Clause 97 - Officers of the Service

Adoption and Children Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 4:45 pm ar 4 Rhagfyr 2001.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health) 4:45, 4 Rhagfyr 2001

I beg to move amendment No. 150, in page 51, line 35, after 'application', insert

'or by any local authority in whose care the child has at any time been placed.'

We now come to an interesting clause that deals with officers of the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, which has been a bone of contention in the months since it was set up. The Minister said some interesting things about CAFCASS, but I will leave that my general concerns to debate on amendment No. 136. You may oblige us with a clause stand part debate, Mr. Stevenson, depending on the length of discussion of the clause.

The clause deals with the nature of the officer appointed by CAFCASS, or ''the Service'' as it is described in the clause, to act on behalf of the child, the child obviously not being in a position to act for himself. The response from lawyers is that there are many tongue-twisting descriptions of people in the Bill: the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act 2000 got rid of the court welfare officer and the guardian ad litem, and lawyers are now faced with calling the relevant individual the ''children and family court reporter'' or the ''children and family court advisory and support service officer'' or the ''officer of the Service'', as described in clause 98. It is not beyond the wit of the Government to propose a snappier title to describe that important person.

There needs to be a specific link between the person who acts on behalf of the child in care proceedings and the person who acts in adoption proceedings. The restriction in subsection (2) is that, for understandable reasons, the person appointed should not be employed by the local authority that has made the application. Our amendment would extend that exemption to employees of a local authority that has had care of the child in the past. There is a risk of partiality, however it may be expressed, on the part of someone who has known a child in their capacity as an employee of a local authority that has had charge of that child. The officer of a local authority may also have a view about how the subsequent local authority has dealt with the child, which may make his treatment partial. I am not casting aspersions or suggesting that that is likely to happen, but it would be a sensible safeguard if the Government recognised that employees of a local authority should be exempted if the child has been in the care of that local authority.

The same exemption should apply to a local authority that has had more recent care of the child. I do not know whether the Government would want to qualify how recent that care has to have been, but we are open to suggestions in the case of a child with a long-standing record of placement orders. The amendment would simply extend the exemptions under subsection (2)(a).

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Parliamentary Secretary (Lord Chancellor's Department)

As the hon. Gentleman says, clause 97(2)(a) prohibits the appointment as CAFCASS officer in a case involving a placement order of a person employed by the local authority that is making the current application. The intention is to prevent conflicts of interest such as a self-employed guardian acting on behalf of a local authority that is involved in a case as well as on behalf of the child. The amendment would extend the category of persons who may not be appointed to include any person employed by any local authority that has ever had the care of the child involved. That would prevent not only current conflicts of interest, but also any suspicion that a children's guardian might be overly influenced by a connection with a local authority that was previously involved in the case.

One of the purposes of the current Bill is to align practice in adoption and care cases more closely. It is noticeable that a wider restriction applies in care cases than is currently contained in the Bill.

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Ceidwadwyr, Huntingdon

I am interested in hearing the Parliamentary Secretary's opinion on a matter related to conflicts of interest. Reading subsection (1)(b), it appears that the same person could act for the child and also act effectively as an adviser to the parents who are giving their consent. Is that not in itself a conflict of interest and does the Bill address that conflict?

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Parliamentary Secretary (Lord Chancellor's Department)

There may be instances in which there has been a relationship between the two but I will come back to that point.

As I was saying, one of the purposes of the Bill is to align practice in adoption and care cases more closely. It is noticeable that a wider restriction applies in care cases than is currently contained in the Bill. Rule 4.10 (7) of the family proceedings rules prohibits the appointment as guardian ad litem of anyone who has been employed by a local authority and involved in arrangements for the child during the previous five years. If there was any conflict of interest, as in the case that the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) raises, that person would not be allowed to act in any way. The role of the guardian ad litem is to protect the interests of the child; therefore, if a person were acting for any other party, there would be a conflict, and that would be ruled out.

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Ceidwadwyr, Huntingdon

For clarification, is the Parliamentary Secretary saying that the conflict would be ruled out somewhere in the Bill, or under another piece of legislation? She mentioned guardians ad litem but I thought there were no such things anymore.

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Parliamentary Secretary (Lord Chancellor's Department)

I am sorry—I am using out-of-date language. There is usually no need for a children's guardian in a case where the parent agrees to the adoption. In such cases there would be a reporting officer to the court as opposed to the child's interests being separately represented by a guardian; the whole issue would be dealt with by a reporting officer. In some cases the children's guardian will also report on the child's interests: if the children's guardian perceives a conflict of interest a different officer will be appointed.

The amendment goes too far in excluding anyone connected with a local authority that was previously involved in the case, however remote that period and whether or not that individual has ever had any personal connection with the case. However, I am certainly not unsympathetic in principle to the amendment. If the hon. Gentleman agrees to withdraw it, I undertake to consider the matter further to establish whether tightening up the provision to bring it more into line with other provisions is possible. If that is deemed appropriate after consultation, the Government will table an amendment at a later stage.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

I am on a roll: that is two hits, and with the next amendment standing in my name, I might be ambitious and go for a hat trick. Before in-flight refuelling, the Minister said that the amendment would place impossible limits on anyone working in local authorities. That is why I added the caveat that the Minister might like to reconsider the matter in the light of a time exemption or restriction to a certain number of authorities. My hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon raised further important considerations about potential conflicts. The Minister has promised to look again and she is ''certainly not unsympathetic''—a positive statement in a negative sort of way—so I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Elfyn Llwyd Elfyn Llwyd Shadow PC Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Defence)

I beg to move amendment No. 136, in page 52, line 9, at end insert—

'(5) The Service shall lay an annual report before Parliament dealing with its performance, staffing and all matters relating to the exercise of the functions bestowed upon it by this Act.'.

CAFCASS is one of the most important aspects of the Bill. If the Bill is to succeed, the service must succeed. Over the weekend I discussed the issue with a senior circuit judge in north Wales, a family court judge. He was genuinely fearful of the headlong rush to set up CAFCASS and he condemned the treatment of the guardians—whether ad litem as was, or children's as now. A time bomb could be lying in the Bill. If the service fails, the Bill fails: it is as simple and obvious as that.

Guardians ad litem were introduced to provide fully independent people to protect the interests of children. They fulfilled that role through the provision of detached, objective assessments and expert advice on child care matters to the courts. That has been the position since 1984. As a practitioner, I know how heavily lawyers and the courts depend on their independence and expertise. They are clearly a core service in the whole scenario.

It is sometimes said, ''Why try to repair what has not been broken?'' An allied problem is whether to bring the official solicitor, the guardians and court welfare officers together under one roof. That potentially poses a great conflict of interests, to which the Minister referred earlier. They have wholly different functions, yet now fall under one particular roof. Nothing is more likely to ensure the Bill's success than the guardians' independence of mind. We must preserve their expertise and continue to rely on those who have worked in the field over the past few years.

We all know that securing the best interests of children must be the driving force in every case. Without the good offices of guardians and the best possible level of advice, we will fail the children. That shows how vital the guardians are. They face considerable pressure because there are too few of them to carry out the necessary work, which can be hard and stressful. They frequently undergo emotional stress. Guardians often have to issue advice that they know will be highly unpopular, but they will always be driven by what is best for the child or young person in all the circumstances.

The dispute between guardians and the new service, CAFCASS, has been mentioned. CAFCASS faces three distinct problems: the dispute with children's guardians; the fact that the service is already over budget; and the fact that its chief executive is suspended, which does not augur well. The Minister quite properly mentioned earlier that some of the guardians' difficulties could be overcome through consultation, but their treatment by CAFCASS was improper and unreasonable. CAFCASS is one step removed from the Government, so I am not levelling oblique criticisms at the Minister or the Department. I echo the words of the senior judge to whom I spoke over the weekend in saying that the headlong rush to CAFCASS might well prove to be a mistake. We shall have to reflect at leisure later. Because we are dealing with the lives of children and young people, it may, unfortunately, have far-reaching consequences.

The Parliamentary Secretary will know that, over summer last year, CAFCASS decided to ensure that all guardians under its auspices were employed by the service. Most, if not all, experienced guardians had been self-employed and many would tell the Committee that that was one of the safeguards of their independence. An application for a judicial review was made to the Family Division of the High Court. Lord Justice Scott Baker came out heavily against CAFCASS for not allowing the guardians a reasonable period to reply to the short consultation initiated. The subsequent exodus of distinguished guardians is the one thing that the service cannot allow.

The judge said:

''The children whom guardians represent are 'among the most vulnerable in society'.''

The judge emphasised that

''guardians must be both independent and be seen to be independent, have the authority to be able to make often unwelcome recommendations, and be able to withstand pressure from Local Authorities and other parties. Therefore the impending loss of vast numbers of experienced guardians was 'a serious position, which needs to be remedied quickly.' ''

He went on to say that

''the present dispute is entirely unhelpful to the Family Justice system.''

Those would be strong words in any High Court judgment. He said:

''The current position has been brought about by CAFCASS because of its conduct, and that of the Project Team before. It is greatly to be hoped that relations could be improved. They will have to be if the service is to fulfil its responsibility to children.''

The judge went on to say:

''CAFCASS has alienated the very people it needs, if it is to discharge the responsibilities that Parliament entrusted it with.''

He criticised CAFCASS

''among other things, for its poor communication skills, for delays in communicating its decisions to Guardians, and for ignoring his own request that negotiations take place to resolve this issue. The Court cannot tell CAFCASS how to run the service, however much it may fear for the future. Critical decisions on the nature of the service, and how it is funded, are political, and it is at this level that pressure must be brought to bear if the 'impending disaster' . . . is to be averted.''

Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Labour/Co-operative, Sheffield, Heeley 5:00, 4 Rhagfyr 2001

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that, under the previous arrangement, difficulties with the quality control of some guardians ad litem were not properly managed and it was difficult to ensure that every guardian was producing the thorough quality of work required? One reason for a more managed and organised service was to deal with some of the previous problems. I am not suggesting that all guardians were of insufficient quality.

Photo of Elfyn Llwyd Elfyn Llwyd Shadow PC Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Defence)

I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. I agree that some guardians were failing, but alienating more experienced guardians and forcing them to jump out of the service will not help. I agree that problems did exist, as in any service: some delivered well and some fell short of the mark. If experienced guardians are alienated and treated with contempt by CAFCASS, it does a disservice to those doing a good job and, more importantly, to children.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Opposition Whip (Commons)

The hon. Gentleman develops a powerful case, and describes a classic example of what happens in a powerful bureaucracy where the emphasis is not on improving quality, but on extending a power base by pushing out people over whom it has less control. This morning, when the hon. Gentleman had an important engagement outside the House, we alluded to possible problems in other powerful bureaucracies.

Photo of Elfyn Llwyd Elfyn Llwyd Shadow PC Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Defence)

The hon. Gentleman is right. I am of the devolving rather than the centralising persuasion.

To answer the question of the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Ms Munn), another way of dealing with the problem would have been to ensure better training of those of who fall short. Management is necessary, but imposing a huge top-down structure is not the best way to achieve that, which is why I welcome the debate. I do not profess to know all the answers, but I have identified some of the problems and, more importantly, the High Court has also done so recently.

One has to ask how we are to view the fact that the new court advisory service is found to be acting unlawfully within months of its creation and alienating those with whom it is supposed to be working. We also have to ask to what extent CAFCASS is publicly accountable for its actions. What is to be made of it defending itself by arguing that it is not bound by the promises of its predecessor or by the statement by the Lord Chancellor in a written answer to the right hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Virginia Bottomley)?

What we have here is the possibility of a quango, which will suddenly run wild. It is unpardonable for a service to say that, regardless of what the Lord Chancellor's Department has said, it is not bound by that and that it is a free-standing body which will do exactly as it pleases. CAFCASS has run into trouble with the High Court within months of its inception.

The argument was that CAFCASS was a non-departmental public body—

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Opposition Whip (Commons)

I saw several hon. Members shaking their heads. Will the hon. Member confirm that it was actually part of the testimony by CAFCASS that it did not regard itself bound by clear pledges made by the Lord Chancellor's Department and, indeed, was openly breaking them?

Photo of Elfyn Llwyd Elfyn Llwyd Shadow PC Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Defence)

The hon. Gentleman has jumped ahead of me. I was getting to that point.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I am indebted to him for much of the information that I am relying on today. CAFCASS argued that, being a non-departmental public body, it was therefore independent of the Lord Chancellor's Department and the project team and, accordingly, was not bound by any statements made apparently on CAFCASS's behalf. It further argued that guardians should have known that and accordingly should have set no store by any of the comments or promises made by the Lord Chancellor's Department. The learned judge was very unimpressed by that argument and cited CAFCASS's own statements to guardians that the Lord Chancellor had the final say on the contracts to be offered to guardians.

It is obviously worrying to anyone who has concern for parliamentary democracy that a public body should take the view that the Lord Chancellor's promises to Members of Parliament on its behalf places no obligations on it. What, then, is the point of Members of Parliament writing to the Lord Chancellor and the Ministers concerned if bodies such as CAFCASS consider themselves unfettered by the response? I am sure that, in due course, the Parliamentary Secretary will wish to say a word or two about that.

I realise that I have dealt at length with this dispute. It does not fill me with any confidence, and I go back to where I started briefly in speaking to the amendment: the service must succeed if the Bill is to succeed. I know that the Parliamentary Secretary is most sincere in her calling and that she will do her best. What we need to do is ensure that there are plenty of good guardians available, that they will remain independent and that they will be given employment opportunities that befit their status. If that happens, there will be no problem recruiting good-quality staff for the future. If it does not happen, this legislation will cave in and we will all have wasted a great deal of time and, worse, lost a great opportunity.

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Llafur, Lancaster and Wyre 5:15, 4 Rhagfyr 2001

I share many of the concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd). He clearly speaks with great knowledge, and from considerable experience. However, he has been a little negative, although I acknowledge the problems. I refer him to an early-day motion, which I submitted many weeks ago now on this subject—I would not be surprised if he had signed it.

The whole discussion about whether or not CAFCASS is responsible to the Lord Chancellor's Department is rendered somewhat academic by the way that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary has responded to the concerns of hon. Members on both sides of the House over CAFCASS. I have had several constructive meetings with her about those concerns.

The important thing is that the principle of what the Government set out in the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act 2000 for the future of a unified service, bringing together guardians ad litem, the court welfare service and the official solicitor, is absolutely right. This vital service, which offers representation, advice to courts, support to children and young people facing difficult situations in court and in their family lives, is of fundamental importance.

The new structure offers an opportunity for a well-managed service; it offers people opportunities for career progression through all levels of a service, which operates in different ways and in different contexts; and it offers an opportunity for excellent training and professional development. It must be the way forward for the sort of modernised service that we want to see, offering something important to vulnerable people.

CAFCASS has had a bad and difficult start. I doubt that anybody would deny that, but I hope that the situation has moved on from what it was, even those few weeks ago, and from the description outlined by the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy. CAFCASS has a positive future. The Government have not only attended to setting it up in the proper way through the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act 2000 but are clearly acting in the best interests of children when they give great attention to the difficulties that the service is experiencing and to the best way to make it work.

I am confident that the structure that we have, which is much better than the hybrid relationships that we have had in the past, will work well to the benefit of children and young people.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

I was interested in the opening comments of the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson). He described the contribution of the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy as a little negative, but the hon. Gentleman has done the Committee a great service because he has ingeniously tabled a useful amendment, which has given the Committee the opportunity to debate the problems with CAFCASS and to insert a common-sense means of ensuring that the House properly monitors its rehabilitation.

I was somewhat surprised when the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre described the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy as a little negative, not least because of his early-day motion 282—to which he modestly referred—which was tabled on 22 October and signed by hon. Members from all parties. His motion described CAFCASS as a service ''of crucial importance'', but the language then changed and the motion stated that this House

''is alarmed to observe that already 24 out of 52 managers of children's guardians have left the service, one of them with the statement that 'CAFCASS nationally is in a state dangerously close to paralysis'; is appalled that a judicial review on 14th September held that CAFCASS has acted unlawfully in withdrawing the option of self-employment for guardians; is extremely concerned that the centralisation of the service will undermine the ability of experienced professional to offer independent support and representation for vulnerable children; and calls on the Government to institute an urgent and fundamental review of the service, taking full account of the views of children and young people, organisations representing them and the dedicated people who work within it.''

If that is not more than a little negative, I do not know what is. I am not sure how the hon. Gentleman can accuse the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy of being negative.

However, I agree wholeheartedly with the other comments of the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre. CAFCASS is in a mess, but I will not go over the points made earlier.

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Llafur, Lancaster and Wyre

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that I said that the situation has moved on markedly from the day that that early-day motion was tabled and from what was described therein?

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

We remain to be convinced of that and await the Parliamentary Secretary's comments on what remarkable metamorphosis has taken place in the past six weeks, although she did not claim that in response to a question earlier this afternoon. Then, she admitted that the consultation that should have happened in the first place was now taking place, as many hon. Members would agree.

I spoke to members of a local social services department about the Bill and the problems of CAFCASS. They commented that CAFCASS had shown no sense of commitment in engaging with the guardians. They said also that the Government wanted an employed service and by doing so risked getting inexperienced people from local authorities to take over the positions as a lot of experienced people were in the process of heading out of the door. No doubt training can be provided to bring those people towards a position approaching the experience of their predecessors, but it seems a great loss and an event that could have been avoided with a little more sensitivity from the Lord Chancellor's Department. It is a double blow, because people from local authority social services departments who are desperately needed to deal with other parts of the Bill will now have to make up the shortfall in CAFCASS.

We received many submissions on the subject, and I will quote a letter from a children's guardian. She said:

''As a group of Guardians, we are concerned that we were not fully involved in the consultation process that preceded the inception of Cafcass. We were shocked when we were informed in July that we had two weeks to sign a contract of employment that would effectively mean that we could not undertake our duties to the Courts and children . . . It surely is an inauspicious start for an organisation set up to advise and support the Courts, that within its first few months, it ends up on the wrong side of the judicial process, found to have acted unlawfully in relation to practitioners, whose service it needs to meet its obligations to children. This is hardly likely to inspire confidence in CAFCASS and its practitioners, or in the Family Justice system as a whole. It may not be coincidental that the only member of the Judiciary on the CAFCASS board has now resigned his position . . . To what extent is CAFCASS publicly accountable for its actions? What is to be made of it defending itself by arguing that it is not bound by promises of its predecessor or by statements of the Lord Chancellor to Members of Parliament . . . What is worrying to anyone who has a concern about parliamentary democracy, is that a public body should take the view that the Lord Chancellor's promises to an MP on its behalf, places no obligations upon it''—

witness the written answer that was quoted earlier. The letter continues:

''What then is the point of MPs writing to the Lord Chancellor and the ministers concerned, if CAFCASS considers itself unfettered by the response?''

That is pretty strong stuff from someone who wanted to get on with her job of being a guardian of the court and, to all accounts, did it rather well. She and many of her colleagues are now exceedingly disillusioned.

In the New Law Journal this week—it may or may not be hot off the press—an article on CAFCASS by a contributor, Richard White, reinforces the depth of the problems. He says that the chief executive of CAFCASS has taken the rap for the chaos and has been suspended from her post, as the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy said earlier. The Times quoted a probation service official saying

''She can be quite formidable and has a reputation for leaving a bit of a trail of destruction behind her.''

The article says that there is a large budget deficit, that start-up costs were high and that CAFCASS had gone backwards since its inception six months ago. CAFCASS is not a happy ship and, as the hon. Gentleman said, if it is not working, large parts of the Bill are doomed to the same fate, which will not be good for any of the people whom we are discussing. It is vital that the Bill is well financed and that the mechanisms and the processes of the law can be carried out by the existing systems. In the case of CAFCASS, there is a serious question mark over whether that can be achieved.

The hon. Gentleman is not asking for CAFCASS to be disbanded and for the whole edifice to be reconstructed in another guise; he is not asking for heads to roll large scale, or for it to be reorganised. We take comfort from the changes, and from the consultation that is taking place at long last. We remain to be convinced that the metamorphosis has been quite so complete in the past six weeks, and we ask the Minister to respond to the points made by the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre. Amendment No. 136 simply puts a duty on the service to lay before Parliament an annual report on its performance, staffing and matters related to the functions that the Bill bestows upon it. That sounds sensible to me, even without CAFCASS's problems. Given those problems, it sounds particularly sensible.

This morning, I drew analogies with the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000, which set up a new, powerful organisation to regulate the large and important financial services industry, because adoption is a large and important subject. There are safeguards within the FSA, although many of us thought that it had been given too much power. A reporting mechanism to the Chancellor, to Parliament and to other bodies in the House was identified but we would like it to have been clearer. Clear reporting mechanisms have been identified. It seems strange that the Bill should not automatically place on the service that is essential to the adoption functions that we are trying to institute a requirement to report its progress or lack of progress and its record to date to Parliament each year.

The Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee reports annually, I believe, to the Treasury Select Committee. We set up reporting mechanisms for other important institutions, so it is only sensible that we should place a requirement on CAFCASS to lay an annual report before Parliament. It should not be provided unofficially to the Lord Chancellor's Department, with no publication requirement. The report should be no holds barred, with nothing taken out and nothing kept secret.

Surely it is right that we in this place should have the opportunity to debate such a report, especially if there are serious shortcomings in it. Producing an annual report and laying it before Parliament would give the House an opportunity to debate it if it saw fit to do so. Currently, CAFCASS is not required to report on the progress that it has made, certainly as regards its obligations and requirements in the Bill.

It would be wholly reasonable for CAFCASS to have to produce such a report; that would not be an enormous burden on the service. I am sure that the Lord Chancellor's Department requires it to report on progress in any case, so it is only right that the whole House should have the opportunity to judge whether that progress is sufficiently swift and substantial. An annual report to the House would be by far the best way of providing such an opportunity. On that basis, I very much hope that we can score a hat trick and that the Minister will agree that this reasonable amendment is needed.

Photo of Mr George Stevenson Mr George Stevenson Llafur, Stoke-on-Trent South 5:30, 4 Rhagfyr 2001

Before the Parliamentary Secretary responds, I should point out that this has been a pretty wide-ranging debate. Only when the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham spoke was the term ''annual report'' mentioned twice. No other Member mentioned such a report, although it was the subject of the amendment. I allowed that because the points made were relevant, but I inform the Parliamentary Secretary that when the clause stand part debate is called, I shall be listening carefully for repetition. I hope that hon. Members will assist me in that regard.

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Parliamentary Secretary (Lord Chancellor's Department)

I am glad that you said that, Mr. Stevenson.

Obviously, this has been a wide-ranging debate on the amendment. I understand hon. Members' concerns about CAFCASS, but the principle of bringing services together is right. That goes back to points made by my hon. Friends the Members for Lancaster and Wyre and for Sheffield, Heeley. Consultation carried out before the formation of CAFCASS pointed firmly in that direction.

I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley made a point about the advantages of being able to manage one service. We can bring together best practice, institute training that applies in all regions and bring in the benefits of information technology. Running a proper service that focuses on children is an important principle, in which most children's guardians, as well as many other professionals in the field, believe. We should accept that, and I am glad that the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy began by saying that he felt that that was probably the right way to go. It is important to ensure that the service works. It would be foolish of me to say that CAFCASS has had an easy first eight months. It has not, but we must remember that during that time it has brought together 114 separate local arrangements. At the same time, it has continued to provide existing services and to build up the new national service.

There is also no doubt that the continuing dispute with self-employed guardians has taken up much of the management's and board's time. It would be foolish not to admit that. The management and the board have some difficult decisions to make. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is aware that some difficulties have arisen because of the previous arrangements in which self-employed guardians could be employed by several different local authorities and work on an hourly basis.

There were strong indications that, when the service was brought together and there was, in effect, one employer, that would prove difficult. The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy is right in saying that that dispute, which to an extent is still unresolved, has dogged the first eight months. I hope that he will also recognise that, following the judicial review, the Lord Chancellor gave a statutory direction to CAFCASS to start consultation on the option of self-employment for guardians on 10 October.

That consultation will continue, and I may reassure the hon. Gentleman if I give some idea of how that will work. Self-employed guardians will have received a letter that invites their views on self-employment. CAFCASS has also accepted the proposals made by NAGALRO, which, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows, is the National Association of Guardians Ad Litem and Reporting Officers. NAGALRO proposes that an independent facilitator chair the consultation. That facilitator has been agreed, meetings have already taken place and more meetings have been diaried to ensure that the process keeps moving. The results of the consultation will be independently assessed. That has also been agreed with NAGALRO.

It must be restated that CAFCASS must reach an agreement that will meet Inland Revenue requirements, and it would be foolish to pretend otherwise. It is also important to stress that there are many employed guardians who would feel strongly if there were any suggestion that they had not acted independently or in the best interests of children because of their employment status. I urge hon. Members to bear that in mind when they consider whether children's guardians can continue to be independent if they are employed. We must remember that self-employed and other guardians were appointed by local authority panels. They may later have had to represent the children in situations of conflict with the local authority. In future, whether employed or self-employed, they will be given cases by a completely independent body. That is an important principle. As I said, employed guardians might have had strong feelings in the past about indications that they had not done their job properly; that should not happen in the future. Those committed people have worked in the best interests of children and will do so in the future, no matter what their employment status is.

I regularly meet the chairman of CAFCASS and receive weekly progress reports from him. I assure members of the Committee that we are determined to make the service work. We are convinced that it is the right answer and that it will be in the best interests of children. It is easy to look at past problems, but we want to look to the future. We are working closely with the board, and the management and board of CAFCASS are consulting the self-employed guardians. We must do all that we can to assist in developing a service that goes forward.

Photo of Elfyn Llwyd Elfyn Llwyd Shadow PC Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Defence)

I am grateful to the Parliamentary Secretary for her considered, useful and comprehensive reply. Bearing in mind that several non-departmental public bodies lay their reports before Parliament annually, what is the objection, if any, to that pattern in this case? Government and Opposition Members all want the same result.

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Parliamentary Secretary (Lord Chancellor's Department)

The hon. Gentleman is hurrying me along to his amendment, but I am trying to set out the background and answer his earlier questions. I shall address the issue of the annual report but first wish to provide further assurances.

In addition to accountability through the board to the Lord Chancellor's Department, the magistrates courts service inspectorate carries out an independent inspection of CAFCASS. The hon. Gentleman may have heard about that on Second Reading, but I repeat it here for the record. The inspection includes visits to all parts of CAFCASS; this week, the inspectorate is visiting the headquarters. I hope that some of its findings will reassure the hon. Gentleman that services are generally being delivered. The preliminary report of the inspectorate has said that, in visits made so far, CAFCASS has generally continued to deliver at least the same quantity and quality of services to children, families and courts as were provided by the previous services before CAFCASS was established in April 2001.

I will not pretend that the report did not draw attention to the difficulties that occurred as a result of the judicial review. We all recognise that the review caused problems, but it is important for us to have the reassurance that, due to the professionalism and dedication of those who work in CAFCASS, service delivery has generally been of at least the same standard as previously.

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Parliamentary Secretary (Lord Chancellor's Department)

Because of the way the inspectorate carries out its duties, it will have regard to the relationship CAFCASS has with local authorities. Any complaints that the service was of a lesser standard would be drawn to the inspectorate's attention. One of the difficulties in monitoring some cases—unallocated work, for example—is that previously there was no check, and no figures on the previous position are available centrally, because some 114 different services were brought together.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman is reassured by the fact that, as well as the annual report, there is an independent inspection. Those inspectors have right of entry to CAFCASS premises, and the right to inspect any CAFCASS documents. The Lord Chancellor can also direct the MCSI to inspect specific issues or functions of CAFCASS. It may provide the hon. Gentleman with even more reassurance to know that statute requires the chief inspector to make an annual report to the Lord Chancellor, which must be laid before Parliament, so in a sense an independent inspectorate has already laid a report before Parliament.

On the amendment and the idea of submitting a separate annual report to Parliament on the exercise of the functions of adoptions, I am afraid that I shall have to disappoint the hon. Gentleman. His amendment is not necessary because paragraph (12) of schedule 2 to the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act 2000 states:

''The Service must make a report to the Lord Chancellor in respect of each financial year on the performance of its functions.''

The Lord Chancellor may give directions on

''the information to be given in the report and the form in which it is to be given, and . . . the time by which the report is to be given.''

He must

''lay a copy of the report before each House of Parliament''


''arrange for the report to be published in a manner he considers appropriate.''

That provides the opportunity for Parliament to consider how CAFCASS has exercised all of its functions.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

The Minister is stating material evidence in response to an amendment that was moved about 40 minutes ago. She said that the report would be laid in a manner that the Lord Chancellor deemed appropriate, which opens up different avenues of what it will look like. Will she reassure the Committee about the report's contents and thoroughness on the adoption procedures in the Bill, which is the point of the amendment?

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Parliamentary Secretary (Lord Chancellor's Department)

I thought that the hon. Gentleman might ask that.

I should finish my previous point. The report will provide an opportunity for Parliament to consider how CAFCASS exercised all of its functions in supporting children, and not only those functions relating to adoption. The report will cover not only CAFCASS's activities, but those of any corporate bodies under its control, and will be submitted by 30 June, following the end of the financial year. Specifically, it will review CAFCASS's performance in the preceding financial year and provide appropriate comparable outturns for previous years. It will report on how CAFCASS has exercised its functions and met its duties and objectives as set out in statute, the report and the corporate plan. It will cover also any other matter specified by the Lord Chancellor. I hope that that reassures the hon. Gentleman, and I refer hon. Members to the framework document, which contains all the details. If they find it useful, I am happy to let them have a copy.

Section 17 of the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act 2000 provides, as I said earlier, for an independent inspection by the magistrates court service. As a result, the Government believe that proper legislative measures have been taken to ensure that CAFCASS is accountable to Parliament and the Government. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept my argument that the amendment is superfluous because an annual report is already laid before Parliament. I hope that with those reassurances, he will feel able to withdraw the amendments.

Photo of Elfyn Llwyd Elfyn Llwyd Shadow PC Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Defence)

That is the longest time that I have heard a Minister take to say the word ''otiose''. I am grateful for the care with which the Parliamentary Secretary has considered the subject. It is important, and she has considered it as such. I am greatly reassured, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Mr George Stevenson Mr George Stevenson Llafur, Stoke-on-Trent South

Before we turn to the clause stand part debate, I repeat my request; no repetition, please.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

I shall try not to be repetitious.

I seek to raise a couple of outstanding queries. In particular, I wish to ask about amendment No. 151, which was not selected, on a technicality. With regard to that, I want to put a question to the Minister, rather than re-table the amendment. In the final part of subsection (2)(b), the omission of a reference to subsection (1)(c) alongside the references to subsections (1)(a) and (1)(b), suggests that it is thought that a single person could not fulfil all three of the functions that are set out in those paragraphs. The missing paragraph—subsection (1)(c)—refers to the performance of ''other prescribed duties.'' I fail to understand why someone should not be able to carry out that function, as well as the other two. I am sure that that is not intended, because circumstances might arise in which the court will want the same person to carry out all three of those functions.

Leaving it to delegated legislation to spell out of the assistance that the court may require the officer of the service to give, as set out in subsection (4), also does nothing to update the role of such a person; nor does it guarantee any tie-in between the type of reports that need to be written in cases relating to the Children's Act 1989, and those required for adoption. That merely perpetuates the existing system, without the benefit of a proper title for the person concerned.

Those two queries, which relate to the latter part of the clause, do not repeat in any way what we have already heard from the Minister, and I wish her to respond to them.

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Parliamentary Secretary (Lord Chancellor's Department)

The debate on the clause has been extremely useful. It has enabled many Committee members to put on record their support for the principle of CAFCASS. It has also given encouragement to the people who work in the service that hon. Members are trying not to undermine but to support what they are doing.

The hon. Gentleman asked who is to be responsible for what, and I might be able to give him some encouragement, were he to listen to me. We agree that there might be room for clarification with regard to the questions that he raised. We will address the questions to find out whether it is necessary to come back with any further clarification, or even with further amendments, should that be required.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

I have now scored my hat-trick without having to table my questions in the form of amendments, which is particularly gratifying, and without the Minister feeling compelled to use the terms ''diaried'' or ''anonymised'', as she has done in previous responses. I am grateful to her. My questions referred to genuine points raised by lawyers, and I look forward to her response as to whether the clause needs to be changed.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 97 ordered to stand part of the Bill.