Adoption and Children Bill

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Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk): I rise to support the new clauses. The hon. Member for Luton, South (Margaret Moran) has made a strong case for the new clauses, and I hope that we shall incorporate them into the Bill. However, as she mentioned, other Bills are before Parliament and, thanks to the vagaries of the system's operation, the new provisions might not be included in the form that she would like.

We all have examples in our constituencies of parents who are unnecessarily separated from their children. Time and again social services departments say that unless proper housing is sorted out, the parent cannot have the child back. That is understandable, but often a bit of common sense would resolve the situation immediately. I agree with the hon. Lady that care should be the last resort in such cases.

In some cases it is right to take children into care, for example if they are at risk, or if their mother is suffering in some way—perhaps she has had a mental breakdown—and they are neglected. However, we are talking about cases in which the parent or parents are keen to keep the child at home but there is no home available for the family. That is why the law should include a requirement for the local authority to provide such accommodation. It is not a great deal to ask.

Housing authorities have many obligations, but there is a significant loophole in the circumstances we are debating. Conservative members know that the average bed and breakfast in the country is pretty inadequate. Bed and breakfasts can be pretty squalid places for families, so it is not surprising that social services departments say that they are not suitable places in which to bring up children.

However, housing can be made available. I worked out the other day that there are a significant number of family-size units in my constituency are either empty, or occupied by elderly pensioner couples. My local authority is, rightly, looking vigorously at providing more sheltered accommodation for pensioners and pensioner couples, so that such units can be released. In addition, more than 50 family-size units in Kings Lynn and west Norfolk are empty. A more proactive and determined policy of bringing those units back into readiness for accommodation for families would

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make more housing available. It is a question of management and efficiency. Replicating that policy in every constituency would make thousands of family-sized units available throughout the country.

I do not accept the Minister's argument that the provisions would put too great a strain on housing authorities. The hon. Member for Luton, South has tabled a sensible pair of new clauses and I hope that the Minister will accept them.

Tim Loughton: I support the thrust of the new clauses, and I apologise that, due to a prior engagement, I have to leave before the end of this sitting. That is a shame, because I hoped to be able to discuss the new clauses tabled by the hon. Member for Luton, South about contact arrangements, with which I have a great deal of sympathy.

The hon. Lady says that she is something of a baby in terms of experience of social services. However, I know that she has a good deal of experience in housing matters—in the past year we have both been on Committees that dealt with such issues, such as the one considering the Homelessness Bill. That experience is relevant to this Bill because it concerns the break-up of families, which is sometimes due largely to women fleeing domestic violence. On that score, I must declare an interest as patron of The Women's Refuge Project, Brighton, which has given me a great deal of briefing about the matters that we are discussing.

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We must do everything we can to prevent families from being split up. The hon. Lady mentioned cases in which the lack of availability of accommodation results in children being put on the child protection register and separated from their mother, father or guardian. That can be the start of a slippery slope for the welfare of the child—he gets into trouble and the whole family in difficult circumstances fragments very quickly.

When we were considering the Homelessness Bill we heard of cases—we have all experienced them—in which people were deemed to have intentionally made themselves homeless, simply because they were fleeing domestic violence within their family unit, or the violence of neighbours committed for any of a host of reasons. The hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King) gave examples of people who were escaping from racial violence, or who feared the prospect of it if they stayed in their homes. Had they remained in their homes, their lives would have been at risk, so they preferred to sleep on the floors and sofas of people who gave them refuge. However, they fell foul of the legislation because they were deemed not to be homeless unintentionally, and consequently were not given the support they so desperately needed from local authorities.

Such circumstances have a great impact on the welfare of children who are caught up through no fault of their own or, in most cases, of their parents. Given that the paramount consideration in the Bill is the welfare of the child, the new clauses tabled by the hon. Member for Luton, South are highly pertinent. Conservative Members have a good deal of

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sympathy with her and I shall be interested in the Minister's response.

The overriding problem is the shortage of housing. However good the provisions of the Homelessness Bill, which we supported, and however good the intentions behind the new clauses, if they are adopted, little will be achieved if the goods are not delivered to the local authorities charged with providing accommodation and the support that goes with it. Last year the fewest new social houses since the 1920s were built, and the number of people in temporary accommodation and bed-and-breakfast has risen substantially. The problem is not being solved, despite the assurances received from the Prime Minister downwards.

I wholly agree with the hon. Member for Luton, South that the sort of cases that she advocates should have priority, but one family's promotion is another's demotion. Because finite resources and a finite amount of accommodation are available, it is a case of shifting priorities. Some hon. Members might take issue with my views on this matter, but the Government, through the Homelessness Bill, have raised the priority in the housing ladder stakes of people who are coming out of prison and have criminal records. The result is a reduction in the amount of accommodation available for many other deserving cases, including homeless families.

We sympathise greatly with the hon. Lady's intentions. There is a loophole that needs closing. We need to do more to support families who find themselves in circumstances that have desperate implications for their children. In giving our support, we shall be interested to hear from the Minister what practical steps she can take, given that we are talking about finite resources being available from her Government for housing.

Jacqui Smith: I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, South for tabling the new clauses and bringing an important issue to the Committee's attention.

As my hon. Friend said, two recent judgments in the Court of Appeal have caused concern among councils with social services responsibilities. The new clauses are intended to deal with the problem. Since it was first brought to the Department's attention, my officials and I have done a considerable amount of work to assess the size of the problem and the best way to tackle it. My officials have met officials from the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, social services directors and representatives of Shelter. Furthermore, I have discussed the issue with ministerial colleagues.

As my hon. Friend said, the judgment in the Lambeth case casts doubt on the ability of local authorities to provide accommodation for children in need and their families under section 17 of the Children Act. If they lose that ability, an important element of the support package for children in need and their families will be removed. That would affect not only families that are not owed a main housing duty under housing legislation—because they are

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intentionally homeless or not habitually resident, for example—but families that need emergency accommodation because they were fleeing domestic violence. Young people who need accommodation in those cases do not necessarily need the intensive support provided by foster care.

The Government want to restore the position and to place beyond doubt the fact that local authorities have a power to provide accommodation under section 17 as a safety net. It is important that the provision of accommodation is not raised above other assistance that may be provided under section 17 and that specifically identifying the power to provide accommodation in section 17 has no unintended consequences. The new clauses, however, go slightly further. New clause 10 is slightly unclear, but seems to be intended to place a duty on local authorities to meet the assessed needs of individual children. That is more than the existing legislation requires and is not necessary.

The recent Court of Appeal judgments should not be read as meaning that a local authority need not offer assistance under section 17 to a child in need. I am not sure whether my hon. Friend referred to the Barnet case, in which it was clear that the local authority had offered help, although it was not acceptable to the mother. It is clear from A v. London Borough of Lambeth that the section 17 duty is a general target duty, which is not individually enforceable by any specific child in need. There is a general duty under section 17(1) to promote the upbringing of children in need within their families and to provide a range of services to meet the needs of children in the area. Those two duties are sufficient when taken together with the obligation to carry out assessments on children who might be in need, and the section 20duty to accommodate children in need when no one else can do so. That should ensure that some of the problems that hon. Members have mentioned do not continue.

 
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Prepared 17 January 2002