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

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Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham): I learned from spending several months on the Committee that considered the Adoption and Children Bill with the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre that I am no match for his mastery of metaphors. I shall make a few points about the regulations, but I fear that I will be castigated for painting by numbers, to use his terminology.

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Jacqui Smith): Or scribbling.

Tim Loughton: Or scribbling, as the Minister kindly points out. However, I am sure that none of us objects to the sentiments behind the need for greater attention to be paid to the rights and welfare of children. The hon. Gentleman alluded to the Waterhouse report; we do not need to go over the scandals with which we are all familiar. I welcome the appointment of Roger Morgan and I hope that his work will be successful. It is early days to judge the effectiveness of the powers that have been given to him and whether he will be able to produce the goods.

There is a role for a children's rights director who has a function in relation to looked-after children, but he may also perform a wider function in respect of the work affecting children carried out by all Government Departments. There is anxiety that the approach to children's services, and many other social care aspects throughout government, is not joined up enough. I would like a children's rights director or some other agency of government to exercise a far greater cross-departmental role in all issues that affect children, not just children in care.

Will the Government consider the work of the children's rights director in parallel with the work of the children's commissioner in Wales? Will it be possible in the future for the House to consider the

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output of the two roles in order to draw a direct comparison and to foster mutual learning?

I want to refer to issues raised in another place when Baroness David prayed against the regulation. Her noble Friend Lord Hunt left a lot of questions unanswered. That was mentioned earlier in respect of the 40 responses to the consultation, which seemed to have received scant attention. Lord Hunt said:

    ''The changes we have made are mainly drafting changes; there are no changes of substance from the draft regulations.''

In reply, Baroness David, understandably, said:

    ''People sent in their comments and it would seem that they were treated rather abruptly—perhaps not slightingly—and without the attention that might have been expected.''—[Official Report, House of Lords, 20 June 2002; Vol. 636, c. 964–68.]

Can the Minister tell the Committee how many of those responses were in favour of the Government's preferred role for the children's rights director and how many pushed for a stronger position? How do the draft regulations differ from the consultation, and why have those changes been made?

It was announced after just 18 days that the Commission for Social Care Inspection was taking over responsibilities from the National Care Standards Commission. Does that have any implications for the regulations? Will those changes require primary legislation; and when does the Minister anticipate that they will take place?

As to the relationship between the director and the commission, how many staff will work in the office of the children's rights director, and what is the budget to be? Is it affected by the organisational changes announced by the Secretary of State in April? Will there be a separate budget or will it be part of the commission's budget?

According to the explanatory notes, the director is to be appointed by the National Care Standards Commission and is a member of its staff. However, many of the director's functions, as outlined in the proposal, require him to report to the NCSC; for example, regulation 3(1)(m) requires the director

    ''to report to the Commission about the availability and quality of regulated children's services''.

It should not be the aim of the director to report back to his own office within the NCSC. Will the regulations ensure that the work of the children's rights director is reported to a different, appropriate authority within the NCSC? Neither the regulations nor the notes make that clear, yet it is necessary to ensure independent scrutiny and the accountability of the children's rights director. When that was put to Baroness David on 20 June, she said:

    ''I cannot answer that question directly''.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 20 June 2002; Vol. 636, c. 966.]

Can the Minister now update us by answering it directly?

The hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre, as we would expect, believes that the Government's various initiatives amount to many exciting developments for children. The Government have announced the establishment of a children and young people's unit, a Cabinet Committee on children and young people's

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services and a clinical director at the Department of Health, as well as the children's rights director. It all sounds very good—[Hon. Members: ''Hear, hear'']—so the Minister will have no trouble providing evidence of progress and explaining how its success in achieving the aims and objectives can be judged. Instead of wheeling out another list of quangos, committees and expert bodies, will the Minister tell us what actions and achievements have benefited the children that we are discussing today? If other Departments are anything to go by, a distinct lack of co-ordination is evident, which can result in much unjoined-up thinking.

In response to a question about whether the children's rights director could require information to be provided, Lord Hunt said:

    ''the Commission itself can require information''—[Official Report, House of Lords, 20 June 2002; Vol. 636, c. 965.]

That implies that the director has to go through the Commission to acquire the information. Will the Minister confirm whether the director can acquire it in his own right?

Lord Hunt also announced on 20 June that the Government were considering the reform of the ombudsman structure in England, to allow children greater access to the system, but he did not elaborate further. Will the Minister tell us more? When is the reform likely to happen; how will it relate to the role of the commission and the director; will new regulations be necessary to tie up the relationship?

I have asked several detailed questions. On previous form, the Minister will have no problem answering in infinite detail immediately. Failing that, we would be delighted to hear further from her later.

Concerns were raised in another place that several questions remained open and no suggestion was made as to when answers would be forthcoming. The consultation process was greatly rushed, leading to the suspicion that people who had taken the trouble to respond and make submissions were taking part in tokenism, with no changes resulting. I look forward to hearing the Government's response.

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Mr. David Kidney (Stafford): I have met Roger Morgan, who is a hard-working and enthusiastic individual. I am certain that he will be an effective children's rights director for England.

When I first read the regulations, I looked for an end date—a sunset clause of the type about which some people are enthusiastic. The Government have surely accepted the case for a children's commissioner eventually, so I wondered whether the regulations might lapse and the commissioner be put in place. However, as I said, there is no end date or sunset clause. I am reassured by what my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre said—that when we secure our children's commissioner for England, we shall still need a children's rights director at the National Care Standards Commission. I will be happy if we end up with both, but I shall still pursue the case for the commissioner after today's debate.

I wonder why some of the powers of the children's rights director do not equate with those possessed by

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the children's commissioner in Wales. Paragraph (2) of regulation 1 states:

    ''These regulations extend to England only.''

That is because of the Welsh children's commissioner, whose various powers and functions are not reflected in the regulations before us. That commissioner's powers and functions include the review and monitoring of arrangements for dealing with complaints, whistleblowing and advocacy, the examination of particular cases, and providing assistance, including financial assistance, to a child making a complaint or in other proceedings. Those powers also extend to children receiving services in other settings regulated under the Care Standards Act 2000, such as private hospitals. A much wider range of powers is provided in that case than in this. The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam pointed out some of them, such as financial assistance for making complaints and legal action. However, he did not make the case that I should have liked to hear today about advocacy, which my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre mentioned a little while ago.

At every stage in the proceedings on the Bill that is now the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000, several hon. Members, including me, pressed the case for the commissioner and advocacy. The departmental line was always that, although there may not be a commissioner or a national system for advocacy, the latter would be provided for dealing with complaints, at least.

I read the regulations to find a reference to the powers and duties of the children's rights director in either providing or ensuring that children have access to advocacy services when they make their complaint. I found no reference to such a power or function, and I should be grateful if my hon. Friend the Minister would deal with that point.

It is not that the Government object to advocacy; as my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre said, they have supported the establishment of a national voice, which is a great step forward. The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) did not mention that in his list of exciting new things that the Government have done. He should add it to his list.

Why is there no legal relationship between the director and advocacy? Why are they not legally married in the proceedings? Instead, they are only casual and passing acquaintances. The legal basis for advocacy should be right at the heart of the job of the children's rights director.

Looking to the future, some developments are taking place that will, I believe, inevitably result in a full-blown children's commissioner. The Joint Committee on Human Rights is considering the case for a human rights commission, as is the Lord Chancellor's Department. The Cabinet Office is considering an overarching equalities commission to combine the work of the different equality commissions that at the moment deal with sex discrimination, racial equality and disability rights. Other rights will be involved, relating to, for example, discrimination on the basis of religion and sexual

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orientation. Such matters will ultimately be dealt with by a human rights commission in this country. I would expect separate directorates within the great expertise that such a body will provide, and I believe that one such will be the office of a children's commissioner.

I am confident that we shall win the case eventually. We have not reached that stage today, but I would appreciate the Minister's comments on what the director could do, especially in relation to advocacy.

10.27 am

 
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Prepared 4 July 2002