|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
Baroness Barker: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. I do not believe that the consultation process is woolly. I do not believe that I have ever said that. I believe that the order of events is wrong in that Parliament ought to determine the principles and the main headlines and then consultation should take place rather than the other way round. However, perhaps the noble Baroness will accept that I was trying to be mindful of the advice of those who seem to prefer the word "sex". They also seem to prefer wording that is as loose as possible. I did not want to hold people to having constant reviews. It was a de minimis measure. However, I take the noble Baroness's point in that regard.
The noble Earl said: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for accepting the amendment. Also, I signal my complete acquiescence if, in another place, the Government choose to change "gender" to "sex". I beg to move.
The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I return, for a reason, to debates that we had at an earlier stage of the Bill. I remain deeply sceptical about flags of concern and the basis for them. The noble Earl, Lord Howe, seeks in another amendment in the group to express his concerns in a different way. The point that we have discussed before, but not to any great satisfaction, is what the threshold for a flag of concern will be. We are also concerned that there should be a common threshold across all those who enter information or flags of concern on to the database.
"We are looking through the consultation and the trailblazers' experience to see whether a record of the fact of the concern should be retained on the system until the whole record is deleted, or whether it should be removed after a defined period of time.
"Because it is more multi-agency focused, our ambition is that the chances of such misplaced concern diminishes and we are clear that we want to issue the right guidance".[Official Report, 5/7/04; col. 593.]
We take exactly the opposite view: it is precisely because of the multi-agency focus, and because there is therefore far greater scope for mistakes in information to be compounded, that there should be a common threshold.
The noble Baroness has argued that Section 17 of the Children Act, which is what the wording is taken from, sets the threshold too high. I have looked at that section and its definition of children who would come under its auspices. It talks about children in need and the standard of health or development, with "development" meaning,
and "health" meaning "physical or mental health". When one compares that to this Bill's list of physical and mental health, protection from harm and neglect and so on, there is very little difference.
I return to a point that I made at an earlier stage. At the moment, children who have Section 17 needs as opposed to Section 47 needs still do not receive help from social services. Therefore, I do not see why, in seeking to establish the level for the flags of concern, Section 17 should not be it. I believe that it is better to build on something that has common currency and understanding among professionals who work with children than to go through what I imagine would be
15 Jul 2004 : Column 1473
a long process of defining "cause for concern" with all the organisations that are going to work with children coming to a general understanding of it. That may not be in the best interests of children. As there is already an answer within Section 17 of the Children Act, I believe that we would be advised to use it in this context. I beg to move.
The Minister will know my worry, which I believe she sharesthat is, that the expression "cause for concern" has inbuilt overtones of child protection which are inappropriate. We need an expression that is more value-neutral. I suggested "special attention" but there may be a better phrase.
However, the real reason that I am tentative is that I recognise that what appears on the face of the Bill is in many ways less important than what appears in the subsequent regulations and guidance. I believe we all know and understand the point that we are trying to reach, and it would be niceeven if it is not essentialfor the face of the Bill to give precise expression to that. I hope that the Government will continue to reflect on that point when the Bill is debated in another place.
The worry that I have here is somewhat broader and, in some ways, it was reflected in the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Barker. We should not assume or take it as read that flags of concern are needed in the first place. I shall not go over all the arguments again but perhaps I may say one or two things.
If flags of concern denote low as well as high levels of concern, quite a lot of them will appear. If databases are intended to act as predictive screening tools, we need to remember that even the most accurate predictive screening techniques available have an unavoidable margin of inaccuracy. One cannot avoid that. Even a 5 per cent margin of inaccuracy in flags of concern will lead to a large number of children being wrongly singled out for attention. The implications of that for resources are a worry to me.
Secondly, if flags are to be generated as a result of a low threshold of concernby which I mean lower than the threshold which applies when a child is at risk of significant harmthey are bound to lead to an expectation of receiving services. But we all know that the threshold for receiving services is quite high. In those circumstances, one has to ask what would be the point of setting the threshold for flags of concern at a relatively low level and, indeed, what would be the point of having them at all.
According to the report from Royal Holloway college, the best trailblazer pilots are those where concerns are not logged on the database. We have
15 Jul 2004 : Column 1474
returned to the point that we covered previouslythat is, that logging something on to a database can never be a substitute for making a professional judgment. It is people and not databases that make those judgments.
Therefore, I hope that, despite the appearance of being wedded to the notion of flags, Ministers will nevertheless allow themselves to keep an open mind on whether flags of concern are likely to be a help or a hindrance in achieving the end result of better outcomes for all childrena result that we all want to see.
Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, and the noble Earl, Lord Howe, for their amendments. The noble Baroness talked about Section 17, but her amendment mirrors the wording of Section 47. Therefore, my immediate difficulty with it is that it is not about the threshold that the noble Baroness described; it is about child protection issues, which I do not think is where the noble Baroness was seeking to place it. So, although I reject the amendment because it takes us to a place that I do think the noble Baroness would want us to go, I believe that it is worth saying that.
What we are all searching for is a system that enables us to get the professionals talking to each other; to note that there are professionals involved in the process and that they have some kind of concernI will come to the phraseology in a momentlong before we are currently able to support children. The noble Earl talked about resource issues, and on those I could not agree more. I made quite a few presentations in the regions on the Green Paper, Every Child Matters, and saw how the graphs are skewed because of how resources are used to deal with crises long after those situations should have been recognised and sorted. That is a real tragedy, which is twofold. First, children do not get the support early enough to prevent a situation becoming a crisis. Secondly, we are not using resources effectively because sorting out crises can often be more difficult.
We want to start lower down the scale in terms of recognising that support might be needed, not to single out children in a negative way, but to recognise the services that work with children and ensure that they are given the support they need. We are all grappling with that to some degree. So I reject the amendment tabled by the noble Baroness. Not only is the point covered in Section 47, but, even taking Section 17 into account, we are trying to start the identification earlier.
I turn to the amendment moved by the noble Earl, Lord Howe. I understand what he is seeking to do, and I am grateful to him for discussing it with me. He will not be surprised to hear that "special attention" contains issues, not least that you need a concern before giving special attention. So, in a sense, it slightly alters the threshold in any event.
15 Jul 2004 : Column 1475
However, I hope that noble Lords will take comfort from the fact that all of the work that has gone into the Bill in deliberating on what we might do has been incredibly helpful to us. It has meant that we are looking carefully to consult properly and effectively. I specifically ensured that the trailblazers, who came to talk to noble Lords, were a representative group with differing views. As we begin to develop the phraseology, it is important that this is not seen as a substitute for action. The noble Earl is right, and the point has been made many times also by the noble Baroness, Lady Barker. I could not agree more that putting something on a database is not a substitute for doing something else. However, if you are trying to find who else you need to talk to or who else is involved with a family, it is critical to have at least an address. We would argue that it is important also to know who to go to first after a matter has been flagged up. The trailblazers have tried different systems. Some have decided not to do that at all.
There is much to be done. However, I would not want noble Lords to think for one moment that their concerns have not been reflected back to my ministerial colleagues or that we do not understand noble Lords' desire to avoid terminology that leads only to child protection or to people thinking that that is the issue. It would not be a preventive system if it failed to achieve what I have just set out.
We are concerned to ensure that public consultation involves practitioners and familiesparents, children and young peopleand that we learn from the trailblazers while continuing to talk to others who are considering issues about how one practitioner can signal to another their concerns that a child is not thriving in any sense of the word. We are concerned also with mechanisms to signal that concern.
We recognise that it is important to get this right for all the reasons that have been stated both in your Lordships' House and outside. We shall carefully consider thresholds and terminology. I very much look forward to bringing back to your Lordships' House the results of those deliberations, which I have already indicated I shall make available not only to noble Lords who have spoken but also in the Library of the House. I look forward to the opportunity to debate those issues.
|Next Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|