Clause 111 - Inquiries by local authorities into representations

Part of Adoption and Children Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 6:00 pm ar 15 Ionawr 2002.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Jacqui Smith Jacqui Smith Minister of State, Department of Health 6:00, 15 Ionawr 2002

It might be appropriate for me to respond to some of the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) and to spell out the effect of the amendments to the Children Act that are made through the clause. I have outlined concerns that have been expressed about the bureaucratic process involved in local authority complaints and mentioned the need to widen and streamline some of the provisions in the Children Act complaints procedure.

In response to the ''Listening to People'' consultation exercise, the clause amends the complaints procedure that was established under sections 26 and 24D of the Children Act 1989, which applies only to services provided under part III of that Act—local authority services to families and children. Complaints about other services provided under the Children Act, such as care or supervision orders and matters relating to child protection, are dealt with through the adult complaints procedure established under the LASS Act, which I described when I spoke about the amendment. We consider that that is an anomaly and that we need to extend the more child-focused Children Act procedure to all complaints and representations about the discharge of local authority functions under the Children Act, and therefore to many of our most vulnerable children. The clause, therefore, extends the Children Act complaints procedure to complaints and representations about the discharge of local authority functions under parts IV and V of the Children Act, which cover care and supervision and child protection respectively.

The effect will be that the Children Act procedure will be extended to cover matters such as the way in which a local authority has approached decisions to apply for care or supervision orders, the functioning of a child protection conference, the discharge of the local authority's duty to make investigations under section 47 of the Children Act and the local authority's role in applications for child assessment in emergency protection orders under sections 43 and 44 of that Act. The main advantage of the change will be to ensure a robust approach to all complaints made by or concerning children, not just those concerning services provided under part III.

The extended Children Act procedure will be a better means of dealing with complaints involving children than the LASS Act procedure because it involves an independent person to oversee the process

and has tighter time scales, allowing children's complaints to be dealt with more quickly. The clause also amends the Children Act in order to enable regulations to be made imposing time limits— there are currently none—for the making of representations under that Act, which was one of the points raised by my hon. Friend. It is intended to introduce a 12-month time limit for eligibility to make a complaint. The Government's aim is to set a reasonable time limit, so that the matters complained about have a reasonable prospect of remedy.

I accept my hon. Friend's point about the particular nature of children's complaints, but it is important to recognise that if we are to make the Children Act procedure as effective as possible, we need to ensure that it is able to focus on those complaints for which a remedy is achievable. That is a strong argument for introducing a time limit. Although we would expect the 12-month limit to be the norm, local authorities will be given discretion to look into older issues. That would not normally extend to investigating complaints about matters that occurred many years ago, but could cover cases in which, as my hon. Friend suggested, because of the nature or circumstances of the complaint, a child has taken longer than 12 months to come forward, and it is still possible to remedy the problem.

The clause also makes a mainly technical amendment to the Children Act regulations to enable the introduction of an effective, informal resolution stage into the Children Act complaints procedure. An informal resolution stage, similar to the local resolutions stage in the NHS complaints procedure, is already required by the adult complaints procedure established under the LASS Act.

In practice, local authorities often operate an initial problem-solving stage, resulting in lengthy investigations before the complaint is dealt with formally. We are able to introduce an informal resolution stage to the powers in the Children Act by means of regulations, and we propose that it should have a tight, 14-day time scale because it is especially important for children to have their concerns dealt with quickly. Without that amendment to the Act, the informal stage would have to involve an independent person—that is currently required for the whole procedure—which is one advantage of the Children Act procedure, but means that a short-focus informal resolution of the sort that we want is not always possible.