Clause 45 - Ascertaining children's wishes

Children Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee am 4:45 pm ar 21 Hydref 2004.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children) 4:45, 21 Hydref 2004

I beg to move amendment No. 48, in

clause 45, page 31, line 29, after 'wishes', insert 'and feelings'.

Photo of Mrs Marion Roe Mrs Marion Roe Ceidwadwyr, Broxbourne

With this we may discuss the following amendments:

No. 49, in

clause 45, page 31, line 32, after 'wishes', insert 'and feelings'.

No. 115, in

clause 45, page 31, line 33, at end insert—

'( ) In section 47 of the Children Act 1989 (local authority's duty to investigate) after subsection 4(b) insert—

''(c) to ascertain the child's wishes and feelings.''.

( ) In section 47 of the Children Act 1989 (local authority's duty to investigate) after subsection 8 insert—

''(8A) Where, as a result of complying with this section, a local authority conclude that they should take action to safeguard or promote the child's welfare they shall give due consideration, having regard to his age and understanding, to such wishes and feelings of the child as they have been able to ascertain.''

( ) In section 47 of the Children Act 1989 (local authority's duty to investigate) after subsection 12 insert—

''(13) The Secretary of State may make regulations requiring local authorities safeguarding or promoting the child's welfare under this section to record such wishes and feelings of the child as they have been able to ascertain.''.'.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

We are getting there. Clause 45 deals with ascertaining children's wishes, to which we wish to add feelings. Our arguments are not new; they were well rehearsed in another place and have great support from the Children's Society, in particular.

I think that we all welcomed the amendments that the Government introduced on Report in the House of Lords to place a statutory duty on local authorities to ascertain the children's wishes when providing services to ''children in need'' under section 17 of the Children Act 1989. Amendments Nos. 48 and 49 form a partnership with amendment No. 115, in the name of the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre. They would amend the clause to require local authorities, as far as is reasonably practicable, to give due consideration to children's feelings, as well as their wishes, in proceedings under section 17.

That is particularly important for younger children and those living in adverse circumstances. Children might not know what they do or do not want to happen, but they will always know how they feel. Ascertaining whether a child is scared, anxious or confused is critical to providing them with appropriate services and protections.

In the House of Lords, Baroness Ashton was concerned about consistency with the current legislation and, in particular, the discrepancy that might be created between sections 17 and 20 of the 1989 Act. Only one aspect of that child care legislation refers to wishes without feelings. That is section 20(6), relating to the provision of accommodation, which does not require local authorities to ascertain the children's feelings. However, those children are covered under section 22(4) as looked-after children, the definition of whom includes a child who is being provided with accommodation under section 20, and

therefore their feelings must be given due consideration. Unless the Bill is amended, children being provided with services under section 17 will be the only children whose feelings do not have to be given due consideration under the statutory provisions.

The amendment would especially improve the situation of disabled children and young children, the two groups who are least likely to be included in decision making. Nearly all high-profile child death inquiries have concerned children under the age of 10. One of the most consistent themes in inquiry reports is the complete invisibility of the child's wishes and feelings.

It is clear that, with regard to the arguments that were taken on board in the House of Lords, the Children's Society has worked to provide the assurances as to why the process can now be completed, and feelings be added to wishes in clause 45. Surely now it is time for the law to put children's wishes and feelings where they belong—at the heart of all our efforts to protect them and help them to lead happy, fulfilled lives.

This is a pretty innocuous amendment for the Government to accept. No doubt I will be told that it is not framed in parliamentary language. However, the intent is clear and I would hope that, at the very least, the Minister will offer to take it away and come back with it redrafted by her phalanx of parliamentary draftsmen so that it can be included for consideration in later proceedings on the Bill.

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

Amendment No. 115, in my name and those of others, aims to go beyond the Government's intentions in clause 45, and to extend the consideration of the child's wishes and feelings to child protection investigations under section 47 of the 1989 Act. There is an obvious practical difficulty: we have discussed the fact that social workers sometimes have to take emergency or urgent action. However, we have also spoken about investigations that require the utmost sensitivity and consideration, the most careful listening to children, and a high awareness of the child's perspective on what is happening to them. In such a case, ''what is happening to them'' would involve an allegation that they were suffering significant harm. This is an important amendment and we palpably do not have enough time to do it justice. However, I hope that my right hon. Friend is able to respond positively.

Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Children)

I can give the assurance that hon. Members seek. We will get the experts drafting, so that we can have the required consistency in the legislation. If the Committee will allow me to do so, I will table the relevant amendments on Report.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

That is a bit of a result. With seven minutes to go, we might have scored a hit. I am delighted that the Minister has taken the matter on board, and I look forward enormously to being able to vote with her, or even to not having to force a vote,

when we come to these sensible amendments on Report. With a certain chuffedness, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Julie Morgan Julie Morgan Llafur, Gogledd Caerdydd

On a point of order, Dame Marion. I understand that all the new clauses will be taken together at the end of the sitting. While there is still time, I want to register my objection to new clause 27, as I will not have the opportunity to vote on it separately.

Photo of Mrs Marion Roe Mrs Marion Roe Ceidwadwyr, Broxbourne

The hon. Lady is right; the new clauses cannot be taken separately.

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

Photo of Nick Palmer Nick Palmer PPS (Team PPS), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I very much welcome clause 45. We have come to feel that people who draw on social services or benefits are customers rather than people to whom we do things. In the same way, we need to recognise that work with children is likely to succeed only if children feel part of the process. We have all seen examples of that in our local communities, and certainly with teenagers; efforts to help them work only if they feel part of the effort. It is surprising how eloquent and definite are children's feelings, even at a younger age.

What is the significance of the phrase

''and consistent with the child's welfare''?

It suggests that there could be circumstances in which it would be practicable to ascertain a child's wishes, but that it would not be consistent with the child's welfare. I have great difficulty in imagining what those circumstances would be. If it is practicable, we should ascertain the child's welfare. I have not tabled an amendment, but I hope that the Minister can clarify that point.

Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Children)

I am racking my brains. One difficulty that comes to mind is that of a child who is abused by the parents but still wants to remain with them. The issue is incredibly complex and difficult. In such situations, the wishes of the child may be at odds with safeguarding its welfare. I am told that although it is important to ascertain and take account of a child's wishes, we should not be driven by it. The child may not know what it wants—what is best for them—and that can cause difficulties.

Photo of Nick Palmer Nick Palmer PPS (Team PPS), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

What the Minister said does not relate to the phrase

''and consistent with the child's welfare''.

She said that we might choose to disregard the child's wishes because they are not really in its interests. The question is whether it would be inconsistent with the child's welfare even to ask the child what are its wishes.

Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Children)

Again, my hon. Friend is correct. It might be distressing in some circumstances to ask the child about its wishes. In some instances, it may be difficult to ascertain the child's wishes yet protect its welfare.

Photo of Mrs Marion Roe Mrs Marion Roe Ceidwadwyr, Broxbourne

I believe that the Minister wishes to raise a point of order.

Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Children)

On a point of order, Dame Marion. I am looking at the time: the sitting is drawing to an end. Although I know that hon. Members want to debate other issues, they will be able to do so on Report.

I express my thanks, Dame Marion, to you and your co-Chairman, Mr. Benton, for chairing the Committee in such an admirable way. You have both been fair and shown an interest in the proceedings, yet at times you must have thought that we were droning on and on. We are extremely grateful.

I thank my hon. Friends on the Back Benches, who have sat patiently through our sittings and given me huge support. I thank my fellow Ministers; I know that they lead busy lives. I thank the Opposition—both Conservative and Liberal Democrat Members—and, although he is not in his seat, I also thank the Member who represents the Welsh Nationalists.

I also thank Hansard for listening so carefully; the Clerks and the other officials of the House; my officials, who have done a stunning job; and the police officers who ensured that we were able to carry out our work effectively.

The Bill is crucial; it is the legislative spine for the transformation of services. I thank hon. Members for all that they have done.

It being Five o'clock, The Chairman proceeded, pursuant to Sessional Order D [6 November 2003] and the Order of the Committee [12 October], as amended, to put forthwith the Questions necessary to dispose of the business to be concluded at that time.

Clause 45 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 46 ordered to stand part of the Bill.