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

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Virginia Bottomley (South-West Surrey): I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak, and I apologise for my delayed arrival.

The proposal is an important step forward, but I do not have rose-tinted spectacles about how big an advance it is. My concerns and questions relate to the director's responsibility for children not only in residential care. Many children who are looked after will be in Home Office institutions, because they have fallen foul of the criminal justice system, or in education institutions. They are largely the same children—those who lives have gone wrong, who usually come from fragmented, chaotic families, have few financial, emotional or community resources, and, as Mia Kellmer Pringle of the National Children's Bureau used to say, are too often born to fail.

The responsibility of us all, whether in education, Home Office institutions, social services or health institutions, is to identify and support such children and not, as regrettably all too frequently happens, cost-shunt them—move them between agencies because they are costly and demanding and need care and support. My worry is that the director will have a partial perspective on the children whom he sees, not realising that that population of children have all too few resources and all too few people championing their interests. I hope that the Government will feel able to recognise that, by putting the children's rights director on the NCSC, they are creating a distorted perspective. The danger—and my anxiety—is that, as the director identifies certain issues, a perception will arise that only children in residential homes, as defined by the Care Standards Act, are covered. However, the regulations should apply equally to children in foster care, to children who are not in care at all, and to children in education and Home Office provision.

I am equally worried that the creation of the post of children's rights director signifies a certain tokenism within the National Care Standards Commission which is difficult to justify. Why is there no mental health director? Will that be the next step? Why is there no director for the elderly or for people with disabilities? The advocacy responsibilities of the children's rights director are complex and full of anomalies. After 30 years' work for the Child Poverty Action Group—with the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field)—with a child guidance unit, on the board of the Children's Society, as chairman of a juvenile court, and for six happy years in the Department of Health, and having worked with, and

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greatly respected, Sir William Utting and Lord Laming, I know that there is nothing new about the horrors and difficulties experienced by vulnerable children in need of help.

Fashions come and go—residential care, staying with families, foster care—but that is not really the issue. The issue is always: how can we get the various agencies to work together? How, when abuses occur, can we ensure that they are dealt with? I declared myself—she knows this—something of a cynic when Esther Rantzen began her work, but I have been struck by the number of children throughout the country who know about Childline and Esther Rantzen. That is why I add my voice to the voices of those who believe that we need a children's ombudsman or commissioner. This issue is not confined to residential care; and the post holder needs a higher profile.

When I was the responsible Minister in the Department of Health, I suspected that such a post would be mere tokenism. I felt that by legislation, guidelines and respect for and recognition of the unbelievably difficult task that social workers perform we could improve best practice and thereby reach our goal. Now, however, I strongly support the recommendations of the Health Committee in this respect. The regulations mark a good stepping stone, but they create an anomaly which will become increasingly hard to justify. I therefore hope that the Minister will not rule out the idea of learning the lessons that will come from Roger Morgan's excellent appointment, and will move at some stage towards the creation of a children's ombudsman.

10.33 am

Jacqui Smith: We have had a useful debate. I shall attempt to deal both with the specifics of the children's rights director's role, and with the wider issues concerning the representation of children and embedding the needs of children in all public policy.

The position of children's rights director was established under the Care Standards Act 2000 as an employee of the National Care Standards Commission. The director can act as a powerful champion of some of our most vulnerable children. I am pleased that several hon. Members commented on the excellent work that Roger Morgan is already doing to establish this important new role. Although the precise role and functions of the children's rights director are not set out in the Act, provision was made in schedule 1 for those functions to be prescribed in regulation. That is why we consulted on the draft regulations earlier this year and laid the final regulations before Parliament in May. It is also how we ended up here this morning to examine the regulations in more detail and discuss broader issues relating to children.

The children's rights director is a specialist director at the headquarters of the National Care Standards Commission and reports to its chief executive. The scope of the director ranges across all the different constituencies of children receiving services regulated under the Care Standards Act. I think that it would be helpful if I wrote to the right hon. Member for South-

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West Surrey (Virginia Bottomley) about the particular issue that she raised with respect to young people in Home Office provision. However, I can assure my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney), and the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham that the director's role extends not only to children who are looked after but to those in receipt of a wide range of health, education and social care services, whether provided by the statutory, voluntary or private sectors. The director's scope is broader than has been suggested by some hon. Members.

The director's role is aimed at responding to those children who are most in need of safeguarding. Listening to children helps to protect them from harm. If children can speak up and be heard, abuse is much less likely to happen. The director will help to ensure that the voices of vulnerable children are heard in decisions that affect them and that they are heard within the commission. In addition, the functions laid out today will enable the director to ensure that the commission gives full and effective coverage to children's rights in the exercise of its statutory responsibilities for regulated children's services. Any significant evidence relevant to the rights and safety of children that is gathered through the wide-ranging process of regulation and assessment will be reported to the commission and disseminated in order to help local authorities and other providers to improve services and support for children. The commission will also offer the Government advice on policy.

The regulations establish the director's initial role and functions and allow him to get on with his job within the commission. Although I do not want to pre-empt the Committee's decision, I do not feel that there is a great demand to turn down the regulations. However, were that to happen, we would have to extend the time before the director could start work. From what I have heard, I am sure that hon. Members do not want that to happen.

The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham suggested that the consultation was rushed, but we took care to allow the full 12 weeks in line with Cabinet Office guidelines. We carefully considered the 40 submissions that we received, the vast majority of which supported the principle of a children's rights director. It is correct that they also raised other comments, many of which went wider than the scope of the children's rights director, and some of which I will deal with later. We made two important changes to the role laid down in the regulations: the power to publicise the role and the power to discuss matters relating to regulated children's services with any bodies that the director considers appropriate.

In relation to some of the questions asked by the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam, it is important to remember that part of the strength of the director is his role in the context of the National Care Standards Commission. Although the regulations relate to specific functions of the director, the NCSC is in a powerful position; important powers are vested in it. For example, powers of right of access to regulated care settings rest with the Commission. Its named staff have rights of access to other care settings. The powers

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will be exercised according to the Commission's system of delegation. It is not realistic to expect the children's rights director, who has a specific, senior role, to be the individual who has to exercise the right of access to regulated settings.

Mr. Burstow: On that point, does the children's rights director have the authority to instruct a local inspector to enter premises under the powers vested in the NCSC?

Jacqui Smith: Yes. Later, I shall explain how the powers relate to individual complaints.

The National Care Standards Commission has the power to take enforcement action against non-observance of regulations by the providers of regulated services. Again, the power is vested in the commission. The power to investigate individual cases is also vested in the commission, which can delegate it to the director. Let me spell out how that works.

If a child complained directly to a commission area officer, inspectors would assess the most appropriate response. Responses include: direct investigation of the complaint by the commission's inspectors; referral to the local social services authority for child protection inquiries under section 47 of the Children Act 1989; or investigation and response under a placing authority's statutory complaints procedure. There are, therefore, several possible methods. If it was considered the most appropriate response, inspectors would carry out an investigation and take the necessary action under the commission's powers, vested in it by the Care Standards Act and the Children Act.

If a child, or someone on the child's behalf, contacted the children's rights director, the director would consider the appropriate response in consultation with the child, whenever that was possible. If he considered it appropriate, he could call on commission inspectors to investigate, take other action or refer the case for other statutory investigations or inquiries. NCSC staff would carry out investigations under the guidance of the children's rights director.

The director will monitor the progress of complaints cases that he has directly commissioned inspectors to investigate on his behalf, and use a sampling system of complaints made by children or on their behalf to NCSC area officers, thereby highlighting any emerging patterns. He also plans to consult children in regulated settings directly and specifically on access to complaints procedures and their effectiveness. He will take account of any proposals that they suggest for developments in such procedures. As I said, he will identify common themes in their views as evidence for a report to the commission, the Secretary of State and the Government generally for future review of and guidance on the complaints procedures.

The new Commission for Social Care Inspection will co-ordinate more coherently the regulatory and inspection functions of the NCSC and the inspection functions of the social services inspectorate. In response to the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham, the matter will need legislation, as I said on

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Tuesday. We are currently working on the way in which the body will be set up. However, I assure hon. Members that the role of the children's rights director continues to be important and will be vested in the new organisation.

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