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Children and Young Persons Bill [Lords]

Children and Young Persons Bill [Lords]

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairmen: Mr. Greg Pope, Hywel Williams
Brennan, Kevin (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families)
Brooke, Annette (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD)
Foster, Mr. Michael (Worcester) (Lab)
Hesford, Stephen (Wirral, West) (Lab)
Hughes, Beverley (Minister for Children, Young People and Families)
Kidney, Mr. David (Stafford) (Lab)
Kirkbride, Miss Julie (Bromsgrove) (Con)
Loughton, Tim (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con)
McCarthy, Kerry (Bristol, East) (Lab)
Russell, Christine (City of Chester) (Lab)
Southworth, Helen (Warrington, South) (Lab)
Timpson, Mr. Edward (Crewe and Nantwich) (Con)
Turner, Mr. Andrew (Isle of Wight) (Con)
Waltho, Lynda (Stourbridge) (Lab)
Watkinson, Angela (Upminster) (Con)
Williams, Mark (Ceredigion) (LD)
Chris Shaw, Mick Hillyard, Committee Clerks
† attended the Committee

Public Bill Committee

Thursday 3 July 2008


[Mr. Greg Pope in the Chair]

Children and Young Persons Bill [Lords]

New Clause 11

Scope of inspections by the chief inspector
‘In section 147 of the Education and Inspections Act 2006 (c. 40) (inspection of premises in connection with adoption and fostering functions) after subsection (2) insert—
“(2A) The Chief Inspector must consider the promotion of the welfare and safety of a child when carrying out the inspections mentioned in this section.”’.—[Tim Loughton.]
Brought up, read the First time, and motion made [this day], That the clause be read a Second time.
1 pm
Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): I cannot remember where I had got to before lunch, but perhaps I can finish off by saying that the aim of this probing amendment is to tease out a bit more information than was teased out by the amendment that my noble Friend Baroness Morris of Bolton tabled in the House of Lords. We want to ensure that inspections of residential children’s homes are meaningful and not just inspections of the accommodation’s physical suitability. We want to broaden the scope of what is taken into account, so that consideration can be given to the promotion of the child’s welfare and safety.
Much earlier in our proceedings, I gave the example of a children’s home in my constituency. It was a nice converted farmhouse in the middle of the rolling downs of Sussex, but the children were running amok, and their welfare was clearly not being catered for. However, that did not necessarily come out in the Ofsted inspection report, and the new clause is intended to probe such issues. There is no statutory duty to consider the real aim of children’s homes—to promote children’s well-being—and such a duty should be included in the Bill.
The Minister for Children, Young People and Families (Beverley Hughes): I hope that all hon. Members agree that the Government have been very clear about the need to safeguard children and promote their welfare. Indeed, that is an important part of the remit of the new Ofsted, which took over the regulation of children’s social care in April 2007.
Section 119(3) of the Education and Inspections Act 2006, when read with section 117(2), sets out the factors to which the chief inspector must have regard in performing her functions. The first item on the list is
“the need to safeguard and promote the rights and welfare of children”.
That is a core responsibility of Ofsted and the chief inspector; it applies to all their functions, rather than being selectively attached to individual functions.
This morning, the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham set out the intention behind the new clause, which is to secure a broad scope for inspections of children’s homes. Her Majesty’s chief inspector draws her power to inspect children’s homes not from section 147 of the 2006 Act, to which the new clause relates, but from section 148. Section 148 transfers functions under part 2 of the Care Standards Act 2000 from the former Commission for Social Care Inspection to the chief inspector.
There is no disagreement about what we understand the intentions behind the new clause to be. When inspecting children’s homes, however, Ofsted should and does consider a range of matters. Comprehensive law is already in place setting out the appropriate factors that inspectors must consider when inspecting children’s homes and, indeed, any other institutions and services. Sections 22 and 23 of the Care Standards Act, for example, give the Secretary of State the power to make regulations and publish statements of national minimum standards against which children’s homes are inspected. Those regulations and national minimum standards cover a broad range of issues relating to the welfare of children in homes, as well as matters such as the fitness of managers and staff; they are not solely about the premises and material conditions.
When the chief inspector inspects children’s homes, fostering agencies, voluntary support agencies, adoption support agencies and all the other services within her remit, she must, as I explained, have regard to the matters set out in section 117(2) of the 2006 Act. As I said, the first aspect of that remit is
“the need to safeguard and promote the rights and welfare of children”.
For those reasons, new clause 11 is unnecessary. It adds nothing in legislative terms to the existing safeguards for children.
The primary objective is to ensure that as those legislative requirements are implemented, the types of situation outlined by the hon. Gentleman, which may be familiar to other Members, are dealt with to the extent that Ofsted is much more rigorous in ensuring compliance with existing standards, which it is Ofsted’s purpose to oversee. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept my assurances and feel able to withdraw the new clause.
Tim Loughton: I am grateful for that answer. In the interest of brevity and elegance, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.
Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

New Clause 12

Adoption targets
‘(1) The Secretary of State shall not impose numerical targets for the number of children in local authority care who are to be adopted.
(2) The Secretary of State shall not offer local authorities financial incentives for increasing the number of children in care who are adopted.’.—[Tim Loughton.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
Tim Loughton: I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
The new clause deals with a rather more weighty subject that has been of concern to many who keep an eye on adoption issues. I flagged up this concern during Committee stage of the Adoption and Children Act 2002, when the law on adoption was changed, and the same concern has been raised in the press and by other hon. Members. It is that a perverse incentive arises from the way in which the Government financially incentivise adoption targets, such that some adoptions may be taking place that do not meet the thresholds for an adoption that would normally need to be met. I shall not give reams of categorical evidence that that is happening—
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Kevin Brennan): Is there any?
Tim Loughton: I will if the Under-Secretary wants. There is a suspicion—an impression—that needs to be either allayed or dispelled.
Through the use of certain targeted grants, as announced by various Ministers and confirmed in parliamentary questions answered by Ministers, including the hon. Gentleman and the Minister for Local Government, performance reward grants have operated in past years. According to an answer on 3 September last year, the figures for how much grant money each local authority received between 2004-05 and 2006-07 in relation to their performance on adoption targets were released in a table. The figures show that authorities have been incentivised for meeting national adoption targets. The Under-Secretary defined those targets in an answer to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) on 23 July. He said
“A national adoption target was announced in 2000 to increase the number of adoptions of looked after children by 40 per cent. by the year ending March 2005, and to exceed this by achieving, if possible, a 50 per cent. increase by the end of March 2006.”—[Official Report, 23 July 2007; Vol. 463, c. 838W.]
Most of us would agree that we need to increase quality adoptions to give damaged children the very best second chance to enjoy the benefits of a stable family life, which might put them back on the straight and narrow, for want of a better phrase. It was particularly envisaged that we would concentrate most on getting children out of the care system who had been there for a long time and ensuring that, if there was no prospect of them going back to their birth parents or kinship family, they would be placed in stable adoptive situations. I think that we all agree with that objective, although there are other countries that take a different approach. The other day I cited Denmark, where in the year before last—the last year for which I have figures—only 20 adoptions took place, but that has much more to do with the flexibility of the system in and out of care, the greater use of residential children’s homes and so on.
I disagreed at the time the 2002 legislation was passed with the use of numerical adoption targets—a very blunt instrument—backed up by financial incentives, which could create a perverse incentive for a local authority that had not met its adoption targets to clamour around desperately at the end of the year to find a few soft targets to boost its adoption figures. Theoretically, that could happen. Although we know that an authority would have to go through all sorts of procedures for the care proceedings and pass the various thresholds, there could be a perverse incentive to try to find some adoption candidates to meet those targets before a year ends.
The fear that something along those lines may be happening is borne out when one looks at the demographics of adoptions that have taken place. I pluck out the example of Hammersmith and Fulham, which has received about £500,000 as a reward for placing more than 100 children for adoption in three years. It exceeded its goal of 101 adoptions and secured 106 by the target deadline. It is interesting to look at what happened after those adoption targets ended—they no longer exist in their old form. The number of babies placed for adoption by that authority fell substantially. In 2005, there were 21, in 2006 there were 23 and in 2007 the figure dropped to 10. The figures are also likely to be low this year. These are not children who have been in the care system for some time, but new babies who are taken from their mothers at an early stage.
I am not trying to undermine the system of fast-track baby adoption that we approved in the 2002 Act. If a mother with or without another parent is incapable of taking on the responsibilities of caring for her baby, there is a case for that child being placed for adoption as soon as possible, subject to the checks, procedures and appeals. I am not just picking on Hammersmith and Fulham; there are many similar cases. If one looks at the overall figure, the number of babies placed for adoption rather than returned to their parents is very high. It increased during the years when the performance targets were operating.
There is a perfectly justified suspicion that the targets are leading to perverse incentives to adopt more children than would normally be adopted, particularly focusing on babies. That does not do anyone any good. I am not trying to suggest that there is systemic abuse of the process, with social workers going around assuming the role of child snatchers, as many in the more sensationalist media would have us believe. Such views have not been beneficial and have not helped the perception and the image of social workers, which we talked about earlier. One way of dispelling that is to say that these targets should not be allowed.
I know that the targets have changed in the last couple of years, but the principle is wrong. The principle can lead to the wrong outcomes and to all sorts of allegations that are harmful to the adoption process and to the work of social workers. The commission on social workers that I chaired concluded that the Government should not use such targets. That is why new clause 12 states the case quite simply. It is a probing new clause, and the Minister will no doubt tell me that it would not fit into this part of the Bill, but it is useful to have this debate none the less. The Government need to state clearly that they will not use these sorts of targets. They must send out a clear message that they will come down heavily on any authority that appears to be over-enthusiastic in its adoptions. We must ensure that we increase adoptions, but we must do so for the right reasons.
Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it would be helpful if the Minister explained why there has been little change in the number of adoptions from the older age group while there has been a large increase in adoptions of very young babies? I would sincerely like an explanation for that.
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Prepared 4 July 2008