Adoption and Children Bill

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Ms Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that, under the previous arrangement, difficulties with the quality control of some guardians ad litem were not properly managed and it was difficult to ensure that every guardian was producing the thorough quality of work required? One reason for a more managed and organised service was to deal with some of the previous problems. I am not suggesting that all guardians were of insufficient quality.

Mr. Llwyd: I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. I agree that some guardians were failing, but alienating more experienced guardians and forcing them to jump out of the service will not help. I agree that problems did exist, as in any service: some delivered well and some fell short of the mark. If experienced guardians are alienated and treated with contempt by CAFCASS, it does a disservice to those doing a good job and, more importantly, to children.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury): The hon. Gentleman develops a powerful case, and describes a classic example of what happens in a powerful bureaucracy where the emphasis is not on improving quality, but on extending a power base by pushing out people over whom it has less control. This morning, when the hon. Gentleman had an important engagement outside the House, we alluded to possible problems in other powerful bureaucracies.

Mr. Llwyd: The hon. Gentleman is right. I am of the devolving rather than the centralising persuasion.

To answer the question of the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Ms Munn), another way of dealing with the problem would have been to ensure better training of those of who fall short. Management is necessary, but imposing a huge top-down structure is not the best way to achieve that, which is why I welcome the debate. I do not profess to know all the answers, but I have identified some of the problems and, more importantly, the High Court has also done so recently.

One has to ask how we are to view the fact that the new court advisory service is found to be acting unlawfully within months of its creation and alienating those with whom it is supposed to be working. We also have to ask to what extent CAFCASS is publicly accountable for its actions. What is to be made of it defending itself by arguing that it is not bound by the promises of its predecessor or by the statement by the Lord Chancellor in a written answer to the right hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Virginia Bottomley)?

What we have here is the possibility of a quango, which will suddenly run wild. It is unpardonable for a service to say that, regardless of what the Lord Chancellor's Department has said, it is not bound by that and that it is a free-standing body which will do exactly as it pleases. CAFCASS has run into trouble with the High Court within months of its inception.

The argument was that CAFCASS was a non-departmental public body—

Mr. Brazier: I saw several hon. Members shaking their heads. Will the hon. Member confirm that it was actually part of the testimony by CAFCASS that it did not regard itself bound by clear pledges made by the Lord Chancellor's Department and, indeed, was openly breaking them?

Mr. Llwyd: The hon. Gentleman has jumped ahead of me. I was getting to that point.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I am indebted to him for much of the information that I am relying on today. CAFCASS argued that, being a non-departmental public body, it was therefore independent of the Lord Chancellor's Department and the project team and, accordingly, was not bound by any statements made apparently on CAFCASS's behalf. It further argued that guardians should have known that and accordingly should have set no store by any of the comments or promises made by the Lord Chancellor's Department. The learned judge was very unimpressed by that argument and cited CAFCASS's own statements to guardians that the Lord Chancellor had the final say on the contracts to be offered to guardians.

It is obviously worrying to anyone who has concern for parliamentary democracy that a public body should take the view that the Lord Chancellor's promises to Members of Parliament on its behalf places no obligations on it. What, then, is the point of Members of Parliament writing to the Lord Chancellor and the Ministers concerned if bodies such as CAFCASS consider themselves unfettered by the response? I am sure that, in due course, the Parliamentary Secretary will wish to say a word or two about that.

I realise that I have dealt at length with this dispute. It does not fill me with any confidence, and I go back to where I started briefly in speaking to the amendment: the service must succeed if the Bill is to succeed. I know that the Parliamentary Secretary is most sincere in her calling and that she will do her best. What we need to do is ensure that there are plenty of good guardians available, that they will remain independent and that they will be given employment opportunities that befit their status. If that happens, there will be no problem recruiting good-quality staff for the future. If it does not happen, this legislation will cave in and we will all have wasted a great deal of time and, worse, lost a great opportunity.

5.15 pm

Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre): I share many of the concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd). He clearly speaks with great knowledge, and from considerable experience. However, he has been a little negative, although I acknowledge the problems. I refer him to an early-day motion, which I submitted many weeks ago now on this subject—I would not be surprised if he had signed it.

The whole discussion about whether or not CAFCASS is responsible to the Lord Chancellor's Department is rendered somewhat academic by the way that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary has responded to the concerns of hon. Members on both sides of the House over CAFCASS. I have had several constructive meetings with her about those concerns.

The important thing is that the principle of what the Government set out in the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act 2000 for the future of a unified service, bringing together guardians ad litem, the court welfare service and the official solicitor, is absolutely right. This vital service, which offers representation, advice to courts, support to children and young people facing difficult situations in court and in their family lives, is of fundamental importance.

The new structure offers an opportunity for a well-managed service; it offers people opportunities for career progression through all levels of a service, which operates in different ways and in different contexts; and it offers an opportunity for excellent training and professional development. It must be the way forward for the sort of modernised service that we want to see, offering something important to vulnerable people.

CAFCASS has had a bad and difficult start. I doubt that anybody would deny that, but I hope that the situation has moved on from what it was, even those few weeks ago, and from the description outlined by the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy. CAFCASS has a positive future. The Government have not only attended to setting it up in the proper way through the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act 2000 but are clearly acting in the best interests of children when they give great attention to the difficulties that the service is experiencing and to the best way to make it work.

I am confident that the structure that we have, which is much better than the hybrid relationships that we have had in the past, will work well to the benefit of children and young people.

Tim Loughton: I was interested in the opening comments of the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson). He described the contribution of the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy as a little negative, but the hon. Gentleman has done the Committee a great service because he has ingeniously tabled a useful amendment, which has given the Committee the opportunity to debate the problems with CAFCASS and to insert a common-sense means of ensuring that the House properly monitors its rehabilitation.

I was somewhat surprised when the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre described the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy as a little negative, not least because of his early-day motion 282—to which he modestly referred—which was tabled on 22 October and signed by hon. Members from all parties. His motion described CAFCASS as a service ''of crucial importance'', but the language then changed and the motion stated that this House

    ''is alarmed to observe that already 24 out of 52 managers of children's guardians have left the service, one of them with the statement that 'CAFCASS nationally is in a state dangerously close to paralysis'; is appalled that a judicial review on 14th September held that CAFCASS has acted unlawfully in withdrawing the option of self-employment for guardians; is extremely concerned that the centralisation of the service will undermine the ability of experienced professional to offer independent support and representation for vulnerable children; and calls on the Government to institute an urgent and fundamental review of the service, taking full account of the views of children and young people, organisations representing them and the dedicated people who work within it.''

If that is not more than a little negative, I do not know what is. I am not sure how the hon. Gentleman can accuse the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy of being negative.

However, I agree wholeheartedly with the other comments of the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre. CAFCASS is in a mess, but I will not go over the points made earlier.

Mr. Dawson: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that I said that the situation has moved on markedly from the day that that early-day motion was tabled and from what was described therein?

 
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