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Session 2001- 02
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Delegated Legislation Committee Debates

National Care Standards Commission (Children's Rights Director) Regulations 2002

Eighth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

Thursday 4 July 2002

[Miss Anne Begg in the Chair]

National Care Standards Commission (Children's Rights Director) Regulations 2002

9.55 am

Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the National Care Standards Commission (Children's Rights Director) Regulations (S.I. 2002, No. 1250).

It is good to serve for the first time under your chairmanship, Miss Begg. It is appropriate for the Committee to scrutinise the basis on which the Government are introducing these detailed regulations to implement the intentions that they set out in the Care Standards Act 2000. I particularly welcome the fact that the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) is present. He is not a member of the Committee but he takes a great interest in these matters, not least as an ambassador for the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. I am also an ambassador for the NSPCC in this House, and that is one reason why I am particularly anxious to explore some of the issues surrounding the regulations.

The debate will enable us to ask the Minister to give further thought to some of the issues that exercise many hon. Members and organisations that campaign for children's rights. I particularly want her to re-examine the case for giving the children's rights director greater powers to protect the most vulnerable children. The starting point must be the strong case for a children's commissioner for all children in England. There is one in Wales, there is one in Northern Ireland and there are plans to establish such a post in Scotland. We need to establish a commissioner because the director's remit is too narrowly drawn. It is simply to look after the interests of children in the regulated part of our care system. There are many other children outside that system who are equally at risk and in need of the representation of an effective and powerful advocate such as a children's commissioner.

There are undoubtedly issues about the way that we, collectively, through local authorities and the House, have failed as corporate parents over many years. Initiatives are in train through the quality protects programme and other devices to try to change that, but we should just look at the litany of statistics: 65 per cent. of children leave care with no GCSEs; up to 80 per cent. of children who leave care are unemployed; 32 per cent. of the prison population were in the care system at one stage in their lives; and at worst there are thousands of victims of alleged abuse in the regulated care system. By any standards, we are failing and we should strive to do more.

The draft regulations were published in January, and there were 40 responses to them. Those responses

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had to be submitted by April. The regulations were laid before the House on 3 May. No major changes, apart from a few drafting changes, were made, despite the fact that the responses raised significant issues of substance and concern. I hope that the Minister can satisfy the organisations that there was meaningful consideration of the representations, and that those involved in the process continue to learn from what is said.

The following omissions from the regulations cause great concern. First, why is the right of immediate access to all regulated care centres not covered? The ability to gain immediate and urgent access when there are allegations of abuse is an important power, which should be at the disposal of the director and the commission. Will the Minister say why the provision is not covered, and what thought was given to excluding it?

Secondly, the director should have the power to require bodies and individuals to furnish him with information. The Minister may well tell us that section 31(1) of the Care Standards Act 2000 provides the commission with such a power. Will she say how the children's rights director will use that power? Will she confirm that the director has that power at his disposal, and needs no authority from other officers of the National Care Standards Commission?

My third point is on the power to take legal action and to give financial support to children who are taking legal action. That would be an extension of regulation (3)(1)(k). Why do the regulations not include a statement that would give the director the power to take legal action on behalf of, and with, children? There is no specific reference in the regulations to the power to investigate individual cases, despite the Minister's promise when the Care Standards Act was considered in Committee that regulations would provide such a power. Indeed, we were given many promises that regulations would deal with the concerns that were raised at the time. Why do the regulations not include such a clear undertaking?

Let us contrast those omissions with the situation in Wales. I am not talking about the wider powers of the children's commissioner in Wales, but about the specific powers granted to him to deal with regulated institutions. For example, the commissioner in Wales has the power to require information and disclose documents to examine individual cases and compel attendance of witnesses. In effect, he has the same powers as the High Court. He can also assist in complaints and legal proceedings. Will the Minister explain why we could pass legislation that rightly gave those powers to the commissioner in Wales for children in Wales, but not legislate to give children in England the same protections?

I should make it clear that I welcome the appointment of Roger Morgan as children's rights director in England, and wish him good luck in his work. I hope that he is successful in the role and that he enables the commission to deliver. However, I hope that the Minister will tell us more about how the Government intend to fulfil their election manifesto promise on the children's rights director. Last year's Labour manifesto states:

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    ''Labour supports a national children's rights director to act as a champion for children in need and will consult on whether to develop and extend the director's role.''

I hope that we will not be told that the consultation on the regulations was on extending the role of the director, because the provisions do not allow for that. If anything, they narrow it. Will the Minister give us the timetable for any further consultation on extending the director's role?

The National Care Standards Commission came into operation on 1 April. Within two weeks, which must be a record, the Secretary of State was dismantling it and telling us that it was to be reorganised. How can the children's rights director bed down and get on with his work when, within days of the establishment of the commission and his office, he knew that the Department of Health had ''unwired'' the arrangements for the commission and planned legislation to create yet another organisation? How can that make sense? What assurances can the Minister give that there will be continuity in the director's work? The director's limited role and the upheaval caused by yet another reorganisation of the policing of care standards must be a cause for concern.

I hope that the Minister will confirm that the Government have not closed the door on the question of a children's rights commissioner, and that Ministers have not closed their minds to such an idea. I look forward to the Minister's response.

10.5 am

Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre): Thank you, Miss Begg, for the opportunity to speak despite the fact that I am not a Committee member.

This is an important matter, and I assure the Committee that any qualms that I express about the post imply no criticism of Roger Morgan, the children's rights director. We have met on several occasions since he took the post, and he has regularly visited the House for meetings of the all-party group on children and young people in care. By my observation, he is doing a good job and relating well to young people in care. Anyway, my comments will not be a terrible criticism of the Government.

Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton): Thank goodness for that.

Mr. Dawson: The Government are doing a fine job for young people in care. We have seen major investment in the quality protects programme, and they have introduced the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000 and the Care Standards Act 2000, of which the post of children's rights director is an important manifestation.

Although I share the views of the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) about the need for a children's commissioner in England to match the one in Wales and the ones that should be created in Northern Ireland and Scotland, I do not see any purpose in trying to develop the post of a children's rights director into a children's commissioner. It is important that we have a children's rights director for children who live away from home and who are particularly vulnerable.

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We do not need to rehearse all the lessons of the Waterhouse inquiry and police investigations into the scandals that we have seen in the care system over many years to recognise the justification for the post. I hope that we will have both a children's commissioner for England and a children's rights director for young people who live away from home.

I am pleased that the regulations provide the children's rights director with a function to ascertain the views of children about regulated services provided to them. As I have said, the current post holder is actively going about that task. I am also pleased to see that there is a paragraph in the regulations about publicising the office and functions of the children's rights director.

However, I must confess to a sense of disappointment about the rest of the director's role, which seems more like that of a children's welfare inspector rather than a children's rights director. The regulations make no mention of rights or the way in which the director could use the provisions of the United Nations convention on the rights of the child in his work with young people, agencies and the Government. The regulations contain a function to monitor and review rather than actively to promote and support advocacy. The director will have the power, like any of us in this country, to report to the police or local authority when he suspects that a child is being harmed, but not the ability to gain access to premises or require information from agencies.

The regulations give the director the power to ensure that the National Care Standards Commission takes appropriate action in respect of complaints, rather than giving the ability to investigate complaints independently. There are duties that relate to children living away from home but, crucially, not to those who have left care, who are often in the most vulnerable positions and have important things to say about their treatment in the system. There is a function for the children's rights director to assist with reports, but not to prepare his own independent report.

The director has a function to discuss matters with bodies that are deemed appropriate, such as voluntary organisations, but there is no attempt to locate that post within the network of child-led organisations and organisations led by people who have been through the care system, such as A National Voice. Another achievement of the Government is that they financed and helped to set up that organisation for young people in care. Other such bodies are the Care Leavers Association, which is for older adults who have been in the care system, and the children's rights officers association.

There is much in the regulations about inspecting and reporting, but little about empowering the children's rights director or, more importantly, young people in care. However, an able, experienced and committed individual will be able to make an enormous amount out of the post and use the canvass that the Government have provided. I hope that he will be able to paint on that canvass like Jackson Pollockóall movement and colourórather than taking the painting-by-numbers approach in the

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regulations. The right person will be able to make more of the post than might at first seem possible.

It is conventional to deplore the care system. Having worked in it, I believe that it has been shown to be, in many ways, a grotesquely awful way to treat children, notwithstanding the fine people who have worked in the system and tried to make it work. However, the system can improve, and the Government's actions will ensure that it improves dramatically.

It is also usual to cite depressing statistics about children in care, but we can just as well say that young people in care are extremely able, intelligent, committed and often resilient. Young people in care come to this building once a month, and among the ranks of people who have been in care are those who have gone on to do PhDs and to produce books, including novels, about their lives. They hold down responsible and excellent jobs, and have a passionate desire and commitment to improve not only the care system, but society. If the children's rights director trusts and works with young people in care, he will not go far wrong.

10.13 am

 
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Prepared 4 July 2002