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I strongly agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Bolton, that children in public care are often traumatised because of their problematic relationships with the significant adults in their lives. For some of them, changes in social worker will be profoundly painful and may cause them further harm, possibly undermining their ability to make the intimate relationships that could be helpful to their recovery from their early experiences. I re-emphasise how important are good supervision, supported reflection and manageable workloads to retaining social workers. I hope that any review of the kind proposed in the amendment would look carefully at the professional framework in which the childs social worker operates.
How is turnover of social workers monitored? What figures on individual local authorities can the Minister provide? Does he find widely varying rates of turnover between similar local authorities? What action can be taken when that is the case? I would understand it if he preferred to write to me than to reply to those questions at this time.
Lord Judd: I put my name to this amendment because we are dealing with children whose lives are by definition acutely disrupted. The last thing that they need is further disruption in their lives. With the best will in the world and whatever the intention, if a whole string of social workers deals with them, the process can be very disruptive. There are too many powerful stories of young people who make it explicitly clear that the one thing that they yearn for is somebody who can be their confidant, to whom they relate and who is central to the working out of their lives. Continuity is tremendously important. Of course, any reasonable person understands the incredible demands that we put on social services and the difficulties in meeting the ideal, but the amendment spells out a real issue that needs to be addressed. I hope that my noble friend will find ways in which to work with the sponsors of the amendment to meet the observation. I am sure that I am not alone, but I am deeply upset that, even with positive commitment in legislation, because of the way in which the legislation is tackled the whole purpose can in effect be negated. That is a disaster. We need to ensure that the issue is given priority.
Lord Northbourne: I support the amendment. I passionately believe that stability of care and social workers is important, not only for a child social
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Lord Elystan-Morgan: I respect and sympathise with the principles behind the amendment. It is obvious that the element of continuity is of priceless worth in relation to the children whom we are discussing. Their lives have been so bedevilled by upheavals already and all manner of turmoil that they require greater continuity than the ordinary child might. That continuity must be at all levels in so far as that can be achieved: there should be judicial continuity with regard to the judges who supervise a particular case; there should be continuity of residence, in so far as that can possibly be achieved; and there should most certainly be continuity in the social workers charged with caring for and befriending those children.
Having said that, I believe that there is another side to the coin, although it does not defeat anything that has been said or any aspiration that has been exhibited in relation to the amendment. I refer to the question of resources. I spoke in Committee last week about poor countiesthe ones that I dealt with when I sat as a judge in north Wales. I am thinking of the four or five counties stretching from Anglesey all the way across to Flintshire. Their problems are very much the same: they have small teams of social workers and if one social worker is ill, another is away on a course and another has left employment for, perhaps, another local authority, while a fourth is on maternity leave, there is a limit to how much they can shake the pack. I have no doubt that in most cases they are racking their brains for how they can achieve as much continuity as is humanly possible in the difficulties of that case.
Without hazarding a guess as to what exactly might be done or what the fine point of balance might be, will the Minister consider the advantages of making the principle of continuity even clearer by perhaps mentioning it in the Bill as well as considering the danger of adding an unnecessary wheel to the coach and making life more difficult for local authorities in this regard? If the review is a fairly cursory one, it hardly justifies a specific statutory precept. On the other hand, if it is deep-seated and deeply penetrative, it may bring about the very bureaucratic burden that local authorities are already not in a position to deal with.
Baroness Howarth of Breckland: When I read the amendment, I jumped for joy. I thought that it was something I would like to see, even knowing what I do about the context. A number of different indicators and drivers will need to be looked at in the review. I have some quarrel with the noble Baroness, Lady
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What is it in a local authority that triggers things such as the further involvement of the independent reviewing officer? Perhaps in the guidance we should look at those kinds of triggers. After a child has had more than three social workers in a year, perhaps someone should appoint an independent advocate for that child, to look with the child at what is happening in their life. A number of issues could be looked at around this, in recognition that it may not be the one issue. After all, the childs real contact might be with their residential staff and their residential social worker and, if there is continuity there, they are not as fussed as when they have no continuity anywhere. We need to look at the issue holistically; we need to consider the triggers and the services that might be brought to bear when this kind of thing happens.
Baroness Butler-Sloss: I support the amendment but also the wise words of the noble Baroness, Lady Howarththis might not be the best way of dealing with the matter after three social workers. I support Clause 13, which concerns visiting. However, visiting will be completely useless if a social worker visits a number of children without the individual social worker giving the continuity that a child wants. I have had, as I am sure has the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, a large number of children come through my hands who have had multiple movements. Twenty movements for a child in two years is not, I regret to say, all that unusual with some local authorities. The worst I have come across was 40 moves, and it was no surprise that that child ended up in the Caldecott therapeutic centre.
I know how difficult it is for social workersI totally take on board what the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, saidbut if you keep changing the social worker, as noble Lords have said, the child will be disrupted by not knowing who is the person to turn to. There has to be someone. I would like to see a trigger in primary or secondary legislation that reminds local authorities that they have to do something about this. I can understand what happens in the small and difficult-to-manage local authorities of north Wales, but it also happens in large local authorities that ought to know better. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, that we should be looking round this point, but it certainly should be there somewhere.
Baroness Meacher: I was not planning to speak to this amendment but perhaps I may make one point. Speaking as someone who works in health and, in the old days, in social services, I am conscious of the different systems that can lead to changes in social workers. I do not think that those at the top of these organisations give enough attention to these implications when they are planning systems. I am also conscious that organisations, including my own,
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Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws: Before the Minister rises, perhaps I may mention that I was interested in the document presented to me, too, by Chris Waterman about social work practices, in which he mentions the role of personal mentors. I have experience as the patron of a charity involved with the personal mentoring of children in care. Providing continuity is precisely the sort of role that a personal mentor can play, in addition to the role of being an independent support. Also, that mentor, when taking on that role, should be given guidance that one of their roles is to monitor whether there is continuity in the services being provided. So, rather than there being a set of triggers, the mentor could provide the trigger for some sort of review, because their relationship gives them the insight into whether there is a need for a review of what is being done on behalf of the child. I press the point that the mentoring role could assist with this set of problems.
Baroness Walmsley: I commend the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, for coming up with this ingenious idea, which I commend to the Minister. I hope that he will respond in a constructive way to the concerns that have been expressed. When he does so, will he ensure that the pilot social work practices are put on a level playing field with local authorities when they are being held to account for the turnover of social workers? If that is not done during the pilots, the evaluation will not be fair.
Lord Adonis: The issue that we are discussing is important and, as the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, said, I referred to it in my Second Reading speech. The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, asked me for some statistics. They are, indeed, of great concern. They show that in 2005, the last year for which we have figures, there was an average vacancy rate of 11 per cent for field social workers in respect of children across England, but with very wide regional variations. The lowest regional vacancy rate is 8 per cent, in the eastern region, but the rate is nearly twice that in London, at 15.1 per cent. Therefore, it is of no surprise that the use of agency staff should be highest in London, where, in 2005, the figure for agency staff stood at 20.8 per cent, compared with an average of 11.6 per cent in the rest of England. That is still a high percentage, even as an average. This is a serious issue.
We do not believe that the amendment is necessary, however, because the care plan for every child in care must in any event be reviewed on a regular basis in accordance with the statutory framework established
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While I absolutely share the sentiments expressed by the noble Baroness and other speakers, we do not believe that a process of independent reviews in addition to those that already take place under the auspices of the independent reviewing officer would add anything. We expect those reviews to look at, among the other things that the IRO looks at, the impact of changes of social workers and to make any appropriate recommendations.
The Earl of Listowel: I have a supplementary question. The intention of the social work practices is to address exactly this point on social work turnover. Perhaps I might briefly allude to that, given that the Minister kindly wrote to us all on various matters since our previous day in Committee, including at length on social work practices. These social work practices hold good prospects for securing greater continuity of care for looked-after children. The greater autonomy that they grant to social workers should make the work more attractive and, to an extent, offer a refuge from the bureaucracy of local authorities. So I can see the benefits in principle. In his letter, the Minister outlined concerns, which I have also expressed and which he recognises as legitimate, about the impact on the wider workforce. I shall not go into details at this point, but perhaps the Minister can clarify a further point. Once the pilots have reported and the evaluation has been made, the Secretary of State will have the power to decide whether local authorities can implement the pilots, but will a statutory instrument be brought before Parliament?
Baroness Morris of Bolton: One thing that concerned us greatly during our social workers commission was the retention and turnover of staff. The turnover of social workers appeared to be an issue everywhere. While I absolutely take on board what the Minister said about the independent reviewing officer and how there will be consistent and constant reviews that would pick up on an individual childs problems, the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, referred to a hatred of reviews. She said that, if something was enshrined in statute and authorities found that this was happening, they would have to look at their wider procedures.
When we took evidence, it became clear that little bits of bad practice that might seem good business practice, such as hot-desking, do not work. We were told that hot-desking is now used in many offices and that this is adding to social workers stress. It may be cost-effective in the use of space while social workers are out on visits, but it cuts them off from their support networks and their colleagues; it isolates them and prevents them from sharing knowledge, input and cover. This kind of thing can lead to them leaving and going elsewhere. I am not too sure whether these things would be picked up by the IRO, but they might be if there was something in the Bill. As the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, said, the element of continuity is of priceless worth and, as the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, said, unless we put it in legislation, local authorities will cut corners.
At a meeting of a number of our Conservative leads in childrens services, it became clear that they do not know how they are going to carry out a great deal of what is in the Bill, because they do not know whether they are going to have the money to do it. With all the good will in the world, they may turn a blind eye to some of the things that would make a huge difference.
The noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, referred to something that is close to my heartmentoring. We tried to table an amendment on mentoring but were told that it was beyond the scope of the Bill. I am not sure why and we may try to do something on Report. Mentors offer a tremendous continuity over the years, wherever the child may end up or whenever their circumstances change. We need to look closely at what mentoring can do to help in this.
The noble Baroness said: We now start a series of amendments on a subject that is near and dear to the hearts of many of us: contact with siblings and families. The process of entering or living in care, even for short periods, can destroy relationships between
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Reams of expert opinion and consultations with children in care echo this sentiment. In the response to its Care Matters Green Paper, the Department for Children, Schools and Families said that keeping siblings together is vital. As the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, mentioned, the Childrens Rights Director for England, Dr Roger Morgan, published the views of 433 children on improving care standards. Designing placements so that brothers and sisters can stay together was the fourth main recommendation from the children. A National Voice, the excellent organisation run by and for young people in care, found in a recent survey that 83 per cent of children and young people who do not live with their birth siblings would like to see more of them. I need not further rehearse the significance of that.
Provisions in the 1989 Act should ensure that siblings are kept together wherever possible, but this is a probing amendment, designed to reignite that debate. Will the Minister explain what specific steps have been taken to keep siblings together? Is he willing to comment on the success of those attempts? Does he agree that more needs to be done? Is he willing to give undertakings that further measures will be taken to ensure that siblings are, wherever possible and when it is in their best interests, kept together? I beg to move.
Baroness Sharp of Guildford: I support Amendment No. 17 and shall speak to Amendments Nos. 53 and 71, which are in my name and that of my noble friend Lady Walmsley. I shall speak also to Amendment No. 32, which should have been grouped with these amendments, since it fits in with this issue more than with Amendment No. 28, with which it has been grouped.
Amendments Nos. 17, 53 and 71 would strengthen the duty on local authorities to facilitate sibling contact, unless it is inconsistent with the childs welfare or a child with sufficient understanding objects to it. Amendment No. 53 spells that out at slightly greater length than Amendment No. 17, proposing to add a new section, Section 34A, to the Children Act 1989. Amendment No. 71 would simply amend the wording of that Act.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, explained, the Bill misses a golden opportunity to increase the placing together of siblings. Children enter care largely as a result of the actions or inaction of adults, yet the process of entering and living in care, even for short periods, can destroy relationships with siblings and take away identity, shared memories, companionship and love at a time when they are most needed. The Department for Children, Schools and Families reported in its summary of responses to the Care Matters Green Paper consultation:
Many of the children and young people we have spoken to thought that it was vital to keep siblings together wherever possible. Where this is not possible, maintaining contact with siblings is very important to young people.
On Amendment No. 53, Clause 8 repeats the provisions of the Children Act 1989 that relate to the duty of local authorities to accommodate together siblings wherever it is reasonably practicable and consistent with the welfare of the child. Section 34 of the Children Act 1989 requires the local authority to allow reasonable contact between a child in care and his or her parents, guardians and those who formerly had residence. Paragraph 15 in Part II of Schedule 2 to the 1989 Act makes provision for contact between the child and any relative. However, no explicit provision is made for sibling contact. The local authority is required to promote rather than to facilitate contact, though there is provision for covering travel expenses.
Amendment No. 32 relates to proposed new subsection (7E) of the 1989 Act. It would delete the words reasonably practicable and from proposed new paragraph (b), which relates to the duties laid on the local authority to try to ensure that looked-after children are placed in accommodation in the area where their family lives and, under proposed new subsection (7D), with siblings if they are also looked after by the local authority. The problem with words such as reasonably practicable is that they are too often used as a let-out for not making much effort to pursue that duty. This amendment to the 1984 Act would therefore remove the considerable and unjustified discretion given to local authorities for providing accommodation for looked-after children, while maintaining the appropriate duty to act in a manner that is consistent with the childs welfare.
Amendment No. 53 offers an alternative formulation to Amendment No. 17. It makes it clear that, where it is not consistent with the childs welfare to be placed with his sibling, there should be an explicit duty on local authorities to support sibling contact, unless that is also not consistent with the childs welfare or with the child having sufficient understanding of the objects of such contact. Both amendments are crucial if we are to come closer to having a system that cherishes childrens relationships with one another.
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