|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
Earl Howe: I very much welcome that commitment and thank the Minister for the full response that she has given. Since I tabled the amendment, I realised that there were deficiencies in it, but I let it stand as a means of raising the topic, which I am very glad to have done. I am sure that the Minister is right to take a little time to consider the issue, to ensure that all those who need to be brought within the scope of the exemptionif I can call it thatare brought within it, and that all interested parties are consulted.
I am extremely glad that the idea has found favour. I shall not retable the amendment on Report, on the understanding that the matter will be raised in another
27 May 2004 : Column 1519
place in due course. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
The noble Baroness said: The purpose of the amendment is to ensure that there is an assumption of reasonable contact between siblings who may be separated while in public care. The amendment comes to us from the NSPCC, in which I declare a non-remunerated interest. It is based on the findings of the Your Shout survey of the views of 735 children and young people in public care, which formed part of the NSPCC's review of legislation relating to children in family proceedings.
One third of the children who responded said that they did not see enough of their brothers and sisters, and expressed in very distressing terms their experience of loss, isolation and anxiety, suffered as a result of that lack of contact. Naturally they had a strong bond of affection with brothers and sisters and other family members, and they found the situation very distressing. I shall quote two of the cases. One child said:
Section 44 of the Children Act 1989 deals with parental contact with children in care and lists those with whom the child should be allowed reasonable contact: parents, guardians and anyone in the same position as a guardian. The amendment would add siblings to this list. I am aware that the Children Act guidance and regulations emphasised the importance of maintaining contact between a child and family members, unless of course that is clearly contrary to the child's interest. There is nothing in my proposed amendment that would detract from the overriding duty of the court and local authority to protect the child from anything that might put him at risk.
However, the sheer numbers of children involved in the survey and the situation that they described do not indicate that contact was being restricted because of any potential risk to the child. It is happening because this is an area of practice that appears to be very poor. The guidance does not appear to be being followed properly. The children's graphic statements in relation to the lack of sibling contact were endorsed by the findings of the adult inter-disciplinary consultation on the same subject.
27 May 2004 : Column 1520
It is in response to the sad and isolated position of many of these childrenand bearing in mind the fact that the majority of them will eventually return to their families of birththat the NSPCC asked us to table this amendment for discussion by the Committee, so as to respect the core links between siblings wherever possible and make it much easier for children to reintegrate themselves into the families of birth when, it is hoped, that eventually happens. I beg to move.
The Earl of Listowel: I rise briefly to support the amendment, which also stands in my name. I draw the Committee's attention to Start with the Child, Stay with the Child, which is a blueprint for a child-centred approach to children and young people in public care, undertaken by Voice for the Child in Care and the National Children's Bureau. I am a patron of Voice for the Child in Care. The document has considerable relevance to this question. The report says:
"Feeling connected to brothers and sisters throughout their time in care, even when it was recognised that they might not get on well at that particular time, was also of special importance for children".
"Birth families were of vital importance to black children. Unlike for white children who are cared for in a predominately white society with endless white role models to draw upon, black families were often the 'gateway' and sometimes the only gateway, to other black people and a sense of ethnic and racial identity. Families were loved in their own right, but had a particular emotional importance for children and young people cared for in settings not reflective of their colour or ethnic or religious background. Maintaining links with brothers and sisters was important and the role of the extended family was often felt to be misunderstood".
As the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, said, this is a complex issue. That may be one reason why it has been overlooked in times past. I do not wish to take any more of your Lordships' time on this issue but I hope that in her response the Minister can give us some assurances about what is being done in this area.
Earl Howe: Although my name is not attached to this amendment, I would like to say how much I support what has been said about it. I think it is an extremely sensitive and important issue that has been unduly neglected over the years. I hope that the Minister will be sympathetic to it.
Baroness Ashton of Upholland: I am hugely sympathetic to what noble Lords are seeking to do. The question for me is always how best to achieve what noble Lords are seeking. As the noble Baroness has said, Section 34 of the Children Act already requires local authorities to allow reasonable contact to a child under a care order, unless the authority has the permission of the court not to do so. I checked the guidance that goes with the 1989 Act. The Care of Children: Principles and Practice in Regulations and Guidance says:
I think that is important in terms of thinking through how we approach this. Local authorities have a general duty, which applies to all looked after children, not
27 May 2004 : Column 1521
just those subject to care orders. Paragraph 15 of Schedule 2 to the Children Act requires a local authority to promote contact between the child and his parents, friends and relatives, which, of course, includes siblings.
There are groups that are very concerned about the relationship between looked-after children and grandparents, for example, as well. There are wider issues than siblings, although I completely accept that they are critical, as are parents, who I should not exclude for a second. There is a general principle here. Section 8 of the Children Act empowers the courts to make orders regarding contact where a child is looked after by voluntary agreement.
The difficulty with the amendment is that it creates a different legal position for contact between siblings depending upon whether the child is looked after under a care order or under a voluntary agreement. I do not expect that that is what the noble Baroness and the noble Earl were seeking to do. We think that that is a problem and would create confusion in practice. The question for us is whether we have enough legislation to do this or whether something else is needed. Having looked at it very carefully, we believe that the existing legal framework achieves this but we accept that there is a need to improve practice in this area.
Although existing guidance already stresses the need to maintain contact between siblings, when we revise the Children Act guidance we will look at how we might best strengthen the messages about the importance of this as a step toward achieving what the noble Baroness wants. So, on the grounds that the amendment itself would cause confusion, it is our view, having looked at it, that creating more law is not the essence of the problem. We will endeavour to try and make sure that in practice it works better through the guidance.
|Next Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|