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Baroness Denton of Wakefield: My Lords, I fear that I must disappoint the noble Baroness. I am merely saying that in our areas of responsibility, we try to do things well. We assume that the standards are as excellent elsewhere.
As the noble Lord, Lord Williams, said, it is very important to continue to work in the area of fair employment. This order is very relevant to that and I am grateful for the support that it has received. I commend the order to the House.
The noble Baroness said: My Lords, in moving this order I shall speak also to the draft Children (Northern Ireland Consequential Amendments) Order 1995. Both orders were laid before this House on 12th January.
The Children (Northern Ireland) Order will provide Northern Ireland with a framework of childcare law which is broadly in line with that provided in England and Wales under the Children Act 1989. The consequential amendments order, which has been considered by the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, amends a number of enactments applying solely to Great Britain or to the United Kingdom as a whole as a result of changes introduced by the Children Act.
The new legislation will bring together most of the public and private law relating to children in Northern Ireland within a single statute. Its essential purpose is to promote and safeguard the welfare of children. It will have a major impact on a very wide range of services and on a large number of statutory and voluntary agencies in the delivery of those services. I will not attempt to describe all of the provisions in detail.
The foremost principle is that the welfare of the child is paramount. The order recognises parents as the best people to bring up their children and will establish that help must be provided both by health and social services boards and trusts for children in need and their families. In that regard, the new legislation will also give special recognition to the needs of disabled children, to the importance of working in partnership with parents and to the need for partnership between the voluntary and statutory agencies in the provision of help. It will also introduce the important concept of parental responsibility and will provide that parents will continue to have parental responsibility for their children, even if they are taken into care.
The order will ensure that, should it become necessary for the courts to become involved in issues regarding a child's future, the welfare of the child must remain the paramount consideration. It makes clear that courts should not make orders unless such a course is in the best interests of the child. Moreover, courts will be required to have regard to the particular needs of the child and to recognise that delay in proceedings is likely to be prejudicial to his or her welfare. They will also be required to have regard to the ascertainable wishes and feelings of the child and to help give effect to that.
The order will provide for the appointment, in most care and care-related proceedings, of a guardian ad litem. The guardian will be an independent social worker who will report to the court on what would be best for the child. In all family proceedings, courts will also be provided with a new flexible range of powers which will replace the current access and custody orders and which will govern such matters as the contact the child is to have with other persons and the arrangements as to the person with whom the child is to live.
There are, unfortunately, circumstances where children must be protected from danger and the order will provide powers for the courts to make emergency protection orders and child assessment orders. It will also provide for children to be taken into police protection in an emergency. Whenever children must be
As I have noted, the draft children order has been the subject of extensive consultation. It was the subject of a debate in the Northern Ireland Committee in February last year and of subsequent discussions between myself and members of the committee with representatives of voluntary childcare organisations. I believe that I can safely say that anyone who wished to come and talk about such an important order was most certainly not refused the opportunity to do so.
I should like to draw your Lordships' attention to the changes which have been made following that consultation. The first relates to the registration requirements for those providing day care and childminding services. The requirement to register has been extended to those providing services for children under the age of 12. Again, in relation to childminding, the order will now require that only those providing such services for reward will be required to register. Further, in the light of concerns that it would be impracticable to require all those providing supervised activities to register as providers of day care, the order will now enable the Department of Health and Social Services to exempt certain supervised activities from registration. However, I can assure noble Lords that that will only be done with the greatest of care.
A change has also been made with regard to the powers and duties of health and social services boards and trusts to provide accommodation for children. The effect of that will be to ensure that all accommodation provided must be in a proper care setting. Some changes have also been made with regard to children's homes. First, in the light of concerns that homes accommodating fewer than four children would not have been required to register under the provisions set out in the proposal, a change has been made which will ensure that all children's homes must be registered regardless of the number of children accommodated. Secondly, it has been decided that, as the imposition of registration and inspection fees would place a burden on voluntary children's homes, the provision which would have enabled fees to be imposed on voluntary organisations has been dropped from the draft order. The provisions for fees to be imposed on those providing childminding and day-care services have also been dropped.
I am very hopeful that the greatest beneficiaries of peace will be our children, not only as the future generations but in the present. As the ceasefire removes stress from the whole community we must hope that children will be listened to more and protected. But the vulnerable will continue to need the protection offered by the orders. I hope that they will receive widespread support. They will, I believe, ensure that the children of Northern Ireland receive the care and upbringing that they deserve and which is their right. I commend the orders to the House.
Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, there are some questions which are quite serious both general and particularabout this very bulky item of legislation. There are 185 articles, 261 pages and no fewer than 10 schedules, giving an enormous range of opportunity for altering the provisions for childcare. I know that several Members of your Lordships' House have particularly detailed questions to ask. Therefore, I shall confine myself to more general matters.
It seems to us to be rather disappointing that it has taken all this time after the Children Act 1989 covering England and Wales (which, by and large, has been a great success) for matters affecting Northern Ireland to be dealt with. One of the greatest successes of the Children Act has been the informed, concentrated training of designated judges. If I may say so, that has been a great success for the Lord Chancellor's Department and one which is very widely recognised. However, is it intended to introduce equivalent training, and funding for such training, for the judges and others who have to administer the new regime in Northern Ireland? That is a critical question and I should be most grateful if the Minister could assist in that respect.
Where is the identified extra funding to come from for such a wide ranging item of legislation containing all the articles to which I referred? I have in mind family support services, children with disabilities, child protection services, aftercare provision and court service provision. Further, will there be the provision of independent legal representation for children involved in parental disputes beyond the present provision of the guardian ad litem?
From these Benches, I should like to pay particular tribute to the Children Order Group which has carried out so much detailed work in the area. When I look at the order and the present absence of any reassurance about funding, I must say that I am concerned about the lack of a common strategy to deal with social services, education and housing services thus enabling them to work together. We have the experience of what has happened for some years now in England and Wales.
I have with me a few statistics which are deeply significant. For example, 27 per cent. of the population is under 18 in Northern Ireland and 19 per cent. of families are lone-parent families. That means that there are 95,000 children. Moreover, there are 62,000 households with dependent children who rely on income support. It is notorious, I believe, that Northern Ireland has the lowest provision of pre-school places in the United Kingdom. These are all serious questions about which, as I said earlier, many in your Lordships' House are deeply concerned, and on which they would welcome specific reassurance from the Minister either this evening or in writing.
We are extremely glad to see the distinct improvement which the Minister mentioned; namely, the provision of the annual report, because our belief is that such an annual report is quite invaluable. It is a useful discipline within the 12-month period and it is an exceptionally valuable source of information at the end of the period. As the Minister has said, over the past 25 years children have suffered more than anyone in Northern Ireland. I believe that we in your Lordships' House certainly recognise the enormous stresses, strains and pressures put on childcare professionals in such circumstances over such a long period of timeprofessionals working in all disciplines to do with children.
Therefore there are serious concerns, not on any partisan basis, about what the future will hold. The magic wand will simply not do in the context of an order as detailed as this. I have one final question to ask, recognising that others have many more detailed questions. Why is it that social services are administered by trusts in Northern Ireland and are not so administered elsewhere in the United Kingdom? There is a feeling in Northern Ireland that sometimes the people there are used as guinea-pigs. Is there not a sensible case for having a single body in Northern Ireland to have overall responsibility for childcare in Northern Ireland?
I recognise, of course, that there is a significant democratic deficit in Northern Ireland for historic reasons that everyone recognises, but there is a strong feelingwhich I believe to be legitimately basedthat one should not have trusts, with all their deficiencies too numerous to specify, dealing with matters as important as the care of children by social services. We shall not, of course, vote against this order or anything of that kind, but there are these questions which I repeat do not derive from a partisan approach but derive from an approach which is motivated by serious concerns.
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