PARLIAMENTARY DEBATES

HOUSE OF COMMONS

OFFICIAL REPORT

Fourth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

DRAFT CONTRACTING OUT (FUNCTIONS IN RELATION TO THE PROVISION OF GUARDIANS AD LITEM AND REPORTING OFFICERS PANELS) ORDER 1996

Tuesday 20 February 1996

LONDON: HMSO

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The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mr. Nicholas Winterton

Ainger, Mr. Nick (Pembroke)

Atkins, Mr. Robert (South Ribble)

Bayley, Mr. Hugh (York)

Bowis, Mr. John (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health)

Coe, Mr. Sebastian (Falmouth and Camborne)

Fox, Sir Marcus (Shipley)

Fry, Sir Peter (Wellingborough)

Gunnell, Mr. John (Morley and Leeds, South)

Hanson, Mr. David (Delyn)

Heppell, Mr. John (Nottingham, East)

Hodge, Ms Margaret (Barking)

Hughes, Mr. Kevin (Doncaster, North)

Lait, Mrs. Jacqui (Hastings and Rye)

Lidington, Mr. David (Aylesbury)

McLoughlin, Mr. Patrick (West Derbyshire)

Mahon, Mrs. Alice (Halifax)

Milburn, Mr. Alan (Darlington)

Peacock, Mrs. Elizabeth (Batley and Spen)

Spink, Dr. Robert (Castle Point)

Mr. J.D.W. Rhys, Committee Clerk

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3 Fourth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation Tuesday 20 February 1996

[MR. NICHOLAS WINTERTON in the Chair]

Draft Contracting Out (Functions in Relation to the Provision of Guardians Ad Litem and Reporting Officers Panels) Order 1996

4.30 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Mr. John Bowis): I beg to move, That the Committee has considered the Contracting Out (Functions in relation to the provision olGuardians Ad Litem and Reporting Officers Panels) Order 1996. The order under the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994 will enable local authorities to contract out the provision of the guardian ad litem and reporting officer service for which they are responsible under the Guardians Ad Litem and Reporting Officers (Panels) Regulations 1991 and, ultimately, the Children Act 1989 and the Adoption Act 1976. GALROs are appointed by courts, in care and related proceedings under the Children Act 1989. Their functions are to report to the court on the child's wishes and feelings, to instruct a solicitor to act on behalf of the child and to examine which, if any, of the powers available to the court will best promote the child's welfare. In adoption proceedings under the Adoption Act 1976, there is a similar duty on guardians to report to the court on matters relating to the application. In freeing applications under the Adoption Act, the reporting officer's duties include ensuring that any agreement to the making of the adoption order by the parent is given freely, unconditionally and with full understanding of what is involved, and witnessing such written agreement. Under the 1991 regulations, a GALRO service is established by each local authority. There are 54 panels of GALROs in England, 41 of which are each provided by a single local authority. In many parts of the country, however, two or more local authorities have combined into consortia arrangements. That allows one of the authorities to administer the guardian service on behalf of the other authorities in the consortium. There are now 13 such arrangements, the largest being in London and covering 26 local authorities. Such arrangements offer sensible economies of scale and can avoid unnecessary duplication of effort by a range of local authority, court and legal personnel. Consortia arrangements are legally permissible under section 101 of the Local Government Act 1972. In some parts of the country, the GALRO service is provided by a voluntary child care organisation on behalf of the local authority. Those arrangements currently include 30 local authorities, although some 4 of those will be changing on 1 April 1996 as a result of local government reorganisation. It is to confirm that such arrangements are acceptable and in accordance with the intentions of current legislation that the order has been brought forward. The Order also modifies the 1991 panel regulations so that, where the local authority has contracted out any of its functions under those regulations, the provision as to membership of the complaints board for that authority is modified so that the board cannot include the person to whom the function has been contracted out or an employee of that person. I stress that local authorities will retain the responsiblity for ensuring that the GALRO service is provided, even where the service is contracted out. The order will extend the choice available to local authorities in the discharge of their duty to provide the GALRO service. Three models will be available: a single authority panel of GALROs; a consortium between authorities where one agrees to administer the panel on behalf of the others; and a contracted-out panel serving one or more local authorities. It will be entirely up to the local authority to decide which of the three types of arrangement it wishes to have in place. If it chooses a contracted-out approach, it may determine the extent to which some or all of the functions under the panel regulations are contracted out. The order enables the local authority to contract out to a voluntary organisation or other organisation that the authority considers appropriate. Under the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994, the proposals have to be the subject of consultation. I am pleased to say that the Association of Directors of Social Services, the Association of Metropolitan Authorities and the Association of County Councils have each confirmed that they are content with the proposal, and I commend it to the Committee.

4.34 pm

Mr. Alan Milburn (Darlington): I will be as brief as the Minister has been, although slightly slower. As he knows, the guardians ad litem service is extremely important, safeguarding and promoting the interests of children in many court proceedings. I have but two queries, which I hope the Minister will be able to answer. First, I seek an assurance that the order is an enabling provision, and that it in no way implies coercion by the Government to compel the local authority to contract out GALRO services. Secondly, will the Minister assure us about the scope of contracted-out GALRO services? I know that concern has been expressed about the demands that are made on GALRO services. I noted with interest and concern that the contracted-out service has experienced delays in appointments in Humberside and high costs in Cheshire. Will the Minister give an assurance that contracting out will improve GALRO -services, if a local authority decides to go down that route?

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4.36 pm

Sir Peter Fry (Wellingborough): I have some temerity in rising on that point, but do so because I have recently come up against the operation of a guardian ad litem appointed by a local authority. I was horrified at the apparently dictatorial powers that that local government employee was operating. We are talking about the futures of children who, for one reason or another, do not have parents to be fully responsible for and to them. We have handed over to social services the futures of far too many young people. Although it does a wonderful job—I am not attacking social services—one comes across worrying situations while undertaking constituency work. For example, if a particular social worker had preconceived theories about how a child should be brought up, it is hardly likely that his advice will be overridden if he works for the same authority as the guardian ad litem—it can only go before the courts. We know, regretfully, that the social worker's advice all too often tends to carry the day in court. My question is the opposite to that asked by the hon. Member for Darlington (Mr. Milburn). Why is the motion only enabling? Why cannot we change the law in such a way that there is seen to be a genuine independence of guardians ad litem? The person who makes major decisions about young people's lives should not be in the pay of a local authority, or the net result of the first attempt at contracting out will be a weak and feeble measure.

4.38 pm

Mrs. Elizabeth Peacock (Batley and Spen): I want to pick up on the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Sir P. Fry) has made. Any guardian ad litem must be seen to be independent: there should not be a cosy arrangement between a social worker and someone else within the same authority. We all come across cases which give grave cause for concern. I am not knocking social workers, but it is good to have two opinions. They should not all go along the same route. The service is extremely important and I want improvements rather than a degeneration. Can my hon. Friend the Minister assure us that the changes will not lead to extensive delays? Some of us think that delays in appointing guardians ad litem are already too long. The service should remain first class, because we are handling the futures of many children who need more help and guidance, perhaps because of their situation, than other children.

4.39 pm

Mr. Kevin Hughes (Doncaster, North): I had no intention of making a contribution, but, having listened to the previous two speakers, I felt that I needed to speak. The guardian ad litem service must remain independent. We should not forget that its specific role is to have the best interests of the children—not of anyone else—at heart. There should be no interference in its specific role. Guardians are 6 there specifically to advocate and look after children's rights. I hope that the Minister will confirm that rather than rising to the suggestions of his hon. Friends.

Mrs. Peacock: I was not suggesting that anyone is important other than the child or children to whom the guardian is appointed. My point, although I obviously did not make it in a concise manner, is that the guardian ad litem should be independent and should have the welfare of the child or children at heart, and nothing else.

4.41 pm

Mr. Bowis: I should like to respond to that brief but helpful debate. I endorse the last point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Mrs. Peacock) that the children's interests come first and foremost in the system of GALROs. Nothing that I have heard today suggests that any member of the Committee would dispute that. That is where we start from. This is a comparatively simple clarifying order to ensure that the increasing practice of using the voluntary sector rather than just the social service department's own GALRO system is acceptable within the law. In answer to the question of the hon. Member for Darlington, this is a voluntary practice—there is no compulsion. That may not be the answer that my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough was hoping for, but it is indeed the case. There is no question but that local authorities would contract out the service only if there were benefits to the system and the children. It would also have to be acceptable in cost and delay terms. As I said earlier, the measure will allow a range of elements of the service to be contracted out—all of the service or parts of it can be contracted out to another body. My hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Sir P. Fry) expressed concern at the attitudes of some social workers. That I understand—we hear of it from time to time. However, I have not heard much criticism of the GALRO system. It involves senior, well-experienced social workers who may, under the regulations, be probation officers. They are well respected and, on the whole—although perhaps there is the occasional exception to which my hon. Friend may be referring—they manage to sustain genuine independence. Although appointed by the social services, they maintain the degree of independence that is necessary if they are to look after children's best interests. The courts, of course ultimately decide whether to take their advice. This is only an enabling measure, because the social services have a statutory duty to look after children's interests. They cannot rid themselves of that duty, but they can find other ways of doing it. This is one such way. My hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen also spoke of the need to be seen to be independent—which is clear—and to reduce delays. I hope that that will be possible, perhaps as a result of the order encouraging more authorities to consider this option. 7 We are endorsing a system that is growing. It is not only local authorities that provides the GALRO service. Increasingly, they combine with other organisations, and that makes good sense. There is no problem about that in the current legislation. The question was whether the legislation was clear enough to enable others to be used. Organisations such as the National Childrens Bureau, the Childrens Society and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children are running such services efficiently and effectively. Their independence and the cost-effective 8 way in which they haver run the services have made them attractive to local authorities. The order will regularise that practice, show that it is within the law, give authorities new options to consider.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That the Committee has considered the draft Contracting out (Functions in relation to the provision of Guardians Ad Litem and Reporting Officers Panels) Order 1996

Committee rose at fifteen minutes to Five o'clock.

THE FOLLOWING MEMBERS ATTENDED THE COMMITTEE:

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Chairman)

Atkins, Mr.

Bowis, Mr.

Coe, Mr.

Fry, Sir Peter

Hughes, Mr. Kevin

Lait, Mrs.

Lidington, Mr.

McLoughlin, Mr.

Milburn, Mr.

Peacock, Mrs.

Spink, Dr.