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

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Virginia Bottomley: Before the Minister ends her speech, I hope that she will remind the Committee why there is a children's rights director, but not a director for people with learning disabilities or mental health problems.

Jacqui Smith: In addition to the children's rights director, there is an adult services director, appointed by the commission, with relevant responsibilities and powers in relation to vulnerable adult service users. So there is a roughly equivalent director for vulnerable adults. Hon. Members rightly made a strong case on why children are especially vulnerable with regard to some regulated services. The right hon. Lady knows about the provisions allowing the Mental Health Act Commission to investigate complaints where mental health patients are detained under the Mental Health Act 1983. That is another area where patients might be especially vulnerable.

Hon. Members asked about staff working at the NCSC on regulated children's services. Two members of staff are currently working directly with the children's rights director. Two more have been appointed and are about to take up post. In addition, each of the eight NCSC regions is appointing a regional professional adviser, or lead officer, for children's services policy and monitoring, who will report to their respective regional director. So a range of NCSC officers will be responsible for children, monitoring, and complaints. I reiterate that the creation of a children's rights director in the NCSC ensures that we use the full resource of the commission wherever it inspects or regulates children's services.

Several hon. Members criticised the regulations for omission and for not providing powers that a children's commissioner would have. We are aware of the calls to appoint a children's commissioner and are watching developments in the devolved Administrations with interest. In response to the point made about Wales, we will carefully consider how that position works, and what value it adds.

Hon. Members have not fallen into the trap into which some occasionally fall by claiming that if something exists in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland, it should exist in England. I am glad that hon. Members recognise that the point about devolution is that we do things differently. We need to ask ourselves which functions make people want a children's commissioner, and how we can ensure that those functions are adequately delivered. My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre is right that the functions of a children's commissioner are broader and qualitatively different to those of a children's rights director.

Mr. Kidney: Will my hon. Friend say why the word ''advocacy'' does not appear in relation to children's

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complaints? I apologise if she is about to come to that when she deals with each function.

Jacqui Smith: My hon. Friend is right; I am about to respond to the points that he rightly made about the need for advocacy and the various ways in which we are ensuring that advocacy is available for vulnerable children. Insomuch as the commission deals with the national minimum standards and the necessary procedures for regulated services, the children's rights director will be responsible for examining the effectiveness of the complaints and advocacy offered.

We need to be assured of three things: first, that children's voices and concerns are heard and represented at the heart of Government, and that they feed into policy; secondly, that individual children have a say about the daily decisions that affect them; and, thirdly, that vulnerable children are protected by the ability to complain and by having someone to act as their advocate or support when they do so. I should like to consider each of those functions in turn.

First, how do we put children at the heart of policy? The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham is right that considerable changes have been made to the machinery of government to put the interests of children and young people at the heart of policy making. That includes the establishment of the Cabinet Committee on Children and Young People's Services, although I agree with the hon. Gentleman that committees on their own are not enough. He asked how we ensure that we develop joined-up policies, and that is why the development of the children and young people's unit, established in 2000 as a cross-cutting unit at the heart of Government, is also important.

The unit has already begun to develop effective mechanisms for listening to children and young people in order to help the development of high-quality, child-centred policies and services. Young people's views should be sought and taken into account in every part of Government policy that affects them. The unit has held consultations throughout the country on the Government's strategy for children and young people. It has also drawn up core principles to provide guidelines for involving children and young people in policy making, and 11 Departments have drawn up action plans to implement them.

Those changes are having an effect. Children were consulted about their needs at school for the recent education Green Paper, and child-friendly versions of the major documents were produced. A Connexions service has been developed, and children and young people are involved in both its policy development and the way in which it is implemented. In my Department, we consulted children on the development of our adoption policy, while the quality protects forum brings the voice of children to the centre of our policy making under the quality protects programme. Children and young people are also involved in the development of the children's national service framework.

The children and young people's unit is also working with non-governmental organisations to learn from their expertise and experience and to

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improve our services. Those organisations include the UK Youth Parliament, the National Black Youth Forum and the British Youth Council.

As I have mentioned, my Department is developing a national service framework for children, which will overcome some of the issues raised by hon. Members about how we ensure that children's services are better joined-up. We intend to examine preventive care and treatment services for children. We have appointed a national director for children, Professor Al Aynsley-Green, whose role will be to spearhead the faster development of the national standards for children's health and social care services; to ensure that the NSF is fully informed by the views of children, young people, families and carers; to advise and provide professional support to Ministers and the Department of Health on the basis of that information; and to communicate with organisations working with children, including voluntary organisations and advocacy groups.

Secondly, how do we involve children in decisions that directly affect them? We have also made progress on that. The Department for Education and Skills is examining ways of involving children in decision making in their schools, through schools councils, in drawing up anti-bullying policies, and by greater choice in the curriculum. In the Department of Health, listening to children is a key principle in the quality protects programme. Guidance to local authorities requires social services departments and other agencies to increase participation in day-to-day decision making. This year, the national spending on that participation work is about £10 million.

To strengthen children's participation further, and with the assistance of the children's rights officers and advocates, we published training materials called ''Total Respect'' for front-line staff and councillors, so that at that level of the corporate parent both officers and members responsible for making decisions will be better equipped to listen to children, reflect their participation in individual care planning and ensure that they are taken seriously when they make complaints or allegations of abuse or poor practice.

In addition to ''Total Respect'', we published a research in practice briefing guide, which gives practical advice to front-line staff about ways in which to improve participation practice, and we funded several advocacy organisations to develop national projects linked to children's rights and advocacy. They include the National Youth Advocacy Service, the Voice for the Child in Care, Childline—I agree with the points that the right hon. Member for South-West Surrey made on that—the Children's Legal Centre and the Children's Rights Alliance.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford rightly emphasised advocacy and how we ensure that there is a better process for individual children to make complaints. I do not necessarily agree with the argument that we need a children's commissioner to act as an advocate for all children. It is much more effective to ensure that whenever individual vulnerable children need to make a complaint, they have access to an advocate and support in doing so. Children's

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interests are better promoted through access to an advocate who can help them take an active part in the decisions that are made about them.

Once again, the quality protects programme has identified that need. In line with Government guidance, it encourages all councils to develop independent advocacy services. More support has been given to care leavers as a result of implementation of the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000 from 1 October 2001. All young people leaving care have the right to an independent advocate under the new complaints procedure, as set out in the statutory guidance accompanying the Act. As advocacy services are relatively new, we need to develop quality in that area, too. That is why we are consulting on the development of practice standards. Indeed, a consultation event involving young people is taking place today. We will ensure that we publish those standards later this year in order to promote better quality in those rapidly expanding advocacy services.

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Prepared 4 July 2002