Sibling contact for looked after children

Part of Children and Social Work Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee am 11:45 am ar 12 Ionawr 2017.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

I reassure hon. Members that that is already provided for under existing legislation, and any reading of case law, in Family Law Reports or elsewhere, will reveal that, in contact cases, sibling contact arrangements are carefully considered by the courts before they make a decision. Section 34(2) of the Children Act 1989 states:

“On an application made by the authority or the child, the court may make such order as it considers appropriate with respect to the contact…between the child and any named person.”

“Any named person” includes, as is well established in law, half and full siblings. Similarly, schedule 2(15)(1) to that Act requires local authorities to endeavour to promote contact between the child and any relative, friend or other person connected with the child if that is consistent with the child’s welfare and is reasonably practical.

Matters relating to sibling contact are also spelt out in the Care Planning, Placement and Case Review (England) Regulations 2010. If a child has a sibling for whom the responsible authority or another authority are providing accommodation, and the children have not been placed together, arrangements must be made to promote contact between them, so far as is consistent with the child’s welfare. Also, matters relating to contact with parents and siblings must be included in a child’s placement plan.

In my experience, where this process goes wrong is when there is practice on the ground that is not keeping pace with what the law requires and which cannot be fixed by trying to duplicate legislation that already exists. The legal framework for not only allowing contact between siblings but for placing them together where that is in their best interests is already comprehensive and clear.

At the review of a child’s care plan, consideration should be given as to whether sibling contact commitments in care plans have been appropriately implemented and whether the child is happy with the contact they have with their siblings. It should be checked that the child is happy with both the frequency and quality of that contact. Again, if the practice in this area is following the clear requirements, all of that checking should happen as a matter of course. However, where the practice is not following those requirements, it is a question of ensuring that the professionals who are there to ensure that a child’s views are taken into consideration are carrying out their duties effectively.

Furthermore, the care planning statutory guidance, which local authorities must act under, is unambiguous: the child’s views on sibling contact should be included in all assessments and reviews. We know that enduring relationships are often what gives people the resilience they need when things go wrong, so the importance of maintaining sibling contact for looked-after children cannot be underestimated. I hope that point comes out clearly from this debate.

Clearly, sibling contact has to be in the best interests of the children being looked after. I know from my time as a family law barrister and as a foster sibling that there will be circumstances when, as the hon. Member for South Shields said, sibling contact is not appropriate, but where it is appropriate it must be properly supported. The legislation that I have referred to provides for precisely the flexibility that is needed, on a case-by-case basis.

I have thought carefully about the hon. Lady’s proposition. What draws me back from it is the need to enable these decisions to be made on a case-by-case basis, with the flexibility that the court requires. The legislation that already exists ensures that, as Ofsted findings have shown recently, siblings are being kept together and placed without undue delay in most circumstances. There is good cause to believe that although there needs to be improvement in practice—I am happy at a future date to discuss with the hon. Lady how we can go about trying to do that—the legal framework in place is sufficient to ensure that sibling contact is being properly considered at every stage of a child’s involvement with both children’s services and the court process.

On that basis, I hope that I have sufficiently reassured the hon. Lady for her to withdraw her amendment.