Local Government Finance (England) Special Grant Reports (Nos. 102 and 104)

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Jacqui Smith: I think that I said that we intended that money to move into the baseline, so that we could continue to build on the good work done under quality protects.

The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham asked a question about the increase in looked-after children. I understand the increase from March 2000 to March 2001 to be 1 per cent. I do not disagree with him: the challenge is not only the numbers of children in care, but the increasing level of need among those children. That is precisely why we needed the boost to services and the ability to change services that quality protects offered in many authorities.

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we need to recruit more people to social work. We are running a recruitment campaign and have had some success. There have been more than 22,000 calls to the helpline. I can assure him that our intention is not to reduce the quality of those coming into social work, which is why we are introducing a three-year degree qualification for social work and professionalising that key job at the heart of protecting the most vulnerable children in our community. The hon. Gentleman asked detailed questions about recruitment figures; I shall read the record of our debate and write to him about anything that I have not covered.

The hon. Members for Cheadle and for Spelthorne asked whether the money had been paid. It has not, because Parliament must approve the special grant report for it to be paid. The hon. Member for Spelthorne said, ''But we are a quarter of the way through the year.'' In fact, it is probably a few weeks more than a quarter, but in any case the grant is paid a quarter in arrears. The grant will be paid for this quarter in arrears on the basis of the report's being approved today.

Mr. Wilshire: With the greatest respect to the Minister, whether the grant is paid in arrears is irrelevant. The point is that until Parliament approves the report, a council has not the slightest idea how much it will receive, whether in arrears or not.

Jacqui Smith: As the hon. Gentleman would know had he listened to my introduction, that is completely wrong. All councils knew what their allocation was as a result of last December's local government circular. All local authorities understood the process. They all

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knew in May whether their MAPs had been approved. The hon. Gentleman claims to have experience of local government, so he must understand the process and the fact that local authorities will have been working pretty much with certainty about receiving the money and what their allocation will be. In fact, authorities will be prevented from being paid the money and being able to get on with spending it only if the hon. Gentleman continues in the same vein and is obstructive about money going to authorities.

Mr. Wilshire: The Minister must now answer a very simple question. If she is correct in saying that local authorities already know how much they will receive, what on earth are we doing here this afternoon? It is contempt of Parliament to say that they already know, because that means that this debate, any vote that we have and any decision that we take have been pre-empted by a dictatorial Government.

Jacqui Smith: I shall move on to information technology. The hon. Member for Cheadle made an important point about the support that we must continue to give people leaving care. I can assure her that the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000 provides support for those in continuing education beyond the age of 21. That will include IT equipment.

We have no plans to recruit beyond the current eight and a half full-time equivalent regional development workers and their assistants. To the extent that they work with local authorities, they will influence adoption. In the second part of this afternoon's proceedings, we can say more about the Department's support for adoption. The regional development workers were selected when councils were willing to offer individuals with the necessary skills.

The hon. Member for Spelthorne was not listening when I explained the basis of the regional development worker grant. It allows for reimbursement based on current salary and on-costs of the individuals released by the authorities to work as regional development workers for quality protects.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about Gateshead. Last year the report included a similar section on the reimbursement of authorities for regional development workers in Gateshead. The Gateshead worker started work at the beginning of March, so there was no authority in last year's report to reimburse Gateshead for costs. That is why we have included it in this report for the scrutiny of Parliament—including and the hon. Gentleman. However, I am not sure that that is a particularly good use of Parliament's time. If the same problem arose this year, with one worker stopping and another from another authority appointed, we could reimburse that authority for costs. That makes sense and conforms to the spirit of reducing bureaucracy, for which hon. Members have called today.

The hon. Member for Spelthorne asked about SSA allocation, and he now has the opportunity to participate in the Government's current consultation. He was concerned about the fact that there are two different sources of money for quality protects. He

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tempts me, so I shall account for the different figures in the report.

The main programme is outlined in the special grant report. The £15 million is for disabled children and the IT allocation applies to looked-after children. Money is also allocated for regional development workers. The money to support the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000 comes through quality protects. It is partly a transfer from the Department for Work and Pensions, because the 2000 Act changed the basis of support for 16 and 17-year-olds from benefits to a much more flexible and sensitive system of support by local authorities. That transfer achieves precisely what the hon. Member for Spelthorne argued for, and unifies support for vulnerable children. Finally, new money is available to support care leavers, but it is allocated through a different route, so it is not the subject of today's report.

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that details about both the current determination of the children's block of the social services SSA and what is proposed in consultation are available in the consultation document, which might be a better source of information about the distributional effects than the Daily Mail.

The hon. Gentleman asked several questions about how to find evidence about the services that local authorities provide. Thanks to the present Government, the performance indicators of social services departments are published every year. They spell out answers to many of the hon. Gentleman's questions, and he will have been sent a copy.

As for capital and revenue, I cannot believe that accountants in Surrey have such difficulty determining the distinction between the £15 million capital for IT and the other revenue allocated. That was not the hon. Gentleman's most significant concern.

Mrs. Calton: On a point of explanation, I understood the Minister to say that the grant did not apply to over–16s who fell within the terms of the 2000 Act. According to annex C, section 24(1) of the Children Act 1989 applies to the conditions governing the quality protects grant. It says:

    '''a person qualifying for advice and assistance' means a person within the area of the authority who is under twenty-one and who was, at any time after reaching the age of sixteen but while still a child . . . is no longer so looked after, accommodated or fostered.''

Are we talking about two overlapping grants, or is the money being funded through one or the other? I do not understand.

Jacqui Smith: My point was that I did not want to risk being accused of over-announcing the money. Heaven forbid. I was just clarifying the fact that the overall amounts go through quality protects, but that this grant report relates only to part of it, with other parts of the grant under the 2000 Act going through a different route.

Tim Loughton: Before the Minister finishes speaking, will she deal with a question that she has not yet answered? After 2004, when the quality protects money will cease to be ring-fenced, what will happen if the local authorities have not achieved the 11 key objectives that they are tasked with

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achieving? Will new criteria equivalent to the quality protects money be adopted, and will the authorities lose out?

Jacqui Smith: No, because we are shifting towards a system of measuring and monitoring outcomes. The ability of authorities to meet those and other objectives is evaluated in the performance indicators and included in the star ratings. We are correctly shifting emphasis away from how much money is going into an authority towards what services are produced for vulnerable children. That is precisely why we are debating this report—to allocate to local authorities continuing investment to make a difference to the lives of our most vulnerable children, which quality protects has hitherto provided.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

    That the Committee has considered the Local Government Finance (England) Special Grant Report (No. 102) (HC 943), on Children's Services (Quality Protects) Special Grants for 2001–02 and 2002–03.

Local Government Finance (England) Special Grant Report (No. 104) (HC1005) on Children's Service Quality Protects Adoption and Permanence Taskforce Special Grant for 2002–03

5.58 pm

Jacqui Smith: I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the Local Government Finance (England) Special Grant Report (No. 104) (HC 1005) on Children's Services Quality Protects Adoption and Permanence Taskforce Special Grant for 2002–03.

This special grant is rather less money, I have to admit, but it is still important. [Interruption.] I do not know whether the hon. Member for Spelthorne is promising us less time or threatening us with more.

I am pleased that we have the opportunity to debate this special grant report, which relates to the funding of the adoption and permanence taskforce. Significant developments in adoption and permanence have taken place since the Prime Minister announced a review of adoption in February 2000. We published the White Paper in December 2000.

The adoption and permanence taskforce has been working to spread good practice and support improvement. In the year to 31 March 2001 the proportion of looked after children being placed for adoption increased by 12 per cent. on the previous year, and was 40 per cent. more than in 1998–99. The adoption register has been launched, bringing together potential adopters with children needing families. We have published national adoption standards and draft practice guidance, and we have set a new target for the time scale within which children should be placed for adoption: 95 per cent. of looked after children are to be placed for adoption within 12 months of the decision that adoption is in the child's best interest. That will be an increase from 81 per cent. in March this year. Those of us who were involved in the Adoption and Children Bill know that we have been working on modernising the legal framework for domestic and inter-country adoption.

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One of the many recommendations in the performance and innovation unit report commissioned by the Prime Minister was that we should set up an adoption and permanence task force to spread best practice, tackle poor performance and help all local authorities reach the standards of the best. To make early progress on that, the Minister of State for Health, my right hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton), announced in October 2000 that a new adoption and permanence taskforce was to be set up. The initiative had, and continues to have, the support of both the Association of Directors of Social Services and the Local Government Association.

The cost of the taskforce in 2001–02 was about £250,000. The taskforce achieved considerable success in its first year and we are keen for it to continue. I am delighted that the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea has agreed to host the taskforce. Hon. Members will be aware that it achieved three stars in the star ratings for overall performance of social services. This special grant report enables us to pay it for the costs of the taskforce. The approach of the taskforce is to stress the key importance of ensuring permanent and secure attachments for vulnerable children and young people. The work focuses on the quality of planning for looked-after children to ensure that we make those opportunities available for them.

The taskforce is chaired by the chief inspector of social services and headed by Mike Lauerman, previously director of social services at Hartlepool. It currently has 33 part-time members, who are experienced practitioners and managers in children's services and, in some cases, experienced users. Most have particular experience and expertise in working within the looked-after-children system. To respond to the point that the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham made earlier, I can tell the Committee that the taskforce also works closely with and ties into the network of the quality protects regional development workers.

In the first year the taskforce worked intensively with eight councils who were keen to improve their adoption services. We got clear feedback on the positive results of the taskforce regarding the number of children being successfully placed for adoption as well as those who are being provided with secure attachments, either with their own families or through planned long-term foster care. The taskforce has also developed good practice materials and has arranged some successful workshops with the courts. For phase 2, all directors of social services were offered the opportunity to work with the taskforce during 2002; 40 councils expressed an interest in doing that and 12 were selected to work with the taskforce. I am pleased to say that the taskforce has already commenced work with 11 of the 12 councils; the remaining council will be visited this summer.

 
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