Mr Osborne: Last week we had the good news that unemployment had fallen again and employment had gone up, and we had the forecasts from the European Commission. Although we would of course want UK

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growth to be higher, they show that it is actually forecast to be higher than that of France, Germany and many of our European neighbours. We are in a tough neighbourhood—it is a tough economic situation—but we are confronting our country’s economic problems.

Alison McGovern (Wirral South) (Lab): The Chancellor’s response to the questions today has proved that, as ever with him, it is politics first before economics. Now that he has failed the test he set himself, will he turn his attention to the test that Wirral people set him, specifically on under-employment? What is he going to do to help people who cannot get the hours they need in work to put food on the table?

Mr Osborne: Of course we want to help people who are not currently working the hours that they want to work; we want to help them by helping businesses to expand to take on more people. As well as jobs going up by 888,000 in total and private sector jobs going up by 1 million or more, the number of hours worked in our economy has also gone up. Labour argues that it is all to do with under-employment, but that is not the case. Of course we want to help people who are working part time but want to go full time and people who want to work more hours. The best way to do that is to create an environment in which businesses want to expand and take people on.

Kate Green (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab): Does the Chancellor not accept that the reason why gilts have not really moved in the wake of the downgrading is not a tribute to the Government’s economic policy, but is symptomatic of a deep pessimism about the long-term growth prospects for our economy?

Mr Osborne: If that were the case, why would German rates be lower than ours?

Mr William Bain (Glasgow North East) (Lab): On 2 February 2010, the Chancellor said

“we will protect Britain’s credit rating and international reputation.”

Having delivered the third-lowest growth in the G20 since 2010, with real wages having fallen every month that he has been in office, the cost of living staying higher for longer, according to the Bank of England, and our nation’s productivity slumping, it is his reputation that lies in ruins in the eyes of the British people today.

Mr Osborne: I cannot believe that the hon. Gentleman waited an hour and four minutes to read us the Whips’ handout again. As I have said, perhaps the Labour party will circulate its alternative economic policy, so that we can have a real debate about it in the House.

Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab): Given the loss of 1,000 private sector jobs in the Hull area over the last couple of months, and the 15,000 people who are looking for work, does the Chancellor think that the downgrading will help or hinder the economic recovery of the Humber?

Mr Osborne: What will help the economic recovery of the Humber are, first of all, the low interest rates, which, as I said earlier, are tested every day out there in the bond market. In addition, however, we have opened

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new enterprise zones in east Yorkshire, we have cut the bridge tolls on the Humber bridge—which I would have hoped that the hon. Lady would welcome—and we have invested in new road projects in and around the area, which had been demanded for years.

Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): In 2010, the Chancellor pledged to secure the recovery. By 2011, that had changed to maintaining Britain’s triple A credit rating. Is not the Chancellor’s failure to deliver on the first promise the reason for our losing the second?

Mr Osborne: We inherited an incredibly difficult situation. The economy had contracted by 6%; we were experiencing the deepest recession in the country’s modern history, and arguably the worst financial crisis in its entire history. Since then we have made difficult decisions, but they have seen interest rates stay low, they have seen the deficit come down, and they have seen the creation of a million jobs. The hon. Gentleman should be welcoming that.

Mr Speaker: I call Mr Flello. Is Mr Flello still with us to give us his views?

Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent South) (Lab): I am most grateful, Mr. Speaker. This is definitely worth waiting for. I have handwritten notes.

If one of the Chancellor’s pals in one of the banks had lost that bank’s triple A credit rating, he would have gone. Will the part-time Chancellor now either become full-time and change his plan, or go?

Mr Osborne: I am not sure that that was worth waiting for. Let me say to the hon. Gentleman that he either thinks it is important for us to confront our debt problem—in which case he should support me as we make the difficult decisions that will enable us to do that—or he thinks that that is not important, and that we can take a difficult situation and make it very much worse. No amount of handwritten notes will help him in those circumstances. The main handwritten note from the Labour party that I remember is the one that said there was no money left.

Jack Dromey (Birmingham, Erdington) (Lab): In the name of protecting our triple A rating, the Chancellor cut £4 billion of affordable housing investment, causing house building to collapse, pushing housing benefit bills up, and creating the biggest housing crisis in a generation. Rather than continuing to borrow to pay the costs of failure, will he now endorse the shadow Chancellor’s call for investment in affordable house building to create jobs and apprenticeships and to get the economy moving, which he has so signally failed to do?

Mr Osborne: That is a call for yet more borrowing. At least the hon. Gentleman is happy to advocate that in the House of Commons, whereas the shadow Chancellor dare not talk about his economic policy.

The capital spending in the plans that we inherited from the last Labour Cabinet—which, presumably, were agreed to by all members of that Cabinet—was lower than the capital spending in the plans that we have now. Why? Because we have made difficult decisions on welfare bills and other areas of resource spending in

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order to invest in capital. As for housing, with schemes such as Firstbuy and NewBuy and the new housing guarantees, we are getting behind the housing industry.


The hon. Gentleman says “Going down”, but the rate of housing starts under the last Labour Government was the lowest since the 1920s. That is the situation with which they left us.

Andy Sawford (Corby) (Lab/Co-op): Only a few months ago, people in my constituency gave a verdict on who they thought was responsible for the state of our economy. The number of jobseeker’s allowance claimants in my constituency has risen by 127 in the last two months. It is the toughest place in the country for young people to find work. Does the Chancellor realise just how out of touch he will sound to all those people who desperately want a Government who are on their side? How can he look foreign investors in the face and tell them to invest in my constituency and others, given that he has now failed the test that he set himself?

Mr Osborne: Foreign investors are investing in Britain, and the hon. Gentleman should welcome that. We are also investing in the east midlands—

Andy Sawford: Not in my constituency.

Mr Osborne: The hon. Gentleman says not in his constituency. He is the MP for Corby, and for 13 years people wanted the Corby link road, which is being constructed—

Andy Sawford: Where is it?

Mr Osborne: He asks where it is; it is being built at the moment. For 13 years people wanted that road and it was not produced, but it is now being produced under this Government.

Mr Speaker: I thank the Chancellor of the Exchequer and, for that matter, the 69 Back-Bench Members who contributed in 57 minutes of exclusively Back-Bench time for their notable succinctness.

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Point of Order

4.39 pm

Mr Marcus Jones (Nuneaton) (Con): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The House will be saddened to hear of a serious underground fire at Daw Mill colliery in my constituency. Thankfully, there have been no deaths or serious injuries, but the fire, which is still blazing, is causing a great deal of uncertainty and worry to more than 600 people who work at the colliery. Notwithstanding the meetings I intend to have with Ministers, some of which will, I hope, take place later today, will you allow me to offer my support to the workers at Daw Mill and their families during this extremely difficult time?

Mr Speaker: The hon. Gentleman has just done that most eloquently. I know that as an assiduous attendee in the Chamber he will be alive to the opportunities that the Order Paper presents for him to raise the matter on other suitable occasions. I thank him and extend my sympathies for and concern about the situation he has rightly described.

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Children and Families Bill

[Relevant documents: Sixth Report from the Education Committee, Pre-legislative scrutiny: Special Educational Needs, HC 631, Fourth Report from the Justice Committee, Pre-legislative scrutiny of the Children and Families Bill, HC 739, Sixth Report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights, Reform of the Office of the Children’s Commissioner: draft legislation, HC 811, and Children and Families Bill 2013: Contextual Information and Responses to Pre-Legislative Scrutiny, Department for Education, Cm 8540.]

Second Reading

4.40 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (Mr Edward Timpson): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The coalition Government are absolutely determined that all children, whatever their background or start in life, should have the opportunity to realise their potential and to succeed. In particular, we have a fundamental responsibility as a Government to look out for the most vulnerable children in our society and to not only protect their welfare but safeguard their interests and their future. That is why the measures in the Bill are so closely entwined with what I, as someone with compassion at his core, am aiming to achieve as the Minister responsible for children and families and with what the Government want to achieve for all our children.

Growing up with many foster children and adopted siblings, I saw at first hand the huge challenges that vulnerable children face as well as the huge scope for turning lives around. Whether children find themselves in the care system through no fault of their own or face the additional challenge of a special educational need, we have a responsibility to ensure that the system helps them to flourish. We need to recognise that those children are our children and that they deserve exactly the same rights and opportunities as anyone else.

That is the rationale behind our education reforms. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is leading a crusade of opportunity for all through an education system that does not have lower aspirations for poorer or more vulnerable children. We believe that every child should have the chance to succeed, that every child should be able to experience an outstanding education and that every child should not just matter but be able to make a difference.

The measures in the Bill take on that crusade, with an unrelenting focus on tackling the challenges that face the most vulnerable and that can make a positive future more difficult to envisage and achieve. By encouraging better stability, improved support and security and an unswerving focus on a child-centred approach, those measures offer the best hope for children to thrive.

This Bill includes measures to reform adoption, breaking down the barriers for adopters and providing more support to children. It will build on what we have already done to reform family justice, tackling appalling delays and focusing on the needs of the child. It will improve services for vulnerable young people, transforming the special educational needs system and doing more to protect children’s rights.

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Mr Henry Bellingham (North West Norfolk) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that one concern expressed by many of our constituents is about the right of grandparents, who can often provide extra stability in a family at a time of crisis, to have access to children? Can he confirm that the Bill will address that and that the whole approach will change?

Mr Timpson: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention and I pay tribute to his work in opposition on trying to enhance the rights of children, particularly to recognise the role played by members of their wider family in delivering good care across the country. Through the Bill, we want to make sure that we give every child the best opportunity for a fulfilling involvement not just with both their parents but with their wider family, when it is safe to do so and in their best interests, and we recognise the important role that grandparents often play.

Bill Esterson (Sefton Central) (Lab): The Minister makes an important point about the role of the wider family in caring for vulnerable children and for children generally, but the most important people are children themselves, and putting them at the centre is the critical role for the legislation and anything we do in the House. Does he take on board that that should always come first even when it may be in conflict with the rights of others in the family or other adults?

Mr Timpson: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. From his work and his personal experience of dealing with children of a particularly vulnerable disposition, he knows that children’s rights must be at the heart of whatever changes and decisions we make, which is very much what the Bill seeks to achieve.

Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent South) (Lab): The Minister will be aware of Scope’s campaign for children with disabilities. Will he be coming to that in his speech? Could he take a moment to comment on the concerns raised by disability groups about the most vulnerable children?

Mr Timpson: The hon. Gentleman has written to me about the campaign, as have many Members. As part of the pre-legislative scrutiny process, from the inception of the Green Paper right through to the publication of the Bill, we took into account all the concerns and views that were put to us. Later in my speech, I shall set out some of the measures we have taken as a result of the pre-legislative scrutiny and consultation process. They have considerably enhanced the Bill, and we can discuss them further in Committee.

The majority of children, most of whom do not need such support, will benefit from the introduction of a shared parental leave system and reforms to flexible working and child care. Those changes will help to create a truly family-friendly society.

Today, we published a young people’s guide to the Bill. It sets out the driving principle of the Bill in straightforward language. For example:

“We want to put children and young people right at the centre. We want things to work out right for children...We want services to meet children’s needs, not professionals’ needs.”

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Some Members have found previous young people’s guides extremely useful as a nutshell, given their time-constrained existence. If they do not have time to read the text of the whole Bill, I encourage them to use the guide as a very good substitute.

The Bill is all the stronger for the fact that we consulted children and young people on the key proposals throughout, and we continue to do so. I put on record my thanks to Roger Morgan, the children’s rights director, for enabling many of them to contribute.

We have, of course, also listened to adults. The Bill evolved in its current form through extensive partnership working. Numerous consultations over many months sought a wide range of views—from those who provide services to those who benefit from them. That is particularly true of provision for special educational needs. Pathfinders have tested and continue to test our reforms to make sure they are delivering on our aims.

I am grateful to colleagues both here and in the other place for all the care and attention that have gone into preparing the Bill. Large sections of it have benefited from and been enhanced by the scrutiny of four parliamentary Committees and the advice and guidance of hon. Members on both sides of the House.

Mr David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): I recognise the importance of my hon. Friend’s commitment to taking account of the concerns of parents, such as a constituent who came to see me on Friday. Her son has Asperger’s and when he was aged between six and 10, she spent £25,000 trying to get a basic level of provision for him. He could not have a statement and now, in the transition from primary to secondary school, she is struggling to find an appropriate placement. As she says, however loud she speaks and however sharp her elbows, she also speaks on behalf of those who cannot afford £25,000 for basic provision and care. Will the Bill address some of her concerns?

Mr Timpson: The story of my hon. Friend’s constituent is one that I have heard from many Members who have, in their constituency surgeries or elsewhere, come across the many battles that parents of children with a special educational need find that they must face, day after day. Those parents are having to provide duplicate information and tell their story time and again, and rather than working in partnership with local authorities, the health service and schools, they often find themselves in conflict with them. The Bill is designed to tackle that head-on, and to ensure a much more child-centred, family-oriented SEN system, with a single assessment and planning process for those aged nought to 25, to make sure that those difficult transition periods are dealt with in a much more smooth and co-ordinated way. There will be a much reduced probability of many of the problems that people such as my hon. Friend’s constituent have had to face, even quite recently; in fact, we hope that they will not happen at all.

Kate Green (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab): I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, and I compliment him on many of the measures in the Bill, which will be widely welcomed. However, he will be aware that some parents are concerned that in future, their children will

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not meet the standard for a statement of special educational needs. They are concerned that when School Action and School Action Plus stop, their children may fall out of the scope of the local offer. How can he reassure those parents?

Mr Timpson: I will come on to address those issues, but it is important to say at this juncture that we are not changing the definition of special educational need. It is clear from the Ofsted report of 2010 that there has been over-identification of many children, who have been labelled as needing School Action or School Action Plus, but for whom that has not addressed the core concerns around their presentation and their inability to progress at school satisfactorily. We want a greater emphasis on outcomes, and we want to personalise the support that children get at school—if necessary, through a plan, if they meet the criteria. We are not changing the definitions; we are ensuring that the rights that parents and young people enjoy under the SEN system will be protected under the new system. In fact, they will be enhanced, as they will apply beyond the age of 16, all the way up to 25, when that is considered appropriate.

Mr Robert Buckland (South Swindon) (Con): I commend my hon. Friend for the way he is presenting the Bill. Does he agree that this is not just an education Bill, but a health Bill and a care Bill? Unless we make sure that services are joined up through local joint commissioning, there is a danger that the good work he wants to take place will not happen properly.

Mr Timpson: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has on many occasions displayed his deep knowledge and understanding of the subject, and as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on autism continues to fight for the cause admirably. Of course he is right: we want better integration of services, and better co-ordination of assessments relating to education, health and social care. That is why, in the Bill, there is for the first time a statutory duty to ensure joint commissioning of services relating to education and social care; there is a duty on the different agencies to co-operate. Through the local offer, they will all have to publish—through a common framework, which we will set out in the code of practice and in regulations—what services they have on offer locally for children with a disability or a special educational need, so that there is much more transparency, and people can hold them to account much more effectively.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Timpson: I will make progress. I know that everyone is keen to get in, and many people have been sitting here for quite some time, and were here throughout the urgent question, but I have a fair amount to get through, and at least 27 colleagues want to speak, so I ask hon. Members to bear with me for a moment.

We have listened to and considered all views offered on how to refine the draft legislation to make sure that what we are proposing will work in practice. In particular, I want to thank the four Committee Chairs—Baroness Butler-Sloss, my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart), the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) and the hon. Member for Aberavon (Dr Francis)—as well as the

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Committee members and staff for their diligent and constructive reports. It has been a purposeful and fruitful process.

We believe that supporting strong families and introducing flexible working practices is key to achieving business and economic growth. A new system of shared parental leave will support business by creating a more motivated, flexible and talented work force. Flexible working will also help widen the pool of talent in the labour market, helping to drive growth. Underpinning all this, the Bill will give children a stronger, more independent champion of their rights through reforms to the Office of the Children’s Commissioner. That will ensure that their views are properly represented and taken seriously.

I am mindful of the time constraints, which will prevent me from detailing every clause, but I want to talk through our headline reforms, starting with those on adoption. As someone with two adopted brothers, I know all too well how life-changing adoption can be, for both the adopted child and the family they are joining. I also know how glacial the pace of the adoption process can often be. It currently takes an average of two and a half years to place a child for adoption. This is completely unacceptable. These inexcusable delays are costing children time that can never be recovered—time when they should be bonding with their adoptive family and enjoying the routine and stability that they so desperately need. We must do all we can to reduce the time it takes for a child to be adopted.

My hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) deserves real recognition for his personal crusade to tackle this problem and for the important progress already made. The Bill builds on that work to create a system more focused on the needs of children and which more actively involves and supports adopters.

John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD): I refer the House to my declaration of interest as chairman of the Justice for Families campaign. Does the Minister accept that there are some people, including myself and some in foreign countries, who believe that sometimes children are adopted who should not be adopted?

Mr Timpson: I am very much aware of my hon. Friend’s views and have conversed with him on a number of occasions. I always listen to and am mindful of the words that he speaks on this subject, but I have a strong view that for those children who, for whatever reason, are unable to find any other permanent placement, we ought seriously to consider adoption as a way of giving them that stability, that routine, that loving, stable family home which far too often they miss out on because we have not managed to move them through the adoption system in enough time, commensurate with their best interests.

Alex Cunningham (Stockton North) (Lab): Nobody would disagree that it is important that we reduce the time scale for children to be adopted, but what safeguards does the Minister plan to put in place to ensure that we do not see an increase in the number of adoption failures?

Mr Timpson: The hon. Gentleman raises an extremely important point. We know that the level of adoption breakdown, which ranges from 3% to 30%, is probably the worst outcome of all for those children, let alone for

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the families who have been brave enough to put themselves forward as prospective adopters. We know that what is key to ensuring successful adoption is good planning, a good matching process that is more adopter-led than it has been in the past, and the support that is provided during and after the adoption is put in place, to prevent any possible breakdown happening in the future. That support, in light-touch form, may be necessary for many years into the future.

I know from my own family’s experience that even 20 or 30 years on, there may be moments when some experience prior to going into care and being adopted comes back to haunt an individual, so we should be mindful of the fact that for adoption support to be successful, it needs to continue to be available. I will come on to the aspects of the Bill which deal with that issue. It is a step forward to make sure that that adoption support is available where it will make a difference.

Bill Esterson: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Timpson: Briefly. The hon. Gentleman has had one crack of the whip; I will give him one more.

Bill Esterson: I am grateful. The Minister has made a good point about getting the balance right between speed of adoption and avoiding rushing, leading to breakdown and the damage that that does to children and families. What are his plans to increase the number of potential adopters coming forward? He rightly mentioned support. The No. 1 issue that could be addressed by the authorities is increasing the number of people who are prepared to adopt and who have the support to do so.

Mr Timpson: If the hon. Gentleman bears with me, I will come to that point in a moment, and I will address it head-on. I am not trying to avert his gaze from that issue.

The fostering for adoption clause will require local authorities to consider a fostering for adoption placement as soon as they are considering adoption for a child, but local authorities must make the most appropriate placement available, which may well be a kinship care placement.

The Government recognise the importance of family members in taking care of children who cannot live with their parents, and we are aware that a child brought up by a family member benefits from living with someone they already know and trust, rather than a stranger. We stand by the measures in the existing legislation: the Children Act 1989 requires local authorities to seek first to place children with their wider family, and the Children and Young Persons Act 2008 strengthened that requirement. That is why section 17 was amended in April 2011 to make it easier for local authorities to provide regular and long-term financial payments to families caring for children, where they assess that to be appropriate. That is also why the Department has funded the Family Rights Group by £93,000 a year since 2011 and why it will award it two further years of funding in our voluntary and community sector grants in April to help further the role of family group conferences.

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab): I know that the Minister is very much aware of the issues facing kinship carers—in fact, I think that he was one of the sponsors of the Kinship Carers (Parental Responsibility Agreements)

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Bill, which I introduced a couple of years ago—but does he acknowledge that the Family Rights Group says that clauses 1 and 6 need to be removed or amended because they place real obstacles in the way of kinship carers? Are the Government looking at that?

Mr Timpson: I am aware of the issue the hon. Lady raises. I have just set out the principles that remain in place, and it is worth noting that the concept of fostering for adoption is not new. A number of local authorities already use fostering for adoption very successfully, for example East Sussex county council. That is in no way trying to undermine the principles in law that already exist whereby local authorities must look at potential future placements within the family before considering a placement outside the family, and that will pertain as a consequence.

We also know that black children take, on average, one year longer to be adopted than white children or children of other ethnicity. Again, that is totally unacceptable. As Birmingham city council’s recent report illustrated, potential adoptions are still being blocked by misplaced and misguided efforts to find the perfect ethnic match over and above all other considerations. I want to make it absolutely clear, for the avoidance of any doubt, that we do not intend that ethnicity will never be a consideration. However, ethnicity should not block a placement that is in the best interests of the child and that can provide them with the loving and stable family home they so badly need. The Bill will remove the explicit requirement to have regard to a child’s religious persuasion, racial origin and cultural and linguistic background when matching them with prospective adopters. In doing so, it will ensure quicker and more balanced decision making when matching them for adoption.

As of 31 March 2012, 4,650 children were waiting for an adoptive family. We need more than 600 additional adopters a year just to keep up with the growing number of children waiting. To address the point made by the hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson), unfortunately we have a situation in which many small local problems are adding up to one big national crisis. There are currently around 180 adoption agencies, including 152 local authorities, each recruiting and assessing an average of 17 adopters a year. Many operate on too small a scale to be efficient and have no incentive to recruit adopters to meet the needs of children outside their area. That system is simply not fit for purpose.

We need to ensure that the national crisis of children waiting for adopters ends, and that it ends as soon as possible. Therefore, we are continuing to work with local authorities and voluntary adoption agencies and have recently provided them with over £150 million to scale up adoption recruitment services and bolster capacity to meet the growing demand for placements. However, if local authorities are unable to develop a sustainable approach, we will be prepared to use the provisions in the Bill that enable the Secretary of State to require some or all local authorities to outsource their adopter recruitment and assessment function to one or more other adoption agencies.

As we discussed a few moments ago, sadly some adoptions break down, with inadequate therapeutic and other forms of support often being a contributory

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factor, yet we know that properly assessed and well-planned support can help prevent problems that can lead to a placement breaking down. People adopting children need to be confident in the support available, but that has been sadly lacking, with many adopters not even being made aware of their right to request an assessment. So we are placing a duty on local authorities to provide information about the support that is available. We are also introducing personal budgets to give adopters more control over who provides the support and how it is delivered. With appropriate safeguards, the Bill will also widen access to the adoption register so that adopters can take a more active role in identifying children for whom they may be appropriate adoptive parents.

Taken together, the Bill’s measures on adoption will mean more children being adopted more quickly where that is the right thing for them. It will mean adopters having a greater degree of control and support so that they can give those children the best start in life.

Mr Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): Will the Minister say something to reassure Barnardo’s and others that, given that 80% of current adoption recruitment is carried out by local authorities, Ministers do not plan to force whole swathes of local authorities into the voluntary sector, which might not have the capacity or capability to step up?

Mr Timpson: I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Select Committee Chairman and I take his question in the spirit in which it was meant. The first thing to say is that we have provided £1 million to the Consortium of Voluntary Adoption Agencies to boost their latent capacity, and those agencies have already seen 20% growth this year and the year before that. It is recognised that this sector comprises only 20% of the current market, so by scaling up the market by making more astute economies of scale, we are ensuring that we move towards a much more mixed market, maximising capacity right across the country to meet the demand. Of course we do not want to sit idly by and watch this money have no effect whatever. That is why the Bill contains this enabling clause to make whatever changes are necessary to recruit the number of adopters we need so that children waiting to be adopted can have the opportunity of getting an adoptive placement.

Catherine McKinnell (Newcastle upon Tyne North) (Lab): The Minister is being generous with his time and is setting out quite a compelling vision for the future of children and the adoption system. His use of language such as “market” and “demand”, however, creates some anxiety, particularly in view of what was said by the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart). What discussions has the Minister had with the Department for Communities and Local Government about the impact of some of these changes on local government, given the crippling cuts that many local authorities face as a result of other changes recently implemented by this Government?

Mr Timpson: We have provided local authorities with £150 million to try to improve their adoption service. This is a good opportunity for them to show that they can deliver for children in their care whose plan is for adoption. I do not see why the hon. Lady should feel that this is not an appropriate way of trying to resolve

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this national crisis. What we are trying to do is simply to provide a practical solution to the problem created when all 180-plus adoption agencies have no incentive to recruit beyond their own boundaries, which prevents children from being placed with a family that is potentially waiting for them in a different part of the country. We want to break down such barriers, ensuring that every child whose future lies in adoptive placements gets that opportunity as soon as possible.

Charlie Elphicke (Dover) (Con): Is not the key issue the fact that although about 4,500 children are waiting to be adopted, potential adopters are being put off by the checks and the intrusive nature of the whole process? Is it not important to streamline the system to encourage more adopters to come forward rather than to worry about whether it is local authorities or adoption agencies that are providing the placements?

Mr Timpson: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is why we are streamlining the assessment process for adopters so that it will take no longer than six months, whereas I have heard of cases in which it takes as long as three years for a couple or a single person to be approved as a prospective adopter. It is also why we have launched the national gateway to provide a single point of advice and information for anyone who is interested in adopting so that they are not immediately cocooned within their own local authority area as regards any potential assessment and thereafter matching. We are doing what we can right across the adoption system to make it more adopter-led and more streamlined to break down some of the barriers that have existed for far too long.

Sir Paul Beresford (Mole Valley) (Con): In response to the question by the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell), does my hon. Friend agree not only that more money is going into the system but that savings will come from its being streamlined so that the process of adopting children will move faster?

Mr Timpson: One of the reasons we want to encourage local authorities, through this additional funding, to move into a more consortia-type arrangement is that that reduces overheads. At the moment, more than 180 adoption agencies are recruiting, on average, 17 adopters each year. That is not a good economy of scale. There is huge scope within the system to make savings and to get the money to where we want it to help to get children adopted.

Mr Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab): I congratulate the Minister on the way in which he is commanding the House in presenting this Bill. He is talking about speeding up the process. Is there any link in the data that he has between the speed of the process and the success of the placement?

Mr Timpson: We know from research done by Julie Selwyn at Bristol university that for every year a child is not adopted there is a 20% reduction in their prospect of being adopted. By ensuring that adoption is timely and that the matching process has been done in conjunction with the prospective adopters rather than as an adjunct to that process, we will get children into the right placements in a quicker and more quality-assured way

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than has happened in the past. The longer children wait to be adopted, the less prospect there is of their being adopted. Adoptive placements are some of the most secure and stable arrangements outside the family. Clearly, adoption breakdowns still take place. We are looking at every stage of the process to make sure that the support that is made available and the information that is given to prospective adopters about the child they are adopting is as transparent as possible so that the prospects of any breakdown are reduced to a bare minimum. The right hon. Gentleman makes a key point that we consistently bear in mind as we make these reforms and push them forward.

Not all children in the care system will or should be adopted. But for all children, the difference it makes when someone cares whether they do well at school is crucial. When someone has high aspirations for them, they are more likely to have high aspirations for themselves. Yet in 2012 only 15% of children who had been looked after continuously for 12 months achieved five or more GCSE grades at A* to C, including English and maths. There have been slight improvements in recent years, but these results are simply not good enough. We have a duty to these children as corporate parents—a duty to care for them as we would our own children.

Of course, we should not forget that, thanks in large part to the fantastic foster carers we have across the country, the large majority of looked-after children benefit from their time in care. However, we want to drive up the focus, commitment and effort within our schools, councils and, yes, foster and residential care homes to make sure that the education of children in care is a real priority. The Bill introduces a duty on every local authority to have an officer—the “virtual school head”—to promote the educational achievement of its looked-after children, because these children are our children and they deserve the very best chance in life.

I want to turn to family justice reform. There is no debate about the need for reform of the family justice system. It is simply not acceptable that children wait, on average, over 47 weeks—until recently, over 56 weeks—for their care or supervision case to be resolved. In 2011-12, 21,553 children were involved in care proceedings and subject to this delay.

David Norgrove’s widely welcomed family justice review made the case for setting a clear time limit for the length of care cases, ensuring that decisions are child-focused and aimed at reducing duplication in the system. We know how important family courts are in making sure that vulnerable children end up in appropriate placements safely, but we need to do more to speed up the process to make sure that children can find stability as quickly as possible. To this end, the Bill includes measures to tackle delay through the introduction of a maximum 26-week time limit for completing care and supervision proceedings.

We also want to see a reduction in the number of additional expert reports commissioned, by ensuring that expert evidence is used in children’s cases only when it is necessary and not as a matter of routine. We will make it explicit that when the court considers a care plan, it should focus primarily on those issues that are essential to its decision about whether to make a care order. We will also help to reduce bureaucracy in the system by removing the need for frequent renewals of interim care and supervision orders.

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Our private law reforms are also based on the family justice review’s detailed analysis and recommendations. Simply too many children are involved in private proceedings. Just over 56,000 children were subject to new contact and residence cases in 2011-12. For many families involved, the process can be drawn out and emotionally draining. As someone who spent the best part of 10 years practising as a family law barrister, I can testify that this is rarely the best way to resolve family disputes. Taken together, the Bill’s private law provisions keep the needs of children firmly at the centre of the system, while explicitly acknowledging the important role that both parents should play in a child’s life post-separation.

Our starting principle is that separated parents should resolve their disputes out of court whenever possible. The Bill makes attendance at a mediation, information and assessment meeting—known as MIAM—a prerequisite for applying to court for certain types of family proceedings. This support to help parents reach their own agreements will be underpinned by better online support, access to information programmes and encouragement to develop parenting agreements. The material will also emphasise the importance to children of relationships with wider family members, particularly grandparents.

The principle that most children benefit from the involvement of both parents in their lives after family separation is also pivotal to our private law reforms. Too many children lose contact with a parent following family breakdown. One survey suggests that between a quarter and a third of children who do not live with both parents rarely, if ever, see their non-resident parent. We will emphasise in the out-of-court support we offer to parents the importance to the child of both parents playing a role, but we also believe it must be explicit in the court environment.

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): The role of mediation has been generally welcomed, but it will require mediators. At the moment, a lot of the mediating is done by court officers and others. Who will play the role of mediator? Their responsibilities will include identifying the safeguarding of children and domestic violence issues. What qualifications and accreditation will be required of them?

Mr Timpson: The mediator will not be a court clerk or court officer. An independent mediator will be assigned to carry out the mediation in a particular case. When the Bill goes to Committee, we will go into the detail of exactly how the role will be performed. There is a difference between those who go through publicly funded proceedings and those who do not. I will be happy to provide more information on that.

Mrs Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab) rose

Geraint Davies (Swansea West) (Lab/Co-op) rose

Mr Timpson: I am conscious of the time and I still have a lot of material to get through, so I will take just one more intervention.

Mrs Moon: As a former child and family social worker, I value what the Minister is saying about the importance of retaining separated family members in

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the child’s life. Does he acknowledge, however, that part of the problem we will face in retaining the involvement of separated parents in families is the implications of the bedroom tax? A separated parent might be financially penalised for keeping bedrooms so that their children can visit them during holidays and on weekends. Is that not counter-intuitive to what the Minister is trying to achieve?

Geraint Davies: That is what I was going to say!

Mr Timpson: I will try to kill two birds with one stone, in that case. That is not a matter for this Bill and I am sorry that the hon. Lady did not take the opportunity to raise any of the substantial issues that are in the Bill. As she has raised the under-occupancy rules, she must remember that it was her party that brought them in for the private sector. It is therefore an extension of something that was brought in by the previous Government.

The Bill makes it absolutely clear that both parents should be involved with their children after separation, unless there is a genuine welfare reason why that is not appropriate. This is about the needs of the child, not parents’ rights.

Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): My hon. Friend has made it clear on many occasions that the Bill is not intended or likely to lead to different court decisions. Why is he so optimistic that it will lead many parents to take a different view of the need to come to a sensible settlement and not get to court?

Mr Timpson: My right hon. Friend knows from his astute chairmanship of the Justice Committee that the intention of these changes to the law is to remove the adversarial, winner-takes-all nature of many of these proceedings and the perception among many parents that they are entering an arena that is about their personal battles, rather than what is in the best interests of the child. The changes will do that not in isolation, but as part of a wider package of measures including MIAMs and the enforcement of the orders.

Nobody would argue that both parents should not be involved in a child’s life if it is safe and in the child’s best interests. We believe that these measures will make it crystal clear to parents who are thinking about their post-separation arrangements or, further down the field, about taking these matters before the court, that the court will judge not the parents’ dispute, but what is in the best interests of the child. The presumption will be that having both parents involved in the child’s life is the right course where it is safe and in the child’s best interests. That is particularly important given the huge number of children who no longer have any contact with one parent after a separation. We need to try to bring that number down and I believe that these measures will help do that.

The message about focusing on children’s needs is reinforced by the replacement of contact and residence orders with the new child arrangements order. That will set out in one place who a child lives with, spends time with or has any other type of contact with, and when. It will move us away from the perception of a hierarchy that is present in contact and residence orders, where the resident parent is seen as the winner or the more important parent.

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I will now turn to the special educational needs reforms. I am conscious of the time and apologise to hon. Members who I know will be desperate to get in on this issue. I will take one or two interventions, but then I must press on. These are the most significant reforms in the area for more than 30 years. At the outset, I want to acknowledge the committed work of my hon. Friend the Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather), who was brave enough to push forward these reforms. I am also grateful to the many parents and young people I have met as children’s Minister in Coventry, Bromley, East Sussex and elsewhere, who have so graciously and generously shared their experiences with me.

When one hears stories of young people with needs and extra challenges that they did not ask for bravely battling a system that can be complex and unwieldy and is often a cause for frustration, it underlines the vital importance of making things better. It continues to be the case that children and young people with special educational needs do less well than their peers at school and college, and are twice as likely to be out of education, training and employment at 18.

The Bill builds on the Green Paper initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Brent Central to put the interests of children and young people first. It will bring up to date a terribly outdated system and keep the rights and protections that families value. It will give children and young people with special educational needs and their families better co-ordinated support, and more choice and control over how that support is provided. It will provide, for the first time, one system from birth to 25, promoting earlier identification of children’s needs and extending comparable rights and protections to all young people over 16, whether they choose to continue their education in school or in further education.

The Bill also sets out a number of measures to tackle some deep-seated problems. It requires local authorities and local health bodies to work together to plan and commission services for children and young people with SEN. That will make the best use of available resources and deliver integrated support, and it will bring a real commitment across agencies to ensuring that the services required to meet local needs are available. Families should no longer find themselves caught between different parts of the system, waiting for a particular service.

Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab): The Minister may be aware that CLIC Sargent, the children’s cancer charity, has raised concerns about the educational support that is available now, let alone in future, to children who have missed out on school as a result of cancer. Will he meet CLIC Sargent and myself—I have written to him today about that—to see whether we can have a more flexible approach to ensure that such children get the education and support that they need?

Mr Timpson: The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue, and I thank him for alerting me to it prior to the debate. I am of course happy to meet him and discuss the implications of the reforms for him and his constituents as the Bill moves through both Houses of Parliament.

The Bill requires local authorities to publish a local offer giving parents and young people clear, accessible information about the support that is available to them from education, health and social care bodies. The local

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offer will outline how they can get an assessment for an education, health and care plan and where they can get information, advice and support. Local agencies will be required to co-operate in developing that offer. We will set out in regulations a common framework for the local offer and give further guidance in the new birth to 25 special educational needs code of practice.

Many hon. Members will know from their constituency surgeries that it is a common occurrence for children and young people who need support to have to tell the same story over and over again to myriad different professionals. The measures in the Bill will lead to better, more co-ordinated assessments across education, health and care that involve children, young people and parents from the very start and focus on their goals and aspirations. Along with a new approach to assessment, we are introducing education, health and care plans.

Paul Maynard (Blackpool North and Cleveleys) (Con): What can the Minister say to reassure those who are concerned that children with a specific disability and health need, but with no identifiable educational need, will not have access to an education, health and care plan and so will not be able to benefit from the local offer? Is there are a simple and straightforward answer that I can give such families?

Mr Timpson: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I know from having paid a visit to his all-party group on young disabled people that many of that group of people are wrestling with the issue. Through the local offer and the joint commissioning of services, there will be much more transparency about what services are available for all children with special educational needs and disability, which will put them in a stronger position to hold the providers of those services to account. I am sure he will examine that as we take the Bill through Committee.

Education, health and care plans will have a new and important focus on outcomes, including employment and independent living, and they will be clear about the support to be provided to enable the child or young person to achieve those personal goals.

There is an unhelpful divide between school and college in the current system for young people over 16. They keep their statement and the legal protections that it brings if they stay in school, but they lose it if they go to college. The Bill will change that. SEN statements and learning difficulty assessments will be replaced with the new EHC plans, which will be for children and young people from birth to age 25. For the first time, young people with special educational needs will be able to enter further education and training with the same rights and protections as pupils in school, including rights to appeal to the tribunal.

I have already spoken about how we plan to give children, young people and families a much greater say in shaping local policies. We will also give those with an education, health and care plan much more say in how their support is provided and where they are educated. Parents and young people will have the option of a personal budget, enabling them to be much more involved in deciding how support is provided. They will not have to take up that option, but their entitlement to it, combined with the new approach to assessment and the

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EHC plans, will mean that agencies will be clear about the level of support that a child or young person should be getting and why.

Barbara Keeley (Worsley and Eccles South) (Lab): I want to express my profound disappointment that the Government have not taken the opportunity provided by the Bill to strengthen the rights of young carers. The offer and the assessment that the Minister has talked about are very welcome, but the same needs exist among young carers, who are the most hidden group of carers in our society. Does he recognise their need to be identified and assessed, the support that they need to ensure that their education does not suffer from their caring work load and the need to ensure that they are referred for support? The other things that he is talking about are wonderful, but why were young carers left out?

Mr Timpson: Although the hon. Lady has raised an issue that is not covered in the Bill, it is an important one that I have discussed with some of the groups that champion the cause of young carers. Of course, I will continue to listen to the arguments that they make during the passage of the Bill.

The Bill sets out plans to encourage the use of local services for settling disputes and independent mediation. That is intended to reduce the need for parents to feel that a time-consuming and stressful appeal to the tribunal is the only way forward. We are confident that the measures in the Bill will improve the lives of children and young people with special educational needs and their families. By promoting closer working between agencies, the Bill will improve local practice and benefit other groups, including those who are disabled but do not have special educational needs.

The early years and child care system is in need of reform and we must increase choice and availability, improve quality, and continue to remove any unnecessary bureaucracy that may inhibit innovation. In “More great childcare”, the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), set out plans to encourage all providers to learn from effective best practice, including from other countries. Many of the reforms set out in that report, however, are not matters for this Bill.

This Bill takes forward important provisions to improve the flexibility with which quality child care can be provided, including childminder agencies that are expected to help more childminders enter the market and offer greater support and quality assurance. Child care providers will be able to request a paid-for re-inspection by Ofsted at an earlier date than that allowed by the current three to four-year inspection cycle, so that improvements can be recognised. We are also removing the bureaucratic requirement on local authorities to carry out a rigidly defined assessment of child care sufficiency every three years, as well as the requirement on governing bodies to consult every time they want access to services such as “wrap around” child care. Evidence is clear that high-quality early education plays a vital role in a child’s development, preparing them for school and later life, and provisions in the Bill recognise that attending a high-quality early years setting improves children’s academic and social development.

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In 2010 John Dunford conducted his independent review of the Children’s Commissioner. His report stated that children were more vulnerable to having their rights breached than adults, and that they had fewer opportunities to influence political decisions or make their views heard. He concluded that the role of Children’s Commissioner is necessary, but that current legislation has prevented it from having enough impact. The Government agree, which is why the Bill will give the Children’s Commissioner a powerful voice to stand up for the rights and interests of all children, particularly those who are vulnerable.

Under measures of which my colleague the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) is justly proud, the Bill will modernise the leave system following the birth or adoption of a child. Research suggests that a father’s attendance at ultrasound scans increases his commitment to the pregnancy and helps early bonding. We know, however, that a third of fathers do not take time off to attend antenatal appointments, so we are creating a new right to unpaid time off for dads, partners and intended parents in surrogacy arrangements to attend up to two antenatal appointments. Adopters will have the right to time off to attend certain pre-adoption meetings.

The Bill will allow working couples to share the leave and pay remaining when a woman ends her maternity leave or a person their adoption leave early. That radical new system will enable working couples to take leave together and better manage their caring responsibilities and work commitments. We are also making significant changes to the policy on leave and pay for adopters. We think that the shared parental leave and pay package amounts to a substantial step forward in the flexibility available to families to look after their children and balance competing demands at work and at home.

The final section of the Bill—you will be pleased to hear that, Mr Deputy Speaker—supports family life by providing a right for all to request flexible working. Currently, the right to request flexible working is available to parents and carers and enables them to request changes to the way they work to accommodate their caring needs. Four out of five requests for flexible working arrangements are acceded to. The Bill will extend the right to request flexible working to all employees so that parents can be supported in their caring responsibilities by people in the wider family such as grandparents who will also be able to request flexible working.

There is no denying that this is a large Bill with a wide and varied scope. Shining through it all, however, is the coalition Government’s commitment to equality and increasing opportunity, and to ensuring that the most disadvantaged children reach their potential and that fathers and mothers work together to achieve the best for their children. Every measure in the Bill is driven by one simple objective: our determination to improve the outcomes for all children and families in our society, whatever their start in life and whoever they may be. Despite unprecedented pre-legislative scrutiny and public consultation, the Bill still has some way to go before finding its way into statute. Therefore, in the spirit of constructive dialogue that has to date been a strong feature of the Bill, I look forward to hearing people’s views during today’s debate and as the Bill progresses, and I commend it to the House.

Several hon. Members rose

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Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): Order. Before I call Stephen Twigg, I inform the House that, initially, there will be an eight-minute limit on Back-Bench contributions.

5.34 pm

Stephen Twigg (Liverpool, West Derby) (Lab/Co-op): I congratulate the Minister both on his opening remarks and on his wider handling of the Bill. In the tone and substance of what he has said today, he has risen to the occasion on these important subjects.

Reforming the systems for children in care, for children with special educational needs and for family justice is surely right. The Opposition welcome the opportunity to debate those important issues. The case for reform is clear. The system to support children with SEN all too often leaves families struggling to get the support their children need and deserve. More than a quarter of parents of children with autism say they have had to wait more than two years to get the support their child needs at school.

The time it takes for children in care to find suitable permanency is often far too long. As the Minister has said, on average, it takes more than two and half years for an adoption to be completed. For children who are black and minority ethnic, it takes an average of a year longer. Although we must ensure that the best interests of the child are upheld, delays to finding the right match are at the expense of a child’s development.

The family justice system needs to work in the interests of resolution and mediation, retaining the primacy of the interests of the child. I place on record my thanks to David Norgrove for his work for both the Government and the Welsh Assembly Government on reforming family justice. I also thank the all-party parliamentary group on child protection for its recent report, “Making Care Proceedings Better for Children”. We have an opportunity to build a cross-party consensus on lasting reforms. For example, strengthening the role and remit of the Office of the Children’s Commissioner could ensure that the primacy of children’s rights is protected in future. I thank John Dunford for his work for the Government on that.

The Children Act 2004 created the Every Child Matters framework, which I believe is as relevant and important today as it was in 2004. A decade ago, children and young people told us that five outcomes are crucial to their well-being, both as children and in later life: being healthy; staying safe; enjoying and achieving; making a positive contribution; and achieving economic well-being. Our ambition was then, as it is now, to raise the educational outcomes for children from all backgrounds, but particularly for those from the poorest families, for children with SEN and disabilities, and for children in the care system.

Hard-working families, who are currently being hit by the rising cost of child care and cuts to maternity pay, will welcome changes that enable flexibility for parental leave following the birth of a child. The previous Government introduced statutory paternity leave, which was an important turning point for many families. Although the current Government’s failed economic plan is hitting families hard, parents will benefit from greater flexibility for parental leave.

On special educational needs, the Select Committee on Education was right in its report to say that the 2011 Green Paper set high expectations and high hopes for

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parents and for children with SEN. All hon. Members will have been contacted by parents of children with SEN in our constituencies. The story is a familiar one.

Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab): I appreciate that the Minister tried to cover a lot of ground quickly, but his response to the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) was extremely disappointing, and there is a broad concern. Does my hon. Friend agree that too many children will be left out by the proposals? That is particularly true of children with dyslexia, who are excluded from the Minister’s current plans.

Stephen Twigg: I share my hon. Friend’s concern and I will come to a number of ways in which the Bill needs to be improved in Committee.

All hon. Members will have experienced a familiar story in their constituencies. Parents have a lack of information about the support available. They then have a long, drawn-out battle to secure the additional support their children need. Even when that support is offered, they have to jump endlessly through hoops to get the services their family needs. There is no doubt that we need a radical transformation of the SEN system.

Going back to 1981, the Warnock inquiry introduced the process of statementing, as well as provisions for inclusion of children and young people with SEN in mainstream education. Since then, we have seen several reforms—for example, the requirement on the Secretary of State to publish annually the numbers of children and young people with SEN and their outcomes, following a campaign led by the shadow children and families Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson).

Geraint Davies: My hon. Friend may know that the bottom 25% of middle-class children, on measures of cognitive ability at 22 months, have overtaken the top 25% of the poorest children by the age of 10. Is he therefore concerned that most children with speech, language and communication needs will not in fact be statemented or included in education, health and care plans, and that problem will continue and be exacerbated?

Stephen Twigg: Like my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe), my hon. Friend anticipates points that I will make later in my speech. However, he is right, both in his general point, which makes the case for early intervention, and—crucially—about some of the weaknesses in the Bill, which we hope to probe today and in Committee.

Mrs Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) (Con): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. If I may, I will take this opportunity to congratulate the Minister on his introduction of the Bill.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, I am especially interested in what happens to people with autism. The all-party parliamentary group on autism and others, including the National Autistic Society, have pointed out that the most difficult time for those with autism is the transition to adulthood. In Committee, will he probe further on whether we could have individual transition plans for

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those people with autism as they move into employment or further education, because that is often the most difficult point for individuals and families?

Stephen Twigg: I pay tribute to the right hon. Lady for her lengthy record of work on this issue, including securing legislation as an Opposition Member under the previous Government. I shall move on to the elements of the plan that we do support, including the extension to the age of 25. I know that she has campaigned for that, and the Government now propose it. We very much welcome that proposal, in part for the reasons that she has set out.

We support the switch from statements to education, health and care plans, and we absolutely share the ambition to encourage joint working between different agencies in drawing the plans up and providing the services described in them. We also welcome changes that have been made following campaigning by charities and parents, supported by Labour, and also through the pre-legislative scrutiny, which will maintain access to independent special schools and colleges as an option for children with SEN, and the extension of education, health and care plans for those young people on apprenticeships.

What is striking about this part of the Bill is not so much what it contains, but what it does not. If the Government are to meet the high expectations that they have themselves raised, important changes will need to be made during the Bill’s passage. As the Bill is currently drafted, the education, health and care plans will offer no more legal entitlement to support from health and social care than statements offer at the moment. We will press for stronger requirements on health and social services throughout the passage of the Bill, as well as a strengthening of the plans for those in post-19 education.

Mr Graham Stuart: I agree with the hon. Gentleman about imposing as best we can on health, but the NHS has a constitutional requirement that can conflict with attempts to impose duties on it. Has he thought up some creative ways past that barrier?

Stephen Twigg: The hon. Gentleman refers to an important point, which makes the case for the agenda on health and social care set out by the shadow Health Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), which moves towards a whole person approach. That has been a focus for adult health and social care, but the Bill is an opportunity to demonstrate that that can also be the case for children and young people.

Let me turn to the point raised by the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard). We, too, agree with the Select Committee that disabled children should be included in the provision of education, health and care plans whether or not they have a learning difficulty. Education, health and care plans should codify and bring together the current entitlements for disabled children and young people. The statutory rights that disabled children and young people have in terms of both assessment and provision are already laid out in disability legislation. Including disabled children,

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therefore, would serve to promote better co-ordination and integration of the duties that already exist, and could even lead to savings.

Stuart Andrew (Pudsey) (Con): Having spent time working in the children’s hospice movement, I am well aware of families constantly complaining about a lack of co-ordination between all the services that they have to access. Some children and young people are not in education and will therefore miss out. Does the hon. Gentleman not think that we must look at that area again in order to help families both inside and outside the hospice movement?

Stephen Twigg: Absolutely. The hon. Gentleman raises an important point, and I will come on to the Government’s proposal in the Bill, which we welcome, on the position of children in that situation and the virtual school leadership model.

One in six children with additional needs will not be catered for under these plans, and it remains unclear what the provision will be for children who currently have school action or school action plus, which are to be scrapped. For example, will this mean that access to specialist teachers and educational psychologists might be at threat? Parents deserve a straight answer from Ministers on what will fill the void following the abolition of school action and school action plus. Will the progress of those children still be measured and published as they are now under the Special Educational Needs (Information) Act 2008? We share the Select Committee’s concerns about local offers. Of course, we welcome parents having more information about the services available in their area, but we will be seeking amendments to toughen up local offers to prevent this reform from simply exacerbating the postcode lottery that we know already exists.

On a matter relating to Parliament itself, unlike the current code of practice, a statutory document that sets out how the SEN system should work, the Bill requires only that the revised code is laid before Parliament under the negative resolution procedure. We believe that it should be subject to a positive resolution procedure, given the importance of its contents. Can the Minister—in his winding-up speech, or, even better, now—tell the House when the code will be published, and commit to its publication in full so that it can be scrutinised by the Bill Committee?

Mr Timpson: I am grateful to the shadow Secretary of State. Just to try to answer his question, we intend to publish an indicative draft of the code of practice for the Committee stage, but of course it will still be subject to a full public consultation process in the autumn. On his point about a negative or positive resolution, is he mindful of the Select Committee’s recommendation for a negative resolution? The usual principle for other codes is that they are laid before the House through the negative resolution process.

Stephen Twigg: I am wary of ever disagreeing with the illustrious Education Committee—[Interruption.] That applies to the entire Committee, including its Chair. This is such an important issue, however, that using the positive resolution procedure merits consideration,

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although I welcome the Minister’s assurances regarding the publication of the code so that it can be scrutinised in Committee.

John McDonnell: We have had situations where affirmative and super-affirmative resolutions have been used so we can have a wider dialogue. One of the other issues apart from the code of practice is the regulations, particularly with regard to the local offer. The component parts of the local offer should be contained in the regulations. Is it not important that we at least have some sight of them during the Committee stage, too?

Stephen Twigg: That is absolutely right and sensible. The spirit of the Minister’s speech, and his and the Government’s handling of this issue—and the fact that he is nodding at me—suggest that my hon. Friend will get what he wants.

Mr Timpson indicated assent.

Stephen Twigg: I welcome the Minister indicating that that is the case. Parents were told that this Bill would represent an end of the struggle for support and to the adversarial nature of the system, but there are many unanswered questions, which potentially undermine that goal.

I shall now discuss adoption and children in care. Clearly, one of the state’s most important duties is to care for children who, for whatever reason, are without a safe, loving family to care for them. In recent decades, the system has seen step changes in the fulfilment of that duty, but we know only too well that failings have let down some of the most vulnerable members in our society and, in the most extreme cases, have cost children and young people their lives. I welcome the emphasis that has been placed on reducing the time for completing an adoption and increasing the number of adoptions, where that is in the child’s best interests.

Let me put on the record my thanks to Martin Narey, who has done so much to champion the rights of children in the care system, and to The Times for its persistent campaign to address the crisis faced by too many young people in the care system. We should recognise the incredible commitments made by so many who work in the care system. Social workers up and down the country do a fantastic job, often in very trying circumstances, and it is right that we put on the record our thanks for their duty and service.

We should acknowledge important developments in social care, and I welcome the Government’s contribution of funding to the Frontline initiative for social work. Frontline has the potential to play an important role in raising performance in the care system, both for those currently working in the system and for the new recruits that it will bring in. Measures of the educational attainment by children in care show the scale of the challenge; the Minister pointed out the figures for 2012, when fewer than 15% of looked-after children secured at least five good GCSEs including English and maths.

Alex Cunningham: My hon. Friend will be aware that young carers can also have lower educational attainment. Does he agree that the work of organisations such as the Eastern Ravens Trust, in my constituency, is crucial in supporting these young people and that such organisations also need to be financially viable?

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Stephen Twigg: Absolutely, and I shall briefly address the issue of young carers later in my speech. I pay tribute to that organisation in my hon. Friend’s constituency. We know that voluntary sector organisations of that kind up and down the country do a fantastic job, often with very limited resources, and that they have often borne the brunt of the recent cuts in local government spending.

I welcome the introduction in statute of virtual school heads, whereby a duty is placed on local authorities to promote the educational achievement of the children in their care through a designated virtual head teacher. I also welcome the Bill’s emphasis on reducing unnecessary delays in adoptions, but I have concerns about removing completely any statutory requirement for consideration to be given to ethnicity in determining the placement of a child. We support the Government’s attempt to address this issue; we should indeed reduce the prominence given to ethnicity, but we must not move to the other extreme where it could be ignored entirely, which is the risk in the Bill, as drafted. We do believe that ethnicity should remain a consideration, and it is important that adoption agencies are clear about that. The weight of evidence points to delays being primarily caused by the age and health of a child. Last year Ofsted reported that

“there was little evidence of delay caused by an unrealistic search for a ‘perfect’ ethnic match.”

We share the view of the House of Lords Select Committee on Adoption Legislation that the requirement for due consideration on ethnicity should be on the statutory welfare checklist that the courts and adoption agencies must consider.

It is important for us to recognise other forms of permanency, alongside adoption—other options that may be in a child’s best interests. We should also be discussing reforms to strengthen support for foster carers, kinship carers and special guardians. As my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) has said—my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) reinforced the point—the Bill contains no provisions to strengthen the rights of young carers.

Barbara Keeley: That is a very important point. I have served on the pre-legislative scrutiny Committee for the draft Care and Support Bill. A promise was given that strengthening the rights of young carers would be covered in that Bill and this one. We had a battle to strengthen those rights in the pre-legislative Committee and no provision is made in this Bill to strengthen them. Young carers and their organisations are feeling really let down and it is important that we send the right message to them today.

Stephen Twigg: I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. She anticipates my next point, as I was about to say exactly what she just said. Research by the BBC estimates that there are up to 700,000 young carers in this country, and we believe the Government should use the opportunity of this Bill to improve the identification, assessment and support given to young carers. As she reminded the House, the draft Care and Support Bill will give greater rights to adult carers, but support for young carers surely could and should be clarified and strengthened at the same time.

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Ministers plan to write a presumption of “parental involvement” into the Children Act 1989. Labour strongly supports the principle that both parents should be involved in a child’s life, unless that compromises the child’s safety or welfare. However, we believe it is wrong to dilute the principle that the child’s best interests should always come first. Both the Select Committee on Education and David Norgrove have expressed significant concerns about the proposal.

The Select Committee on Justice, whose Chairman is in his place, has expressed a number of concerns, and I shall set them out. The first is that the Bill would not achieve its objectives in regard to shared parenting and that there is no evidence of a bias in the courts currently. The second is that the Bill could have a negative impact on the paramountcy principle, which states that when a court determines any question with respect to the upbringing of a child, the child’s welfare shall be paramount. The third is that the Bill will lead to misunderstandings about the right to particular amounts of time for parental contact because of the use of the word “involvement” without any definition and because of the use of presumption. A similar measure in Australia created an expectation that shared parenting meant equal time and led to courts becoming more clogged up as parents challenged decisions made on the basis of a child’s best interests, thus turning relatively straightforward decisions into lengthy conflicts.

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): Does the shadow Secretary of State not acknowledge that what was proposed and became law in Australia was very different from what is being proposed here? Anything that can, in any way, be interpreted as meaning equality of time would not work. That is why the wording in the Bill, which has taken a lot of work and effort, is absolutely not a presumption about equality of time, but a presumption that all of us must surely agree that a child does best when both parents have as much involvement in the childhood of that child as possible, subject to the welfare provisions, which absolutely still stay paramount in the Bill. Why, yet again, do Labour Members not recognise that there is a problem and that at last we have legislation trying to address it?

Stephen Twigg: I certainly do not doubt the sincerity of the attempt to address this issue and to learn from the Australian experience. Labour’s judgment, as I have set it out today, has taken into account not only what the hon. Gentleman and other Government Members have said, but what has been said by organisations working in the sector, including in the field of children’s law. They tell us that there is a gap between the Government’s intention and what might happen in practice. We have to anticipate those unintended consequences, so although I absolutely agree with his final comments about the importance of both parents being involved, provided there is no threat to the safety or welfare of children, the paramount principle has to be the best welfare of the child—that has to come first. The concern is that what the Bill proposes could take us down the road that the Australians went down. We should explore this issue further in Committee, because there is a real difference of opinion on it. I urge Ministers to listen to those who are expressing a different view, so that

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we make sure that we do not have, as an unintended consequence of this Bill, something that makes the situation worse.

The Bill proposes a 26-week limit for care proceedings. At present, children wait for an average of 55 weeks for a decision about their future. The Government are seeking to address that, and we support them in their aim to speed up proceedings. However, speed should never be at the expense of getting it right for children. We want safeguards to be built into the system to ensure that complex issues are not overlooked and siblings are not separated needlessly. Because much of the delay comes from local authorities, the Government must also address the dangerously heavy case loads of social workers.

Again, we support the recommendations of the Justice Committee. It proposes first that the 26-week time limit should be specified in secondary legislation, while primary legislation should specify the power to set such a limit so that it can be amended easily if it proves unworkable in practice, and secondly that the clause should be amended to give judges the power to take cases outside the 26-week timetable.

Mr Timpson: The hon. Gentleman’s point about the work done by local authorities before care proceedings is extremely important. That is why we have placed more emphasis on family group conferences, and on the need to ensure that as much as possible of the evidence that is required for a case to be dealt with as quickly as possible is available at the inception of the application. Does the hon. Gentleman agree, however, that we cannot maintain a situation in which the average time for a case to be dealt with is 17 weeks in one court and 89 weeks in another? The tri-borough pilot in London has produced a reduction to 24 weeks, less than the 26 weeks proposed in the Bill.

Stephen Twigg: I understand that specifying a time limit in that way in primary legislation is very unusual internationally, and possibly unique, although that is not a sufficient reason for not doing so. I think that the Justice Committee’s proposals address the legitimate points that the Minister has made, but do so in a way that would not only enable timely decisions to be made, but allow for greater flexibility in individual cases. That strikes me as a sensible compromise, and I hope that it will be considered during the Bill’s Committee stage.

There is a child care crisis in this country, with rising costs. The Government’s proposals to change child care ratios have been widely criticised as a threat to quality. We oppose the proposal in the Bill to remove local authorities’ duty to conduct an assessment of the sufficiency of child care at least every three years.

As for child care agencies, we welcome the idea of additional support for childminders to promote work force development and progression, to increase efficiency and share best practice, and to improve local co-ordination to help parents find good childminders. However, as they stand, the plans are rather hazy on detail. Ministers will need to give assurances that they will not cause knock-on effects, such as extra costs to parents. Ministers will also need to clarify what they will mean for local authorities, how often Ofsted will inspect agencies, and how the criteria for the inspection of agencies will differ from those for inspections of individual childminders.

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Meg Hillier (Hackney South and Shoreditch) (Lab/Co-op): Does my hon. Friend share my fear that agencies may cream off a profit and add costs to parents rather than supporting better child care? We have seen that happen in the older care sector.

Stephen Twigg: My hon. Friend has raised a legitimate concern that has been expressed by a number of other people. I hope that the agencies will provide a genuine opportunity for the raising of standards and improvement of quality in the child care sector, but I think that if the system is not managed and co-ordinated carefully, with a continuing role for local authorities, there will be a risk of our going down the path described by my hon. Friend. The quality and cost of child care, as well as parental confidence in childminders, must surely be at the centre of any changes.

Since 2010, the Government have moved away from the last Labour Government’s emphasis on children’s well-being and early intervention. We welcome the additional funds that have been allocated to adoption, but why do the Government always raid the early intervention budget for such new forms of funding?

We are halfway through a Parliament during which the Prime Minister told us that we would have the most “family friendly” Government in Europe. What have we seen instead? We have seen a £l.1 billion cut in early intervention funds, a 10% reduction in the child care element of working tax credit, and cuts in Sure Start as a result of which there are now 400 fewer Sure Start centres than there were in 2010.

Labour Members welcome the opportunity to debate the children and families agenda, not least because it has been sidelined by the present Government. We will work throughout the Bill’s passage to reach a cross-party consensus on lasting reforms. Our policy will be led by evidence, and by what is in the best interests of the children and families of this country. I think that the Bill gives Parliament an opportunity to reaffirm the principles of Every Child Matters, and to send the Government the message that inclusion and children’s well-being go hand in hand with high standards of education for all.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): Order. I am now imposing an eight-minute limit.

6.6 pm

Mr Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con): I welcome the Bill. It is a Bill of many parts.

I intend to concentrate on the clauses that deal with family law. The core issue is the need to deal with the long-standing failure of the legal, judicial, social services and educational systems in order adequately to safeguard those of our children who need to be taken into care. The present arrangement is costing the taxpayer some £950 million a year, but is straining to keep up with increased demand. In 2007 it involved some 19,650 children, but by 2011 the number had risen to 29,492. In 1989 the average case took 12 weeks, but by 2011 the figure was 54 weeks. I know that by last year it had fallen to 48 weeks, and I was pleased to hear the Minister say that it has fallen again to 47 weeks—that is a great improvement—but there is still a very long way to go.

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In the event, the reform approach supported by most parties was that adopted by the Norgrove family justice review, which finally reported in November 2011. We owe sincere thanks to David Norgrove and his team for their sterling work. As the report pointed out, there have been at least seven reviews of family justice since 1989, and more money would not be the answer even if it were available. What we need is fundamental reform.

The core of the Norgrove report attempts to pull together the disparate strands of the overall service. It aims to ensure that the best interests of children are met and to provide them with a voice, to unify the service into a family justice service sponsored by the Ministry of Justice, and to provide effective leadership. When I was a Minister, I encountered as poor a managerial situation as I have seen in any field and in any sector, complicated by regional variations and the lack of any proper measurement of performance. In some regions of the country, the judges were being blamed for delay on the part of the lawyers; in others, the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service was being blamed for delay on the part of the judges. However, that was mainly anecdotal, as we had no reliable measurements of success or failure and no recording mechanism.

It is important to emphasise that the implementation of family justice reform has not waited for this legislation, which forms only part of the overall picture. Indeed, I note that the vital aspect of the introduction of a single family court is proposed in the Crime and Courts Bill. It provides for an applicant to have, in future, a single entry point, avoiding what can currently be a complicated choice between the different family courts. It should also mean that the right level of judge is allocated to the case.

As the Minister noted, much of the framework of the family justice reforms has already been put in place over the past two years. For instance, the Bill’s key 26-week time limit for the completion of care and supervision proceedings would probably mean little if we had not already set up a national Family Justice Board to orchestrate a cross-agency strategy at the centre and local family justice boards to review performance at court level, backed up by new performance figures—starting from last year—for each and every court. The key point is that if the 26-week limit is not reached, we will know where and by how much it has been missed, the reasons for the delay and the patterns of poor performance in an area. In other words, it should result in more positive action and less of the old blame culture. I would be interested to hear from the Minister whether that is happening on the ground.

I am afraid, however, that the Government must play a part, too. For too long, policy has floated without effective leadership among the Department for Education, the Ministry of Justice and the judiciary, resulting in delay, confusion and the detriment of children’s best interests. When I was at the MOJ, I and my opposite number in the Department for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), who I am pleased to see in the Chamber, partly addressed that significant failing by holding regular meetings with the president of the family division. I hope that that joint working continues and that the new Family Justice Board will now be included.

A good working relationship with the judiciary is key to the implementation of these measures, but we must also appreciate that the Norgrove review proposed, and

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the Government agreed, that CAFCASS should be moved to the MOJ or Her Majesty’s Courts Service within the MOJ. Will the Minister advise the House on the timing? From my experience, although he might not agree with me, I would recommend that the Children’s Minister should be moved to the Ministry of Justice from the Department for Education in contemplation of that operational shift. Government must fall into line with everyone else and unify policy and delivery for children as far as possible.

The 26-week time limit represents the iconic change that family justice must undergo, which will involve nearly halving the average time. Even our best courts are nowhere near meeting the target. I note that some judges and practitioners are saying that the limit is unfair or unachievable for one reason or another, but we must stay resolute—I say that in the knowledge that pre-legislative scrutiny has already marginally diluted the time-limit clause. We need more effective management and better joint working by agencies backed up by targets and monitoring. We must drive the delay down; the children deserve no less. It was therefore entirely appropriate that the Government insisted on keeping the 26-week limit in the Bill and that is why I strongly support other aspects of part 2, including the measure to ensure that timetabling is child-focused. There can always be another report, but we must ask whether a delay is in the child’s best interest.

The 26-week limit is a target to be worked towards. It will not be reached overnight, but we need tough targets if the courts are to get down to it. Ultimately, the judge makes the decisions in the court and they need to be better managed than they have been in the past. In that regard, I recognise the sterling work on the modernisation of judges’ working practices carried out by Mr Justice Ryder.

We should also note that for too long family law has been the poor relation of criminal law, and the lack of time given to family cases has meant that judges have had to go back to their criminal work. Judges need to spend more time considering the causes for delay and why the service has been worse as a result.

Finally on the subject of private family law, I have long been a great supporter of mediation and I therefore wholeheartedly support the mediation information and assessment meeting requirement in the Bill. Although that has been supported by a pre-action protocol for more than a year, I hope that placing it in statute will mean that those parts of the country where the courts have overlooked the need under the PAP to go to mediation first will now have to take note. In my view, the Government were correct to be cautious about the proposal by the Select Committee on Justice that judges should make decisions based on the merits of compliance. Mediation is an alternative to judges and I am delighted that its use is increasing. It is cheaper and quicker than court, and as both parties need to buy into the process, its settlements are often better observed and less divisive than court judgments.

There is a long way to go in improving family justice in this country, but I believe that the Bill, along with other things that are now being done, helps to set us off in the right direction.

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6.13 pm

Mr David Blunkett (Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough) (Lab): I have personal and family experience and experience in local and central Government of the matters covered by the first three parts of the Bill.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), the shadow Secretary of State, on his speech and its emphasis on the overall approach that must be adopted to invest in the well-being of young people and families from the very earliest years.

The Minister’s personal commitment and grasp of the issues are obvious and welcome, and I wish him well in taking the Bill through the House. I advise him not to take the advice of the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly) and get himself moved to the Ministry of Justice, as I am sure the Secretary of State for Education will give him the support needed to do the job.

The welcome streamlining and speeding up of adoption, with safeguards, under part 1 is very welcome, but as a number of Members have said in interventions, we should not forget the critical role of families, including grandparents, and of intensive fostering, which is often forgotten. When she was the social services chair in Birmingham, Edwina Currie came to Sheffield while I was social services chair there to see what we were doing with intensive fostering. Our approach comes in waves, and then it goes away again. A lot of money can be wasted if we avoid doing the obvious of getting people with expertise and supporting them in doing their job.

On part 2 and the subject of family justice, I have a slight disagreement with some of my colleagues. I do not normally speak about this, because it is too raw and sensitive. Although I am not saying that they should not speak, if they have not had experience of the family court and the family justice system they should be wary of taking a view. It is a nightmare and it is almost impossible for those who do not have large sums of money to deploy.

I welcome the Government’s emphasis on Norgrove 1, as David Norgrove and his colleagues did an excellent job. It was rational that Norgrove 1 should be the way forward. The child arrangements orders and emphasis on mediation, even if it does not work perfectly, are the right way to proceed and I advise people to listen to Mr Justice Ernest Ryder on these issues, as he has enormous experience and a great deal of wisdom to offer.

I have both personal and family experience of the issues covered by part 3. Let me pick up on the point made by the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard), who, like me, has had experience of special needs, and emphasise the importance of ensuring that those with disabilities and special needs do not end up being separated out. We should build on our experience of the education, health and care plans and early assessment. Back in the 1970s, Sheffield and Coventry received Government funding from the social services and health Departments to experiment with these questions and those who are worried about the obligations or otherwise of the health service should consider whether joint funding arrangements might be needed in some places. Barbara Castle invented that approach and it was a good thing. Our approach often goes in waves and we often come back to things that we have abolished. Such an approach would have a lot to

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offer, but would be accessible only when all services were prepared to collaborate and work together so that the money could be drawn down to meet the plans.

There is no point in having a local offer, the information or the signposting, although that is crucial, there is no point in having the code, although I welcome the Minister’s commitment to making that available in Committee and for consultation, and there is no point in letting families believe that an offer of entitlement is on the table unless it is funded and the rights are applicable and accessible without the need to go to court. We need to work together.

Let me say a word about the welcome commitment to nought-to-25 provision. My experience of residential school started at the age of four, and although I would not recommend that, over the years I have been won over to a strong belief in the principle of integration. As with other provisions in the Bill, we must ensure that the child’s needs are paramount. We need a system that works within a local authority area, collaborates across local authority boundaries and uses a degree of regional planning—if I can use that term, as it is not fashionable any more—to provide real options and choices and, when necessary, a national perspective. That is particularly true in post-16 provision when residential care and support is needed. Above all, the emphasis should be not just on education and skills but on skills for life that enable people to live independently on equal terms and to be self-reliant. That takes more for some people than simply going, as I did when I left residential schooling, to the local college of technology.

We need an approach that means that the colleges which will be called section 41 colleges know that they have secure funding. I do not understand why the Skills Funding Agency cannot be used for that purpose, rather than relying on a lottery of very expensive care from local authorities, as I said at a recent reception. I also said that funding for prisoners was greater than that for which we were asking for post-16 residential provision, and that in terms of location, food and discipline, my school was a bit like prison sometimes. One young man who was at the reception to support college principals waggishly suggested that it was the same in the school he went to—I do not think he had a very good welcome after that. It is not the same; things have moved on. We live in an entirely different environment, thank goodness, and we have the necessary collaboration.

For once, on most of the issues, we have genuine commitment on both sides of the House, but we shall achieve what we seek only if there is collaboration across all services. I shall give just one example. If child and adolescent mental health services are not adequately funded, and there is not support from both health and local government, we will end up spending far more down the line, both in terms of mental health services and the Prison Service, than if we get it right. Together, we can do the job better—and I am sure we will—than if we knock bells out of each other individually.

6.21 pm

Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): It is a pleasure to follow the former Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett), who brings not only working experience in the field but very illuminating personal experience that is relevant to several aspects of the Bill. That gives his comments an authority that we should take note of.

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I shall refer briefly to the family justice elements of the Bill. The Justice Committee report on the draft family justice clauses has been cited several times this afternoon. It was published on 14 December 2012, and we had previously reported on the issue in July 2011. We broadly welcomed the draft clauses, which covered a wide range of public and private family law, and largely followed the Norgrove recommendations. However, we had significant concerns about the clause on “parental involvement.” Those words represent a change; the original term was “shared parenting”, which we disapproved of because it implies the carving up of the child’s time in the interests of the parents. That point is fundamental to our arguments about the Bill, and I shall return to it in more detail.

Relationship breakdown and the family justice process are highly emotive topics, producing strongly held views, many based upon personal experience. We bore that in mind during our inquiry, and in addition made sure that we considered the proposed changes in the light of other changes that are taking place in the family justice system. I should place it on record that the Government accepted a number of our detailed recommendations on the drafting of the Bill, and I much appreciate the work of the Committee’s legal adviser and the Government’s ready response.

On the public law clauses, we welcomed the Government’s commitment to reducing delay in the care process, which is absolutely essential. Lost time is lost opportunity in a child’s life, and cannot be returned or repaid. We praised the work being undertaken by some local authorities and courts on a shorter timetable. We were impressed by the changes we heard about in social worker training and management, and by the work being done in Hampshire and the three London boroughs engaged in the tri-borough project. We welcome the Government’s involvement, although we have some concerns about how it will be pursued.

We argued that when it is in the child’s best interests, it is important that the child’s wider family and family friends are not excluded from the care process. We recommended that the Government undertake to review the practical effect of the 26-week time limit to ensure that kinship carers are not excluded from the local authority or court decision-making processes because of the rush to comply with the timetable.

We recommended that the draft clause on judicial scrutiny of care plans be revised to make express reference to contact by the child with the birth family, including the wider family. We are pleased that the Government have committed to considering whether further guidance on the importance of kinship contact is required in advance of the legislation, and to review the general impact of the clause on an ongoing basis. We are also pleased that clause 15 on care plans now makes express reference to section 34(11) of the Children Act 1989, which considers parental contact with children in care. These are often difficult cases, but parental contact can remain important even when a decision has been taken to put a child in care.

We are glad that the Government removed the word “exceptional” from the test for extensions to the 26-week limit. It created the odd and rather unhelpful impression that some children’s cases are more important and more exceptional than others, whereas the test should be whether the extension is necessary for the case to be resolved justly.

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On the private law clauses, we heard evidence about the training received by mediators for mediation, information and assessment meetings—occasionally I have to remind myself that is what MIAMs stands for. We were concerned to ensure that the Government gave help and assistance to mediators. As has been pointed out in interventions, there will be a large demand for skilled mediation, so quality standards are important. The Government told us that they have asked the pre-proceedings working group of the Family Justice Council to look at the issue, and the Justice Committee looks forward to seeing the results of that work.

The Government disagreed with the Committee on only a small number of the recommendations, but particularly on whether the 26-week limit should be set out in primary or secondary legislation and how flexible it should be. I welcome the support we heard today from the Opposition Front Bench on that issue. The big disagreement was about how the parental involvement principle is applied. It is not really about the principle, as there should be no disagreement that it is in the interests of the child to remain in contact with both parents, unless the risk of harm seriously outweighs it. We fully support that principle. The adoption of the Committee’s recommendation to change the title of the relevant clause is welcome. It represents a change from sharing out parenting to recognising parental involvement, and we want wider and more careful consideration of those parts of the Bill. The Government have expressly stated that the courts already operate on the basis that both parents should be involved in a child’s life, unless of course it is not safe or not consistent with the child’s welfare. They say that they do not intend to change outcomes, and cases will not be judged differently as a result of the legislation, so why is the provision there? What is it intended to achieve?

The Government say that

“the purpose of the clause is not to promote the equal division of a child’s time between parents…it will encourage the resolution of agreements outside court by making clear the basis on which courts’ decisions are made and by ensuring that parents’ expectations are realistic when deciding whether to bring a claim to court. The Government anticipates that over time, this change will contribute to a societal shift towards greater recognition of the value of both parents in a child’s life, and to a reduction of the perception of bias within the court system.”

As I indicated earlier, that is a pretty optimistic claim. It would be very good if it were the case, but the danger is that false expectations are created by the inclusion of those words, and much harm could result, as we see from some of the press coverage. For example, The Daily Telegraph reported:

“The new legislation states that judges should ensure that fathers are given the legal right to spend time to develop a meaningful relationship with their sons or daughters.”

Actually, the Government expressly excluded the words “meaningful relationship” from the legislation. If an expectation has been created by press reporting, perhaps encouraged by some briefing, we risk disappointing many non-resident parents, most but not all of them fathers, who feel that their case has not been properly considered, and that in future courts will look at the issue in terms of sharing out time.

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Tim Loughton: Can we nail that misconception straight away? The provision has nothing to do with giving rights to parents; it is about the responsibilities of parents and the rights that children should have. They have a right to have both their parents as involved as possible—[Hon. Members: “And grandparents.”]—as well as other kinship care. I suggest to the right hon. Gentleman that the reason why the addition of this provision to legislation—for the first time—is so important is that it sends a clear and strong message to resident parents who use the court system to freeze the non-resident parent out of their relationship with the children that it will no longer wash. We want to keep more cases out of the courts, to be agreed amicably in the best interests of the children. That is what it is about.

Sir Alan Beith: I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman and former Minister on what we are seeking to achieve, but he should note that the press coverage is already suggesting something rather different, which is the sharing of time—

Tim Loughton: But it is wrong.

Sir Alan Beith: As the hon. Gentleman says, it is wrong; perhaps the Government will have to make it rather clearer that it is wrong. On dealing with the perception, even if it is false, that there is a bias in the court system, there is another issue that figures much more largely in the concerns of many non-resident parents, predominantly fathers, and that is enforcement. Court orders are made that appear to give them reasonable involvement in the life of their son or daughter, but they are not observed, and the process of enforcing them is long, time-consuming and ineffective. We urged the Government to produce proposals on enforcement. They concluded that, on balance, it would be premature to legislate now to give courts additional enforcement sanctions. What they hope to do is bring cases quickly back to court—preferably to the same judge. I welcome that; it would be highly desirable.

6.31 pm

Meg Hillier (Hackney South and Shoreditch) (Lab/Co-op): I represent one of the youngest constituencies in the UK: over 20% of the population of my borough is under 16. Between the last two censuses, the population in the borough of Hackney grew by 30,000. That included a large increase in under-fives, and many people in their early 20s and 30s, many of them parents. Child care is therefore of great importance in my constituency, as well as up and down the country.

The Bill deals with many important issues, but I want to focus on child care. The muddle of Government child care policy is not helped by the child care clauses. They make nothing clearer; in fact, they make the chaos worse. First, the Bill repeals the local authority duty to assess child care provision. I am against that, because it is important that we provide an accurate assessment of the availability of, and demand for, child care in an area, and it is reasonable to expect that to be done locally. I am greatly in favour of local authorities having more say on the subject, but if we remove that statutory duty, in areas unlike mine, where there are not that many children, that may be something that falls off the edge of a local authority’s area of responsibilities. That is another example of the Government’s small-state-is-good

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ideology, this time on a local level, and with working parents as the victims. It does not square with the Government’s desires—all our desires, indeed—and need to encourage people into work.

There is also a huge issue to do with the proposed ratios between children and their nursery carers or childminders. The policy is unworkable. It beggars belief. It does nothing to reduce costs, but if one were to say, on a generous reading, that it did, it would be at the cost of quality. So that Members are absolutely clear, let me explain that the Government propose that the adult-child ratios for nurseries should go from one adult per three children to one adult per four children for one-year-olds and younger—for the baby room in a nursery, as most of us would know it—and from one adult per four children to one adult per six children for two-year olds. They propose changing the childminder-to-child ratios from 1:1 to 1:2 for the under-ones, and from 1:3 to 1:4 for children aged two to five.

I am the second of 10 children, so I do not have a problem with lots of children being looked after, but imagine taking six toddlers through potty training, or to the park. A constituent wrote to me on the subject. She is just one of the many parents, childminders and professional child carers in Hackney who are really concerned about the proposal. Her child is looked after by a childminder, whom she values greatly. She says:

“If this ratio had come in before I had gone back to work I may not have gone at all. I didn’t want my baby in a nursery. I feel very strongly that parents need the option of leaving our children in a safe, caring home environment”

with a childminder. She speaks for so many parents up and down the country, and indeed for childminders.

That brings me on to the proposals in the Bill relating to the setting up of childminder agencies. I mentioned my concerns about this in an intervention. I am not alone in my scepticism. It is unclear from the Bill how the proposals will work. Among other things, I am concerned that the concept of an agency is different to different people. It might mean one thing to the Minister who made the proposal, and another to others. Is it a children’s centre or a local authority effectively acting as an agent for Ofsted and professional development locally—something that I could support, with the right safeguards—or is it the relentless march of the private sector, supported by the Government, who are enabling it to turn a profit from the relationship between child- minders and parents? We have had no further clarity on that from the Minister today. Will the agencies be able to allocate any childminder to any family, or will the parent have a say? The local, very specific negotiation about a child is vital to the relationship between parents and childminders.

Will there be the recreation of what we could laughingly call the paradigm of the agencies that manage domiciliary care for older people? As someone who has been a carer for two older people, I would hate to see child care go down that route—to see agencies creaming off a profit while providing inadequate care—when we have a very good childminder sector that has improved immensely thanks to the Ofsted badge of quality, which is prized by childminders and valued by parents.

That is not to say that I do not support any change. Sometimes there are challenges arising from Ofsted inspecting such a range of childminders, but I would prefer that to be done through the local authority, or

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possibly the local children’s centre, both of which already have a relationship with the childminder, rather than through new agencies being set up.

I want to touch on special educational needs, which are a big issue in my constituency. Of course I welcome the principle of improving provision; I think we would all agree on that. On all these issues, I seek to work with the Government to try to improve what they have to offer, because we have no great desire to make a political battleground of an issue as important as the future of our children, but where are the safeguards around special educational needs, and the measures to ensure that the new education, health and care plans include proper, joined-up working to make life easier for parents and to deliver swifter, fairer outcomes for children?

At the moment, there is no single point of accountability for parents seeking redress, and that is a big challenge in areas such as mine. Parents with deep pockets who care for their children can find the money to challenge the provision that is made—or not made, more likely—for their children, and to argue the case. However, many families in my constituency—the majority—cannot afford to pay for their own private support through the SEN minefield. Although there is a lot of good talk about the new provisions, there is no detail on how they will work. A single point of redress is very important if there is to be a level playing field for all parents—and, more important, all children, as they seek the educational support that they need.

For all that I want a cross-party approach on the importance of quality child care and proper SEN provision, my worry is that the former Children’s Minister, the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), was correct when he said to the Select Committee on Education a month ago that the children and families agenda was being “downgraded” by his colleague, the Secretary of State for Education, and was “a declining priority” for the Government. I hope that is not the case. I hope that the House can send the message to the Government that we care very deeply about making sure that the Bill really delivers for parents, and for the children in my constituency who will be paying the pensions of the rest of the country in years to come.

6.37 pm

Jesse Norman (Hereford and South Herefordshire) (Con): The Children and Families Bill is a hugely important piece of legislation, and a huge tribute to the Secretary of State; to the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr Timpson); to his predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton); and to other Ministers. It says a lot that the Bill has been every bit as much a priority for them as all the other major reforms launched by the Department for Education since 2010. That is all the more important given that it has been subject to considerable pre-legislative scrutiny and consultation.

My interest in the Bill lies in the area of special needs education—an area in which my county of Herefordshire has, despite very low levels of public funding, built a significant body of expertise owing to excellent school leadership, teaching and parental engagement. I refer to schools in my constituency such as Blackmarston primary school and Barrs Court secondary school, both of which do extraordinary work with disabled young people,

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and both of which have coped magnificently with the need for expansion as numbers have grown. One of my early experiences as a candidate—I was not even an MP —was of being pressed into service at Barrs Court school in an “X Factor” competition, complete with sunglasses and shoulder-length red wig. It was frightening to me but a source of hilarity to those watching.

Sir Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): You should put it on YouTube.

Jesse Norman: I will resist that temptation.

The schools that I have mentioned and others will welcome the Bill’s insistence that the new education, health and care plans must be effective for young people all the way up to 25 years old. I specifically want to single out the work of Richard Aird, newly OBE and head of Barrs Court school, and of Alison Sheppard on behalf of parents in the county in pushing hard for proper further education for disabled young people in Herefordshire. Why should a young person with special needs be treated any worse than one without?

I welcome the new duty on local authorities to set out a local offer of suitable schools and institutions for each individual with special needs, but I want to draw the attention of the House and of Ministers to the fact that this carries with it a risk that the new duty will be interpreted in a purely local and parochial way, cutting out national providers with specialist expertise in particular areas. In Hereford, the Royal National College, for example, has superb facilities for the blind and partially sighted and is dedicated both to the skills of learning and of living. It combines these with a track record of innovation over several decades, ranging from special new Braille technologies to flexible learning methods for the visually impaired to the development of blind football and other sports at an international level. If any Member of the House has not seen a blind football match, I strongly encourage them to do so. It is a magnificent sport and full of extraordinary skill.

No local provider could match the Royal National College for expertise and deep understanding of the highly complex special needs associated with visual impairment. The students’ experience bears this out. I think of the student at the RNC with a passion for information technology who arrived, having been bullied for having a teaching assistant and special support at a mainstream school. He took his GCSEs three times and struggled to do a standard IT course because of his visual impairment. After two years not in employment, education or training, he was finally referred to the RNC by the local Jobcentre Plus. He now takes specialist IT training for the visually impaired and courses in art, and is back on track for the IT career he always dreamed of. I invite the Minister to meet me and the Royal National College to discuss its expertise and these issues in more detail.

In closing, let me say that there appears to me to be a straightforward solution to the problem of parochial local offers. This is to require that local authorities include national specialist providers as well as regional and local ones in those local offers. This has three benefits: it maximises choice, promotes competition and preserves the national providers’ deep reservoirs of

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skill and expertise. It also perfectly fits with the Bill’s distinctively Conservative emphasis on excellence and institution building. I ask Ministers to give this idea their close consideration as the Bill progresses.

6.42 pm

Ann Coffey (Stockport) (Lab): The principle that the interests of the child are paramount, which is enshrined in the Children Act 1989, should underpin all our legislation, policy making and attitudes to children. I therefore welcome the strengthening of the role of the Children’s Commissioner by giving a statutory remit to promote and protect children’s rights. It is crucial that this strengthened mandate is underpinned by sufficient resources.

The Children’s Commissioner’s recent report exposed the extent of child sexual exploitation in this country. I had hoped that the Bill would contain some provision further to support child witnesses in court. I will take a couple of minutes to explain why, giving an example that shocked me deeply—that of a young girl who was the alleged victim of anal rape before the age of three. The girl was interviewed on video six months after the initial disclosure. Aged four, she was brought to court for a live cross-examination via video link about the matters described in the video a year earlier.

To get to court on time, the girl had to be woken at 6 o’clock. However, when she arrived, the court was not ready for her and, after waiting all day, she was sent home. The cross-examination took place the following afternoon, with difficult-to-follow questioning, including the use of double negatives. The prosecution did not apply for a registered intermediary. During cross-examination no one except the judge intervened to ask if the child needed a break. How can this happen in the name of justice in our courts?

The Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999 introduced the use of a wide range of special measures for vulnerable witnesses. The use of special measures is important as children do not approach communication in the same way as adults. NSPCC recent research showed that only 2% of young witnesses receive support from registered intermediaries, and also that at least half of young witnesses reported being unable to understand some of the questions that they were asked in court. I agree with the NSPCC that children who have been the victim of abuse should always be supported by a registered intermediary, as they have been shown to improve the administration of justice, ensuring that questioning and cross-examination practice maximises the quality of victim evidence. Furthermore and very importantly, the court experience for the child is less traumatic.

Obstacles to implementing section 28 of the 1999 Act must be overcome as rapidly as possible. Governments have been delaying for practical reasons the implementation of the special measures provision, which would allow a young child’s evidence, including cross-examination, to be obtained out of court and in advance of a trial. This would reduce delays in the start of trials and in the presentation of evidence at trial, a cause of great distress to child witnesses.

Tim Loughton: I strongly support the case that the hon. Lady is making, but that applies to older children as well, who are deterred from coming forward with

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their evidence on the basis that they will be re-traumatised in child sexual exploitation cases, of which there are some notorious ones currently under way. We need to make the system far more child-friendly to enable those children to make their statements that can nail the perpetrators in court, and not make them go through those traumatic events all over again in front of multiple barristers, as can so often be the case. I strongly support the point that the hon. Lady is making.

Ann Coffey: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that. What he says is quite right. It is a problem that goes right through the system, from the youngest to the oldest children. They are put through a terrible trauma, and it is sad that the measures that were introduced in 1999 are not being used in the courts. Something must be done about that.

I welcome the measures to reduce delays in adoptions. Concerns have been expressed about delays in adoption as a result of ideological correctness and because of the requirement in section 1(5) of the Adoption and Children Act 2002 to give

“due consideration to the child’s religious persuasion, racial origin and cultural and linguistic background”

when making an adoption placement. The previous Government made it clear that this did not mean that a child should always be matched with a family of their ethnic origin or that this consideration overrode other welfare interests. Clause 2 removes that requirement. If that clarifies that this is not an overriding consideration in placement, that it is welcome. However, the requirement remains to consider the child’s age, sex, background and any of the child’s characteristics that the court or agency considers relevant when making a placement, and of course that will include religion and race. The Children’s Commissioner in her new role has a statutory responsibility to protect children’s rights, including the right for children to learn about and enjoy their own culture. So I do not think this issue can be resolved by legislation alone. It is more a matter of good adoption practice, with the individual needs of the child being paramount.

Just as the issue of ethnicity is complex, so is the issue of contact in adoption placements. This is certainly the experience of constituents of mine, who were informed by the local authority that placed the children for adoption that there was to be a voluntary letter box agreement—that is, letters are exchanged on an agreed basis. The way that that is being implemented was causing a great deal of distress. When I asked my constituents why they continued with this, as they clearly thought it was not in the best interests of the child, they said:

“You are correct, the agreement is voluntary and not legally enforceable. Our concern is this: the LA”—

the local authority—

“have said that although the agreement is not legally enforceable, birth parents have the right to apply for leave of court to get a contact order and so we were to be careful what we agreed to. This is written in a leaflet they gave us after we were told of what the contact arrangements would be. I will be quite honest with you . . . we feel very vulnerable and I have been having sleepless nights worrying about what we are to do. We can’t continue an agreement that is not in the best interests of our children but we feel that we have to continue it as we feel threatened.”

What a situation for adopters to be in!

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I am unclear whether clause 8 will help my constituents. It may be that this is an issue of good practice and ensuring that adopters have the proper support. The new helpline manned by adopters, which was announced in September, will be very much welcomed by my constituents.

I tabled a written question on the number of children returning to care as a result of adoption breakdown. I was told that the Department for Education does not currently collect those figures but will do so from 2014. I think that it is important that there is much better research into what is needed to support an adoption placement and into the factors in adoption breakdown, which can take many forms, including sending children to boarding school, youth custody, returning to birth parents, admission to psychiatric units and sleeping on a friend’s sofa.

I understand that research is being undertaken by the university of Bristol. The demands on modern-day adopters are perhaps summed up by its introduction: