Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

The Earl of Listowel: My Lords, before the Minister sits down, there is the Children (Leaving Care) Act, which applies to children in care, and 30 to 40 per cent of young people in young offenders' institutions have come through care. I recently visited a young offenders' institution, and the governor had no idea that the Children (Leaving Care) Act applied to young people in her prison. There is a danger that if we do not include young offenders we will miss out a whole bunch of care leavers simply because the system is rather chaotic. Is it not safer to include them?
15 Jul 2004 : Column 1423

2.15 p.m.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, as I have indicated, we wish to do something in respect of care leavers. I have already indicated that we would do that. That would cover care leavers regardless of setting. The difference relates to the specific group that I have indicated of young adults in institutions. We want to ensure that they are classified as adults and that the system is able to support them and care for them in the most appropriate way.

Baroness Walmsley: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for her reassurances on the subject of Amendment No. 3. On Amendment No. 4, I am disappointed that she is still resisting putting in young offenders. The logic of our amendment to include young people up to age 22 is that that is the age at which they move from young offenders' institutions into the adult penal system. I also welcome what the Minister said about putting right the extension of the definition of "children" in the other two respects in another place. Despite my disappointment, I hope that colleagues at the other end of the building will take up that point again. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 4 not moved.]

Baroness Ashton of Upholland moved Amendment No. 5:

"(b) young people in respect of whom a children's services authority has duties under sections 23C to 24D of the Children Act 1989 (c. 41); and"

On Question, amendment agreed to.

The Earl of Northesk moved Amendment No. 6:

(1) The Secretary of State has the following specific functions in respect of the sharing of information—
(a) to draw up and disseminate to the persons and bodies to whom this section applies guidance as to the sharing of information between and amongst themselves;
(b) to draw up and disseminate to the persons and bodies to whom this section applies guidance as to the circumstances in which it is appropriate for those persons and bodies to share information between and amongst themselves;
(c) to maintain under review the guidance set out in paragraphs (a) and (b) above.
(2) In drawing up the guidance set out at subsection (1)(a) and (b) above, and in reviewing such guidance under subsection (1)(c) the Secretary of State shall consult with—
(a) the Children's Commissioner;
(b) the Information Commissioner;
(c) such other interested persons and bodies with statutory responsibility for children as the Children's Commissioner sees fit.
(3) The guidance under subsection (1)(a) and (b) above shall in particular make provision—
(a) as to the nature of the information that, in the circumstances of the case, must or may be shared;
15 Jul 2004 : Column 1424

(b) as to procedures designed to ensure the accuracy and security of information shared;
(c) as to procedures designed to ensure, where appropriate, the co-ordination of the sharing of information between and amongst relevant agencies and persons;
(d) as to procedures designed to govern the circumstances in which information can be lawfully shared notwithstanding any rule of law which prohibits or restricts the disclosure of information;
(e) as to procedures designed to guarantee, as appropriate, the rights of data subjects in respect of any information about them that may be shared;
(f) as to procedures designed to govern the period for which it is appropriate that information should be shared and to ensure appropriate deletion of any information shared in compliance with the Data Protection Principles.
(4) This section applies to the persons and bodies identified at section 7(1) and any agencies, companies or individuals who may be contracted to work for them or to supply goods and services to them.
(5) The information for which provision may be made under this section may include—
(a) information as to services provided to, or activities carried out in relation to, an individual child to whom arrangements referred to in section 8(1) relate; and
(b) information which gives reasonable cause to suspect that a child is suffering or is likely to suffer significant harm.
(6) The Secretary of State may by regulations subject to affirmative resolutions in each House of Parliament, proscribe and penalise contravention of any guidance under this section as to the collection, sharing, use, holding and disclosure of information."

The noble Earl said: My Lords, at the outset, I offer my sincere thanks to the Minister for meeting me and my noble friend Lord Campbell yesterday. I can only hope that she found the occasion as fruitful and helpful as we did. Indeed, on the basis of our discussion, we have redrafted our amendment in an attempt to seek common ground with the Government's position. I will turn to that matter in due course.

First, for the sake of clarity, I will explain our principal objective in the amendment, namely to make provision for legally effective and enforceable statutory guidance in respect of the sharing of information among and between agencies working with children. We should be under no illusions as to the importance of that. It has been a recurrent theme in recent years. Sir Ronald Waterhouse's report Lost in Care states:

Paragraph 23 of the introduction to Sir Michael Bichard's inquiry report states:

Clearly, there is an urgent requirement for improved systems to facilitate the sharing of information. That was the case four and a half years ago when the Lost in Care report was published; and it continues to be the case now. I concede that the Government have sought to strengthen the guidance in the intervening period and have come forward with the Bill. None the less, as
15 Jul 2004 : Column 1425
evidenced by the Bichard report, the problems associated with information sharing continue to be deeply acute.

The Government's preferred solution to that conundrum, referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Laming, as "an organisational malaise", is at least in part what is now Clause 9. It is important to recognise that our amendment is complementary, rather than antagonistic to this provision. Certainly, it does not in any way proscribe the use of databases. Indeed, in many respects, notably subsections (3)(e) and (3)(f), it implicitly promotes them. Moreover, the insertion of the amendment would go a long way to allaying most, if not all, of my concerns about Clause 9.

As I have consistently said, it is crucial to draw the distinction between the practical and technical problem of what sort of mechanisms should be put in place to ensure the appropriate recording of information about children and the cultural problem of how to ensure that the sharing of information—actually talking and communicating—is to be established between the various bodies, agencies and persons concerned with children's welfare. In my judgment Clause 9 is aimed at the first, but not the second. To that extent it is limited in scope, and our amendment would plug the gap.

In addition, while I pay due tribute to the Minister for striving to draw some of the sting of the original drafting of Clause 9, I continue to have deep-seated reservations about it, not least in respect of its potential cost-effectiveness, let alone whether it will actually inspire better and more co-ordinated sharing of information. More fundamentally, in the absence of any meaningful provision for enforcement in its drafting, I would be very hesitant about the prospect of it standing part of the Bill without the buttress of our amendment to qualify it.

I am also aware of certain misgivings about the original structure of our amendment, particularly the way in which it may have conferred too much responsibility and power on the commissioner. Indeed, the Minister expressed that as a concern at our meeting yesterday. In response, we have recast the amendment, so that the Secretary of State has the responsibility of preparing the relevant guidance in consultation with the commissioner and the other consultees listed in subsection (2), rather than the other way round. I should explain that, in the first instance, we felt that in so far as the commissioner is intended to be a children's champion—a point that the noble Baroness reinforced again today—it was more appropriate for him or her to have, as it were, ownership of the guidance, as a means of ensuring that it would be prepared from the perspective of children. In the event, the point is adequately covered in our redraft, on the basis that the commissioner is one of the consultees listed in subsection (2). Moreover, in terms of one of our primary aims for the amendment—giving legal effect to the guidance—there are not inconsiderable advantages in the Secretary of State being responsible for its preparation.
15 Jul 2004 : Column 1426

I should acknowledge the view of the Minister that no single measure will address all the problems and difficulties associated with the sharing of information. What is required is a kaleidoscope of appropriate measures. I agree with that. Indeed, it should be self-evident that this has been part of the inspiration for our amendment and that we see it as a crucial element of this kaleidoscope.

I hope that I do not misrepresent the position of the noble Baroness here if I say that in reality she and the Government support what we are trying to achieve, but there may be residual nervousness about our drafting. With that in mind, I wonder whether, even if the noble Baroness cannot accept the amendment as it stands, she might be prepared to give an undertaking that the Government would be prepared to revisit the issue as the Bill goes through another place.

I also suspect that the Minister shares my view that for too long inter- and intra-agency guidance on the sharing of information in the field of child welfare has been too disparate, almost to the point of incoherence. That has acted as a spur to our efforts to draft the amendment. It is a regrettable but inescapable fact that in so far as we rely on the current themes in the report of Sir Ronald Waterhouse, the noble Lord, Lord Laming, and of Sir Michael Bichard, there continues to be a gap here. As I say, our aim is to draw the guidance together into a coherent whole and with legal effect, as a means of facilitating the appropriate sharing of information by professionals in the field and of instilling an improved culture of information sharing.

I close with this thought. The Government's response to Sir Ronald Waterhouse's report states:

I applaud that sentiment. Moreover, I hope that the Minister might feel able to offer some sympathy to our proposition in order to back it up. I beg to move.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page