existed in this country about the safety net and the welfare state.

However, it is incontrovertibly true that more needs to be done, and I am sure that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley would agree, drawing on the experience from his own constituency, that it is shameful to see families relying on food banks and, as I encountered in the past couple of days, having to pawn their possession and sell their furniture simply to make ends meet. In particular, it is shameful that, because of the extraordinary rises in energy prices, elderly people still have to decide which of the basic things in life, including warmth, they are able to provide themselves with over the winter. For that reason, I am pleased that he mentioned fuel poverty along with the many justice and family law issues he raised today.

Mr Ellwood treated us to an account of his appearances on Radio Solent and the collectivist ideal of penguins. We were getting close to the time the Government had set for the debate to end, if I may put it that way—we always know when we are getting to the thin end of a debate. We of course then had still to hear from myself and the Minister. I will therefore take the hint and hand over to the Minister. I look forward to his comments with enthusiasm and to hearing which parts of the Bill the Government will take through because, whether or not they wish the Bill to proceed to Committee, I am sure that there are ideas and principles in it that should find their way on to the statute book. Whatever the Bill’s short-term future, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley has raised a number of serious and important points.

Photo of Jeremy Wright Jeremy Wright The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice 1:14 pm, 26th October 2012

It is a great pleasure to respond to what Mr Slaughter rightly described as a wide-ranging debate. Any debate that gets us from thermodynamics to Jeremy Kyle by way ofThe Waltons” cannot really be described in any other way. I am very grateful, too, for the contributions made by hon. Members, including the hon. Gentleman, Jim Dobbin and my hon. Friends the Members for North East Cambridgeshire (Stephen Barclay), for Solihull (Lorely Burt), for Bracknell (Dr Lee) and for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), all of whom spoke a good deal of common sense. They have had the opportunity to do so because of this Bill, presented by my hon. Friend John Hemming. I again agree with the hon. Member for Hammersmith that we should pay tribute to my hon. Friend, whose commitment and experience, certainly in the area of family justice, are hard to beat. He has long demonstrated a real interest in improving the lives of the most vulnerable children in this country. I hope all of us have addressed this debate in a manner in keeping with that.

I have to disappoint my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley, however, because I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell that we should not create too much legislation, especially where there is no need to do so. If we were operating in a vacuum—with the Government taking no interest in the reform of the family justice system, putting forward no proposals, commissioning no research—my hon. Friend’s arguments would have more force, but that is not the case. As he knows, a substantial amount of effort has been put into reviewing the family justice system, and I am disappointed to learn that he is not a supporter of that. He knows that, with cross-party support, a review panel independently chaired by David Norgrove was set up in 2010 to look at all aspects of the family justice system, from court decisions on taking children into care through to disputes over children when parents divorce. The panel gathered evidence from hundreds of people and groups with a personal and professional interest, and conducted two public consultations. I do not know whether my hon. Friend contributed to that, but many people did. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East pointed out to us, the final report of the family justice review was published in November 2011, with over 130 recommendations to improve the way public and private law disputes are dealt with and to reform the structures and governance of the family justice system.

The Government published their response in February 2012. The Government accepted that the family justice system was too often characterised by delay, expense, bureaucracy and lack of trust—many of the issues that my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley and others mentioned today. My hon. Friend is right, and those who have been involved in the review are right, that the public have the right to expect much more. The Government accepted the majority of the panel’s recommendations, including putting children at the heart of the process, creating a single family court to make the system more effective and easier to navigate, reducing unnecessary delays in care proceedings and providing for expert evidence to be commissioned only where necessary, and establishing a family justice board to drive improvements in the system and improve management information. I would hope that my hon. Friend would support those provisions.

A programme of reform addressing the findings is already under way, and it is of vital importance. I am pleased to say that, despite what my hon. Friend said, the reforms were welcomed by users and professionals alike, and there is now a sense that all the key stakeholders—possibly excluding my hon. Friend—from Government to the judiciary and from social workers to lawyers, are absolutely committed to working together to achieve the changes that the system so badly needs.

I know that my hon. Friend has not had an opportunity to consider fully the draft legislation that is now receiving pre-legislative review, but I hope very much that he will take the trouble to look at it carefully, because I imagine that he will see a great deal that he can agree with. Because that material is being presented for pre-legislative review, and also because the matter is being investigated by the Justice Committee, there will be opportunities for him and others to influence the way in which the Government’s thinking develops. If the Bill then comes before the House, as I hope it will early next year, there will be opportunities for my hon. Friend and others to influence things at that stage. It is in that environment that I hope my hon. Friend will take the view that, worth while though many of the contents of the Bill are, and valuable though many of his ideas are, he will be prepared to withdraw it and wait until that legislation comes forward, and improve it if he believes that is necessary.

The Association of Directors of Children’s Services has come in for some harsh words in the course of the debate, and people have wondered why it does not support my hon. Friend’s Bill. It has made it very clear that it does not support the Bill because it does support the way in which the Government are going about reforming the family justice system more broadly. Whereas I am sure that the Bill has elements that it would agree with, the association believes, as I do, that we should be doing this in a much more holistic way, by virtue of the family justice review and the legislation that we expect to follow it.

It is worth saying that the Government have already made good progress in delivering these reforms and have been working with the judiciary to create a more effective court system. As a first step, we have introduced legislation through the Crime and Courts Bill to create a single family court. Once implemented, this new court structure will allow for the more efficient and flexible deployment of judicial resources. It will also be easier to understand and to navigate for court users.

Something that has not been touched on in great detail but is worth mentioning is that a key element of the draft legislation on family justice is the proposal to introduce a 26-week time limit for care proceedings. That is supported by a number of other reforms, including those on experts, to which I will return. The expectation is that it will be possible to complete cases sooner than 26 weeks while retaining the flexibility to extend complex cases where that is necessary to conclude the case justly. That is against the background that at the moment, the average length of time it takes to complete such a case is over a year.

It is also right to focus on the quality of submissions made to courts by local authorities; that needs improvement. In many areas, poor-quality or late submissions delay cases and lead to too great a reliance on time-consuming expert reports. The Department for Education is working closely with the sector and the Association of Directors of Children’s Services on a new programme of work to strengthen court-related skills among social workers and to ensure that evidence submitted to the courts is robust and of high quality.

There has been substantial progress in setting up new governance structures for the family justice system. The Family Justice Board has now been established, and we have appointed David Norgrove, who chaired the family justice review, as its independent chair. The board has developed a system-wide action plan that sets out the contribution that it and its partners will make to the family justice reform agenda. This represents a big step in cementing the inter-agency co-operation that will be required to achieve our reforms. The Government are extremely encouraged by the progress that has been made in setting up local family justice boards, many of which are now up and running. That is testimony to the commitment and energy that exists to bring forward the improvements that we all agree the system so badly needs. The boards bring together individuals from agencies from across the system working together to provide locally tailored, system-wide solutions.

It is the Government’s view that a number of the proposals in the Bill are already addressed in the reform programme that I have outlined via legislation, guidance or best practice, while others are under consideration or in draft legislation as part of the wide-spread changes to the family justice system, or subject to consultation. I say again that the Government should not legislate on matters where legislation covering the issues already exists or non-legislative solutions are available to address the problems. We all agree that the child’s safety and welfare must come first, and we must encourage committed professionals to follow that line.

The Bill does share many of the high-level goals we are seeking to attain, but introducing them through this route, at this point in time, has the potential to confuse and complicate an already ambitious reform agenda that has been arrived at following extensive and intensive dialogue with the key stakeholders and users over the past two years. Adding complexity at this point not only risks our losing the broad consensus that has been established but could ultimately jeopardise successful implementation as resources become stretched in adopting a less coherent and focused reform agenda. Clearly, however well intentioned—I accept, of course, that my hon. Friend’s intentions are very good indeed—such a scenario would not be of benefit to children.

Let me turn to the contents of the Bill. I hope that I will be able to set out for my hon. Friend why the Government in part accept the intentions that he has set out, but in other parts do not accept that the methods he has chosen will be effective. Let me start at the beginning, with clause 1. My hon. Friend’s Bill seeks to make the use of family group conferences mandatory, subject to limited exceptions. The Government fully support the use of family group conferences where they are appropriate. Their use was strongly endorsed by the family justice review, and the Government have already funded the development and dissemination of a toolkit to ensure that family group conferences are used in the best possible way. In addition, the Government are currently funding the development of a framework of accreditation. The statutory guidance that accompanies the Children Act 1989 already highlights the importance of the use of family group conferences at key stages in the decision-making process for children, but they are a complement to, rather than a substitute for, other statutory meetings.

The Government’s support for family group conferences where they are appropriate could therefore not be clearer. However, we are of the view that making them compulsory would be a step too far. Family group conferences are not always suitable for all families in all circumstances. Families also have to agree to a family group conference in order for it to happen, not least to ensure a realistic prospect of a successful outcome. The toolkit to which I have referred sets out best practice in running the conferences. It also sets a clear expectation that the plans should be completed and agreed within six weeks, and that this will be agreed by the referrer as long as it addresses the issues of concern. That is what is called for in the Bill. Many of the proposals in clause 1 are therefore already covered by existing guidelines and good practice. However, although we want to encourage the use of family group conferences more widely when any decision needs to be made about a child’s future, we do not believe that legislation to make them compulsory is appropriate at this point.

My hon. Friend also raised the importance of parents having simple information to support them through the court process. Again, we agree, and various forms of guidance are currently available to assist parents involved with child protection services or entering the family justice system. In addition, a great deal of work is ongoing to improve the provision of information more generally for families before they enter the system. Parents will also continue to receive legal aid for public law cases, and work is under way to assist litigants in person in other cases. In the private law context, that includes the provision of an online hub, and telephone and face-to-face services for users, together with guidance for litigants in person and for practitioners, including the judiciary, on dealing with litigants in person.

The creation of a single family court is a key step in making the family courts easier for users to understand. Furthermore, a guiding principle of the 1989 Act is that local authorities must work in partnership with families when making any decisions about their children. The social worker has the primary responsibility to engage with family members to assess the overall capacity of the family to safeguard the child, as well as ascertaining the facts of the situation causing concern and the strengths in the family. Support is also available from other sources, such as the Family Rights Group, which receives funding from the Department for Education and produces advice sheets and free telephone and e-mail advice for parents and families involved with children’s social care about the care and protection of their children.

Clause 2 deals with proceedings in the family court. My hon. Friend’s support for the use of McKenzie friends to help parties put across their case is welcomed. The support for attendance by observers is also welcomed. Both McKenzie friends and observers are, of course, already a feature of the family courts, and courts take seriously the need of litigants to have such support. As my hon. Friend will know, McKenzie friends are already subject to rules of confidentiality regarding their work in court. The Government agree with my hon. Friend that there is a need to improve the quality of some expert reports in family proceedings, a question to which many other hon. Members have referred in this debate. We are working with the Family Justice Council to develop quality standards, on which we intend to consult later this year. Those standards will build on the existing framework of accountability set by the family procedure rules.

The family procedure rules make it clear that an expert’s overriding duty is to the court, regardless of who instructs or pays the experts. Experts are under a duty to provide an independent opinion that conforms to the best practice of their profession. In addition, experts are subject to the standards and codes set by their profession, and many are subject to statutory regulation. Imminent changes in secondary legislation and proposals for changes in primary legislation in the slightly longer term will reduce and focus the use of experts in family proceedings generally. Experts can, of course, play an important part in proceedings by providing an expert opinion about a question that is not within the skill and experience of the court. For example, an expert might be needed to determine whether the cause of an injury to a child is likely to be accidental, or to determine whether a parent is continuing to abuse illegal drugs.

Expert reports take up precious time, however. We agree with the family justice review’s conclusion that experts should be used only when they are necessary to determine a case justly, and that expert reports should not duplicate evidence available from other sources. We also agree that the court should ensure that such evidence is properly focused on the key questions that the court needs to have answered. Changes to the family procedure rules to bring that into effect are under consideration, and we hope to implement them early next year.

I understand that my hon. Friend is keen for researchers to have access to court records, including experts’ reports. Provisions are already in place in the family procedure rules—in practice direction 12G, should he wish to check—that enable any person lawfully in receipt of information relating to children proceedings to pass that information to researchers conducting an approved research project, including expert evidence.

However, as Members will be aware, the issue of how to open up the family courts further, and how to balance access with proper controls to prevent the disclosure of sensitive information that might be harmful to parties in the proceedings if released, remains a difficult and controversial issue which merits more serious consideration in the round. In this context, I draw my hon. Friend’s attention to the Family Justice Board, whose remit includes general improvements to the family justice system. It might well be profitable for him to have conversations with the board on how those matters could be taken forward.

Turning to the interests of grandparents and other members of a child’s family, let me start by reassuring my hon. Friend and others who have spoken today that the Government recognise that grandparents and other relatives can play an important role in children’s lives, and that those relationships are important. Grandparents and other relatives provide support for families in many different ways, including child care, support when things are difficult, and full-time care of the child.

The 1989 Act already requires local authorities to seek to place looked-after children with their wider family first if it is not possible for them to return to their birth family. The revised statutory guidance to the Act requires local authorities to demonstrate that they have considered family members and friends as potential carers at each stage of the decision-making process, before and during proceedings, and the family group conferences that we have already mentioned are an important way of involving family members.

The child and any person with parental responsibility for the child are party to proceedings. The court may at any time direct that any person be made a party to the proceedings, and that can include grandparents, family or friends. The local authority does not have a duty to assess informal family and friends care arrangements, unless it appears to the authority that services might be necessary to safeguard or promote the welfare of a child. In such circumstances, the framework for the assessment of children in need and their families provides a suitable model by which local authorities can satisfy themselves that the proposed carers have the capacity to meet the child’s needs.

Section 22C of the 1989 Act requires consideration to be given to the most appropriate placement that will safeguard and promote the child’s welfare. When return home to a birth parent is not possible, consideration must be given to placement with a relative or other connected person who is approved as a foster carer. When the arrangements involve private fostering arrangements, the carer is not approved as a local authority foster carer. However, the private fostering arrangement may be prohibited if assessed by the local authority as unsuitable.

For those family and friends carers involved when the child is looked after—and when a child is the subject of care proceedings—the regulatory framework sets out the required processes to be followed when the most appropriate placement for a looked-after child is with a connected person. When an immediate placement for a looked-after child with a relative or other connected person is required, and it is not possible to fulfil the requirements of the full approval process, the 2010 regulations set out the arrangements for the temporary approval of a connected person, to ensure that the child does not have to be placed with a stranger in the meantime.

The Department for Education’s consultation on a proposed redraft of the “Working Together” package, including new statutory guidance on serious case reviews and statutory guidance on undertaking assessments, concluded on 4 September. As part of the consultation, we sought views on replacing nationally prescribed timetables for assessment with local frameworks. The assessment process for individual children and families should be timely, transparent and proportionate to their needs. Social workers will determine what is timely and proportionate by using their knowledge, expertise and judgment. We are currently analysing the responses and the final guidance on assessment will be published by the end of the year.

On contact for grandparents, in cases where parents separate, no individual has an automatic right to any particular level or type of contact with the child. Such arrangements, if they cannot be resolved by the family members concerned, are referred to courts for a decision. Grandparents and other relatives may apply for contact through the courts, whose decision will take into account all the circumstances of each individual case, although in certain circumstances the permission of the court may be required. The Children Act is clear that the welfare of the child must be the court’s paramount consideration in such decisions. It will make a contact order if it decides that it is in the child’s best interests to have contact with the applicant. Any legislation that granted an automatic right to specific individuals to have contact with the child would, potentially, not be consistent with that principle.

As my hon. Friend knows, however, the Government are clear that the importance of children’s relationships with other family members should be taken into account during dispute resolution processes. Children’s relationships with family members who are important to them will, therefore, feature prominently in the creation of parenting agreements where appropriate and in the bespoke parenting programmes that will be available to support parents in reaching agreement out of court. If my hon. Friend looks again at the draft measures, which are currently subject to pre-legislative scrutiny, he will see that they propose a child arrangement order whereby many of the issues may most sensibly be addressed.

Clause 2(5) proposes to change the wording of section 22C(7)(c) of the Children Act, which requires the local authority, in determining the most appropriate placement for the child, to ensure that the placement is such that the child is provided with accommodation within the local authority’s area, unless that is not reasonably practicable. The amendment would remove the reasonable practicability test in favour of a best interests test, but section 22C(7) already places local authorities under an overarching duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of looked-after children. The section’s qualification of reasonable practicability ensures that, in a situation where the child should be placed within the local authority’s area but it is not possible to provide such accommodation—there might not, for example, be a suitable children’s home placement in the area—the child may be safely accommodated elsewhere. We cannot place an unqualified duty on local authorities in a situation where they may not be in a position to fulfil that duty.

On children in care, my hon. Friend’s concerns are reasonable and entirely understood. Putting children at the centre of the care planning process, whereby their wishes and feelings are always considered, is the underpinning principle of the Children Act.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Chair, Public Accounts Commission

Will the Minister give my hon. Friend Mr Carswell a chance to get to his Bill?

Photo of Jeremy Wright Jeremy Wright The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

I am sure that my hon. Friend, who is an assiduous parliamentarian and familiar with how things work, will accept that, if a Bill is as wide-ranging as this one and if it has taken as long to debate as this one has, it deserves a proper response, which is what it will get from me.

As I was saying, the underpinning principle of the Children Act, which is in question here, is reflected throughout the regulations and guidance on care planning and reviews. Each child is allocated an independent reviewing officer and the regulations and guidance that came into force last year strengthen further the independence of that role by clarifying that they cannot be involved with the management or resource of that case. All local authorities with children’s services responsibilities must ensure that independent advocacy services are provided for children and young people making or intending to make a complaint through the complaints procedures and the processes that are already required to be in place. We are currently exploring what more the Government might be able to do to support those processes.

Under the Children Act, local authorities also have a duty to appoint a person to be a child’s independent visitor where it appears to them to be in the child’s best interests. Decisions about whether to appoint an independent visitor should be about the needs of the child, which are determined by examining a range of factors such as the distance from home of where they are placed and whether having an independent visitor will make a positive contribution to promoting their education and health. The independent visitor’s functions are to visit, advise and befriend the child.

In relation to my hon. Friend’s proposal that looked-after children should be treated the same as other children with regard to criminal records, I simply say to him that that should be the case now. Enforcing that does not require a change in the law, but if there are difficulties, we will of course work with him to address them.

I turn to the Bill’s suggested amendments to the Adoption and Children Act 2002. It may be helpful if I set out in a little more detail the effect that clause 4 would have. It would amend section 52 of the Act, which makes it clear that the court can only dispense with the need for parental consent where it is satisfied that the parents cannot be found or lack mental capacity, or that the child’s welfare requires it. As my hon. Friend will know, a placement order authorises a local authority to place the child for adoption by prospective adopters. The effect of an adoption order is that the parental responsibility of the birth parents is extinguished, and that only the child’s adopted parents have parental responsibility. Neither a placement order nor an adoption order has the effect of putting a child in the care of a local authority.

There would be two distinct effects of clause 4. First, it would require the court to give in its written judgment a full explanation of how it reached its conclusion on each aspect of the welfare checklist. Secondly, it would place a duty on the court to consider

“whether it is possible and in the interest of the welfare of the child to place the child with one of his relatives” before making an order placing a child in the care of a local authority. I understand my hon. Friend’s underlying concerns, but I do not think it is sensible to amend the law in that way.

The clause would place a statutory duty on the court to give a fully reasoned judgment for a decision to dispense with parental consent when the court makes a placement order or adoption order. The court is, however, already under a statutory duty to consider the welfare checklist, and that duty applies to any decision of the court relating to the adoption of a child, not just to a decision to dispense with parental consent. Furthermore, the 2002 Act requires the court to do more than just consider the welfare checklist when making an order. It must consider the child’s welfare and the whole range of powers available to it under that Act and the Children Act 1989. Current legislation already requires the family proceedings court to give its reasons for decisions. In addition, domestic law already makes it clear that the judge must go through, analyse and balance each factor in the welfare checklist in order to justify his conclusions.

The clause would also place a duty on the court to consider whether it is both possible and in the interests of the welfare of the child to place him with one of his relatives before making an order placing him in the care of a local authority. However, section 52 of the 2002 Act is not about placing children in the care of a local authority. It is about parental consent for the adoption of a child. I and the Government share my hon. Friend’s central concern for the welfare of children and the need to keep them in their families wherever possible. We understand his intention in setting out his proposals, but we simply do not think that they are the best way of achieving what he wants.

I would wish to cover a number of other matters in detail, but I am conscious of the other business to be discussed today, and I would not wish to deny my hon. Friends who are in their places the opportunity to discuss it. However, I need to say one or two things about other areas that my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley has covered in the Bill.

In relation to the duties of local authorities and other bodies, it is worth pointing out that, as I said earlier, when making any decision about a looked-after child a local authority must be satisfied that it is the most appropriate way to safeguard and promote the child’s welfare. Under the 2002 Act, when the court or an adoption agency makes a decision about the adoption of a child, the child’s welfare must be the paramount consideration. Existing legislation covers a great deal of the ground that my hon. Friend wishes his Bill to cover. The Government are currently considering whether to amend the law on contact for children in care, following their recent call for views on giving greater flexibility to local authorities when making contact arrangements.

I agree with the reservations held by the hon. Member for Hammersmith about the definitions in clause 7 and the right to report wrongdoing, and a great deal of work would be required on that. The hon. Gentleman was also right when he spoke about the proposal to abolish the offence of scandalising the court, and the Government are currently considering that matter. In response to a debate in the other place during Committee stage of the Crime and Courts Bill, my noble friend Lord McNally undertook to consider the matter further in consultation with the judiciary and the devolved Administrations and return to it on Report, and that is what we will do.

The proposal by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley to publish contempt of court details would be difficult because of the impact it may have on innocent third parties. Were we to do so, the risk is that it would be possible to identify the child involved, which is obviously of concern. We must remember that cost liability in judicial reviews is an important deterrent to unmeritorious litigation. Legal aid remains available for judicial review, however, and legal aid clients have cost protection and are not usually required to pay the other side’s costs if they fail.

The law already contains provisions to deal with complaints about the Official Solicitor. I do not have time to go into those now, but I am sure that my hon. Friend can consider the matter at greater length if he wishes. On the recording of hearings, parties already receive transcripts of court hearings and, as other hon. Members have said, it is not sensible to set up a competing process. Other transcripts may be produced, and if they did not match a further layer of complexity would be required to resolve any conflict. I understand my hon. Friend’s concern, but he does not go about resolving it in the right way in the Bill.

The right to assert litigation capacity is also covered by existing law. Courts are required to investigate capacity when that issue is raised, carefully and on the available evidence, and even if there seems to be no dispute, medical evidence is invariably required as a minimum before holding that a party lacks capacity. A person interested in the protected party for whom the Official Solicitor has been appointed by the court as litigation friend, can apply to the court and seek to have the Official Solicitor discharged as litigation friend, and that person—or somebody else—appointed in their place.

I do not believe that my hon. Friend is being too radical and progressive for the Government on the ambit of reasonableness in capacity, but the measure he suggests is not necessary because it is already covered by the Mental Capacity Act 2005. Existing legislation already prioritises and protects capacity to the furthest extent that a person is able to exercise it, and without using the reasonableness of the person’s proposed decision as the criterion for capacity.

Finally let me turn in the last few minutes to energy and fuel justice. The majority of today’s debate has focused on the family justice parts of my hon. Friend’s Bill, and I hope he will forgive me if I deal with other areas in a little less time. Clause 13 introduces a strategy to achieve lower bills and a more efficient use of fuels, and my hon. Friend will be aware of what the Government are already doing in that area, led by the Department of Energy and Climate Change and the Department for Communities and Local Government. My colleagues in both Departments, and the Government as a whole, are supportive of the aims in that section of the Bill.

My hon. Friend’s proposal to ensure that all new homes comply with level 6 of the code for sustainable homes is admirable but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East said, potentially an expensive ambition. Building regulations already require high levels of energy efficiency in all new homes—socially or privately owned—and a home built to current building regulations, which were introduced only in 2010, is well insulated and much easier and cheaper to heat than a typical older house. The Government recently consulted on proposals to tighten further the carbon and energy performance of new homes in 2013, and they have committed to introducing a zero-carbon requirement for all new homes from 2016. Because of that, separate legislation to improve energy efficiency for new homes is not necessary.

Requiring level 6 of the code for all social homes would be disproportionate, and could add as much as £30,000 to the construction cost of each home. Alongside the regulations and the code, it is also worth noting that a national review of locally applicable standards for new housing is now under way to reduce the burden of red tape.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change is especially interested in the ideas in the Bill on heating. That is because we as a Government are interested in the question of how to drive the long-term changes to heating systems in millions of domestic homes. We will need to do that if we wish to reduce emissions on the scale needed to avoid damaging climate change. My hon. Friend makes an interesting suggestion about the use of building regulations, and he may know that the Department of Energy and Climate Change will publish a heat policy options paper next year. Use of regulation is one of the options that the Department’s officials are exploring, in consultation with others. The Government are, therefore, already considering policy options that will seek to increase take-up of low carbon and renewable energy in buildings.

Clause 13(2)(c) of the Bill makes specific reference to microgeneration measures having access to the green deal and financial incentives. That is something that we will look at and, in addition, we think that in a small number of cases consumers may be able to get green deal finance to help fund a part of the cost of installing renewable heating. We need to do more work over the coming months to ensure that this interaction is as smooth, as joined-up and as consumer friendly as possible. Ministers will say more about those proposals in coming months.

On fuel poverty, we have concerns, as my hon. Friend will know, about the way in which fuel poverty is being measured, and we are looking again at that measurement mechanism. He will be pleased to hear that we have already announced that next year we will publish a refreshed strategy for tackling fuel poverty—the first such strategy since 2001. So we are already undertaking the work needed to ensure that we have the right framework in place for measuring fuel poverty, which will in turn allow us to target our resources on those whom we need to help most.

My hon. Friend has put in front of us a very wide-ranging Bill, and the spirit of much of it is something that the Government entirely support. But I urge my hon. Friend to look again at the measures that are already in draft from the Government, which we believe address many of the problems that he has rightly identified. In that light, I ask him to withdraw his Bill and work with us to improve the legislation that the Government have put forward and give it his full support.

Photo of John Hemming John Hemming Liberal Democrat, Birmingham, Yardley 1:52 pm, 26th October 2012

I have not been given confidence by what the Minister has said. I do not wish to withdraw the Bill, although I do not intend to put up tellers so that the later debate has more time. As far as I am concerned, the Government are being dangerously complacent about issues such as cover-ups, and my personal support for the Government will rest on a change of attitude by them to take such matters more seriously. I accept that there are other legislative vehicles to achieve these changes, but we need action now. I do not withdraw the Bill.

Question put, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

A Division was called, but no Members being appointed Tellers for the Ayes, the Deputy Speaker declared that the Noes had it.

Question accordingly negatived.


Again yet another scandal covered up – J.saville by the people running this country.
This has been allowed to happen as the people at the top wanted it kept quiet and all those who stated they knew nothing about it should all be looked into.
From councils to the the BBC and all politicians again have all proved to us they we have overpaid retards running this country.
If anyone buys a licence now they are helping in the coverup and have done in the past.
The BBC have made the licence a Farce.

Submitted by LYNDA DAY

Another wide-ranging debate from 2009 on children and the UK care system is reproduced below. This was taken from here

[Relevant documents: The Third Report from the Children, Schools and Families Committee, HC 111, on looked-after children, and the Government response, HC 787.]

Motion made, and Question proposed,

That, for the year ending with 31 March 2010, for expenditure by the Department for Children, Schools and Families—

(1) further resources, not exceeding £32,152,966,000 be authorised for use as set out in HC 514,

(2) a further sum, not exceeding £32,181,534,000 be granted to Her Majesty out of the Consolidated Fund to meet the costs as so set out, and

(3) limits as so set out be set on appropriations in aid. —(Steve McCabe.)

Watch this

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Chair, Children, Schools and Families Committee 1:13 pm, 2nd July 2009

It is a pleasure to open this debate on the recent report of the Children, Schools and Families Committee following an inquiry that took us a long time. I should like to take the House briefly through why we decided to spend many months investigating looked-after children. We adopted the phrase “looked-after children”, but as the evidence sittings went on, we realised to our embarrassment that what we had thought was the up-to-date phrase had reverted to “children in care”. However, we all know the children about whom we are talking: those whose family situation is such that they are deemed to be better off in the care of the state than in the care of their own parents.

We chose the topic because those of us who had been in the Education and Skills Committee and transferred to the Children, Schools and Families Committee wanted to make it clear to everyone that we took the new Department and our new responsibilities very seriously. After serious discussion, we decided that the best way to start was to show that we wanted to understand the situation of the most vulnerable children in our society—looked-after children. We proceeded.

Not many people outside this place know how we work, but I should say that we had a seminar in which we decided that we should investigate the issue and could add value to it. Colleagues should remember that in Select Committees we do not try to think of high-profile issues that get a lot of publicity—we genuinely look to where we can add value. We may feel that the Government are not paying much attention to a particular part of the Department for Children, Schools and Families remit or are spending an awful lot of money that we are not sure is being spent wisely. That is the central scrutinising role of a Select Committee, and we take it seriously. So we decided to conduct a thorough inquiry into looked-after children because we believed that it would add value.

There is another thing that those who have never been members of a Select Committee do not realise: we operate by listening. We take evidence, read and publicly announce the terms of the inquiry. We then get a great deal of evidence. I remember that when the Education and Skills Committee considered special educational needs, there were 300 written evidence submissions. There were even 30 such submissions for a short one-day report last week on allegations against teachers. The world, of course, is divided into the 50 per cent. who are desperate to give evidence to our Committee and the 50 per cent. who would rather leave the country. We have to choose carefully who we need to appear before us so that they can be interrogated and so that we can find out the situation in their area of expertise. That skill has developed over time, and those of us who have served on Select Committees know that that is an apprenticeship that we have to get through and develop.

I emphasise how important the listening part of the Select Committee’s job is. When we were examining the issue of looked-after children, we made visits to look at good practice in various places. We went to Denmark to look at the system there; many people believe that the Danes do things differently and, in some ways, better than we do. In any other field of human activity, we would take it for granted that one should listen to the people most affected, so we spent a considerable time ensuring that we met looked-after children—children who had been in care, were in care and had the experience of care—so that they could tell us first hand what being in care was like in the 21st century in our country.

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Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz Chair, Home Affairs Committee, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

I pay tribute to the work of my hon. Friend and his Committee on this very important subject. Did he specifically consider the position of children who had been trafficked into this country—a concern of the Home Affairs Committee in our last report—and had then been left in care, but escaped soon afterwards to carry on being abused by those who brought them here?

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Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Chair, Children, Schools and Families Committee

We did so peripherally, mostly in terms of children who turn up in this country with no obvious parents and are in care because of that. One of the other skills of a Select Committee is to determine where to draw the line, otherwise the inquiry would never get finished. Often, when one is doing a good inquiry and really getting under the skin of the issue, that leads to the next inquiry, so my right hon. Friend should not give up hope—we might get there.

When one looks at the care of children in this country, one sees that so much always comes back to the quality of the work force and how they are recruited, trained, paid and supported. That is absolutely central to the level and quality of care that is given. As we went on, it became obvious that we had to undertake an inquiry, which we are now doing, on the training of social workers. The two reports will go very well together. My right hon. Friend will know all about that process from his own Select Committee; it is part of the technique. That is how we conducted ourselves, and that is how we wrote, I think, a good and positive report.

When the Committee has taken all its evidence and made all its visits, we have to spend considerable time coming up with a report that we think someone will listen to and will make the difference that we hoped it would. Part of the process is ensuring that the Government listen to what we say—and it is a remarkable opportunity to be here on the Floor of the House being able to debate and discuss the report that we produced. Of course, another part of our role is to tell the outside world, through the media, what our conclusions were on the matter and what changes we want in Government policy. There is no point in producing a report that is put on the shelf, gathers dust and makes no difference to the children in our country.

Let me allude to some figures. In England, there are at any one time about 60,000 children in care, and in the course of a year about 90,000 children will go through care. One can immediately see the difficulties that we face. It is an unstable population. Some children go into care early and stay for a long time—perhaps for all their childhood—while many do so very late having been greatly damaged by their experience in their birth family. There is sometimes an easy perception that England does a poor job in terms of corporate parenting. We found early on in the process of learning the lessons that a high percentage of children who go into care do so very damaged and quite late. Extrapolating the statistics, we found that children in care perform badly in GCSEs and other examinations and in going on to higher education. As one hears the evidence, one does not wonder why that is, because it is clear that many of these children have not been supported in their education; indeed, they have not been sent to school. They have had such a turmoil of a life that going into corporate care is an attempt to bring the shattered pieces together and rebuild it. That is very difficult to do in the case of a child who goes into care at age 13 or 14; I think that some of my colleagues who have worked in the sector will endorse that.

We have to be extremely careful about laying blame and saying that what local authorities and the Government do is much worse than what anybody else does. I do not believe that that is true. This is very difficult area to work in. The churn—the movement in and out of care and the resulting instability in children’s lives—is at the heart of our concerns.

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Photo of John Hemming John Hemming Liberal Democrat, Birmingham, Yardley

The figures that I have from the SSDA903 return state that in England between 7,000 and 8,000 children a year are going into care. That does not entirely reconcile with the hon. Gentleman’s figure of 90,000. Can he explain the difference?

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Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Chair, Children, Schools and Families Committee

The figures I cited were given to the Committee; the hon. Gentleman can read the report and check them. His figures may be different from ours, but we were told that on average 90,000 children go into care every year and, if one looked today, 60,000 children would be in care.

It is not rocket science to know that what a child who has had a very poor experience in their birth family needs more than anything else is stability and a loving relationship with someone. This is difficult, because we do not deal in apportioning and evaluating love, but we know that if a child does not have love in its formative years, it has little hope of growing up into a mature, decent and fully functioning citizen.

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Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Labour, Sheffield, Heeley

I am listening carefully to my hon. Friend, who is making some important points. Did the Committee consider the fact that some children do indeed love their parents from their birth family, but their parents have been unable to provide for them in that way, so such children have a loving relationship but it is insufficient for their needs? When a child then develops another relationship with a substitute carer, that can create a conflict that is a difficulty for them in settling down in a new family.

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Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Chair, Children, Schools and Families Committee

That is the danger of letting a real expert intervene on one’s speech. Of course, my hon. Friend is right—that is one of the real strains in a child’s life.

We found that as far as possible we want, of course, to keep families together. The most important work in our country is done by social workers and other people in the social care field in maintaining families in a good state. We looked at projects in places such as Morden, one of the London boroughs, where there is an excellent family support unit. Its job is to identify a family in trouble, with stresses and strains within it that had come to people’s attention through a GP, a social worker or a health visitor; or it could have come by many other means. One of the jobs of a local authority is to keep good antennae identifying where children and families are in that stressed state. In areas with good practice, we saw that where a family was deemed to be in need of support, in came that support. The whole Committee was very impressed by the Morden experience, where an all-singing, all-dancing support team would go in to support the family for six months, see if it could get them back on the right road, and then step back and let them get on with their own lives. Then, if it did not work, the team could do it again. The general point is that good social work support is essential; if it can support the family and the child in the family, that must, in many cases, be the right route.

We found that the most difficult aspect of all this is the decision on when to take a child into care and striking the balance in deciding whether that child is better off in a rather dysfunctional family, perhaps with a history of mental illness or drug or alcohol addiction. A large number of families have serious problems, but that does not mean they cannot maintain a family life of some quality. It is a question of identifying the problem and then supporting the family, but at a certain stage making the decision. When we compared our experience with that of Denmark, we found—certainly this was my perception as Chair of the Committee—that what was being done in Denmark seemed to lead to a better reputation for the social work process. It seemed from the evidence we took and our experience in Denmark that people did not consider it the end of the world for their children to go into some form of care; it was seen as a reasonably positive thing. We talked to families and experts and found that, in certain care situations, a good relationship with the birth family was maintained. The family would visit, even if there was a background of abuse, including sexual abuse. That relationship was maintained, and many families felt that it was right for their child to be in that situation. They valued the fact that they still had access and that that loving relationship could continue.

When we took evidence from children who had been in care, one strong voice was that of children who said that they did not want a substitute family. Some quite liked the family that they had, and had the type of loving relationship that my hon. Friend Meg Munn mentioned. Perhaps others had had too much struggle, strife and stress from the family that they had come from and did not want to try another one. Some children in that situation said that they would prefer some form of residential care.

We found that in this country there is a history of saying, “No, no, no” to residential care, because there has been a background of large-scale residential care and there was a period in which evidence of widespread child abuse came to light. Now it is very difficult to persuade people that residential care is appropriate. In Denmark, we saw small units of not more than 12 or 14 children, which had a good atmosphere and came close to recreating a family relationship, but a caring one. They were open to parents and visitors.

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Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Conservative, Beverley and Holderness

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Danish experience is not just that children are happier because of how they are looked after in care, but that their educational outcomes and thus their life chances are transformed?

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Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Chair, Children, Schools and Families Committee

My hon. Friend—it is difficult to call him “the hon. Gentleman”, as we work together so closely that I regard him as a friend, except when we fall out—is absolutely right.

That brings me back to the lessons that we learned in the inquiry. Families should be kept together if possible, but a really difficult decision is at what stage a child should be taken into care. Why does Manchester take double the national average into care, the highest proportion in the land? Ironically the City of London is next, but hardly anyone lives there. Other areas take only half Manchester’s proportion into care. Is Manchester doing a wonderful job of seeing children who need to be in care and reacting quickly and positively, or is it Morden, in London, that is doing the fantastic job? We did not find the answer, but as the report shows, we started considering the tension that exists in the system.

Of course we must have child protection. Two thirds of the way through the inquiry, we discovered the horrific news about the death of baby Peter. We extended the inquiry a little to examine the balance between what we had been considering and what was happening in child protection. The lesson that we learned was that only the most thoughtless politician will say that there will never be another child death. Anyone who serves on our Committee or knows anything about the matter knows that given the level of mental illness and alcohol and drug abuse, there will be other child murders and deaths, and they will be horrific. We have to be aware that that will happen and react in the right way when such tragedies occur, to find out what went wrong and how to minimise them. My colleagues and I suspect that we will never be able to eradicate such events. Even in countries such as Denmark there is a pretty serious rate of child murder, despite all the resources and attention put into the matter.

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Photo of David Chaytor David Chaytor Labour, Bury North

Before we leave the Danish comparison, is there not a deeper cultural issue, which is reflected in how the Danish state sees the status of child care workers? It is similar in the other Scandinavian countries. Is not one lesson to be drawn from the Committee’s inquiry, and previous inquiries into the early years phase, that we in the UK have historically dramatically undervalued the status of those working with children? Does that not say something about our national cultural attitude to the importance of child rearing in our society?

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Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Chair, Children, Schools and Families Committee

My hon. Friend knows that I will agree, and I was just going to come to that.

Any parliamentarian has to face the fact that, as we want to get the best level of child protection we can—it should be as good in every local authority as it is in the best—we must have better systems. Ofsted must be better, as must leadership and the sharing of best practice, to ensure we protect every child as well as we humanly can. I feel that very strongly. We must balance that consideration with the danger that, after a tragic death, all the resources are rushed into child protection, which can starve resources for the support of families and good-quality social work. That is an interesting tension.

The Committee said in our report, I suppose quite dramatically, that we do not believe we will ever eradicate child murder. However, really high-quality care can substantially reduce child misery. A problem that we can never really resolve is finding out to what degree a child is in misery and living a blighted life without society being able to identify that miserableness—is that the right word?

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Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Chair, Children, Schools and Families Committee

Thank you. The question is how we can ensure that we intervene. It all depends on having good systems and high-quality, trained people. My hon. Friend Mr. Chaytor put it correctly, because I know of no business in the world that cannot benefit from high-quality people who are selected well and have the right personality, qualifications and enthusiasm. They must be supported to do their job, and they must be paid a decent salary and given a career ladder that will keep them in the profession and motivate them to do good work.

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Photo of Fiona Mactaggart Fiona Mactaggart Labour, Slough

Will my hon. Friend highlight the consequences in later life of the child misery to which he referred? Children who are miserable in care often end up being victims of sexual exploitation when they leave care. They frequently fail to get any qualifications, and they remain unemployed and turn to drug addiction not because it is inherited but, overwhelmingly, because they have been unhappy and feel like failures. We as a state—their parents—have failed to prepare them for the realities of the adult world.

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Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Chair, Children, Schools and Families Committee

I think my hon. Friend knows that I agree with that. That is where the line is drawn—we must ask whether a child is miserable with their birth family and whether they would be miserable in care. A fundamental conclusion of the report was that care has to be a very good option. Children who have been failed by their family do not deserve to be failed again. I get the feeling that the general view out there is that people expect us to stand up for the very best standards for children in care, because that is the litmus test of a civilised society. Children in care are the least fortunate and the most vulnerable children in our society, so we should be judged on how we look after them, and we should look after them as well as we can.

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Photo of Ann Coffey Ann Coffey Labour, Stockport

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend about maintaining the highest possible standards in care, particularly in children’s homes. Did his Committee look at how we can improve standards of care in children’s homes, perhaps by looking at Ofsted’s inspection process and considering ways of improving it?

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Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Chair, Children, Schools and Families Committee

I can assure my hon. Friend not only that we did that, but that we looked at how we reward social workers, who work in the most difficult situations. As I have said, that is why we are also looking at the training of social workers. We have nearly completed that work, which we are doing now because we could not do it as thoroughly as we wanted before. In the generality, however, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North is absolutely right. We pay minimum wage-plus to so many people working in early years—we did an inquiry into early years—and they are the most poorly trained people in the work force. There is no doubt that things are getting better, but they are not getting better fast enough and we need crossover, particularly into residential care.

We said in the report that level 3 qualifications should be the absolute minimum, but in residential care we found the lowest paid, the lowest rewarded and valued, and the least trained people in the social care work force. That is not good enough and it has to change. Residential care should be as good as we can get it. We should experiment, pilot schemes and copy some of the good practice that we saw in Denmark and this country. Size matters a great deal—my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley said that 12 or 14 for a unit was quite big—so it is important to get it right.

Let me make a general point. The care should be absolutely fantastic, but that will not come cheap—I remind the House that people in Denmark pay 50 per cent. income tax and 25 per cent. VAT. However, if such care is a touchstone or a litmus test of how civilised we are as a society, we should persuade our constituents to pay the money and make the necessary sacrifices.

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Photo of John Hemming John Hemming Liberal Democrat, Birmingham, Yardley

The Committee‘s experience of the quality of care in Denmark was that the children were less miserable because they were kept in touch with their parents. I have checked the hon. Gentleman’s figure of 90,000 or 85,000 for the number of children who may have been in care in any one year, but it is not the number of children who go into care or come out of it. In practice, about 7,000 to 8,000 children go into care as a result of care orders. Of those who leave care, the majority leave to adoption—the figure was about 3,800, but it has come down slightly. However, that drives a wedge between the parents and the practitioners, because the practitioners have to reduce contact with the parents to prepare the children for adoption, which is the complete opposite of what happens in Denmark. Would it perhaps not be a good idea to invite somebody from Denmark to do a critique of the system in England?

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Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Chair, Children, Schools and Families Committee

The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. He has also pulled me up on my figures. I should tell him that he has read that part of our report more recently than I have—that report is three reports away in this poor brain of mine, but I thank him for his intervention. He is probably quite right about getting external evaluation, but in a sense that is what we try to do as a Select Committee by going somewhere that we think has good practice. Some of the things that we saw informed our report and we made some strong points.

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Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

Let me bring the hon. Gentleman back to cost and Denmark, about which I would like to make a comment if I have an opportunity. I was there about three years ago and visited some of the homes that I think his Committee visited. Interestingly, although a lot of extra money goes into training and child care in Denmark, the cost of housing children in some residential homes, including the one that I visited, which was run by the local municipality in Copenhagen, works out at about £56,000 a year. That is half the average cost of a residential home for a child in the UK, so in fact the cost need not be more expensive.

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Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Chair, Children, Schools and Families Committee

Let me make just a little more progress.

I want to cover the fundamentals, which are these. First, residential care should be better, and people should be paid and supported better. I do not want to go down the road of talking about social workers too much, but when we interviewed children who had been in care, we found that the problem was the rotation of social workers. There was no one person whom they knew—no person whose face they knew; no one with whom they were familiar or with whom they had a good relationship.

We cannot have a system where a child—any child, let alone a child in care—never knows which social worker he or she will meet or when they will meet them. There has to be a consistency of relationship in the caring system. That was one of our sharpest criticisms of the experience that those children had had. Consistency means knowing someone—knowing their face and knowing that if everything went wrong at midnight or three in the morning, there would be someone whom the child could phone whom they knew, respected and, hopefully, loved. That is a tall order, but the Committee decided that we wanted to make a strong point about how key that stability in relationships is.

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Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Conservative, Beverley and Holderness

The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the failures of the current system, notwithstanding improvements. We need a shift in the whole political system so that we take the issue more seriously, because progress is glacially slow compared with the moral outrage that is happening to the most vulnerable children in our country, despite this country’s wealth and our expenditure in other areas. We need to speed up that change if we are not to let down another generation of children, so what specific measures would the hon. Gentleman most like to see in major party manifestos at the general election, when it comes?

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Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Chair, Children, Schools and Families Committee

The hon. Gentleman is being slightly mischievous. I am not going down that route; I am going to make my speech, which will encapsulate some of the things that I would like any party to adopt as policy.

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Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Chair, Children, Schools and Families Committee

Two minutes.

Let me finish on the quality of the work force, which is at the heart of our report. The other quality is the quality of the care situation, which usually means foster carers and foster families. The people who do that job in our country and do it well are absolutely amazing. I have visited some of them individually and met others, and I know that it takes a certain kind of person, with a certain kind of dedication and a whole lot of love to do that work over a number of years for children who have no one else. There are some fantastic carers out there and they know what those children need. We know that is true: we have evidence of it and we met some of those carers, and I have certainly met some in my constituency.

Those people do an extraordinary job, but there needs to be more of them. They are not well supported. The care is very patchy indeed across the 150 local authorities in our land, which is one of the great problems of care. We need to get rid of that patchiness, so that every child in every local authority can have good quality care.

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Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Chair, Children, Schools and Families Committee

In a moment.

The problem is the old problem: that those people are not supported well. The Government have rejected our recommendation that there should be a national framework for the kind of support that a carer receives. Support is meagre in some local authorities and more generous in others, but it is unknowable. People genuinely do not know where they stand. When a child is taken away from someone whose profession is caring—it is what they do and where their income comes from—they lose their income. They do not get any income back until another child appears or the original child comes back because the return to the birth family was not successful.

There has to be a system that better assures those who want to come into caring that they will be well supported. They do not go into it because it pays a fortune, but they ought to be adequately rewarded. They must also be supported, because working with difficult children who kick over the traces can be a stressful job. They also need back-up from the professional social work contact that keeps them supported and on the right road.

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Photo of Fiona Mactaggart Fiona Mactaggart Labour, Slough

My hon. Friend is quite right to mention the important role that social workers play in backing up foster parents. A point that was made strongly to the Committee concerned a child’s need for a good relationship with their social worker, which could help if they had an unsatisfactory relationship with their foster parents. In my constituency, the children’s social workers who deal with child protection are each carrying 20 cases at the moment, and those who deal with children in need are carrying 33. This is partly because of a huge increase in the number of children in Slough. The situation is pretty unsatisfactory. What would my hon. Friend say to the Government about ensuring that the resources are made available to places such as Slough in order to provide enough good social workers to deal with this issue?

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Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Chair, Children, Schools and Families Committee

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. She will know that we made a recommendation for a cap on the number of cases that such social workers should carry, and we have developed that argument further in the new inquiry.

This is also a question of recruitment and support. We found that the role of the carer in the substitute family was quite mysterious in some places. It was unclear how they got into the work, how they had been recruited and how they were maintained in the profession that they had chosen. The process was very professional in some local authority areas that I visited, and not very good in others. In many of our inquiries, one of the great dangers that we find is cases being thrown into the agency pot. The most horrific term that I have come across—and the idea that I am most worried about—is the “spot purchase” of placements. I find it horrible that there is a market in which someone with an emergency case can purchase a placement through an agency. No one can guarantee where such placements are going to be. They are often miles from the child’s school or from the kin family, and sometimes within a different local authority area. The spot purchasing of placements in foster care is extremely worrying; it is the mark of a failure in the system.

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Photo of Ann Coffey Ann Coffey Labour, Stockport

Does my hon. Friend agree that a similar problem exists in residential care? Stockport is a net importer of children from outside the area—the figure is the third highest in the country—and the cost of such placements is astronomical. The homes advertise for children with difficulties or problems such as antisocial behaviour. Do you think that there is a problem with ensuring that those children are getting the quality of care that is offered by the homes? Is it not probable that some of the homes are making an undue profit and not putting the money that they get for looking after those children back into paying better wages to their workers and providing better training for them?

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Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. I think that it is time for one of my periodic reminders to hon. Members that all remarks should be addressed to the Chair, and that the use of the word “you” should not come into it. Perhaps more importantly, from the hon. Lady’s point of view, is that turning away from the microphone creates great difficulty in capturing her words for the record.

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Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Chair, Children, Schools and Families Committee

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I know that I have gone on for too long because I have taken a lot of interventions, so I shall bring my remarks to a conclusion.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that this is about quality. There is some very good residential accommodation, some in the independent sector and some run by local authorities. One cannot judge it purely on the basis of which sector it is in: we found no evidence that private was bad and local authority good. There is good and bad in all institutional care, and there was also evidence of good agencies supplying places and finding foster homes. It is, however, completely unpredictable. In our report, we stated that the quality of care that a child gets should not be a question of luck. We talk about postcode lotteries, but this should not be up to luck. Children should be guaranteed a first-class service anywhere in the country. I would not say that about many aspects of the policy area, but vulnerable children deserve that commitment.

This has been one of the most enjoyable reports that my Committee has produced. We enjoyed it because we felt that we were breaking a path and adding value—in other words, doing the things that a Select Committee does at its best. The Government have responded positively to some of our recommendations, but, as ever, they have not done enough and not acted quickly enough. As the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness said earlier, there is not enough sense of urgency that the culture needs to change quickly. Improvements have taken place slowly over a number of years, but this has not happened fast enough and they have not been effective enough to get rid of the terrible situation in which what happens to a child is a question of luck.

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Photo of Derek Twigg Derek Twigg Labour, Halton

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the report. I was not on the Committee when that work was done. A key issue is what happens when children leave care and are transferred. Will he say a little about that? I feel that a lot of work still needs to be done on managing the massive transition when children leave care to go into the outside world.

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Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Chair, Children, Schools and Families Committee

I was going to leave out that section of my speech, because I have been speaking for too long, but I shall mention the subject briefly. Children in middle-class, better-off homes often hang around and seem to take a long time to leave home—I do not know whether you have had this experience, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Sometimes they stay until they are in their late 20s or—in the case of some of my colleagues—their 30s. The link to the family certainly goes on for a hell of a long time. I celebrate that and love it, especially in the case of my four children.

So why should children in care be kicked out into the world at 16 with very little support? Some of them are put into rented accommodation in the most vulnerable parts of our towns and cities. Young girls are expected to live on their own at 16, and we have all heard evidence of the pests and pimps who know where these vulnerable young women are. It is wrong that children from troubled backgrounds are suddenly pushed out into the world and expected to live independent lives on their own at 16.

I think that that is also true for 18-year-olds. I make myself unpopular with some hon. Members, including some Labour Members, when I say that the protection of childhood up to the age of 18 is very important. I sometimes worry that if we were to scuttle into constitutional reform that includes votes at 16, the protection of childhood could be nibbled away. The protection of childhood until 18 and the outcomes of Every Child Matters are fundamentally important, especially for looked-after children.

In fact, I believe that the care package for such vulnerable children—to whom we owe so much—should go right through to the age of 25. I have not had time to talk about one of the weak links that we found in relation to special care, but these children are among the most troubled. They probably have many more psychological challenges than most children, and we found evidence that it took them a long time to get the psychological and psychiatric care and support that they needed from the health sector. The health sector should prioritise those children, just as they are prioritised in regard to schools admissions. They need support right through to 25, and much more support from everyone.

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Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Opposition Whip (Commons)

I am curious: why has the hon. Gentleman chosen the age of 25 and not 21?

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Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Chair, Children, Schools and Families Committee

Because I think children in supportive homes get that right through. It can be a very turbulent period and the figures on psychological problems experienced by children show a high level in the early 20s, going on through to 25. Indeed, as the hon. Gentleman knows, that is also clear in the data on psychological challenges presented to students in universities and higher education. The fact is that we owe these people support through to 25, if needed.

I am sorry if I have taken too long to make my remarks, but it is partly because I took so many interventions. I recommend the report to the House. It is a good report; it is an all-party report; it is a report based on much hard work from the team of MPs from the three parties and also from the magnificent team of people who worked with us day in, day out—the Clerk, the Deputy Clerk, the two Committee specialists and our two administrators.

Select Committees are very important to the House. This is the 30th year of having such Committees and I currently have a hand in writing about their achievements over that time. I sometimes worry that the link between what we do in the Committees upstairs and what happens in this Chamber is not strong enough, so it has been a welcome change to have the chance to talk about a report in detail today.

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Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families) 2:01 pm, 2nd July 2009

I appreciate that many hon. Members wish to contribute to the debate, so I will try not to make my comments too extended in what is nevertheless an extremely important debate.

I would like to start by congratulating the Select Committee on a thorough and thoughtful report. I also congratulate the Select Committee Chairman, Mr. Sheerman on setting out so clearly the principal issues that the Committee identified and addressed. He mentioned at the beginning of his speech that Select Committee reports are sometimes very influential and sometimes perhaps overlooked by Ministers. I hope that this will be one of the reports that Ministers take very seriously, even in the areas where the Government’s own response to the report is weaker than some of us would like.

We take some cheer from the evidence of the Government’s ultimate response to one of the Committee’s earlier reports on testing and assessment, when the Government’s initial response was overturned very rapidly in an announcement by Ministers a couple of months ago, which accepted many of the report’s principal conclusions.

The hon. Member for Huddersfield rightly started his comments by indicating that it should be no surprise to us that the outcomes for this group of young children are so poor in terms of education and most of the other proxies that we would use to measure the progress and achievements of young people. It would be astonishing if those taken into care and away from their parents were not by definition some of the most vulnerable young people in society, so we should expect their out-turns to be poorer than average.

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Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Conservative, Beverley and Holderness

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman did not mean to suggest that current standards were acceptable, because they most certainly are not. I want to challenge him on what he has just said, because the Danish example and others show significant and massive improvement in outcomes, in comparison with those in this country, for children in precisely the same socially disadvantaged and difficult circumstances. Things do not have to be this way.

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

I wonder whether I gave way to the hon. Gentleman too early; my generosity overcame me. I should have asked him to hold off for a few seconds while I made another couple of points that were highlighted by the Select Committee’s report.

Although, by definition, it would be astonishing if the performance of these young people was better than the average for the rest of the population, the principal issue we need to address is whether the outcomes are good enough, and whether more could be done for them. The striking conclusion of the report, placed prominently at the beginning of the summary, is important enough to be read into the record:

“Despite the dedication and perseverance of social workers and carers, the outcomes and experiences of young people who have been ‘looked after’ remain poor. Far from compensating for their often extremely difficult pre-care experiences, certain features of the care system itself in fact make it harder for young people to succeed: they are moved frequently and often suddenly, miss too much schooling, and are left to fend for themselves at too early an age.”

Those are the legitimate concerns that the hon. Gentleman rightly raises, and I believe that we could and should be doing far better as a country in addressing those young people’s needs.

My experience as a constituency MP with this segment of the population—the 60,000 young people, a large number of whom are in care—tally very much with the report’s conclusions and with the principal areas of concern that the hon. Gentleman set out in his speech a few moments ago. Those are the issues that I would like to touch on today. My concerns fall into four categories.

The first relates to judgments about when and in what circumstances young people should go into care—an issue of some controversy to which I shall return, and I expect that my hon. Friend John Hemming will want to comment on it later if he catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am concerned about whether we always make the right judgments about when young people should be removed from what are often very chaotic home environments and taken into care.

The second category relates to the quality of the care provided. The Select Committee has highlighted some weaknesses in our existing system and some experiences in other countries that we could learn from. Too often there is a shortage of placements or their quality is not good. Thirdly, there are concerns about the services available—educational and those provided by our social services departments—to young people in care.

Finally, there are crucial issues, which the hon. Member for Huddersfield raised towards the end of his speech, about the support provided for young people beyond the age of 16, 18 or even 21. His comments obviously tally very much with what is in the report, but also with my experience of the problems experienced by this cohort of youngsters when they leave care—long-term drug and mental health problems, housing difficulties and problems gaining employment, for example. I shall touch briefly on all those issues.

I appreciate that no simple conclusion can be derived about the tendency to be either reluctant or very precipitate about when children should be taken into care. It is clear that experiences vary significantly across the country and that different judgments are made in different areas. The hon. Member for Huddersfield was concerned about the significantly different approaches to the thresholds used to take people into care in different parts of the country. Another concluding point in the report was:

“Large variations in care populations around the country seem to indicate that there is no consensus about the role of care in services for vulnerable children. We are convinced that in some respects the potential of the care system to make a positive difference to children’s lives is dismissed too readily, but we are also concerned by how widely the quality of children’s experiences in care varies, and how uneven are the experiences”.

My own experiences as a constituency MP have confirmed the understandable reluctance to take young people away from their parents and into care; we all recognise that. Sometimes, however, there is a failure to appreciate the truly chaotic, frightening and neglectful circumstances that many young people experience in the home environment. We would all like to keep as many young people as possible with their parents—that will always be true for the overwhelming majority—but sadly, some young people are brought up in deeply uncaring and unloving circumstances. That is sometimes because their own parents were brought up in the same environment, do not have parenting skills and did not receive a good example of how to discharge parental responsibilities from their own parents. The more serious cases involve direct abuse rather than simply neglect.

What is needed is a willingness to acknowledge that, as the hon. Member for Huddersfield pointed out, for this minority of young people a high-quality care system —if we can create it—may well be a better option than any of the options that tend to be available in a home environment. As the Select Committee has observed, there is a reluctance to put young people into care, not just because of a shortage of places, but sometimes because of the financial consequences, or even because of an almost ideological belief that the best possible outcome is for children to remain with their parents. I think the most important point made in the Committee’s report is that the home environment is not always the best environment for young people.

The second issue that I want to raise is the quality of care and placements. As the hon. Member for Huddersfield said, placements with individuals who have a real commitment to and passion for young people, and who are willing to provide them with security for many years, are in very short supply. Many of the placements available are not of the quality that we would want to see. When we meet people who were in care as children, we tend to find that they experienced a large number of placements and a great deal of instability during a period when the state, or local authorities, should have been responsible for their care. It is not surprising that some individuals are reluctant to place young people in care if they fear that it will not provide the love and stability that those young people need if they are to thrive.

We must be more imaginative. We must study the experiences of those in other countries in order to establish whether we can create settings that provide the stability described by the hon. Member for Huddersfield. They may have to contain a number of other youngsters, although I was surprised by the hon. Gentleman’s reference to the large number of young people in settings in countries such as Denmark—11, 12, 14 or 15. I should have thought that the number of children in multiple settings ought to be very much lower.

We must ensure that the quality of the social workers who support young people and their families is high, and that they experience consistency and stability. The hon. Member for Huddersfield spoke of a rapid turnover of social workers and of multiple contacts. It is not surprising that young people who may have had very unpleasant experiences in the home environment before being taken into care, and who feel unloved and unsupported, will also feel that society is not resolving their problems and giving them the stability that they need if a multiplicity of individuals are responsible for their care in the new home setting, or if a multiplicity of social workers cause relationships to be repeatedly forged and then broken. Those who experience a multiplicity of both social workers and home environments will feel that no one remains committed to them as individuals, and that no one can create the confidence and belief in their own importance and value that they will need if they are to thrive in society.

The third issue that concerns me—the hon. Member for Huddersfield mentioned it as well—is education. In general, the educational performance of children in care has been, and still is, extremely poor. Although it has improved slightly over the past five to 10 years, it is still well below average. We need a better system of funding to target disadvantage throughout the education system.

I was pleased to see in the education White Paper the other day a reference to our proposal for a pupil premium to direct additional money towards youngsters with high levels of disadvantage and deprivation. The children whom we are discussing would clearly have the strongest claim of almost any group of youngsters for a particularly high premium to ensure that the educational establishments that they attend have the necessary resources to deliver not only the additional educational support and catch-up that they may require, but the wider support that will enable them to thrive in a school environment. I hope that if the Government seriously intend to pursue the idea of a pupil premium, they will consider that idea carefully as the review of the funding formula concludes early in 2010, and before they announce their final decisions.

There have been some useful experiences recently in an attempt to tackle one of the problems mentioned by the hon. Member for Huddersfield: the fact that young people are frequently moved between different local authority areas, and also—although the hon. Gentleman did not mention this explicitly—between different educational establishments. That can prove extremely disruptive. A number of local authorities have pursued effectively the idea of a “virtual head teacher” with overarching responsibility for children in care, who would follow their progress to ensure that their educational needs were met and that their support remained consistent even when, regrettably, they had to move from one local authority area to another.

A particularly crucial question, and one that it is easy to neglect, is what happens to youngsters after they leave their care settings, often at the age of 16, but sometimes later. I share the surprise and dissatisfaction expressed by the hon. Member for Huddersfield at the frequent absence of a follow-through system of care. I am amazed at the lack of support for young people: the failure to secure appropriate housing, the lack of ongoing support for those with mental health and drug abuse problems, and the lack of assistance for those who wish to become employed.

As the hon. Member for Huddersfield said, one reason for our problems with children in care is that many enter the system late in the day. Not all of them have been in care and receiving support for a decade or more; some have experienced a chaotic and unstable set of circumstances, and have not gone into care until their mid or late teens. The assumption that they will be in a position to fend for themselves, to secure employment and to manage their own housing arrangements simply because they have reached the age of adulthood—whether that is deemed to be 16 or 18—is deeply flawed. In theory the system is supposed to provide an additional measure of support beyond the age of 16 or 18, but in practice that happens all too rarely.

Let me end by saying that I have welcomed the opportunity to debate the Select Committee’s report.

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Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Conservative, Beverley and Holderness

I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman, and I apologise for intervening as he was winding up his speech. I wanted to ask him about the transition from being in care to being outside it. Does he agree with the hon. Member for Huddersfield that support should remain available until these young people reach the age of 25? Is that a suitable age? Last week or the week before, we met a group of social workers from around London who told us that it was not uncommon for councils effectively to withdraw support from people as young as 15. If 15-year-olds from chaotic backgrounds are being left without support by councils, we need to do something about it.

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

My response to that important question is that, to a large extent, the support needs to be designed around the needs of those youngsters. Some who have been in care since an early age, or have been cared for very effectively, may not need the service to continue until they are 25, but I should have thought that most children in care would need it to continue—in a real and effective way—until they reach a greater age than is covered by the present arrangements. Obviously, individuals who become adults—whatever age we use to define that state—will have ongoing needs and there would be an expectation that if those needs were identified, they would continue to be met whether or not those youngsters had been in care or not. I suggest that there should be a younger threshold age, but that the youngsters who still have problems at that age—to whom Mr. Stuart was alluding—should be able to access services. There should be a proper bridge into those services regardless of the age that the youngsters have reached.

This has been an important debate on an excellent report. I look forward to hearing the response of the Minister, who, I hope, will assure us—not just on the points addressed in the Government’s response but in some other areas where the response was weaker or more ambiguous—that the Government are intent on dealing with the issues raised by the Select Committee.

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Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz Chair, Home Affairs Committee, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee 2:20 pm, 2nd July 2009

It is a pleasure to follow Mr. Laws. I begin by paying tribute to the Select Committee for its excellent report. It is literally a weighty report. If we were to weigh Select Committee reports, I am sure we would find that it was the weightiest of last year. The Committee seems to have begun its deliberations in March 2008, a long time ago. I pay tribute to all the members who participated. I only wish when we had Home Affairs Committee debates that quite so many Committee members turned up. Perhaps this is the template for other Select Committees. My hon. Friend Mr. Chaytor, the hon. Members for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes), for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) and for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart), and my hon. Friend Mr. Sheerman [ Interruption. ] Yes, my hon. Friends the Members for Halton (Derek Twigg) and for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) have left the Chamber, but all those Members were here, and I am very impressed by that.

I feel as if I am straying on to the territory of another Select Committee so I will be very brief. There is really only one aspect of policy that I wish to bring to the attention of the House. The Committee Chairman, my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield, enjoyed the report so much and is ready to be tempted to look at other aspects of policy concerning looked-after children. I wonder whether his Committee might look at the issue of children in care who are here as a result of human trafficking—children brought here for the specific purpose of exploitation by human traffickers, who arrive at children’s homes and disappear to carry on and involve themselves in criminal activities.

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Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Labour, Sheffield, Heeley

My right hon. Friend raises an extremely important issue, but may I point out that it is one of the problems that the social work profession faces? As society develops, new problems arise and social workers—who are already dealing with a wide range of complex issues, as we have heard—are expected to take on the kind of issues and problems about which he is talking. He will know from the work that he and his Committee have done in this area that the specific needs of those young people are different from those of other children about whom we have been talking. It is perhaps not surprising that the current system is failing these children, because the social workers have not been trained in this new phenomenon, and the issue of extra resources and training becomes even more acute.

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Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz Chair, Home Affairs Committee, Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I know that, when she was a distinguished Foreign Office Minister with responsibility for consular services, that was part of her portfolio. She gave evidence to the Home Affairs Committee on those matters. The concern is that there is not sufficient training to deal with these issues. We need to ensure that that happens. In a sense it is not just the responsibility of one Department, although the Government could spare only one Minister for the debate. It is a question of various Departments acting together. It would be helpful—I make this offer to my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield—in the spirit of joined-up Parliament if members of the Home Affairs Committee met members of the Children, Schools and Families Committee and other Committees with an interest in order to report about these matters where they cross boundaries.

Between April and December 2008 a total of 957 suspected victims of child trafficking were picked up by local authorities. Of that number, more than 400 came from Afghanistan and 200 from Africa. Kent county council revealed that out of a total of 474 children taken into care in the eight months to the end of 2008, 86 went missing. The largest proportion of trafficked children in fact arrives in Kent.

In Hillingdon, which handles children trafficked through Heathrow airport, 27 of 285 children have been reported missing. At least 77 Chinese children have gone missing after being taken into the care of the local authority at Heathrow. In 2008, the Serious Organised Crime Agency disrupted a suspected child trafficking ring operating through Manchester airport in which Chinese children were routed through Italy and ended up in the UK. That was the conclusion of the Home Affairs Committee report into human trafficking. We did not go into great detail about child trafficking because we were dealing by and large with adult trafficking, but we estimated that 330 child victims will be trafficked into the UK each year. About 60 per cent of suspected child victims in local authority care go missing and are not subsequently found.

Our worry, for the very reasons that my hon. Friend Meg Munn has mentioned, was that the local authorities were concentrating on the “home market”—children from the UK—and were not paying sufficient attention to those who arrived here and, within hours, went missing from their home. The information put into the public domain by The Guardian suggested that those Chinese children, having arrived here, were given mobile phones, were able to ring the adults who brought them into the country, walked out quite openly from the home and then disappeared into some part of the UK never to be found again. Unless a very important relationship is developed between the local authority and those who deal with children at our ports of entry including Heathrow—the responsibility of the UK Border Agency—and that is monitored so that we know who is in and who is out of a local authority home, that seems to be the fate of children who are human trafficked into this country.

That is why the Home Affairs Committee will be looking at the subject again next Tuesday, to assess the Government’s response to our report, which we published earlier this year. We asked the Government specifically to take appropriate steps in order to protect children who had come from abroad, who have the added problem of not being able to speak English. There may be the greatest training in the world for social workers dealing with these issues, but if such children cannot access translation services they will not be able to explain why they came to the country.

There is also the situation of children who come from elsewhere in the EU, and we know of the important work being done by the Metropolitan police human trafficking unit through Europol. In particular, there is an initiative for the Romanian children, who are largely from the Roma community in that country, who were trafficked into this country and then disappeared from care. They ended up on Oxford street and began to get involved in begging operations.

I am very sorry that Mr. Steen is not present, because if there is an expert on human, and especially child, trafficking in this House, it is almost certainly him. He has told the House of his activities when he has been to Oxford street with the Metropolitan police. He saw children being apprehended, and there was nothing that the police could do other than put them into care. They then went missing from care again, and ended up back on the streets. Clearly, these issues go beyond the narrow remit of the Select Committee report and the estimate motion before the House, but they are within the remit of the Government as a whole, and I know that the Minister will want to bring them to the attention of her colleagues in other Departments, because we cannot deal with them merely on a departmental basis.

My final point is on the human trafficking unit that is operated so effectively by the Metropolitan police. As we concluded our inquiry into human trafficking, we took evidence from that unit, and it informed us that its funding was to be cut. It said that the funding had been reduced over a number of years and that it would end up with no funding from the Government. During Prime Minister‘s Question Time a few weeks ago, I raised that with the Prime Minister, and he stood at the Dispatch Box and said that the money is not being cut but being increased because of the important work done by the Government on human trafficking. I was delighted by that statement.

I asked the Prime Minister about the issue again when he came back from the European Council meeting in Brussels, because, as the Minister will know, the Swedish presidency—like the Czech presidency—has decided to make human trafficking a key priority. The Prime Minister said that the issue had been discussed at Brussels. I asked him again whether the money for the human trafficking unit had been increased, and he said yes. Before the Minister comes to reply, I hope there will be sufficient time for her to get a message to the Home Office to find out whether that is, in fact, correct, because the replies I have received to the letters I have sent suggest that nobody has received this money which the Prime Minister thinks has been increased. I am sure that if the Prime Minister announces it at the Dispatch Box, it will happen, but even if the money has not yet been received by the organisation it would be nice to know that it is on its way—in the post or about to be transferred—because it is crucial in our fight against human trafficking in this country.

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Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Opposition Whip (Commons) 2:32 pm, 2nd July 2009

It is a pleasure to follow Keith Vaz. I think that the Prime Minister should answer his question. The Prime Minister does seem to have problems with increases in spending. He has said, for instance, that

“total spending will continue to rise, and it will be a zero per cent. rise in 2013-14.”—[ Hansard, 1 July 2009; Vol. 495, c. 294.]

Perhaps that is the spending rise that the right hon. Gentleman was told was taking place. He is absolutely right to push on that point. I wish him every luck, because I agree that it is extremely important.

We all want our children to get the best start in life by having the right support, food, nutrition, shelter, education, mentoring and emotional support. That is what is needed in order for them to grow up and develop into responsible, independent adults. Looked-after children consistently do not get the same levels of support and care that children in families receive. Looked-after children under-achieve in education—just one in eight gets five good GCSEs. They are twice as likely to be convicted or cautioned; almost a quarter of prisoners have been in care. They are also four to five times more likely to have mental health problems; one third of homeless people have been in care. One fifth of women who leave care between the ages of 16 and 19 become pregnant within one year, compared with just one in 20 in the general population. They are also far more vulnerable to drug abuse, school exclusions, sexual exploitation, truancy and other symptoms linked to social breakdown. They are also more likely to be NEETs— not in education, employment or training.

Being in care affects young people’s life chances, and the Select Committee report into looked-after children has highlighted some of the weaknesses that need to be addressed. On our estates and in our communities, we are seeing second generation looked-after children whose parents have also been through the care system. There are three crucial areas for improving the life chances of looked-after children: education, family, and the role played by the local authority, social services and their partners. When I read Dickens, I felt that things had moved so far forward, yet there is still a failure to deliver the sort of 21st-century changes that we all want and believe in. This is, therefore, a tremendously important subject.

We need to improve access to education, because that is important and looked-after children need better chances and opportunities to succeed. Education and individual learning plans may need to be more tailor-made to suit individuals in order to encourage them to remain in education or some other form of learning or training. Having a good educational foundation can make a huge difference to job opportunities, as well as to a young person’s confidence and self-esteem. Young people who have these challenging backgrounds need to be in environments where they feel valued and where their talents can be nurtured. The development of academies—and academies with residential facilities—will help to drive up the educational standards of those who are looked after. Mentoring in school makes a huge difference, and we also need to look at developing the role and expertise of school governors in matters concerning looked-after children so that they can oversee the performance of schools and how they are educating these young people.

In Herefordshire, an education liaison support service is available to children and young persons looked after by the council. It offers advice and support to children and parents, it develops individual support packages and it provides information and resources to carers. Herefordshire has delivered positive outcomes, including the fact that 92 per cent. of its young people aged 16 or over leaving care managed to obtain a qualification, which compares with the average in England of 53 per cent. That makes the council the top-performing authority in England.

Herefordshire’s looked-after children are also healthier and they have lower levels of truancy from school and fewer criminal convictions than average. The council has a good record, despite receiving—this is a real shame—the third lowest school grant per pupil and despite the council’s grant being 17 per cent. lower than the national average per head. Despite that financial disadvantage, the council is still achieving a fantastic outcome for these particularly vulnerable young people.

Supporting families early on can prevent children from going into care, and we should take measures to prevent family breakdown. Where possible, and when it is safe and appropriate, we should try to keep families together. Mr. Laws made the important point that that will not always be appropriate, and that is also mentioned is the Select Committee report. However, where it is safe and appropriate, that is what we should try to do. Strong families support vulnerable children and reduce the risk of children needing to go into care. I believe that the Government could do a great deal more to support families; parents are currently financially better off living apart, and that cannot be right.

Health visitors can help families, particularly those with problems and those struggling with parenthood. Local authorities, health care professionals and schools need to be equipped with the expertise to be able to identify those families where there is serious and wilful neglect; those families where the parents and guardians are a danger to children and the children need to be brought into care; and those circumstances in which the parents need help and support to improve their parenting skills. There is a difference between the circumstances of a single mother with post-natal depression who is struggling to look after her children, wants to be a good parent and needs support, and cases such as those of baby P or Victoria Climbié where the children were the victims of despicable and sickening acts of neglect, harm, violence and brutality. The people committing those acts need to be identified earlier and they should feel the full force of the law.

I come to local authorities, social services and their partners. Social services in local authorities throughout the country have a very difficult role in identifying when they need to intervene and the action that they need to take. It is through contact with social services and health and education professionals that vulnerable children can be identified and early intervention can take place.

In these discussions, there is considerable emphasis on the importance of corporate parenting and multi-agency and partnership working, and that is an important framework. But however good the systems are on paper, we need to ensure that the individuals and professionals delivering the support services on the front line can take difficult decisions and feel confident in exercising their judgment.

Inspections are important to raising standards. Can the Minister reassure me that the new Ofsted unannounced inspections, for which 30 minutes’ notice is given, will not interfere with an authority’s delivery of services? If a children’s services director can get a call from the Ofsted inspectors saying that they are just 30 minutes away, we need to ensure that the inspections are done in a way that does not cause authorities to panic, and that while the inspectors are present for two days they are not interfering in the work of social services and causing resources to be used serving them rather than young people and families. Giving inspectors access to files and making staff available for interviews are important to assessing an authority’s performance, but we must also recognise that that is time and resource-consuming for the authority. I hope that the Minister and Ofsted will be able to ensure that inspections are carried out in a sensitive and appropriate manner. It is good to have quick inspections, but they must be done right.

Building strong and long-term relationships between looked-after children and those involved in delivering their care is essential. Children going through the care system can feel unsupported when their carers change on a regular basis, and the answer is as much down to the professionalism of staff as any legislative requirement. One area that needs strengthening is the support given to young people in the transition period from leaving care to becoming an independent adult. I asked the Committee Chairman about the need for support up to the age of 25, and his answer was compelling. Children who have spent most of their lives going through the care system can suddenly feel abandoned once they are no longer of school age and no longer within that system, whereas children who have not gone through the care system continue to get family support for many years, through university and beyond.

One final aspect for the Government to consider is how often the child is consulted. Time and again, we see cases in which problems could have been avoided if only those involved had asked the child. The fear seems to be that children will not tell the truth, but in my experience it does not take Einstein to tell when a child is telling the truth. We need to be much better at listening to children as well as providing the support that the whole House agrees is so vital for these vulnerable young people.

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Photo of David Chaytor David Chaytor Labour, Bury North 2:42 pm, 2nd July 2009

I think that this is the first time during my time as a Member that we have had a debate on looked-after children in the Chamber. There may have been short Adjournment debates in Westminster Hall, but this debate indicates a growing level of interest in and understanding of the importance of this group of young people and the historic neglect by the state of their interests and welfare. I hope that the Committee’s report has contributed to that increased understanding and concern.

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Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

On a point of information, we have never before had a debate on vulnerable and looked-after children in Government time, but we have had debates on that subject in Opposition time.

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Photo of David Chaytor David Chaytor Labour, Bury North

I congratulate the Opposition, but I also congratulate the Government on eventually finding time for this debate. Of course, it builds on the significant improvement in Government policy in recent years, which has moved the interests of looked-after children much further up the political agenda.

These children are often the poorest of the poor. They and their families are at the bottom of the pile. In contrast with most children, whose interests, welfare, health and education are universally popular among the population at large, looked-after children, especially when they reach their teenage years, are frequently reviled, stigmatised, discriminated against and scapegoated by the adult population. That is the fact of the matter. It shows the difficulty that we have—as local authorities, health authorities and Governments—in re-establishing this group as victims.

The figures are quite stark. Other Members have mentioned some of the statistics, and still only 14 per cent. of looked-after children gain five A to Cs at GCSE. Among the population as a whole, that figure is 65 per cent. Only 46 per cent. of looked-after children get past key stage 2 level 4 in English, compared with 81 per cent. of the population. The most striking figure, of which I was only reminded earlier today, is that whereas in the population as a whole 3 per cent. of children have statements, 28 per cent. of looked-after children have statements; the figure is nine times higher in that group of young people.

Let me mention two brief anecdotes that seem to me to encapsulate some of the difficulties experienced by these young people, and perhaps how the state’s approach has changed. One of my earliest and most enjoyable experiences as an MP in my constituency was an awards evening for looked-after children in Bury. The children and their families were invited to the town hall for a wonderful party and celebration of their achievements organised by the then director of education. Every child received recognition in some shape or form, whether they were on their way to university and celebrating their A-level results or whether they had very modest achievements. The evening culminated in music, dance, a disco and plenty of food and drink for the children, their families and the teachers and support workers who had worked with them.

I vividly remember one of the most outgoing of those children, a young woman, partly Afro-Caribbean, who came to talk to me about Members of Parliament, Prime Minister‘s questions and Tony Blair. She had watched Prime Minister‘s questions on the television and wanted to know what it was like. I thought, “What an amazing young woman. She’s come through the most difficult experiences—moved around from foster family to foster family—yet she still has, at the age of 14 or 15, this high degree of optimism. She will probably survive and have an interesting future.”

Four or five years later, that young woman came to my advice surgery, heavily pregnant, dressed in a way that could only be described as eccentric, clearly under the influence of some substance and clearly with mental health problems. She came to ask me for assistance, but did not quite know what assistance she needed. She came also to complain about social workers, but was not quite able to put her finger on the source of the complaint. She wanted to complain about the national health service, but was not able to explain where it was not dealing with her needs. Her experience over the four or five years between the age of 14 and the age of 18 or 19 seemed to me to be almost a metaphor for the way in which the state had failed so many young people in care.

My second brief anecdote concerns an experience the Committee had when we were compiling the report. We met, in the Jubilee Room, a group of young people in care who had come to tell us about their experiences. They provided informal evidence to our Committee and they were incredibly resilient, confident and outgoing young people. They were older; they were aged 18, 19, 20 and 21. We listened carefully to what they had to say.

There was one thing that I occurred to me as we spoke to them—and I reiterate the comments made by Bill Wiggin about the importance of listening to children. I found it remarkable how astute they were about how their experience had gone wrong, pointing out the awfulness of the instability of not having a regular social worker and of frequent moves from one foster family or care home to another. They demonstrated that, in spite of that, with the right kind of support—they had all had significant support from voluntary organisations and charities, and particularly from committed individuals—children in care can come through and can survive. In their late teens and early 20s, those young people seemed to be getting their lives together. The message of that second experience was positive, because attitudes and policies have changed in the past few years. The result is that young people in care get a slightly higher priority and a slightly better share of the cake.

One reflection of that is the document published in May by the Department for Children, Schools and Families which tackled head-on the need to improve educational attainment in schools. I very much welcome the proposals that every local authority should have a virtual head for looked-after children, and that every school should have a designated teacher for them. Other proposals include ensuring that all looked-after children have a personal education plan and get the one-to-one and small-group tuition that are so important for those who are vulnerable and uncertain about their relationships, and who find it difficult to cope in larger numbers.

I welcome the fact that the Government have already introduced the £500 educational allowance pledge. It is not yet clear how that is working or exactly who is responsible for allocating the money, but it is crucial if we are to give looked-after young people the benefits, advantages and extra-curricular activities that are taken as read by most average families in this country. Above all, I welcome the changes in the most recent code on school admissions, which prioritise the needs of looked-after children and are central to giving their schooling greater stability. The Government’s track record, in recent times and in that latest document, shows that they are moving very much in the right direction.

However, education is only part of the issue. As I and other hon. Members have noted, the stability of placements and the continuity of social workers are crucial. In this country, we have had problems with both foster and residential care. As often happens in public policy, the pendulum swings from side to side according to fashion.

The Committee looked at what happens in other countries, and at the variable experience in different parts of the UK. It seemed to us that there is no perfect or agreed model for what goes on, and that there should be no targets for the numbers of children to be placed in or removed from residential care. Both foster and residential care can be provided in a way that is absolutely suitable to children’s needs, so we need to look at the matter as a spectrum rather than as an either/or problem.

In our inquiry, the Committee saw some very good examples of residential care, although not in the UK. Sadly, we had to go to Denmark to see them, but that does not mean that we cannot reach the same standards here. I know that there has been dramatic change in the UK in recent years; the old large and impersonal children’s homes have been dismantled, while smaller units with a more family-oriented atmosphere and approach have been developed. That is all for the good, but let us not say that there is a unique model that must be applied in all circumstances. We need a continuum of care as well as flexibility, so we should not try rigidly to impose any particular model according to the fashion of the day.

Underlying many of the criticisms of some aspects of foster care—and certainly of residential care—is the question of how we recruit people to the wider children’s work force. We know that, as a nation, we have a problem with the low status allocated to staff working in pre-school settings, residential homes or children’s social work. The only conclusion to be drawn is that, if we give such jobs low status—as a profession, or in respect of the opportunities for progression, the qualifications required for entry or pay and remuneration—it is because we as a nation do not recognise sufficiently the importance of the health, care and welfare of children.

Other countries in Europe are, frankly, light years ahead of us. Until we can put the interests of children absolutely at the heart of public policy and reflect that by ensuring that some of the brightest, best qualified and most highly motivated young adults want to work with children, we will never bring about the cultural change that we need. The Chairman of the Committee has already pointed out that we felt that that was such an important part of our inquiry that it has led to a further inquiry specifically on the training of social workers that will also produce some interesting recommendations.

The selection of not just children’s social workers but people who work in residential care settings should be considered. My recollection is that our inquiry was quite specific: we felt that anyone working in a residential care setting should require a level 3 national vocational qualification. There is much work to do, perhaps more formally, in improving the training and support available to those who take on the role of foster carer.

I want to make two further comments, the first of which is about the whole question of leaving care, on which hon. Members have commented. One of the biggest gaps in our provision even now is that so many children leave their care setting too early. They finish up on the streets. They finish up sucked into crime, drugs and prostitution. They finish up becoming disoriented and living in inappropriate housing, next to inappropriate neighbours. The Government are greatly interested in that at the moment. Many of the charities that work in the field are calling for a national housing standard for care leavers.

I want to compare—I do not think that this comparison has been made before—the way in which we as a nation consider housing for young people in care with how we consider housing for undergraduates. Every young person who goes to university has the opportunity to stay in a university hall of residence—not absolute luxury, but basic, clean, comfortable, sheltered, protected and regulated accommodation. If we can look after the interests of the 43 per cent. of young people who go to university by offering them appropriate housing with regulated standards, why cannot we support the interests of the much smaller group of young people who are in care with the same kind of standards for their housing when they move to adulthood? So the contrast between the accommodation that many 16, 17 and 18-year-olds live in, often by themselves and next door to some pretty unpleasant adults, and the environment in which our university undergraduates live, in their halls of residence, is absolutely striking.

With the Every Child Matters agenda and the proposals made in the “Care Matters” White Paper two years ago, we have brought about impressive integration in children’s services. Certainly, social care and schools are working far more closely together than ever before, but there are two gaps. I am deeply concerned about whether the health service fully recognises the difficulties of looked-after children as a category. I am not absolutely convinced that GPs—obviously, GPs vary enormously—are fully locked into the Every Child Matters agenda. It seems to me from my experience and from listening to some of the evidence given to the Select Committee that GPs are still protecting their professional practices and less willing than other professionals to co-operate with regard to the interests of children.

I was interested in the very important point about child trafficking made by the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee. I also flag up the importance of policing. I had the interesting experience two years ago of spending some time with Greater Manchester police, touring the various towns of Greater Manchester at different times of the day and seeing a remarkable number of young people—it was impossible to say whether or not they were looked-after children—drifting and hanging around in the most unusual places and getting up to the most appalling activities at all hours of the day and night. Many of them would have been children who had been in care, but I do not think that the police have yet understood the importance of having a slightly different response where that is the case. To reiterate a point on the important issue of children who are trafficked, I point out that if there is to be a joint inquiry by the Children, Schools and Families Committee and the Home Affairs Committee, it would be fruitful to explore the relationship between the criminal justice system and looked-after children.

Finally, I hope that the report will lead to more than just short-term improvements. So much of our history of responding to issues related to looked-after children, child abuse and the murder of children has been a history of knee-jerk responses. An incident happens, the public are outraged, the Government respond and then we forget about it. I hope that we have moved on from those days, and that the report’s influence on Government policy can be much longer-lasting. Our Government are starting to take the issues far more seriously than any Government have done for many years. I welcome the progress made in recent years.

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Several hon. Members:

rose —

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Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. Before I call the next hon. Member to speak, I point out that, although it looks as though we have all the time in the world, and not too many people are seeking to catch my eye, it would be helpful if hon. Members would remember that we have a second debate after this one. Members ought to remember that when they make their contributions.

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Photo of Paul Holmes Paul Holmes Liberal Democrat, Chesterfield 3:01 pm, 2nd July 2009

I should like to start by praising the work of Select Committees, although perhaps that is slightly self-indulgent, as I am a member of the Children, Schools and Families Committee. Mr. Sheerman, who chairs the Committee, touched on the subject slightly, but did not go into too much detail in order to spare his blushes. Recently, a national newspaper looked at the work of Select Committees and praised three in particular, including the Education and Skills Committee, now the Children, Schools and Families Committee, and its Chairman. That highlighted the very effective work that Select Committees, and three of them in particular, have done in recent years.

The Select Committee is a good model; it has worked very well since the big expansion of Select Committees in 1979. There has been talk of reforming the way in which this place works to make the job of scrutinising the Executive more effective. Hopefully the expansion of the role and powers of Select Committees is one of the measures that will be taken in the next year or so. It will mean that 30 years on from the ’79 expansion and experiment, there will be a further expansion of the work of Select Committees. The Select Committee report that we are considering is a good example of what Select Committees can do so well.

A number of hon. Members referred to the fact that in a normal family situation—whatever “normal” is—children do not, at the age of 16, 18 or 21, leave and never again have contact with their siblings, parents, uncles and so on. In fact, it is the norm for people to get a lot of support from their family system until they are well into their 20s, and even later. A lot of the latest stories are of children going away to university, getting jobs, getting their own place, and ending up back in the family home in their early 30s. I am a parent of three children, the eldest of whom is 24. She lives close by, but she is often not in her flat but at home, emptying the contents of my fridge, drinking my drink, watching my TV and so forth. Of course, we are always delighted to see our adult children; we are pleased that they come back to see us. That ongoing support is the norm.

When considering the model for that strange creature, the corporate parent—the state as parent—we should very much bear in mind what the model is for a normal family. The state as parent takes on responsibility for children who come into care because they come from very abnormal family backgrounds. Some 62 per cent. of children in care have been taken into care because of direct neglect and abuse by their family. A large percentage of the other 38 per cent. of children come into care because of family dysfunction, severe illness or death in the family. They come into care because they come from the opposite of a “normal” family and family background. They have already had a traumatic experience in their life. Whether they come into care at four or 14, they have already had a difficult upbringing.

If the state as parent is to discharge its parental duties to looked-after children, it has to run twice as fast simply to stand still. It has a moral duty to discharge those responsibilities to the best effect, and there is common, human sense in its seeking to do so. However, if we had to make a hard-nosed case to the Treasury, we could cite the pure economic sense behind it, too. The cost of not helping looked-after children—the cost of social breakdown, the cost of substance abuse, the cost of mental illness, the cost of the fact that half of prisoners under 25 years old and up to one third of prisoners of all ages have been in care, and the cost of picking up the pieces from that failure—is far greater than the cost of investing in and looking after them properly in the first place. There is an obvious moral case for discharging that duty properly, but one can make a hard-nosed economic case in Treasury terms, too.

I am sure that the Minister, in her response to the debate, will say that much progress has been made. Indeed, the Government, in their published response to the Committee’s report, agree with most of its findings and point out how they are making progress towards its objectives. They deserve praise for the progress that has been made, but we have an awful long way to go if we are to emulate what the Committee saw as the best systems in other areas. Denmark is the one that everybody has mentioned.

The point at which one leaves care has been exhaustively discussed, so I shall not go into it, but is it 16 years old, 18, 21 or 25? It was quite shocking to hear one social worker who came to talk to the Committee two Mondays ago say that, in her authority, there was pressure not to go into any permanent arrangements or accommodation arrangements with 15-year-olds, because they are only a few months away from no longer being the authority’s responsibility. The idea that 15 to 16-year-olds are already being cast adrift is outrageous. There are welcome moves to extend the leaving age, but surely it should be extended beyond 17 or 18 years old.

Accommodation provision for young adults of 16, 17 and 18 years old is also an issue. The Government, in their response, talk about bed and breakfast being provided for somebody in that situation, and that is not suitable. Councils are now being told that they should give looked-after children priority for housing, but we keep being told that they should give many other groups priority, so we need to look at the issue of joined-up government thinking, because Government policy for the past 12 years has been not to allow council house building at all.

Just over 4,000 council houses have been built in 12 years, and that is meaningless. The housing associations that were supposed to fill the gap have, on average, built 22,000 units of social housing per year for 12 years, when the Government’s own Barker report said that 46,000 to 50,000 units were needed just to stand still—without even reducing the waiting list. Furthermore, the waiting list for social housing in general and council housing in particular has doubled nationally: it has gone up from 1 million in 1997 to almost 2 million now.

How do councils give priority to people leaving the armed forces or looked-after children who are moving into independent accommodation? How do they give priority when their supply of social housing is totally inadequate to meet the needs of all groups—families, people with children and single mothers. Whatever the category, the massive shortage of social housing and council housing cannot meet those needs.

I can think of examples in my constituency. I presented GCSE awards at a school a few years ago, and one girl won prizes for her fantastic GCSE artwork. Indeed, one of her paintings hangs in my office here in Westminster now. She succeeded at school despite a very difficult family background and having been in care, but at 16 years old she was about to leave school, start college and move into a council flat in one of the least desirable areas of Chesterfield. How would that 16-year-old girl get on as a young, single person, living on whatever benefits were provided, on her own, while trying to pursue her education, without the normal family support that we would expect for our children? We still have a long way to go if we are to move beyond that situation.

I was a teacher for 22 years, so education is dear to my heart. When I was head of year and responsible for children’s pastoral care, I noticed that some children would turn up in school, be around for a couple of months and then move on; they just kept moving on from their foster care placements, or whatever arrangements had been made. Years later, we heard about exactly the same thing from the children who gave evidence to the inquiry—about children who were constantly in a state of flux and moving from one place to another. The situation might be due to the difficulties in recruiting enough foster parents. That issue needs tackling, as the report says, but there might be all sorts of other reasons why such children are moving around.

The norm in education should always be that the young person stays in their school place. That should be a priority; it is much better than their being shuffled around to a convenient place somewhere within a radius of 20 or 30 miles, which means that they keep changing school. The stability of a child’s education is essential to any success that they have in exams, literacy or numeracy.

Bill Wiggin said that placing looked-after children in academies with residential places might be an answer. He may want to respond, but I should say to him that I am puzzled by that. When academies were launched, the whole concept behind them was supposed to be that they would replace failing schools, which are almost entirely in deprived areas in the inner cities. Surely the best thing for looked-after children, who come from already difficult circumstances, is for them to be given priority for school places in the best, most successful schools—not in the academies, which take over, in theory, from failing schools in the most difficult circumstances. It would be good to see priority given to giving looked-after children the best places in the best schools.

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Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

I have listened to what the hon. Gentleman has said. Surely the point is that academies take over failing schools to improve the educational chances of the people there, and although it is early to say so, their record is good. Furthermore, I am sure that he will acknowledge the importance of continuity of education in a familiar environment for the young person in care, whenever possible. If the hon. Gentleman is saying that if an academy has taken over the young person’s school, they should not go there any more but attend another one in another area, I tell him that that would defeat the point.

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Photo of Paul Holmes Paul Holmes Liberal Democrat, Chesterfield

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that partial clarification. I heard what was said as meaning that academies would be the obvious, logical places for looked-after children; to me, the obvious place is the best school nearest to where the child is—that may well be the school that they already attend, of course.

This is not a debate about education as such, but I should say that the jury is out on academies. Yesterday morning, the Select Committee spent three hours considering the academies issue. The Government’s commissioned research from PricewaterhouseCoopers says that only very flimsy evidence shows that academies in general improve any more than other state schools that use other educational innovation. That issue, however, is more for a specific debate on education.

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Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Opposition Whip (Commons)

I was referring to academies and, more importantly, to academies with residential facilities. If the hon. Gentleman checks, he will see that looked-after children who go to boarding schools achieve far better results than those who do not. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will look more favourably on the matter. If the academy system can deliver such an opportunity for looked-after children, I am sure that he welcomes that.

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Photo of Paul Holmes Paul Holmes Liberal Democrat, Chesterfield

I regret the fact that boarding provision in state schools was more or less wiped out during my years of working in schools. There were, for example, two state schools in Derbyshire with boarding provision, one of which I worked at. One had disappeared before I started working at that school and the other disappeared a few years later. There is no state school with boarding provision in Derbyshire now. That is regrettable, and a move back in the other direction would be useful.

However, I disagree with the idea that provision for looked-after children should be linked only to academies, which make up a tiny percentage of the 3,000 secondary schools in this country. As I said, the jury is out on academy schools; at least a third have had worse results since they became academies. We do not want to pin all our hopes on a totally untried and minority experiment. There are questions about providing enough support for looked-after children who have come from such difficult backgrounds given the numbers of staff available. Having worked in education for a long time, I know about the difficulty of getting access to educational psychologists, for example. In Denmark, there were incredibly well-paid, motivated, intelligent, enthusiastic child psychologists in more or less every meeting we went to, and they provide a great service. In this country, they are as rare as hens’ teeth.

We have already heard reference to whether an NVQ level 3 should be a minimum requirement for somebody working in a residential setting. The qualifications and pay of social workers are relevant issues, and the Committee is undertaking an inquiry into their training and qualifications. If we are to take this seriously, we may need to emulate many other countries across western Europe that do this so much better.

The major unanswered question that came out of the Committee’s report and still hangs there, perhaps for a future inquiry, is the balance between adoption, fostering or residential settings as the desired way of dealing with children who go into care, and what ratios there should be between those options. There are big differences between countries in how they approach this and, as we heard from the Chair of the Committee, between local authorities in Britain. Adoption is seen as one route, much more so in this country than in Denmark, where people were desperate to avoid any adoptions because they wanted to maintain the family link for as long as possible, if not for ever. They take a completely different attitude.

On fostering, we heard evidence from several young people who, between them, had very long experience of the care system. There was some evidence of good things, but one of them told an alarming story, which was backed up by another, of being in a foster placement where the foster carer regarded it simply as a way of earning money. When there was a Christmas or birthday party, the foster child was not allowed to take part in that family event. There was a shocking example of a foster child having a separate mug in the kitchen because they could not use the family crockery. It seemed appalling that a foster carer was allowed to do that. I must emphasise that those examples are very untypical—at least, I hope so. My wife worked in social services for a long time and undertook a lot of approvals of foster parents and adoptive parents in Derbyshire. I got to know many of them in that way; some are still friends now. I have certainly never come across an example like that in Derbyshire, as an individual through my wife’s work or as a politician. It was shocking to hear, only a few months ago when we were taking evidence, that those things were happening. We need to look at the standards and requirements for foster care placements across the country.

On residential settings, the old, large, crumbling Victorian institution housing large numbers of children is very much a thing of the past. We saw some good examples in Denmark, but to be fair we saw some in England too, when we visited places just outside London. The nearest residential care home in Chesterfield, which is about a quarter of a mile up the road from where I live, is a modern house that has no more than six people at any one time. That is very much the direction in which residential settings have gone in this country, although there is still progress to be made. Another question raised by the Committee and left hanging is the point at which we intervene, initiate care proceedings, send children back to their families, and so forth. My hon. Friend John Hemming, who is hoping to speak shortly, might disagree with me about this. I am not saying what I would prefer, merely that these are huge questions raised by the Committee’s report. In Denmark, the key appeared to be the desire to maintain the family link, even when the child was taken into care. We were surprised to hear—the Chair referred to this example—about a child who was in care because he had been sexually abused by one of his parents, yet those parents were still invited along to birthday, Christmas and end-of-school events to maintain a link with the child, whereas in this country we would tend to cut that link quite sharply. It was suggested that that was one of the main reasons for the success of the Danish system.

We should not cherry-pick when we look at different ways of doing things in other countries; we have to look at the whole picture. In Denmark, we saw not only that emphasis on trying to maintain the family link at all costs, but an emphasis on intervening much earlier, with twice as many children per head of population being taken into care than in the UK. Denmark has the highest rate in Europe of taking children into care, so there is a different approach altogether. We saw that all people involved in child care were much more highly trained and paid than those in this country, so the whole system was very different. We should examine the pattern rather than pick out one of four or five matters that were different.

We have heard arguments about whether we are too slow to intervene in this country. When the Committee extended its inquiry because of the baby P case, Andrew Flanagan, chief executive of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, said that children were being left in danger at home. Wes Cuell, the NSPCC‘s director of children services, said that children

“stay in dangerous families and end up getting killed.”

An Ofsted review reported that thousands of vulnerable children were at risk because councils did not move fast enough to protect them.

Some of the social workers who talked to us said something that I have also heard in years gone by from my wife and her colleagues—that we take too far the approach that families must always be kept together. It was suggested in the inquiry into the baby P case that the emphasis was on the mother’s needs and how we could support her, and that we lost sight of baby P. Whether we intervene too late is a huge question that has been left hanging in the air by the baby P inquiry, the Select Committee’s report and the evidence from bodies such as the NSPCC and Ofsted.

Educational outcomes were referred to earlier. It has been said that looked-after children get a much worse educational outcome than an equivalent 16 or 18-year-old who has had a normal family background and education. A comparison was made with Germany a couple of years ago, but because Germany intervenes sooner, and for a larger number of people, the sample is not comparable. We intervene late and for a smaller, hardcore sample of more damaged and more vulnerable children. Inevitably, their outcomes of any kind, whether alcohol abuse, educational success or mental illness, will be worse than in a larger, more normal sample of children.

A big question has been left hanging in the air. I certainly do not expect the Minister to answer it in 30 seconds, as it probably needs a whole new Select Committee inquiry and a national debate. It is whether we intervene too late and whether we put too much emphasis on keeping children with their family at all costs, even when the cost can be death and damage to children that could have been avoided by earlier intervention, as Ofsted and the NSPCC have argued.

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Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. The House will have heard my earlier comments about the timing of speeches. I hope to get the last two Back Benchers in, but unless contributions are considerably shorter, one of them may miss out.

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Photo of John Hemming John Hemming Liberal Democrat, Birmingham, Yardley 3:22 pm, 2nd July 2009

One of the interesting aspects of this subject is definitions. Let us take the definition of care. A child is “in care” when there is a care order in place, but even then, that child may be placed with their parents. The fact that there has been an intervention, and maybe an early one, does not necessarily mean that it is a stressful intervention with a child being put with a foster carer some distance away. We should look systematically at how families are supported, and organisations such as Home-Start are very good for that.

When we compare different countries, it is critical that we get our definitions right, otherwise it is unclear what is going on. We take into care, through care orders, about 7,000 to 8,000 children a year.

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Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Labour, Sheffield, Heeley

Surely the hon. Gentleman is not ignoring the children who come into care under section 20 orders, which are voluntary, and who therefore do not have care orders?

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Photo of John Hemming John Hemming Liberal Democrat, Birmingham, Yardley

That is true: there are children in care under section 20 orders, and there are a few children in respite care, too. I accept that point. Of the more than 60,000 children in care, roughly a third are voluntarily put into care under section 20 orders, but I always find it a bit of a mistake to take them into account when calculating figures on adoption targets, although admittedly we do not have those targets now. One would not expect children who are on section 20 orders because their parents cannot cope with them to be adopted.

Definitions are very important, and including those under section 20 orders we take into care about 7,000 to 8,000 children a year. The figure used to be about 5,500, according to the SSDA903 return, which goes to the Department for Children, Schools and Families every year from each local authority.

We have to look at what is best for the children. That is the key driver. We have international information and information from academic research to use in making comparisons, but where the Government go spectacularly wrong is in not doing proper research into what is happening. For instance, the Government’s response to the Committee’s report says, on page 16:

“The Government believes that children should be supported to live with their parents wherever possible”.

However, there is no analysis of what is being used as a reason for removing children from their parents and what is not. A small piece of research done early last year looked into some of the issues. It identified that the children of mothers who have been in care are often taken into care in part for that reason, thereby creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Somebody is in care, they then have a child, and the fact that they have been in care is used as a reason to take that child, too, into care under section 31 proceedings. In my view, that is not a very sensible thing to do in the long term.

We have to look at the academic research. One paper, which examined the evacuation of British children during world war three, when large numbers of children were, in effect, voluntarily fostered, is particularly interesting.

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Photo of John Hemming John Hemming Liberal Democrat, Birmingham, Yardley

That is true. Sorry about that—a slight error there, but who knows?

That research was published in a report in Aging and Mental Health, volume 7, issue 5, 2003. It found that the experience created an attachment disorder, which, in a sense, suggests reasons why the Danish approach is particularly good; it is an interesting question whether we should subcontract the entire system to Denmark. What we are not doing is finding out to what extent the way in which the care system operates creates reactive attachment disorder. There are obviously a number of cases, but the Government have done no research.

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Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Labour, Sheffield, Heeley

I question what the hon. Gentleman is saying. I have tabled questions about research that may not have been done by the Government, but which was funded by them. A huge amount of research is done; my question is whether it is then disseminated. However, I could tell the hon. Gentleman at length—although obviously not today, Mr. Deputy Speaker—why certain things are done in the UK, such as the move to smaller children’s homes. Those initiatives are based on research.

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Photo of John Hemming John Hemming Liberal Democrat, Birmingham, Yardley

I am talking about research into particular issues, such as reactive attachment disorder, children who are adopted and then readopted, and why we try to get so many children aged seven, eight or nine adopted when that is clearly not in their best interests.

We need to look at some individual cases. Let us take the case, which Tim Loughton knows well, of Sebastian Godfrey, the grandson of Conservative county councillor Janet Mockridge. He is on the run somewhere on the continent with his mother and baby sister. They are on the run because Medway, the local authority—

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Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. Obviously I do not have detailed knowledge of the case, but I am not quite sure—

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Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means

The hon. Gentleman is ahead of me. I want to ensure that he is aware of the sub judice rules and that he is taking great care to ensure that he observes them.

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Photo of John Hemming John Hemming Liberal Democrat, Birmingham, Yardley

My understanding is that the case is not before any court at the moment. Sebastian and his mother have been on the run for around 14 months. The father of the baby girl was jailed for 14 months, but has since been released. The family is on the run in Europe, yet Medway social services will not drop the complaint to the police and still wants the mother to be arrested under an international arrest warrant.

I look at that case and I think, “What are the best interests of the child? What are we doing that could be of benefit to the child?” There are two children living with their mother on the run in France. One is not subject to the UK’s jurisdiction because the child was born abroad and so cannot be taken away from the mother, but the other child could be taken away through proceedings under The Hague convention. What are the best interests of the child? Why does Medway want to continue the prosecution?

There are cases where mothers have 14 babies on the trot, each one of which is taken into care and adopted. The cost of doing that is about £200,000 a child, which totals £2.8 million. That is not unique: there are a number of cases of people with 18 children, and I have seen smaller numbers, such as 12 or 10. However, is that really a good way of handling the care process? Would it not be feasible to try to support the mother in some way? I have looked at the detail of those cases, so I know what the reasoning behind them is, but is that really the best way forward? Does it work well? I was looking at a case on Monday, and it was clear from the papers that the child, who was about 12, wanted to return to her mother. There was no reason why she should not do so, but, according to the papers, she recognised that she could not return until she was 18.

I accept that my proposition would not be the best way forward for all children, and that we need to intervene and take some children into care, and to put others with foster carers from time to time, but I tend to see the cases in which the system has gone wrong. The case of Sam and Adam Johnson is a good example of that. They are 15 and 17, and subject to a care order because they have fallen out with their mum and are prevented from living with their father. Sam has been able to go back now that he is 17. Essex county council has wasted a massive sum of money on that case. I talk to practitioners in Birmingham who say that they would never do that. Fair enough, but why did Essex county council do it? Initially, the local authority did not want to do it, but it was persuaded by the judge. Some very strange things go on, and unless we deal with them, the system will continue to steamroller people. At the moment it is steamrollering adults and children. Everyone here agrees that the outcomes of the system are disastrous.

Obviously, there is good practice going on, but there is also bad practice. It is a good idea to have advocates for children, for example, but they must be independent. They cannot be appointed by children’s services. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children does some very good advocacy work, and the reason why it is good is that the advocates are not appointed by the local authority. The people providing the services cannot also be the ones who appoint the advocates. To go back to the comparison with Denmark, it has been said that the best advocates are the child’s natural parents, but we have a tendency to squeeze them out of the process. The figure of 7,000 to 8,000, based on SSDA903 returns, has been mentioned. Over half of the children under the age of 10 who go into care come out into adoption, according to the old figures. In 2004-05 the figure was about 3,800 a year.

The system causes wrong decisions to be made in a material number of cases. It does not operate proper checks and balances. Now is not the time to go into the flaws in the family court system at great length, but the report is good in that it recognises the difficulties with the integrated children’s system. I have written a report jointly with two social workers on why the integrated children’s system causes social workers to remain in the office and make the wrong decisions because they cannot get out to see their clients. They are forced to feed their computers instead, and I am not convinced that the Government are doing enough to deal with that. People make the wrong decisions, the whole thing is driven through the system, ignoring realities at certain stages, and come hell or high water, they stick to the original decisions.

There are social workers who agree with me that there are serious problems in the systems. In the family court system, for example, we find that the children and the parents are often trying to fight the professionals, which is not the way to achieve good child care and good outcomes for children. There are even cases involving 14 or 15-year-old children in which a guardian from the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service is trying to interfere. There is no role for a guardian in such cases. CAFCASS is supposed to represent the interests of a child, and it is unclear why it should be anywhere near a case in which the child is clearly Gillick competent.

One of my biggest concerns is the way in which mental capacity is abused. Rachel Pullen’s case is quite well known. I also know of another case in which a woman failed an IQ test that she was given through an interpreter, resulting in a psychologist deciding that she did not have the mental capacity to instruct a solicitor. She was then prevented from opposing care proceedings. As in the Rachel Pullen case, a later psychologist’s report found that she did have the necessary mental capacity. The second psychologist spoke the woman’s language, which made a difference.

Obviously, it is a bit of a waste of time asking Lord Laming whether he was right last time. We really need a proper investigation, and I am pleased that we are making some progress in the Council of Europe, whose legal affairs and human rights committee is to examine family justice in this country.

The Government need to carry out proper research into how the care system operates and where it is systematically going wrong. We are lucky that, in a sense, there is a social science research experiment in the country as a whole, because we have the Scottish system and the English system. In Scotland babies go home to their parents; in England they are adopted. It is thus possible to make a comparison of how the systems are operating where people speak the same language and have quite similar legislation.

I could speak at massive length about the issue, but there would be no great merit in doing so, and I want to allow my hon. Friend Annette Brooke to contribute to the debate. We are not looking sufficiently at where the problems are. Unless we really focus on where the wrong decisions are taken, and unless we have a system of checks and balances that operates in the best interests of the child rather than what is best for the people who make money out of dealing with children, we will not make progress.

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Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Children, Schools and Families), Shadow Minister (Education) 3:35 pm, 2nd July 2009

I congratulate Mr. Sheerman on his leadership of the Select Committee, which brought this report about. I feel quite privileged to have played a small part in it myself, but the leadership is very important. When the report was published, it received considerable media attention—across a wide range of media—and I believe it was a good reflection on our society that this subject was news and that people wanted to reflect on it. I hope that only good will come out of it. I want briefly to address just a few issues and to push the Government a little further on their response.

My first point is about the threshold for taking children into care. I agree with my hon. Friends that the report has left questions in the air in that respect—and rightly so, as these are really important questions. We know that there is a great variation across the country; we do not want to think that decisions are made on a cost basis, but we do not know. We know that since the baby Peter affair, there has been an enormous increase in the number of children taken into care, and we anticipate that as that incident fades into the back of people’s minds, those numbers will diminish. We heard about the same experience—of rises and falls over time—in New York. That is not good enough; we need a balanced approach. I agree with the Government that local decision making and taking the right decision for each individual child is important, but there must be a national debate, which would also need to reflect in a deep way on international experience.

I was quite alarmed when I saw an edition of Children & Young People Now with the headline “Councils ‘capping’ care places”. Further reading revealed an example of a county council that

“has had 60 children in residential care every year from 2004 to 2008“.

There might be all sorts of reasons for that; there may be some rounding of the numbers, for example. I do not know, but that example raises questions, which need answering, about whether that council has a fixed number of places and draws the line there.

I remember the introduction of quality protects and the concept of corporate parenting being introduced in 1997; there was some good stuff in that. However, as I read the Government’s response, I find it seems to be saying, “All these statutory partners in the children’s trusts will all become corporate parents,” but corporate parenting means doing something as well as being something. I suspect that there is a major role for elected members to give real leadership within their local authorities. I would like to see some good practice publicised across the country, as I suspect some authorities do corporate parenting a lot better than others.

I also want to reflect on health and well-being, as the passage of the Children and Young Persons Bill through Committee was frustrating for me. I failed to get my amendment accepted because it dealt with a health matter. I think we need more joined-up Government. The Government’s response is, I think, basically in agreement with the Select Committee, but we need more than words. Many troubled and vulnerable young people are brought into the care system and many of them will have been abused, yet therapeutic treatment is not available promptly across the country. Provision is really patchy. It is not good enough just to promise assessments; we really need to offer the treatment. It must be provided promptly if we are to break the cycle of abuse. There has been talk of what will happen in the future; perhaps the Minister will give us an idea of the time frame.

Of course children and young people need to stay in care for longer, especially as 45 per cent. of those in care are adolescents. Evidence given to the Select Committee by one of our witnesses suggested that the GCSE results of 16-year-olds in care were remarkably good in view of the state that those children were in when they entered the care system. Because there is so much catching up to do, young people in care are likely to need to continue their education for quite a bit longer. I was pleased when Dorset was chosen as one of the areas for a “staying put” pilot scheme. Has the Minister any idea when we may be able to move beyond the pilots? I understand that they are going rather well.

I was also pleased that the Committee considered the issue of kinship care. However, although a little more money is available since the passage of the Children and Young Persons Act 2008, I know of grandparents who are forced into hardship when they are doing their very best for children. Of course we do not want them to do it for the money, but I have witnessed the making of great sacrifices. “Voice of the Child” is dear to my heart, and I welcome the creation of children in care councils, although I should have preferred them to be statutory. I am not sure that they will be provided by all local authorities, but I sincerely hope that they will.

The Committee said a great deal about advocacy. We argued strongly that every child should be entitled to an independent advocate whenever a decision was made about him or her. The Government responded favourably, making a commitment that future statutory guidance would state explicitly that children were entitled to such support. When will that guidance be introduced, and when will this actually happen? Let me issue a particular plea for disabled children. Many children in the care system are severely disabled, and they of all people need advocates—not necessarily the advocates whom we might expect to appoint, but those who will understand their gestures and emotions.

Keith Vaz made an important point about trafficked children. We have much more to do in that regard. I was disappointed that the Government did not accept the Committee’s recommendation that a guardian should be appointed for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. The Government keep turning their back on that all-important issue.

There is much to celebrate in the progress of some young people through the care system, and indeed much to celebrate in terms of their achievements on the way; but as we have been saying for a long time, we must do better. The quality of the work force across the board is key, as is the stability of placements. I agree with Mr. Sheerman that every child in our society ought to be entitled to live in a stable loving relationship.

I suspect that the Select Committee’s report on social workers will be of great significance. We have heard compelling evidence to suggest that things need to be done very differently. Having read the preliminary report of the Social Work Taskforce, I hope that the Select Committee’s report will make a bigger contribution. There is good practice, but we need to provide the best for all our children. We must make a cross-party commitment to tackling a very real issue that we have not faced up to over the years.

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Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children) 3:44 pm, 2nd July 2009

We have had a good and full debate for a Thursday afternoon, with some excellent contributions from both sides of the House on a range of different subjects. Different expertise was introduced into the debate, starting with Keith Vaz who spoke about child trafficking. My hon. Friend Bill Wiggin catalogued all the very poor outcomes—I will not repeat them—that I am afraid are very much a fact of life for children in the care system and the generational vicious circle of under-achievement that we so often see.

Mr. Chaytor is no longer in his place but he mentioned that we are talking about victims. It needs to be reinforced that in 99.9 per cent. of cases of children who find themselves in the care system, it is not their fault. They are the victims. They come from a damaged background and they deserve and have the right to a second chance at a decent upbringing, which is what the care system should be able to provide for them.

Paul Holmes made some interesting points about the respective ages of leaving care and the particular pressures of the availability of housing. I will not mention the particular cases mentioned by John Hemming, one of which I have a special interest in. He certainly had a great fascination for the detail of statistics and the research that was needed—until, of course, it came to researching the number of world wars, where he was out by a margin of 50 per cent.

Annette Brooke has spoken a lot on this subject and she made the point that the report received a lot of good media coverage. I wonder whether it would have received the same level of media coverage had it not been in the wake of the baby Peter tragedy. Probably the biggest tragedy is that it takes such a high-profile case to put the subject in the public consciousness and on the front pages, yet it is a problem and a scandal that has been going on day in, day out for too many years.

I congratulate Mr. Sheerman and his Committee on the detail and thoroughness of the report and on being able to secure this debate. As I said, we have not had debates on vulnerable children and children in care in all the time that we have had a Children’s Minister; such debates have been held only in Opposition time. They should be held more and we have a responsibility to do that.

The report should not really be necessary. We should have tackled the scandal of these under-achievements a long time ago. Along with child protection and safeguarding, the Government have done a lot in terms of legislation over the past few years, especially since the Climbié report. We have had big structural changes—in children’s services and in directors of children’s services. Lots of new positions and new databases have been created, with varying effectiveness. We have had new qualifications for the professionals involved in looking after vulnerable children. I fear that the system has become rather bureaucratic. In some cases, it can be said that the system has become more about protecting itself and conforming with the rule books than about protecting the vulnerable children and families whom the people involved are there to protect.

We have been clear for some years—we published “No More Blame Game”, the results of the Conservative party’s commission on social workers, almost two years ago and made a submission to the Laming inquiry—that new structures, new personnel, new titles and new computer systems are all very well, but they are subsidiary to making sure that there are adequately resourced, motivated, trusted and respected professionals, especially social workers, able to get on with their jobs at the sharp end. It is not computer systems that rescue vulnerable children and provide them with a decent opportunity to rebuild a damaged upbringing by giving them the tools to succeed. It is the right interventions by the right people, properly informed by computer data rather than shackled to those computers for too much of the time as they struggle to fill in ever more bureaucratic integrated children’s systems and other assessment forms—constantly chasing their tails, reacting to safeguarding children cases, rather than getting involved proactively to keep families together and steer them away from crisis situations or to remove a child speedily when the value judgment needs to be made.

Nine years on from the tragic death of Victoria Climbié, and following numerous reviews of the care system, it is unacceptable that, for many children, simply taking them into care will condemn them to a childhood of significant under-achievement. If we are taking a child into care, it must be able to replace that child’s growing up environment with something that is better. It must take them out of immediate danger but surely gives them something better than they would have put up with had they remained with their birth parents.

We have heard all the statistics. The proportion of children in care achieving five GCSEs or equivalent at grade A* to C has risen from 8 per cent. in 2001 to 13.9 per cent. in 2008. That is progress, but over the same period the proportion of all children—including children in care, so the figure for non-children in care is even higher—achieving those grades at GCSE has risen from 48 to 65 per cent. The gap, which is what is important, has risen from 40 per cent. in 2001 to about 51 per cent. That under-achievement gap is the true scandal, and it shows how we regard children in care. We permit them to under-achieve so badly because the system is simply not looking after them.

Let us look at some other outcomes. The report underlined the fact that 45 per cent. of looked-after children aged between five and 17 have mental health problems, compared with one in 10 of the school-age population as a whole. Also, up to 49 per cent. of young offenders in young offenders institutions have been in the care system, and we condemn them to a recidivism rate that makes it very likely that they will get on to the slippery slope to a lifetime of crime. We still have a long way to go, therefore.

It is not only right in itself that we should redouble our efforts to get a better deal for children in care, but it is a false economy not to do so, as children from the care system feature disproportionately in the fallout from broken Britain. Following the baby Peter case, the situation has become even more urgent, as the number of applications for care proceedings has risen sharply from December of last year. Interestingly, however, the proportion actually resulting in care orders has fallen quite sharply over that period, which raises the question of whether there is an unnecessary knee-jerk reaction. We need to do more research into that.

I do not want to be entirely negative, because in my travels around children’s services departments throughout the country in recent months I have seen some excellent examples of good practice—as, I am sure, have many hon. Members. They need to be disseminated more widely, however.

Yesterday morning, I visited an excellent small residential home in Harrow that is run by the local authority. It gives very good support to the teenage residents there. I met the director of children’s services for Harrow, Paul Clark, who knows all of the 150 children in the care of that borough. Last week, he took a group of them out bowling. All the children in care in that authority can have access to the director of children’s services. We should be able to expect such hands-on contact in all authorities.

On Monday, I spent the day with social workers in Hackney, and saw the effective new social worker units there with their consultant social worker professionals. They are fired-up and motivated people, and they told me that they are now spending more of their time with the vulnerable families and their children, rather than in front of computers filling in assessment forms—although they would like to scrap the integrated children’s system or ICS all together. In the past few years, that borough has gone from being almost a basket case in child safeguarding to reducing the number of children in care by about a third. It has done that by being far more proactive, putting in far more resources, and freeing up far more social workers’ time to spend with the families in order to try to keep the children with their families and keep the children together. That is the result that all of us want to achieve. Consequently, whereas there are a great many problems with vacancy rates in other authorities throughout the country, for its posts of consultant social worker that authority was turning away 10 applicants for every one recruited—so it can choose the cream of the crop. This can be done, therefore.

Barnet had an innovative recruitment campaign called “Got a new Barnet?” It has brought in a buddy system: every child in care is buddied up with an officer of the council, from the chief executive downwards. Educational achievement, for one thing, has gone up considerably.

Nearby, in Ealing, where I opened the Horizons education centre the year before last, there is a drop-in place for children in care. It is run largely by people who used to be children in care, who went on to university, and who have taken up work with that borough, so they really know what children in care want. As of this year, 18 per cent. of children in care in the borough of Ealing are going on to university, which compares with some 1 or 2 per cent. of the looked-after children population as a whole. That is an extraordinary achievement, and I believe that Ealing’s figure is the highest in the country.

Another example that I have seen is the family drug and alcohol court in Wells street, here in London. It is a new pilot scheme, based on an experiment in the United States, whereby intensive support is given to parents who are on the verge of losing their children to the care system. It involves not only rehabilitation for drug and alcohol problems, which are so often the cause of family break-up, but housing support, education support and so on. It is a real last-chance saloon aimed at trying to keep families together.

I have seen examples of family conferencing through the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, and we need a lot more of that. I have seen Foster Care Associates projects offering intensive support to foster carers such that the educational achievements of children in that sort of foster care are alarmingly higher than the average that would be expected. I have seen the Action for Children black families adoption project, which is run out of south London, where black children, and black teenage boys in particular, who are disproportionately represented in the looked-after children system are now finding prospective adoptive black parents, of whom there has been a great scarcity. That innovative project is offering those black children stable, loving homes and a second chance to have the stable family upbringing that they have missed out on.

The Government response to the report was a bit light and could have gone a lot further, although the spirit of it was very much in agreement with the thrust of the Committee’s report, most of which I agree with. I support the measures in the Children and Young Persons Act 2008 designating a teacher responsible for looked-after children. I would have also liked to see a designated governor to give some extra beef to the accountability line and ensure that things are carried out in practice. It is important to ensure that children in the care system are kept, wherever possible, in a familiar environment that is close to home, close to family members and extended family members and close to their school so that they can receive some continuity of education, as the lack of that is such a big problem for so many children in the care system.

Let us consider some of the points that the Committee made and the Government’s response. The first point is about removing the barriers that obstruct the development of “good personal relationships”. We have heard a bit today about the Danish experiment, but I do not think anyone has mentioned the pedagogue view of social work, which is all about empathy between the social worker responsible and the child in the care system. We hear so often from children in the care system about the lack of continuity in social workers. Children are constantly chasing their tails, they cannot rely on the social worker to turn up when they want them to do so, and before they know it the social worker has moved on and there is a change. How on earth can we expect to rehabilitate a child who has gone through such a damaged and disruptive family background if we constantly give them different schools or different foster carers because they are being moved around, or different social workers? These children need to establish empathy, stability and a link with people who have their best interests at heart.

That is why the Danish experiment was so interesting. What I saw in the homes that I visited—I went to Helsinki with the shadow children’s team—is a flexibility in the system. In this country, a child is either in care or with their birth parents. In the homes in Denmark—many more children in care there are in residential children’s homes, which are almost exclusively owned and run by the municipalities in that country—there is greater flexibility. The children will go home, whatever home may be, at weekends. Once a week in one of the homes family members come in and the children cook dinner for them. We lack that greater flexibility in this country, and we need to see how some of the social pedagogy pilots that are being developed and that will be coming in with residential children’s homes pan out, because I think that they could offer some interesting examples of how we can do things rather better.

The social worker practices to which we gave legislative authority in the recent Bill will be very important, certainly in providing specialisations to deal with some of the more challenging children. We need to consider how to ensure that we can fill the gap in the number of foster carers; there is a shortage of up to 10,000 quality foster carers in this country. There is a postcode lottery of what we pay foster carers and how we support them. If we invested a bit more in the support that we give them, especially those dealing with some of the most challenging children, fewer placements might break down—which is a big problem. We should also do more with kinship carers. It is crazy that in this country some 4 to 6 per cent. of social worker-instigated placements are with kinship carers, but in Denmark the figure is nearer 25 per cent. The guidance says that we should do more, but in practice we are not achieving it. Much more practical help for foster carers, especially kinship foster carers, is needed.

I have a serious concern about what Ofsted is actually inspecting in children’s social care. There is still a big problem with the legacy from the Commission for Social Care Inspection. Ofsted is dominated by people from educational backgrounds and we know that there is not a single qualified social worker on its board, so we need to review the way in which it inspects children’s homes and other forms of children’s social care.

I am glad that the Government have set aside any notion of a target number of children in care. That was a nonsense, as are any targets for children in care. Every child must be treated as an individual.

Many hon. Members mentioned the need to intervene early wherever possible. It is a false economy not to do so, because some children are so damaged when they eventually come into care that it takes twice as much effort to get them back on to the straight and narrow.

It is crazy that in this country the average age at which children leave their parents’ home is 25—it is getting later and later because of property prices and the recession—but we expect many children in residential care to go into the big wide world at the age of 16. They face enormous questions about whether to get a job or sit more exams, and how to find housing. We need more flexibility in the system because, while some children may be up to doing all that at 16, some certainly are not. Even for those able to do it at 16, everything can go pear-shaped a couple of years later and they find that they cannot cope. That is why we need support mechanisms so that children can leave the care system, but dip back into it if they need to do so.

It is absurd that many care leavers are declared intentionally homeless and have to fall back on the local authority to give them emergency housing. That is crazy, and I am pleased that the report mentions this vicious circle that affects too many of our most vulnerable young people. Housing is one of the biggest practical problems that they face.

The recommendations in the report include a request to the Government

“to guarantee future funding for social workers posts in Youth Offending Institutions.”

Earlier this year I visited the YOI at Brinsford and met the social worker of the year, Jacqui Knight, who is doing fantastic work there. She sent me a letter earlier this week from the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, which warns that the funding for the scheme that has been working for some time to secure the long-term sustainability of social worker posts in YOIs is now seriously under threat. For that reason, some of the posts may be lost and the future of people such as Jacqui Knight is seriously in doubt. That would be an enormous loss in dealing with some of the most challenging young people who have left care and ended up in the youth justice system. I hope that the Government will look at the issue again, because those social workers are doing some fine work.

I could also mention the whole problem of unaccompanied asylum seekers, of which I have particular experience in West Sussex, where we have Gatwick airport. Many children come into the care system as a result, only to be abducted by pimps from west Africa and to end up in the sex trade in northern Italy.

This is an important report on a really important subject. It deserves much greater exposure than it has had over too many years. It is a tragedy that it has taken a high profile tragedy such as baby Peter to get this sort of work noticed.

The outcomes for children in care in this country are a scandal that we have accepted over too many years. We must redouble our efforts to ensure that we do not fail so many children in the care system who have already been failed by their families. They have the right to expect the state to give them a second chance at a stable upbringing so that they can become the decent members of society that we all want them to become. We have a duty of care to ensure that that can happen.

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Photo of Diana R. Johnson Diana R. Johnson Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools) 4:05 pm, 2nd July 2009

I thank my hon. Friend Mr. Sheerman and all the other members of the Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families for compiling this report, which, as my hon. Friend said in his opening remarks, concerns the most vulnerable children in our society. I also want to thank members of the Select Committee for their interventions and speeches throughout this afternoon. I found the speeches of my hon. Friend Mr. Chaytor and Annette Brooke particularly useful and helpful. Some very interesting points were raised in both.

We have had a wide-ranging debate, moving from issues such as council house building targets to the presidency of the EU. If I do not answer all the points that have been raised, I hope that hon. Members will forgive me. I shall try to write to them on any outstanding points.

The report is a good one and it provides a thorough analysis of the care system. I am delighted that it recognises the commitment and investment that the Government have made since 1997 to help children in care. I think that we all agree that those children deserve exactly the same opportunities in life as their peers, whether that means a good education, good health care or simply the consistent support, advice and practical help that provides the foundations on which young people build their lives. The Government have set about strengthening those foundations through critical reforms such as Every Child Matters, “Aiming High” and “Care Matters”.

We recognise that there is always more to do and more support that we can provide to young people. Local authorities will have to open up new opportunities for children and ensure that the highest quality support is available to children in care everywhere, not just here and there. Councils need to stop thinking in terms of what is good enough for children in care. They should think instead about their role as corporate parents in helping the children in their care to shine.

When I read the Select Committee report, I was very struck by the phrase “pushy parents”. That is absolutely right. In these circumstances, we want corporate parents to be really pushy parents. That means making the appropriate financial investment and ensuring that the right services are in place, but it also means having very high expectations—the same expectations as any good parent.

As corporate parents, councils need to ensure that their children and young people have the same access as others to educational and other opportunities. For example, if a child is musical they should be encouraged to learn an instrument and given the necessary funding, or if a boy has a sporting talent he should be provided with a sporting programme tailored to his needs. If a child needs one-to-one support tuition, councils should use the £500 personal education allowance that we have made available to pay for it. I recall that my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North, who is not in his seat at the moment, talked about that point and had concerns about whether the money would get to where it is needed.

This comes down to the fact that corporate parenting is just that—parenting. It is very important for the welfare of the child in care that councillors do not lose sight of that fact. My hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North also mentioned the need to celebrate the success of young people in care and how opportunities to do that should be embraced to make young people feel as they would in a family situation. If they pass exams, there should be a celebration of that.

The Government recognise, of course, that we have responsibilities to make the changes happen. We must help improve children’s services by providing the right legislation and structural frameworks, by setting clear objectives and standards and by monitoring and inspecting services and outcomes. As my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield knows, last year we passed the Children and Young Persons Act 2008, which we believe will put the right legislative framework in place. Through our “Care Matters” programme, we now have a comprehensive programme of reform in place to provide clear objectives and standards.

However, we will continue to do everything we can to transform the quality of care, and to raise aspirations for care leavers. That means taking action from the moment that children are placed in the hands of a local authority, which is why we want a shift in the quality of care provided by local authorities for looked-after children. We want to make sure that young people receive good parenting from every person involved in their lives. We want children in care to be consulted about their needs and views, and we want the educational performance of looked-after children to be improved so that the overwhelming majority attend school regularly and achieve good examination results.

We also want to make sure that young people leaving care can participate socially and economically as citizens, while living in suitable accommodation and being in employment, education or training. I accept that those are very tough objectives, but we are confident that they are achievable. Indeed, we have already started to see the results of the investment that has been made. There has been a steady increase in the educational attainment of children in care, and the greater support given to care leavers has led to more children living in suitable accommodation. In addition, young people in care are experiencing fewer placement moves.

Now is the moment to build on that success, and I hope that the report can act as a catalyst. I particularly want to talk about the voice of the child, because that has to be at the heart of policy development in this area. Listening to children in care is critical to ensuring that the care system can replicate the secure care of good parents for every looked-after child. My hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield stressed the need for the listening skills that were employed when the report was compiled. It is absolutely right that we must continue to listen to looked-after children so that we can hear what their experience has been like and what they would like to be changed.

That means that decisions should always be made in the best interests of the child, based on a thorough assessment of their needs. We must take the child’s wishes and feelings fully into account, just as any parent would. We expect all local authorities to establish children in care councils and to put in place pledges to give children and young people a real opportunity to influence services and support in their area.

We have asked the charity A National Voice, which represents children in care, to contribute to this autumn’s ministerial stock-take on the progress of children in care councils. I know that the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole is particularly interested in that. In addition, local authorities and their children’s trust partners are expected to consult young people in developing their children and young persons plan. For individual children in care, the current framework of legislation and statutory guidance already requires the local authority to involve children and record their views.

Good children’s services should be developed with young people, not foisted on them. We know that children in care want to be listened to on the day-to-day issues that affect their lives, such as pocket money, bedtimes, sleepovers or clothes. As parents, of course we listen to the views of our own children on these issues, even if we do not always agree with them. As corporate parents, we should do exactly the same thing for children in care.

I agree that care planning has not always taken proper account of the child’s wishes and feelings, but the role of the independent reviewing officer is being strengthened to ensure that children participate in planning for their own care, and that the care plan is based on a thorough assessment of all aspects of the individual child’s needs. The Children and Young Persons Act 2008 will enhance that framework, and reinforce the responsibility of the child’s social worker for establishing and recording the child’s views.

A lot has been said this afternoon about the relationship between the work force and children. My hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield mentioned the vital importance of social workers or residential or foster carers having a strong bond with children and their families. I absolutely agree with him on that point, and on the report’s conviction that the care system should be seen as part of a continuum of effective family support services, rather than as something separate and distinct. We know that, where there are strong attachments between children and at least one adult, children are happier and achieve better outcomes. The Government are absolutely committed to improving the skills and competencies of foster and residential carers. We want to support them in building strong relationships with the children and young people whom they look after, and help them to take good decisions about their care.

As my hon. Friend knows, the “Care Matters” implementation plan sets out a programme of work to achieve those aims. That includes much better training and support for foster carers, with the roll-out of the fostering changes programme and the piloting of the social pedagogy model in residential children’s homes that comes from Denmark. We have heard a lot this afternoon about the experiences in Denmark and other European countries. There is a pilot in England, and careful attention will be paid to its outcomes.

Supporting relationships with family members is crucial. Most children are in care only for short periods, and a primary aim must be to try to settle them back with their parents, wherever possible and appropriate. Even when children are likely to remain in care for the long term, most children will want to maintain their links with their family.

Let me deal with foster carers. “Care Matters” highlights the need to support foster carers to develop their own training and skills, thus allowing them to respond more appropriately to children in their care. But I agree with the Select Committee report that foster carers should also be given practical support, including financial support and information about how to access education and health services. That is why, as my hon. Friend knows, we have funded a number of initiatives in recent years to improve the support for foster carers, such as working with the Children’s Workforce Development Council to develop foster care training, support and development standards; funding the national roll-out of the fostering changes programme; introducing a national minimum allowance for foster carers in 2007; and, of course, funding Fosterline—a national, independent advice line for foster carers.

A number of Members have commented on residential care. I am in complete agreement that such care has an important role to play as a placement option. For many young people, particularly the older ones, it will be the right placement choice. However, many local authorities and social workers still do not see it as a positive option; they see it as an option of last resort. That is why the Government are committed to ensuring that residential care is seen as a positive option for those young people who would benefit from it.

Children’s homes cater for some of the most vulnerable children in our society, and it is important to note that the quality of that provision has been improving. As my hon. Friend will know, 92 per cent. of children’s homes have been rated satisfactory or better by Ofsted and two thirds were rated as good or outstanding at their most recent inspections. But there is no room for complacency, and we need to continue to do everything that we can to raise standards in children’s homes. That is why we are now funding the National Centre for Excellence in Residential Child Care, introducing tough new enforcement powers for children’s homes that fail to comply with the national minimum standards, revising the national minimum standards for children’s homes, and working with the Children’s Workforce Development Council to look at developing training and development standards for staff in children’s homes.

Social work reform is a very important issue, which my hon. Friend raised in his contribution at the beginning of the debate. The Select Committee is carrying out an inquiry into that critical area, in which the Government have made significant strides. As hon. Members will be aware, the Secretaries of State for Children, Schools and Families and for Health established a joint Social Work Taskforce at the end of last year to make recommendations, and it has already consulted widely with social workers and other key partners. The work of the taskforce will build on Lord Laming‘s report, and it is important to acknowledge that much good work is already under way to improve social care services for children and young people locally and nationally.

Alongside new funding, the Secretary of State has also announced a number of new measures that are intended to have an immediate impact. That includes addressing recruitment issues through the return to social work scheme, the graduate recruitment scheme and the roll-out of the newly qualified social worker programme. The very nature of social work means that it will always be a challenging job. Too often, our social workers do not get the recognition that they so thoroughly deserve. We must therefore ensure that they are properly supported to carry out their hugely important work, while also being properly valued and respected.

On the education of looked-after children, the report rightly raises the issue of the gap in educational attainment between children in care and their peers. We know only too well that every poor GCSE result chips away at a young person’s aspirations and prospects. However, progress is being made; in 2008, 14 per cent. of looked-after children achieved five GCSEs at grades A* to C. That is double the figure in 2000, but it has to be better. Of course, huge progress has been made by the young people as a whole, which is to be applauded and welcomed, but we must get things right for looked-after young people in particular.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield will know, key stage 2 attainment has been improving steadily. Undoubtedly there is more to do. My hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North spoke about the fact that looked-after children are given top priority in admissions arrangements. That goes for all schools; there was some debate about academies. There is a £500 personal education allowance. We are already piloting the role of the virtual school head, which Mr. Laws mentioned, and there will be designated teachers for looked-after children in every school from the start of the new school year. It is worth recognising that opportunities for boarding are available, where they are suitable for the needs of a child.

We have talked about health. We have been working hard to improve the health of children in care, and in recent years there has been an increase in the proportion of children who have had their annual health assessment and visit to a dentist. By 2008, some 87 per cent. of looked-after children had received a dental check and a health assessment in the previous year. The 2007 child health mapping survey found that 76 per cent. of primary care trusts had a designated doctor for looked-after children in post, and 93 per cent. reported having a designated nurse in post for looked-after children.

I agree on the need to improve the support that child and adolescent mental health services provide to children in care, particularly given the very worrying statistic that around 45 per cent. of looked-after children aged five to 17 have a mental health problem of some kind. That issue is being explored as part of the consultation on the revised statutory guidance on the health and well-being of looked-after children.

On the outcomes for care leavers, there are some encouraging signs that things are getting better. For instance, the proportion of care leavers in suitable accommodation rose from 79.6 per cent. in 2004 to 88.4 per cent. last year. The proportion of care leavers in education, employment and training has risen from 55.4 per cent. to 64.9 per cent. However, I agree that we need to do much better and go a lot further more quickly. That is why we want to change the way in which we think about that period in a young person’s life. It should no longer be seen as leaving care; it should be seen as a transition to adulthood.

We cannot and should not arbitrarily assume that young people are ready to move on simply because they have reached a certain age; a number of hon. Members have made that point. Instead, we need a presumption that children will continue to be looked after up to the age of 18. There will only very rarely, I think, be good reasons for a local authority to cease looking after a child before he or she turns 18. Local authorities will be prevented from moving a looked-after child from a fostering or children’s home to what they call “other arrangements” unless they decide to do so following a statutory review of the child’s case.

My hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield knows that through “Care Matters”, we will pilot a scheme whereby care leavers stay with former foster carers at 18. He will also know that a care leaver can access health and care services up to the age of 21, and that they will have personal advisers available up to the age of 25 if they need help with further learning or training. As I think Members in all parts of the House recognise, having a job is, for any young person, the first step to improving social mobility. For too long, too many young people have fallen into the trap of poverty and joblessness after leaving care because there was no one to give them the help that they needed.

Our new employment programme for care leavers will provide that helping hand and give such young people the opportunity to realise their true potential. There will be career mentoring and work experience to support them into stable and rewarding work, and access to an appropriate range of accommodation options, which is vital to improving a young person’s successful transition to adulthood. We would not accept our own children leaving home to live in unsuitable accommodation, and we certainly should not accept looked-after children living in unsuitable accommodation.

In conclusion, I hope that I have shown that the “Care Matters” programme is about the Government, local authorities and voluntary organisations building a new partnership and investing to reverse past failings. Our most fundamental aim is to ensure that vulnerable children in this country get the best that society can offer—the care, safety and security that each and every child deserves. We need services that act no longer just as a safety net against failure, but as a springboard for success.

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Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Chair, Children, Schools and Families Committee

Mr. Speaker, we have had more than our fair share of time. We have had a great, well-informed debate—a debate that shows the role that Select Committees can play in informing the House and in holding the Government to account, and I thank the House for the time.

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Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Chair, Members Estimate Committee, Chair, Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that.

Question deferred (Standing Order No. 54(4)).

A debate on children from October 2014. Perhaps the last time John Hemming spoke on this issue, as he lost his seat in the General Elections held a few months later. For the full debate see here.

John Hemming Liberal Democrat, Birmingham, Yardley

I am not 100% certain that this Bill legally traps it, but that was the intention. I do not think that it is perfectly drafted, so we do not know—that is one of the difficulties with these Bills.

Let us take some examples given by the Campaign for Freedom of Information. The information that the Information Commissioner has said does not have to be made available under FOI includes the number of parking tickets issued, and then cancelled on appeal, by traffic wardens employed by a council contractor and who are offered Argos points as an incentive to issue tickets. That example is similar to what the right hon. Gentleman is talking about. We effectively have the exercise of a public power of enforcement but no proper accountability for it. That is a good example.

Other examples include: how often a contractor-managed swimming pool had been needlessly closed to the public because it had been booked by schools that did not use their slots, which again relates to public resources; the arrangements made by a sub-contractor to restore the Leyton marsh after its use as a temporary basketball court during the Olympics; the qualifications of assessors used to verify that incapacity benefit claims have been properly dealt with by Atos, the Department for Work and Pensions contractor; and the cost of providing Sky television to prisoners and the number of cells with their own telephones at HM Prison Dovegate, which is privately managed. As the director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, Maurice Frankel, said,

“each new outsourcing contract reduces the public’s access to information because of a loophole in the FOI Act. Information that is vital to the public may be kept secret simply because the contract doesn’t provide for access. The Bill would restore the public’s right to know.”

That is another point that shows that this is unfinished business. This cannot just be allowed to drift. We need action from the Government, whoever is in government and at whatever stage, to deal with those exemptions, because what are clearly public functions are escaping accountability.

I will come to the family courts and justice matters later, but the Bill also contains provisions that relate to the Criminal Cases Review Commission.. Again, this is a privatisation issue, because the Forensic Science Service is now a private contractor, rather than one controlled by the state. It no longer has access to information to check whether or not somebody has been subject to a miscarriage of justice. When it was in the public sector, it did have that access, but in the private sector it does not. I believe that the equivalent body in Scotland does have that access.

To me, this is a no-brainer. It is a shame that the Bill will not go to Committee, where those relatively straightforward issues could be resolved. Potentially, they could go through the regulatory reform process, because it could be argued that that would reduce a burden on the Criminal Cases Review Commission. I serve on the Regulatory Reform Committee, and, if I may say so, we are not that busy—not that overwhelmed with things going on. It would be good to free up the Criminal Cases Review Commission to monitor and access information and to reduce the number of miscarriages of justice.

The Bill has another aspect to do with miscarriages of justice. There is the difficulty of people who do not admit their guilt being kept in jail beyond their tariff, and the question of whether their numbers should be counted. If people do not accept their guilt and they are guilty, then they are potentially unsafe to release because they do not accept that they have done anything wrong. If they are not guilty and do not admit their guilt, then they are stuck. My concern is that the Government do not even count these situations, so we have no knowledge of how many of those cases there are.

Those are the matters that were not covered so much in my previous private Member’s Bill. I will now come to the family court issues and talk more widely about where we stand. I think I mentioned the Brazilian television case. North Tyneside council threatened an injunction against Brazilian television, and there have been attempts to injunct Czech TV as well. The system does not really work. To be fair, I have a lot of time for the current president of the family division, who is making gradual but sustained progress in dealing with the situation. However, there is a long way to go.

Earlier this week, a gentleman from German radio came to see me. He was concerned about the situation in Rotherham, which he had been investigating. Not only did the local authority take children into care, where they were found to be less well protected, but if they became pregnant it put them up for adoption on the basis that there was a future risk of emotional harm. There is always a challenge when medical evidence—medical opinion—is provided as part of judicial processes, and that exists whether it is in the family courts on a balance of probabilities or in the criminal courts on the basis of beyond reasonable doubt. To some extent, when an expert goes around saying that people are guilty, they are treated as guilty. However, a lot of people come to see me saying, “We just took our child to hospital because we thought they were ill and suddenly we find that we are being prosecuted for all sorts of things.”

To be fair, the triad of symptoms of shaken baby syndrome has now been recognised to be flawed. It was always known that this happened spontaneously for cases of butyric aciduria, so we know that in certain circumstances the triad occurs spontaneously. What we do not know is all the circumstances in which that has occurred. However, the symptoms have been used to convict and imprison people and to remove their children and put them up for adoption.

One of the clauses that I am particularly interested in would allow for academic scrutiny of court proceedings. I am talking about academic social workers, medical challenge and psychological challenge. At the moment, in essence, the only really effective audit on family court proceedings, particularly for public family law, is the example of international cases. The advantage of international cases is that two different jurisdictions are looking at the same case. Earlier I cited the King case, where the family went off to Spain and are now in the Czech Republic. Obviously that case was considered by the Spaniards. They were lucky because they managed to get their story out on YouTube and were not injuncted.

There are similar cases. The Paccheri case is well known—it concerns the lady who was forced to have a caesarean when she visited the UK whose child was then adopted. When we investigate the medical evidence put to the Court of Protection, we find, looking at the considerations by experts on the internet—there are experts on the internet and some people do that work very well, but not everything on the internet is true: do not believe everything you read on the internet—that there was a good, detailed critique of the judgment, but it was published only because we found out about what had gone on; it was not published as part of an ordinary process.

The judge was in a very difficult situation. The court was presented with one piece of medical evidence by the hospital. The medics from the hospital came and said, “You’ve got to force this lady to have a caesarean.” There was no medical challenge to that. There was somebody representing the hospital trust and somebody representing the official solicitor, who is in theory representing the protected person, although I do not think they had spoken to the protected person. The decision, however, was based on medical evidence, but there was no challenge or second opinion. I have been going on about this issue for some time: there is no right to a second opinion. Had detailed consideration been given to a second opinion in this case, it would have said, “Actually, this isn’t necessary.” The traumatic way in which the lady was treated did not help her in the long term.

Last Monday’s “Inside Out” was about refugees from the UK and the issue was also covered in “Panorama” earlier this year. I understand that there are more than 100 families in Ireland who left the UK to escape the system. That is a lot of people. I have been dealing with cases such as that of Angela Wileman for about seven years, so this has been going on for some time. My own personal recommendation is not to go to Ireland, because its authorities will tend to act on behalf of the English authorities, whereas those in Spain or France will not and will treat the case properly.

There are two types of international cases: those whereby people leave the UK to escape the system, and those whereby a foreign citizen’s case is decided on by the UK jurisdiction. The advantage of the Paccheri case is that the Rome family court gave a judgment that is publicly available and basically says that it does not understand what is going on in England.

Another judgment has been issued this week—I think it was last night—in respect of a Czech case. Under The Hague convention, each country has a central authority that deals with international family law issues, be they public or private. The Czech central authority—which, about two years ago, refused to do anything on any case—said, “We can’t understand this case. There is a Czech family living in the Czech Republic with a baby and you won’t let them have their two-year-old.” How is that in accordance with article 8 of the European convention on human rights? If we are going to talk about critiques of the convention, it has been the dog that has not barked in the night about public family law. Marica Pirosikova, who is one of the Slovak Government’s two representatives at the European Court of Human Rights, has expressed concern about that particular aspect. In fact, she was one of the organisers of a conference in Prague about a week and a half ago on public family law, with a particular focus on the UK.

Interestingly, the Council of Europe carried out an investigation on public family law and it was headed by a Russian politician who came to visit me here. Sadly, because the Russians have withdrawn from the Council of Europe, that particular inquiry has got stuck. My understanding is that it managed to get a lot of useful comparative information from different jurisdictions about how they deal with public family law. The inquiry found it odd that more complaints were made about England and Wales than about other countries combined. There was a real hubbub of complaint with regard to the UK. In fact, petitions were presented to the European

Parliament either earlier this year or late last year, and a lot of things have been going on at the Council of Europe: this is its second inquiry, but it is a much bigger than the first one. When I was asked why the volume was so low, I said it was because people do not do the maths right. My critique has often been that the Government are not adequately scientific.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

May I correct the hon. Gentleman on one thing? The Russians have not withdrawn from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. Many members of the Parliamentary Assembly wish that they would until they allow Crimea to be part of Ukraine again and take their troops off Ukrainian soil, but they have not withdrawn. There is no reason for there to be any delay at the Council of Europe.

Photo of John Hemming John Hemming Liberal Democrat, Birmingham, Yardley

I thank the hon. Gentleman for correcting me. As the previous inquiry’s rapporteur, he will obviously have better knowledge than me. I have been told that there is a problem, so I will need to chase that up. I might visit his office for some assistance. That would be good.

The Government have always got themselves confused on the flows and quantity of children in care. On compulsory care, if we look at emergency protection orders, police decisions, interim care orders and care orders, we will see that about 12,000 children a year are removed from their families compulsorily, leaving about 65,000 in care. When calculating the proportion of children who were adopted, the Government always made the error of comparing it with the total number in care and concluded that “6% or 7% is not very many. However, given that 5,000 children left care in the year to 31 March 2014 and 12,000 a year are going into care, that is quite a high proportion. When one drills into the figures for children under five years old, one sees that the majority of them are in care. One can see where the criticism is coming from. I have always argued that the Department has got the formula wrong.

We know what happens. The managerial priorities of local authorities determine what their staff do. If they do not do those things, we see what happens. There is the case of Joanna Quick, who wanted to recommend the return of a baby to its parents. She would not do what she was told by the management, so they fired her. One cannot blame social workers who are in that environment for doing what their management tell them to do.

The difficulty is that the system makes the assumption that the evidence is independent. That relates to the issue in Lashin v. Russia, which is that if a serious decision is to be made on expert evidence, that evidence should be independent of the bodies that have an interest in the decision. That is obviously the case when it comes to public family law, because the system is being driven to do the wrong thing so much that people do not even notice. Relatively poor people, people with learning difficulties and people who are on the margins of society, such as immigrants, are complaining, but their voice is not heard and they get injuncted.

People are still going to jail for what they put on Facebook. I am tracking the number of people who do not have public judgments in accordance with the practice direction that was issued in May last year. Clause 8 states that there should always be a published judgment if somebody is imprisoned for contempt of court. One of the good things about the previous version of the Bill is that things are gradually happening, although things are not going as far as the provisions in the Bill. The Government are counting the number of people who are in prison for contempt of court. Six, seven or eight people a month are imprisoned for contempt of court, but there are perhaps one or two published judgments, which means that about five people each month are imprisoned in secret. As the Minister said, I talked to judges in the Court of Appeal about one particular case earlier this week.

Let us look at the effect that the clauses in the Bill would have. There are issues with litigation capacity. I am aware of only one case in which there was an attempt to remove a lady’s litigation capacity and it failed. That was the subject of a parliamentary petition. In that case, it failed because she contacted me and I found a McKenzie friend who could assist her in representing herself against her own solicitor. Someone’s capacity is removed when their solicitor does not think that they have the capacity to make decisions on their own behalf and so asks the court to appoint the Official Solicitor or some other litigation friend, rather than a McKenzie friend, on their behalf. In this case, the lady worked in compliance in financial services, so she was very bright, but she was deemed not to have capacity because she had querulous paranoia as she did not trust the system. If they did the same to me, I would not trust the system, so it is rather a self-fulfilling prophecy.

A couple of the clauses deal with the issues of litigation capacity. It is a difficult position, conceptually, if one’s lawyer says, “Next week, I am going to apply to the court to remove your capacity to instruct me because I do not like your instructions and think that they are stupid.” That is what happened in the situation that I am describing. How can one challenge that? It is difficult to do so. There are issues with legal aid in such circumstances. How can someone fight an overweening state that says, “I’m sorry, but you’re stupid,” when they are not?

I have met a number of people whose litigation capacity has been removed. In some of those cases, it clearly was not valid. There are cases in which the power is needed. If somebody is in a coma, it has to be possible to remove their litigation capacity, because they cannot make decisions. However, there are clearly cases in which people’s litigation capacity has been removed wrongfully. They are then stuck. They are a non-person as far as the system is concerned. If they want to appeal to the court, the application cannot be accepted because they have no capacity. People go down to the courts, but get turned away on that basis.

Clause 7 is about the right to report wrongdoing. Some interesting progress has been made on that. There was a privilege case in Victoria in Australia, in which the owner of a caravan site threatened litigation against a citizen if an MP spoke about the site. That was rightly found to be a breach of privilege. I think that privilege is involved when it people prevent MPs from finding out about things.

Mr Davis and the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills did some work on ensuring that reports to Members of Parliament are treated as protected disclosures for employment purposes. That was excellent work. I asked local schools that were subject to the Trojan horse inquiries—a long saga—to put out copies of the library research document that claimed that talking to an MP about issues is a protected disclosure, to ensure that people had the comfort of knowing that they could come and talk to me about things—and people do, which is important. The issue does not always get into the public domain, of course, but it gives people a way of challenging the system.

I saw one case in which the police would not investigate something because of an injunction, and that is dangerous. The police have the right to ignore somebody—that is fair enough—but an injunction to stop people reporting things to the police is fundamentally wrong yet it still goes on from time to time. If somebody is vexatious, there is an issue about phoning 999 all the time, because people can be obsessive, but they should not receive an injunction to bar them from reporting to the police what they see as wrongdoing. The police should have the option—as they do—to say, “That’s rubbish” and ignore it or potentially prosecute that person for wasting police time, but for the information not to get to the police is fundamentally wrong. This is about the right to report wrongdoing, which has clearly been a particular problem.

As I said, the president of the family division has done a lot of good work and there has been gradual progress in dealing with issues in the family courts. The recent work on expert witnesses is also good—there is no question about that. Clause 2(1) would allow people to have observers with them to provide them a little support. When I go to the courts, I find that my constituents get treated with a bit more respect than they do if I am not there, and they have told me that when I disappear they get treated completely differently from when I am present, which is wrong. To have other observers is a useful process—I always refer to the social science equivalent of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, which is that the observer interferes with what is observed, and people behave better in circumstances under which they can be observed. Even if people expect somebody to observe them, they behave in a better way than if they know they are not being observed and there is no accountability.

Clause 2(2) is about providing information for academic research. The Department says, “Well, we can instruct people to make inquiries”, but it does not. It does one or two inquiries every so often—the Ireland report found that two thirds of the psychological reports in the family courts were rubbish, or sufficiently bad not be relied on, but that still goes on. The problem is that the system always protects itself, and as we have seen in many circumstances—Hillsborough is a good example, or the Savile case—the system is good at covering up.

Having mechanisms for an external challenge would be better, and the academic challenge is actually the best challenge because we are trying to do what is best for children and families. My view is that what we are doing is awful for children and families and, as time goes on. we are finding out more and more that that is the case. The situation first seen in A and S (Children) v. Lancashire County Council showed that an independent reviewing officer challenging the local authority was a waste of time, because that officer was an employee of the local authority. We saw the same situation in Rotherham, because children were taken into care and treated worse there, and accountability was all to the same management structure. There was no independence in terms of accountability.

On the maltreatment of grandparents—I went to a Grandparents Plus event, and grandparents are not treated with respect by the system. There is evidence that each change of placement for a child taken into care, including the first change of placement, is psychologically damaging, but obviously at times we need to do that because leaving a child where it is can be worse—although the Rotherham case showed that at times that does more damage than in other circumstances. Going and staying with granny, however, is generally not that much of a problem because it is the sort of thing that has happened and the child is used to it. We should be a little more focused on families and the wider family—aunties, uncles and so on—than the current system, which is very much driven by the system. Contact with grandparents is an issue. There are circumstances where people fall out with each other. The courts cannot solve everything and we cannot make everything perfect in this world, but we can try to do some things to be more supportive of the family.

Children in care is an issue that Ivor Frank, a barrister who was brought up in care, drives quite strongly. A remedy for children in care is crucial. Clause 3 comes down to the issue, as we saw in Rotherham and in the case of A and S v. Lancashire county council, that children can be maltreated in care and have nowhere to go, because at the end of the day it all comes back to the head of children’s services in the local authority. We have checks and balances and we try to maintain a separation of powers, but there is no separation of powers in a local authority. If somebody thinks a child in care is suffering as a result of an authority’s treatment, there is nothing much that can be done, as the system is effectively unaccountable. Clause 3 would deal with this issue.

We are making some progress on the matters raised by clause 4, which seeks to get an explanation of why parental consent needs to be dispensed with. This is where the international dispute rests in particular, although the idea that all the cases where consent is not dispensed with in the statistics are ones where people have not been pressurised is not one that I think is actually true.

The rights of children to have access to their records is important, too. There are a number of other issues in the Bill. For instance, the Official Solicitor deals with protected parties, but he is not accountable to Parliament. If I write to him and say, “What is going on in, say, the Paccheri case?” he can say, “Nothing to do with you, guv. I am not accountable to Parliament; I am accountable to the court.” Well, that is great—it is a secret court. So he pops along to the secret court and, unless there is a published judgment, there is no accountability at all. There needs to be some mechanism of scrutinising how litigation friends are performing. These are not McKenzie friends, and a lot of issues to do with McKenzie friends are not covered in this particular process.

Clause 12 relates to reasonableness in capacity and is based on Canadian principles that if a protected person is deemed not to generally have capacity, one generally does what they want anyway unless it will do them some harm. One of the saddest parts of mental capacity issues is that when somebody is deemed to have lost their capacity, they have lost it and they are not allowed to make decisions for themselves. The decisions are all taken for them and, very often, are done for the convenience of the state. Clause 12 is therefore very important and would make a big difference.

To be fair there are people, such as Allan Norman in Birmingham, who is both a solicitor and a social worker, so he has the double training, which is quite helpful. When he deals with people who have lost capacity, he does try to work with them. That is much better than a situation where people say, “Well, basically, you’ve lost your capacity, so you might as well be in a coma, because we’re not going to treat you with respect.” That is how it comes across a lot of the time.

Obviously, the system does not always go wrong and we need a system. But the system in the jurisdiction of England and Wales does go wrong a lot of the time. Scotland has its problems, but they are nothing like as bad as those in England. The number of complaints in Scotland is much less, I think partly because of the system of children’s hearings. The difficulty, particularly with regard to section 38 of the Children Act 1989, which basically requires “reasonable grounds” to get an interim care order, is that one does not really have to prove a case to get a child into care. Although the Human Rights Act 1998 would require, in a sense, a continual review of whether it is in the child’s interests to be in care and of the evidence base for that, that does not really happen. There is a great tendency for a child to be taken into care and held there for ages while the local authority tries to find something to stick.

I am moving towards the end of my speech, so we have enough time for the Opposition to respond and for the Minister to talk the Bill out, as is the case with private Members’ Bills. It would be nice for the legislature to have more ability to challenge the Executive than we do at the moment, so I will continue to work towards that end on the Procedure Committee.

The Government should recognise that considerable concern has been expressed in a number of countries. I shall cite an example relating to Latvia. An excellent piece of work was done by the Latvian embassy and the Latvian central authority to challenge the proposed adoption of a Latvian citizen in London. The case was very well argued, but whether it will get anywhere is another question. That brings us back to this week’s judgment. I hope that my Bill will receive its Second Reading, although I am not under the misapprehension that it will actually do so.


More needs to be done to ensure that serious case reviews (SCR’s) are more freely available which was the wishes of the past Government, more so they, along with other matters like judgments should be written in terms understandable by the general public, and not just for the Old Etonians

Submitted by Jerry Lonsdale

Photo of Stephen Twigg Stephen Twigg Shadow Minister (Justice) (Political and Constitutional Reform) 2:10 pm, 17th October 2014

I congratulate John Hemming on his wide-ranging Bill, which focuses on the important principles of openness, transparency and freedom of information. I will briefly comment on some aspects of the Bill, starting with part 1, which deals with family justice.

A sensitive balance needs to be struck between the support given to children and families in the courts and the maintenance of confidentiality where that is needed, and preventing any undue influence on proceedings by family members. The Bill makes the sensible proposal to establish a norm whereby families are offered family group conferences. It seems only fair and right that when families suffer discord, there should be an attempt to reconcile those differences and to build a family plan, agreed with the family and the Child Support Agency, that will offer a more inclusive service.

I am pleased that the Bill appreciates that child protection conferences might be necessary at times with experts only, and I welcome the requirement that families, in advance of any conferences regarding their circumstances, would be given a publication explaining the system and how it might affect them in the future. There seems to be a strong case for allowing parties to have two “friends” with them for support, advice or even advocacy purposes. Actions in the family courts can be traumatic, and we must do everything possible to ensure that people who go through the experience are given all the necessary support, while at the same time ensuring that the confidentiality of proceedings is maintained.

I particularly welcome the hon. Gentleman’s proposals to give grandparents a greater role in proceedings. He mentioned the fantastic organisation Grandparents Plus. In my constituency, I have a local group of kinship carers, based in Norris Green, which works hard to support family members other than parents who are bringing up children. These are often grandparents, and typically grandmothers. The proposals will help to give more rights and support to caring grandparents, and that is a welcome development. The broad principle that families are not simply nuclear but involve members of the extended family should be reflected in the proceedings of the family justice system, although I of course accept the need for a judge to have discretion to have the final say about a grandparent’s presence.

Let me say something about children in care. It is sensible that when children in the care of their local authority make complaints, those complaints should be considered by an independent body, and also that it should be an offence to discriminate against children in care. We must be careful to avoid unintended consequences, however. For example, in the education system, schools are now obliged to give preference to children in care—that is, to positively discriminate in their favour. That is a change that has been welcomed on both sides of the House, and we would not want to see any unintended consequences as a result of moves to outlaw discrimination against children in care.

I welcome clause 4. Taking a child away from a family for adoption is a serious matter, and it is right that when judges make that judgment—as they will sometimes have to—they set out their considered points as to why they came to such a conclusion.

Part 2 of the Bill deals with wrongdoing in court. This is a controversial and important area, for the reasons the hon. Gentleman set out. There is a case to be made for the proposals to discourage people from intimidating whistleblowers, and to publish the names of people imprisoned for contempt of court. However, the proposals need to be considered in greater detail. They require further consideration and scrutiny.

Parts 3 and 4 are especially welcome, and I shall end my speech with an observation on each. As the hon. Gentleman said, the proposals in part 3 relating to consumer complaints were developed by Which?, and I welcome the proposals giving consumers more powers as regards public services. In improving and reforming public services, it is vital that service users are at the heart of the debate.

Finally, on part 4, one of the most significant legal changes pursued by the previous Labour Government was the passage of the Freedom of Information Act, and measures that strengthen FOI legislation are very welcome. In our 2015 manifesto, we have committed ourselves to extending freedom of information to cover the delivery of public services by private companies. If taxpayers’ money is being spent, I see no reason why the same standards should not apply, whether the service is delivered publicly or under contract by the private or voluntary sectors. That is a very important principle of openness and transparency.

I have taken my five minutes so I shall conclude by once again congratulating the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley on his private Member’s Bill and thanking him for the opportunity to consider, albeit briefly, some very important issues.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch 2:15 pm, 17th October 2014

I shall be brief, because I do not want to deprive the Minister of the opportunity of talking out his own colleague’s Bill.

I congratulate John Hemming on bringing forward this Christmas tree of a Bill. I liked what he said about the tensions between the Executive and legislature and how unsatisfactory it is that so often we see them writ large on a Friday. By way of illustration, I point out that my Bill, the EU Membership (Audit of Costs and Benefits) Bill, which was next on the list, will be objected to by the Government, notwithstanding the amazing vote earlier. Everyone is clearly in favour of a referendum, but the Government are going to prevent the information necessary to inform the referendum from being made available, despite the fact that when the Conservative party was in opposition, both the Conservative spokesman and the Liberal Democrats supported the Bill. That is just an example of the problem the hon. Gentleman rightly addresses in his Bill.

I support many parts of the Bill, particularly clause 13, which would clarify the position of people deprived of parole because they deny the offence for which they have been convicted. However, I feel that clause 16, on freedom of information, is rather unbalanced. If we are to extend FOI legislation, first we need to ensure that the person seeking the information discloses their identity. At the moment, there is a great imbalance. It is at odds with the principles of English equity in law that somebody who submits an FOI request does not have to disclose their identity, and that problem would be made worse if we extended FOI legislation to private sector contracts with the Government.

In clause 8(4), the hon. Gentleman refers to extradition orders and the need for the children of a person being extradited to be consulted about the impact on them of the extradition. However, the Bill does not deal with the much more fraught issue of the European arrest warrant. I am pleased that from today’s press it looks like the Prime Minister might no longer be insisting that we opt back into the EAW. Let us hope that those reports are correct. If there is a problem with extradition proceedings involving children, there is an even greater problem with the EAW and its impact on individuals, because no one has the chance to argue anything. If a warrant is issued, the EU member state is obliged to implement it, irrespective of how unjust it might be and without the courts having the opportunity to examine it.

I hope the Bill gets a Second Reading, but I share the hon. Gentleman’s pessimism. I hope in due course, however, because of his valuable work on the Procedure Committee, that we can give private Members’ Bills more prominence and ensure that the Executive interfere less.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice 2:19 pm, 17th October 2014

I thank my hon. Friend John Hemming for putting his name into the ballot, and I congratulate him on doing well in it and on bringing forward a Bill to address many issues that are of considerable importance to our country. I am very grateful for that and for the constructive comments from Stephen Twigg, speaking from the Opposition Front Bench. I am grateful, too, for the contributions of Mr Davis, to which I shall return, and Mr Chope.

I have only a short time to respond, so I will not be able to do justice to all the issues in the Bill. As I said to my hon. and good Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley, I would be happy to sit down with him to ensure that the issues he raises do not die and are pursued generally in the Department, and I extend the same invitation to the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby, too, if he or his colleagues would like to pursue the matters for which he indicated support.

For the benefit of those who follow our proceedings, and given that everyone agrees that this is something of a portmanteau Bill in five parts, covering family justice, the administration of justice, consumer complaints in markets for public services and freedom of information as well as a general part at the end, it might help our later consideration to point out that my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley did not take us through the Bill in the order of the parts. Rather, he started with clause 15, which relates to consumer complaints. He referred to Which?, an organisation that we all greatly respect, to which I shall return. He then dealt with freedom of information in clauses 16 and 17, raising issues that are very much on the Government’s agenda. He then went back to the Criminal Cases Review Commission proposal in clause 14, followed by his views and proposals on clause 13. He then went back to part of clause 2, then clauses 8, 11 and 12. Then he covered the rest of clause 2 along with clauses 3, 4, 6, 9 and 12 in that order. I am not setting this out to be mischievous, but if people are to follow important issues, it is helpful to align what he said with the Bill’s proposals so that we all know where we are.

Photo of John Hemming John Hemming Liberal Democrat, Birmingham, Yardley

Anyone reading this debate may wish to refer to the speech I gave when I first put forward most of these proposals. I had more time to speak to them, so I spoke at greater length. I hope that that will inform people better,

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

As my hon. Friend said, this is the second time he has had the opportunity to address some of these issues through a private Member’s Bill.

Let me briefly put the Government’s commitment on the record. The coalition agreement drew from the manifestos of both the Liberal Democrat and the Conservative parties and made a commitment to extend the scope of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 to provide greater transparency, as well as to reform family law, reduce delays in care proceedings and reinforce the principle that a child benefits from the involvement of both parents provided that is safe and in the best interests of the child. We also made a commitment to make it easier for loving parents to adopt children.

We have made progress on extending the Freedom of Information Act. My right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden gave a specific example of the illogicality of the Association of Chief Police Officers, which had turned itself into a company. Its exemption was corrected in the early part of this Parliament and is now covered by the Freedom of Information Act.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

There are other examples, but that one has been remedied by this Administration.

Let me summarise what we have done in response to these important issues. About 250,000 people go into our family courts every year in connection with care proceedings, children’s proceedings, adoptions or family divorce and separation. We are not talking about insignificant numbers, and my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley reminded us that this was the context of the Ashya King case, the Rotherham scandal and many other issues. The Ministry of Justice is not the only Department involved; the Department for Education plays a lead role, and I know that my hon. Friend has talked to the Under-Secretary of State for Education, Mr Timpson, who is responsible for children’s issues.

On family justice, we have introduced wide-ranging reform of the family justice system so that cases do not drag on for long periods. We have thus provided greater certainty for the children and families involved, which is positive and a plus. I pay tribute, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley, to the president of the family division for how he has led on this and other issues. We have also reformed the way in which cases are managed before and during the court process so that children are placed firmly at the heart of the system. This very weekend, we are going to confirm that next week the law comes into operation that will mean that the presumption thereafter will be that children will benefit from both parents continuing to be involved in their lives. That is a hugely important principle. It may not always be possible, but that will be the legal presumption from next week onwards.

We have also taken steps to shine a light on the activities of the family court and the Court of Protection by encouraging the provision of more media access to hearings, and by publishing judgments to show how decisions are reached. That is still work in progress, and I spoke to the president of the family division only this week about the need for us to do better.

Photo of John Hemming John Hemming Liberal Democrat, Birmingham, Yardley

As I have said on a number of occasions, the media cannot afford to have someone in every family court. Does the Minister accept that media access to hearings is not, in itself, that big a thing?

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

It is, in fact, quite a big thing. What has always been of concern is how to protect the confidentiality of the proceedings, which will involve all sorts of sensitive issues, and now that judgments are being made public, a delicate balance must be struck. In some cases in which publicity has been given only to the judgment, the identities of the parties have none the less been revealed, because in a small community it may be quite easy to put the pieces of the jigsaw together. The position is not as uncomplicated as my hon. Friend suggests. As he knows, there are tensions and difficulties, not because we do not want to be more transparent, but because the protection, safeguarding and interests of children and families must be weighed in the balance.

We have also taken steps relating to the workings of the wider justice system. It is no longer an offence to scandalise the court, so clause 8(1) is not necessary. There are already many provisions in legislation, rules and guidance that provide for access to the courts and their information and enable concerns to be raised about process, appeals to be lodged against decisions, and information to be shared. In respect of protected cost orders for judicial review proceedings, the Government have announced their intention to pursue a different approach from that proposed in this Bill in the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill, which is currently before the House of Lords.

In respect of freedom of information, we have extended the Freedom of Information Act 2000 to more than 100 additional bodies during this Parliament. Information about contracts between public authorities and private companies is already available from public authorities, and—this is important, and is relevant to the points made by the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby and my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch—we will be publishing a revised code of practice later in the year. The code will ensure that all those in the private sector who are contracted to do work for the public sector, involving central or local government, must, by contract, observe the same standards of openness that they would observe if they were in the public sector. That does not mean that the same law applies to them, because they are private sector organisations. If that does not work, we shall need to come back to it, but I hope everyone accepts that it is a move in the right direction.


“The code will ensure that all those in the private sector who are contracted to do work for the public sector, involving central or local government, must, by contract, observe the same standards of openness that they would observe if they were in the public sector. That does not mean that the same law applies to them, because they are private sector organisations.”

A code of practice? Isn’t that just a waste of hot air? When has a code of practice proven effective in the past? Many public bodies ignore their duties, even though they are subject to the FoI Act and the Information Commissioner is toothless when it comes to subjecting them to the law. So why should private companies comply with a code?

Submitted by jan altus

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

Will the code also require those who seek information to allow themselves to be identified?

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

That is certainly on our agenda. Whether we can secure cross-Government agreement to deal with matters other than the code of practice during the current Session has not yet been established, but it is on the list of matters that I want to consider. I am happy to talk to my hon. Friend about how we can make freedom of information work. I have already listened to the views of Members on both sides of the House.

We have also improved the way in which complaints can be made about public bodies. I have only a couple of minutes left, but let me briefly say something about that, and something about clause 14. Under the Enterprise Act 2002, a number of consumer bodies are able to make complaints to industry regulators. The Bill proposes that that should be extended to public as well as private services. Mechanisms already exist for the making of complaints about public services, and various ombudsmen are able to consider individual complaints. We do not think that a “super-complaint mechanism” is necessary.

The concept of a single-portal mechanism for complaints has been raised several times. The single platform is now largely satisfying that need, because it is easy to find out how and where to submit a complaint. I advise people to refer to that website, which should help them. In addition, the Minister for Government Policy and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster recently asked officials in the Cabinet Office to pilot a new digital channel enabling the public to register complaints about public services. I think that that will be regarded as progress.

There is one clause with which the Government have absolutely no problem, in principle. Having said that the others pose varying degrees of difficulty, I can say that clause 14, entitled “Criminal Cases Review Commission: extension of powers to obtain documents and other material”, has merit on its own terms. The Government do not think this is the right place to do it, but I am absolutely willing to negotiate with my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley to see whether we can include it in legislation in this Session or have it ready for legislation in the next. Private Members’ Bills do not have enough time to make progress—I have not changed the view I held before I became a Minister—and I hope the ideas in this one will make progress.

The debate stood adjourned(Standing Order No. 11(2)).

Ordered, That the debate be resumed on Friday 24 October.