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The Earl of Mar and Kellie: I thank the noble and learned Lord for his reply. I was suggesting that the social work department should have a power to report an incident to the Secretary of State. What I have learned is that at present anyone could lay a complaint to the Secretary of State if they so wished, and the complaint would be investigated by Her Majesty's inspectors. I am certainly grateful for that information. Therefore I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 31 agreed to.

Clauses 32 and 33 agreed to.

Clause 34 [Short-term refuges for children at risk of harm]:

Lord Macaulay of Bragar moved Amendment No. 95:

Page 25, line 1, after ("child") insert ("seeking refuge").

The noble Lord said: In moving this amendment, I speak also to Amendments Nos. 96 and 101. Amendment No. 95, which is in my name, and Amendment No. 101, which is in the name of the Minister, meet the same response to some extent. With the insertion of the words proposed the clause would read:

"(1) Where a child seeking refuge appears—
(a) to a local authority to be at risk of harm, they may at the child's request".
I accept that the Government have accepted that as being a reasonable way of looking at it.

The purpose is to make sure that the child can go physically to the local authority. At the moment it is open to interpret "at the child's request" that the child might have to go to see a solicitor, for example, whereas we know that the reality of life is that children do run away from home; that they are put on to the streets. The Minister was talking about it earlier—or perhaps it was the noble Earl, Lord Mar and Kellie. People have

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nowhere to go. The reasoning behind inserting the words "seeking refuge" is to ensure that any child can go to a local authority at any time, without having to go to anyone else, and can walk through the front door of a local authority building and say "I have just been abused by my father" or "I have just been struck by my mother" or whatever the case may be, and the local authority will then look after that child without going through any formalities.

On that basis, and with thanks to the Minister for accepting the "at the child's request" part, I hope that the amendment might find some favour with the Government if the point is appreciated, as I am sure that it is.

The Earl of Lindsay: In responding to Amendment No. 95 which was moved by the noble Lord, Lord Macaulay, I shall speak also to government Amendments Nos. 96 and 101. At the outset, I assure the noble Lord that any child can indeed go directly and physically to a local authority and does not have to go through or via any other party.

The amendments seek to make it quite clear that refuge can be offered to a child only when the child so seeks it. There is no question of children being offered refuge as a fast track into residential accommodation, or as a way of enabling a local authority to look after a child. Refuge is very specifically a short-term provision which is made available to a child to help him or her over a period of particular problems or difficulties when the child would otherwise be at risk of harm. The initiative for seeking refuge must, therefore, lie with the child and the provisions make that clear. Government Amendment No. 96 has the same effect as Amendment No. 95 and I therefore invite the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment in the interests of consistency of terminology. In due course I shall move Amendments Nos. 96 and 101.

Lord Macaulay of Bragar: I am grateful for that reply and in the circumstances, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

The Earl of Lindsay moved Amendment No. 96:

Page 25, line 2, after ("may") insert ("at the child's request").

On Question, amendment agreed to.

The Earl of Lindsay moved Amendment No. 97:

Page 25, line 3, at end insert ("both").

The noble Earl said: With the permission of the Committee it might be helpful if I could speak also to Amendments Nos. 98, 99 and 104. This group of amendments serves an important function. They amend the refuge provision to limit the local authority residential establishments which may operate as refuges to those specifically designated for that purpose.

As your Lordships know, we see refuges as offering a high quality specialised service for a limited period of time for those children who are at risk. We do not expect all residential establishments to be able to accommodate children who might normally be expected to need refuges because of their particularly pressing problems. Therefore, we believe it important that refuges should be carefully selected in advance and staffed appropriately.

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The amendments achieve that end. I beg to move.

Baroness Faithfull: May I ask my noble friend the Minister for guidance? For how long would those children be allowed to remain in the refuge? As I understand it, it can be from seven up to a maximum of 14 days. I wonder whether that is an adequate length of time and whether it should not be 14 days to 21 days. If one has a very difficult child with difficult home circumstances, perhaps not living in the area where the child presents itself, the assessment does take time. I am wondering whether the question of timing should be dealt with in regulations or specified here.

The Earl of Lindsay: As the noble Baroness has noticed, the normal timing involved in such cases is that the child should be able to stay in the refuge for seven days and, in exceptional circumstances with permission from the Secretary of State, that can be extended to 14 days.

The important point to make is that the refuges offer instant and expert shelters for children in emergencies. The intention is that the staff in such refuges should be able to relate quickly to such children, get to the root cause of their problems and ensure that appropriate long-term arrangements can be made.

One problem in extending the timing is that you make these refuges less flexible as you begin to clog up their resources. It would be rather similar to patients being allowed to stay in a casualty ward for longer than they need before being directed on to the right service. The importance is that those facilities should be ready to receive at all times. Therefore, children should be cleared on as soon as possible.

Baroness Faithfull: I thank the Minister for his reply, but having had to assess these children myself, I know that it is sometimes very difficult to do so within 14 days. In a very few cases, one sometimes needs 21 days, particularly if the parents cannot be found.

The Earl of Lindsay: I would add that the children in these refuges can be referred to the children's reporter. So there is a facility to continue considering all the circumstances of the case.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

The Earl of Lindsay moved Amendments Nos. 98 and 99:

Page 25, line 4, after ("them") insert ("and designated by them for the purposes of this paragraph").
Page 25, line 8, at end insert ("and is designated by them for the purposes of this paragraph,").

On Question, amendments agreed to.

4.30 p.m.

Lord Macaulay of Bragar moved Amendment No. 100:

Page 25, leave out line 10.

The noble Lord said: Amendment No. 100 is grouped with Amendments Nos. 102, 106 and 108. It is an attempt to bring before the Committee the time period which was raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull. The purpose of the amendment is to get more flexibility

7 Jun 1995 : Column CWH83

into the system. In particular, looking at Clause 34(5) on page 26 of the Bill,

"References in this section to the relevant period shall be construed as references either to a period which does not exceed seven days or, in such exceptional circumstances as the Secretary of State may prescribe, to a period which does not exceed fourteen days." In dealing with these matters, flexibility and time is of the essence. On the other hand, unnecessary detention of a child is at the opposite end of the scale. As I understand it, in the Children Act 1989 relating to England the flexibility area is 14 to 21 days. For consistency within the United Kingdom I cannot see why north of the Border should have flexibility between seven and 14 days while south of the Border it is 14 to 21 days. The Government might wish to reconsider the matter and see whether consistency should be the order of the day.

The Earl of Lindsay: I appreciate the reasoning behind the amendments proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Macaulay. I would question whether they are appropriate and particularly so if they are proposed solely on the grounds of consistency. I am sure the noble Lord will understand that there are plenty of occasions where Scottish statutory legislation should specifically reflect Scottish circumstances.

I think it important to recall the provisions elsewhere in the Bill—particularly for child protection orders and exclusion orders—which confer powers to safeguard children in danger of significant harm. However, a small number of children run away from home, from foster carers or from residential care. In doing so they may put themselves at risk. We propose to empower local authorities to designate short-term refuges to meet the immediate care needs of runaway children. These should provide the opportunity for them to receive counselling with support to discuss their longer-term needs. Refuges are therefore deliberately designed to meet a short-term need.

Refuges are afforded a special status in the Bill by virtue of their nature. Should the strict time limits attached to the maximum period of residence in such establishments be removed it would inevitably bring with it a far greater degree of regulation and prescription than applies at present. This would undermine the special role and effectiveness of refuges.

I would also refer the noble Lord to the response which I gave to my noble friend Lady Faithfull. It is important that refuges react and respond to the children who come to them as quickly as possible, if for no other reason than they can then clear their facilities for further children who might be on their way to them.

On that basis, I ask the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.

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