New clause 10 - Amendment of section 17 of the

Adoption and Children Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 10:30 am ar 17 Ionawr 2002.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

'. In section 17 of the Children Act 1989 (provision of support for children and their families) after subsection (1) there is inserted—

''(1A) In any case where a local authority have assessed a child as being a child in need they shall take such reasonable steps as are required to enable that need to be met.''.'.—[Margaret Moran.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Margaret Moran Margaret Moran Llafur, Luton South

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

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

With this it will be convenient to consider new clause 11—Amendment of Schedule 2 to the Children Act 1989

'. In Schedule 2 to the Children Act 1989 (local authority support for children and families) after subsection (10) there is inserted—

''(10A) (1) Where a local authority have, in assessing whether a child is a child in need, determined that he requires accommodation to enable him to live with his family, they shall provide that child (or a member of his family) with such assistance as may reasonably be required, if, in their opinion, it is necessary to do so in order to safeguard or promote his welfare.

(2) Assistance required under subsection (1) may include—

(a) assistance by way of advice to the child or to a person having parental responsibility for him or caring for him;

(b) assistance by means of cash payments or loans to a person whom the local authority reasonably believe to be able to provide accommodation to the child (and to any person who might reasonably be expected to reside with him);

(c) the provision of accommodation (which shall include accommodation secured from another person).''.'.

Photo of Margaret Moran Margaret Moran Llafur, Luton South

I would like to make it clear that new clause 10 is contingent on new clause 11. In the interests of saving time, I hope that the Minister will accept that the principle of what I am about to say is relatively straightforward and has been discussed elsewhere.

The new clauses are designed to rectify a problem that has developed out of recent case law, which means that local authorities are now unable to provide accommodation to vulnerable children and their families under the Children Act 1989. Shelter, which supports the new clauses, believes that the Children

Act is now unworkable in that respect, and that the outcome of the recent case of A v. London Borough of Lambeth makes it unlawful for local authorities to provide accommodation under the Children Act, so that their only option is to take children into care rather than provide a home for a vulnerable family. Families are being split up; already, children have been removed from some.

I feel strongly about this issue. I cut my political teeth on homelessness and campaigning for the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977. I was working in a social services department at that time. I spent only two years working in social services, although the Committee might like to note that I subsequently worked for 20 years in a housing department. My first job was as a duty clerk: I was responsible for receiving homeless families, offering them a rail ticket away from whichever floor they had last slept on, or offering to take their children into care.

That is one of the reasons why I campaigned for the 1977 Act. That campaign started after the documentary ''Cathy Come Home'', which revolutionised views on homelessness legislation and the rights of the homeless. Little did I realise that more than two decades after my work in housing we would be back in a similar position, except that for local authorities dealing with some of our most vulnerable families, their only option would be to take the children into care. It is ironic that attempts are being made in another place to rewrite ''Cathy Come Home'' with a happy ending.

The Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977 provided the safety net for homeless families. Despite a setback under the Conservative Government, the Housing Act 1996 provided a duty on local authorities to accommodate homeless households that were not intentionally homeless and in priority need. When homeless families were deemed intentionally homeless, the Children Act 1989 came into force to enable a further safety net for some of those vulnerable children to take effect. That Act is especially important, because approximately 9,000 households—the majority families with children—are found to be intentionally homeless every year.

Through long experience in housing, I know that decisions on intentional homelessness are notoriously complex; they can appear extremely unjust and are often challenged. Families may experience financial difficulty and sell their home to avoid falling into debt or repossession. Sadly, many women who flee domestic violence are deemed intentionally homeless because they have abandoned their council home. Such families are among the most vulnerable in our society. Parents in such families need help to get back on their feet, not the fear of their children being removed.

The consequences of being found intentionally homeless are severe. The household is given only limited time in temporary accommodation, usually 28 days, and is often barred from the housing register. In such circumstances, its options may be extremely

limited: for example, such a family may find it difficult to afford the deposit and rent or key money often required by landlords in the private rented sector.

The Children Act provided important means to secure vital assistance for families with children when the housing department was not under a duty to house them. Families are often given assistance by social services authorities under section 17 of the Children Act, which enables those departments to provide deposits and rent up front if necessary. Furthermore, in some cases, accommodation can be provided under section 20 of that Act.

Although a reasonably satisfactory safety net has been provided by the combination of duties placed on housing departments under homelessness legislation and the powers available to social services departments under the Children Act, recent case law suggests that those safeguards have, in effect, been removed. The Court of Appeal decision in April on an application for judicial review by a person, G, found that section 17 of the Children Act merely conferred a power, not a duty, for local authorities to provide assistance, and that the duty of accommodation under section 20 was to house the child, not the parents. The High Court restated that judgment in the case of A v. London Borough of Lambeth in May; the decision was reconfirmed in the Court of Appeal in November.

Those decisions will have a significant impact on homeless families who seek assistance from social services departments. Because of the judgments, social services authorities are likely to provide help in far fewer cases, and when help is provided, an offer to house the children separately—that is, to take the children into care—is much more likely under section 20.

Clearly, parents will not want to be separated from their children. In practice, families confronted only with an offer to take the child into care will desperately search for an alternative that will enable them to stay together, no matter how inadequate or short term it is. Often, the most vulnerable families will be lost to the system; housing departments and social services will lose contact with them. Some families with great difficulties may be lost in terms of the care that can be afforded to vulnerable children, so placing the children at further risk.

Shelter has already gathered evidence that since the judgments social services departments have significantly reduced the assistance that they provide to homeless families under the Children Act and, in some cases, limited their assistance to an offer to take the children into care. One example is that of a north of England family with four children, two of whom have special needs. The family was evicted from its home because of rent arrears of about £1,000. The father, who has a drink problem, left the mother to look after the children. Having found the family intentionally homeless, the housing department put them up in bed and breakfast for 28 days.

At the end of that period, the social services department was approached. It refused—twice—to

assist. In the meantime, the mother managed to find accommodation: a farmer allowed the children to sleep in a caravan and the mother to sleep in a car next to it. The department eventually suggested that the children go into voluntary care during half term, so that the mother could search for accommodation. She accepted the offer, and despite receiving no additional assistance from social services, she managed to find new and suitable accommodation. However, the department refused to return the children until an unspecified future date.

The mother was given permission to see the children for two hours a week, and she was not allowed to see them on Christmas day. As well as being separated from their mother, the children were split up. One was placed at a residential school, two had been placed in one foster home, and the other with different foster parents. One child was put on the child protection register because of the mother's homelessness. The latest information on the case is that two of the children are back with their mother, and that a meeting is planned to resolve the future of the other two.

It is not satisfactory that children can be taken into care and split up in that way, leaving no possibility of the mother reuniting her family in the near future. The case raises serious welfare issues, because the Children Act sets out the legal responsibilities of social services authorities to protect children in need. One of the central principles of that Act is that the best interests of children are kept to the fore and that families are kept together wherever possible, with children taken into care as a last resort.

Shelter has found many other similar examples. There is concern about the legal ramifications of such judgments. The view of a leading barrister is that the effect of the two cases

''is to change radically the way in which authorities can be required to accommodate the carers of children. Firstly, claimants cannot rely on section 20 as imposing a duty on authorities to house the parents or carers of such children. Secondly, although section 17 requires an authority to assess a child's needs, it does not give rise to a duty to meet those needs''.

Concern is widespread among children's charities, not least the National Children's Bureau, which has said that

''it is a nonsense for the law to be used as a vehicle to tear families apart and damage the children it is trying to protect''.

The issue has been discussed in both Houses during the passage of the Homelessness Bill. It was referred to in another place yesterday: Lord Falconer acknowledged the need to change the Children Act, as well as strengthen the Homelessness Bill, to ensure greater joint working between housing and social services departments to protect the most vulnerable homeless people.

New clause 11 would amend schedule 2 to the Children Act. It would overcome the fact that social services departments can no longer provide housing assistance to both parents and children by adding a specific power to provide assistance in securing accommodation under section 17 of that Act. It would also allow social services departments discretion to provide a range of services in line with

the type of assistance that they have traditionally provided under that Act.

New clause 10 would amend section 17 of the Children Act, and would provide for social services departments to take reasonable steps to meet the needs that they have identified. That is required to overcome the fact that the court dealing with the case of G found that section 17 did not require an authority to do anything to meet a child's needs, even though it might require the authority to assess them. Without such an amendment, there is concern that it would still be lawful for an authority not to provide any help to meet the needs that it had identified.

I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity to close loopholes that put children at risk. The new clauses are intended to rectify the difficulties arising from recent case law.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Ceidwadwyr, North West Norfolk 10:45, 17 Ionawr 2002

I rise to support the new clauses. The hon. Member for Luton, South (Margaret Moran) has made a strong case for the new clauses, and I hope that we shall incorporate them into the Bill. However, as she mentioned, other Bills are before Parliament and, thanks to the vagaries of the system's operation, the new provisions might not be included in the form that she would like.

We all have examples in our constituencies of parents who are unnecessarily separated from their children. Time and again social services departments say that unless proper housing is sorted out, the parent cannot have the child back. That is understandable, but often a bit of common sense would resolve the situation immediately. I agree with the hon. Lady that care should be the last resort in such cases.

In some cases it is right to take children into care, for example if they are at risk, or if their mother is suffering in some way—perhaps she has had a mental breakdown—and they are neglected. However, we are talking about cases in which the parent or parents are keen to keep the child at home but there is no home available for the family. That is why the law should include a requirement for the local authority to provide such accommodation. It is not a great deal to ask.

Housing authorities have many obligations, but there is a significant loophole in the circumstances we are debating. Conservative members know that the average bed and breakfast in the country is pretty inadequate. Bed and breakfasts can be pretty squalid places for families, so it is not surprising that social services departments say that they are not suitable places in which to bring up children.

However, housing can be made available. I worked out the other day that there are a significant number of family-size units in my constituency are either empty, or occupied by elderly pensioner couples. My local authority is, rightly, looking vigorously at providing more sheltered accommodation for pensioners and pensioner couples, so that such units can be released. In addition, more than 50 family-size units in Kings Lynn and west Norfolk are empty. A more proactive and determined policy of bringing those units back into readiness for accommodation for families would

make more housing available. It is a question of management and efficiency. Replicating that policy in every constituency would make thousands of family-sized units available throughout the country.

I do not accept the Minister's argument that the provisions would put too great a strain on housing authorities. The hon. Member for Luton, South has tabled a sensible pair of new clauses and I hope that the Minister will accept them.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

I support the thrust of the new clauses, and I apologise that, due to a prior engagement, I have to leave before the end of this sitting. That is a shame, because I hoped to be able to discuss the new clauses tabled by the hon. Member for Luton, South about contact arrangements, with which I have a great deal of sympathy.

The hon. Lady says that she is something of a baby in terms of experience of social services. However, I know that she has a good deal of experience in housing matters—in the past year we have both been on Committees that dealt with such issues, such as the one considering the Homelessness Bill. That experience is relevant to this Bill because it concerns the break-up of families, which is sometimes due largely to women fleeing domestic violence. On that score, I must declare an interest as patron of The Women's Refuge Project, Brighton, which has given me a great deal of briefing about the matters that we are discussing.

We must do everything we can to prevent families from being split up. The hon. Lady mentioned cases in which the lack of availability of accommodation results in children being put on the child protection register and separated from their mother, father or guardian. That can be the start of a slippery slope for the welfare of the child—he gets into trouble and the whole family in difficult circumstances fragments very quickly.

When we were considering the Homelessness Bill we heard of cases—we have all experienced them—in which people were deemed to have intentionally made themselves homeless, simply because they were fleeing domestic violence within their family unit, or the violence of neighbours committed for any of a host of reasons. The hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King) gave examples of people who were escaping from racial violence, or who feared the prospect of it if they stayed in their homes. Had they remained in their homes, their lives would have been at risk, so they preferred to sleep on the floors and sofas of people who gave them refuge. However, they fell foul of the legislation because they were deemed not to be homeless unintentionally, and consequently were not given the support they so desperately needed from local authorities.

Such circumstances have a great impact on the welfare of children who are caught up through no fault of their own or, in most cases, of their parents. Given that the paramount consideration in the Bill is the welfare of the child, the new clauses tabled by the hon. Member for Luton, South are highly pertinent. Conservative Members have a good deal of

sympathy with her and I shall be interested in the Minister's response.

The overriding problem is the shortage of housing. However good the provisions of the Homelessness Bill, which we supported, and however good the intentions behind the new clauses, if they are adopted, little will be achieved if the goods are not delivered to the local authorities charged with providing accommodation and the support that goes with it. Last year the fewest new social houses since the 1920s were built, and the number of people in temporary accommodation and bed-and-breakfast has risen substantially. The problem is not being solved, despite the assurances received from the Prime Minister downwards.

I wholly agree with the hon. Member for Luton, South that the sort of cases that she advocates should have priority, but one family's promotion is another's demotion. Because finite resources and a finite amount of accommodation are available, it is a case of shifting priorities. Some hon. Members might take issue with my views on this matter, but the Government, through the Homelessness Bill, have raised the priority in the housing ladder stakes of people who are coming out of prison and have criminal records. The result is a reduction in the amount of accommodation available for many other deserving cases, including homeless families.

We sympathise greatly with the hon. Lady's intentions. There is a loophole that needs closing. We need to do more to support families who find themselves in circumstances that have desperate implications for their children. In giving our support, we shall be interested to hear from the Minister what practical steps she can take, given that we are talking about finite resources being available from her Government for housing.

Photo of Jacqui Smith Jacqui Smith Minister of State, Department of Health 11:00, 17 Ionawr 2002

I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, South for tabling the new clauses and bringing an important issue to the Committee's attention.

As my hon. Friend said, two recent judgments in the Court of Appeal have caused concern among councils with social services responsibilities. The new clauses are intended to deal with the problem. Since it was first brought to the Department's attention, my officials and I have done a considerable amount of work to assess the size of the problem and the best way to tackle it. My officials have met officials from the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, social services directors and representatives of Shelter. Furthermore, I have discussed the issue with ministerial colleagues.

As my hon. Friend said, the judgment in the Lambeth case casts doubt on the ability of local authorities to provide accommodation for children in need and their families under section 17 of the Children Act. If they lose that ability, an important element of the support package for children in need and their families will be removed. That would affect not only families that are not owed a main housing duty under housing legislation—because they are

intentionally homeless or not habitually resident, for example—but families that need emergency accommodation because they were fleeing domestic violence. Young people who need accommodation in those cases do not necessarily need the intensive support provided by foster care.

The Government want to restore the position and to place beyond doubt the fact that local authorities have a power to provide accommodation under section 17 as a safety net. It is important that the provision of accommodation is not raised above other assistance that may be provided under section 17 and that specifically identifying the power to provide accommodation in section 17 has no unintended consequences. The new clauses, however, go slightly further. New clause 10 is slightly unclear, but seems to be intended to place a duty on local authorities to meet the assessed needs of individual children. That is more than the existing legislation requires and is not necessary.

The recent Court of Appeal judgments should not be read as meaning that a local authority need not offer assistance under section 17 to a child in need. I am not sure whether my hon. Friend referred to the Barnet case, in which it was clear that the local authority had offered help, although it was not acceptable to the mother. It is clear from A v. London Borough of Lambeth that the section 17 duty is a general target duty, which is not individually enforceable by any specific child in need. There is a general duty under section 17(1) to promote the upbringing of children in need within their families and to provide a range of services to meet the needs of children in the area. Those two duties are sufficient when taken together with the obligation to carry out assessments on children who might be in need, and the section 20duty to accommodate children in need when no one else can do so. That should ensure that some of the problems that hon. Members have mentioned do not continue.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Ceidwadwyr, North West Norfolk

The Minister said ''should'' ensure, which implies a degree of doubt. Does she mean that the provisions might ensure that problems do not continue or that they will definitely do so?

Photo of Jacqui Smith Jacqui Smith Minister of State, Department of Health

I was coming to the action that the Government will take.

New clause 11 provides that a local authority must provide such assistance as is reasonably required to meet the needs of a child who is assessed as needing accommodation to enable him to live with his family. I have some sympathy with that aim, but I shall resist it for the following reasons. First, it imposes a duty on local authorities to provide accommodation in individual cases in a way that is not mirrored in the other services that are provided to children in need and their families, such as home help or day care.

Secondly, the new clause does not deal with the provision of accommodation to children in need whom it is not appropriate to accommodate with their families or as looked-after children. Sometimes authorities need the power to accommodate children away from their families—for example, if they are estranged from their families or if they are

unaccompanied asylum seeker. Thirdly, amending schedule 2 as new clause 11 would do would be insufficient to cover accommodation. Our legal advice is that, because a judgment held that section 17 did not cover the matter, we may need to amend that section. I am not sure that new clause 11 would achieve what is necessary.

For those technical reasons I ask my hon. Friend not to press her new clauses. I give her a strong assurance that the Government recognise the important issues that the relevant judgments have raised, that we have engaged in consultation across Government and with directors of social services and Shelter, and that we intend to present our own amendments to restore the power under section 17 when we have been able to think about what is necessary to make it effective and considered the possible consequences.

Photo of Margaret Moran Margaret Moran Llafur, Luton South

With those assurances, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Jim Fitzpatrick Jim Fitzpatrick Assistant Whip (HM Treasury)

On a point of order, Mr. Stevenson. I seek your approval for a meeting of the Programming Sub-Committee at 2.15 pm to consider a draft resolution, a copy of which has been supplied to you, the Clerk and the Opposition.

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

Yes, indeed. Such a meeting will be arranged for 2.15 pm.New clause 12 Parental contact with children after separation in cases involving violence or abuse