Regulation of child contact centre services

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Closes 12 Jul 2021

Introduction

Child contact centres are safe venues for conflict-free contact between children, parents, and other people in the child’s life.  Child contact centres play an important role in helping children to have a relationship with a parent, or other adult, they do not live with by providing support in a child-friendly environment These services can be crucial, as the child contact centre may be the only way a child can safely have contact with one of their parents. 

The Children (Scotland) Act 2020 (the 2020 Act) gives the Scottish Ministers the power to make provision about regulation of a contact service provided in relation to the requirements of a contact order.  This provision is to be made in regulations. It can include minimum standards for the training of contact service provider staff and in relation to child contact centre accommodation.  The 2020 Act also gives the Scottish Ministers the power to appoint a body[1] for the purposes of administering the registration of contact service providers and contact centres.

This consultation seeks views on what should be covered in the minimum standards for child contact services, how the standards should be monitored and what the complaints procedures should be.  

Child contact centres offer a mixture of supported and supervised contact. Supported contact is where centres only provide the facilities for the contact and record that the contact took place and not details of how it went. Supervised contact is where contact takes place in the constant presence of an independent person who observes and ensures the safety of those involved.

Child contact centres also provide a handover service where one parent brings the child to the centre to be collected by the other parent. This means that the parents do not have to see each other during the handover.

Child contact centres receive referrals from the courts, solicitors, from parents themselves and a small number from other agencies, e.g. social work.  Child contact centres can be used to facilitate contact between a parent and child for a period of time or to re-establish contact.  Child contact centres are not intended to be a long term solution for maintaining contact between a parent and child, although handover services can in some cases be facilitated on a longer-term basis to provide a stress-free environment in which the contact can continue. 

The child contact services that this consultation is focussed on are those that deal principally with separated parents and families who are referred in private law cases.  For example, in situations where contact is ordered at a contact centre by the courts, where a referral is made to a contact centre by a solicitor on their client’s behalf, or where parents self-refer.  Under the 2020 Act there is a requirement (not yet commenced) on courts and solicitors when making a referral to a child contact service that they must refer to a regulated service.

There are currently 45 child contact centres across Scotland that deal primarily with private law cases. 42 are members of the Relationships Scotland (RS) network and the Scottish Government is aware of three independent centres in Inverclyde and Glasgow and Aberdeen.

The Scottish Government is aware that local authorities also facilitate child contact in public law cases involving looked after children. This type of child contact does not fall within the scope of the changes made by the 2020 Act and is not covered by this consultation.    However, it is possible that in future centres regulated under the 2020 Act may continue to receive some referrals from local authorities.

The Financial Memorandum that accompanied the Children (Scotland) Bill (now the 2020 Act) set out a timetable for implementation of the child contact centre regulations[2].  It is anticipated that the regime may be fully operational by April 2023 and an updated indicative timetable is included at Annex C.

The 2020 Act also gives the Scottish Minsters power to confer functions on the appointed body.  These functions could include:

  • Inspecting contact centres, regulated contact service providers and contact services providers applying for registration;
  • Issuing reports on the inspection of contact centres, regulated contact service providers and contact service providers applying for registration; and
  • Refusing to register contact service providers, and removing from the register regulated contact service providers, who do not meet the minimum standards.  

The Care Inspectorate is the Scottish Government’s preferred option for this regulatory role. We are engaging with the Care Inspectorate with a view to reaching agreement on its appointment in advance of the regulations being laid before Parliament in early 2022.

The Scottish Government provided funding to the Care Inspectorate in 2019 to carry out a feasibility study on the proposed regulation of child contact centres.  The Care Inspectorate published its feasibility study report in March 2020[3].  The report includes a number of recommendations which the Scottish Government responded to as part of a response[4] to the Justice Committee during Stage 1 of the Children (Scotland) Bill, now the 2020 Act.

One of the recommendations the Care Inspectorate put forward was that the Scottish Government should consider appointing a professional oversight body for child contact centres, separate to the regulatory body, and similar to the National Association of Child Contact Centres[5] covering England, Wales Northern Ireland and the Channel Islands, but which does not extend to Scotland.

The Scottish Government does not consider it necessary to appoint a professional oversight body for child contact centres.  We would expect child contact providers may wish to develop their own standards further as the regulations made under the 2020 Act develop and may wish to consider themselves if a body with professional oversight should be set up.

Section 12 of the 2020 Act also amends the Children (Scotland) Act 1995 (the 1995 Act) to provide that the Scottish Ministers may enter into an arrangement with a person for the provision of services to facilitate contact between children and other individuals. This paves the way for the Scottish Ministers to tender a contract for the day-to-day operation of child contact services, within the regulatory framework under section 10 of the 2020 Act.

Currently child contact centres are funded from a range of sources, including from fees and charges, the Scottish Legal Aid Board through legal aid, local authorities and charitable trusts and donations. The RS Network of member services is the main provider of child contact centres in Scotland.  RS receive funding from the Scottish Government through the Children, Young People and Families Early Intervention Fund, a small proportion of which goes towards contact centres.

Until recently, their child contact centre services were mainly funded from the Big Lottery Fund. The Big Lottery funding ceased on 31 March 2020 and in order to protect child contact centre services in the short to medium term the Scottish Government is providing RS with a grant of £700,000 in each of financial years 2020/2021 and 2021/2022.

Tendering a contract would enable the Scottish Ministers to put the funding of child contact centre services on a longer-term and sustainable footing and would involve an open and transparent competition process.   Decisions on tendering will be for the incoming administration.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill was introduced into the Scottish Parliament on 1 September 2020.  The Bill will incorporate the UNCRC into the law of Scotland and the Bill aims to ensure that:

  • children’s rights are respected and protected in the law in Scotland;
  • public authorities are legally required to respect and protect children’s rights in all the work that they do

This would mean that children, young people and their representatives could use the courts in Scotland to enforce their rights and that children and young people should be effectively supported throughout the process of legal redress. The Bill will require public bodies to ensure that policy and practice is fully in alignment with the UNCRC requirements and that there is accountability for children’s rights across public services in Scotland.

During the coronavirus pandemic face to face services at child contact centres have been restricted.  The Scottish Government sectoral guidance[6] for child contact services advises providers on what is expected with regard to providing services safely during the pandemic.

Footnotes

[6] The 2020 Act gives the Scottish Ministers the power to appoint a “person” for the purposes of administering the registration of child contact service providers and contact centres.  A “person” includes a natural person or an individual, or a body of persons corporate or unincorporate. It is not the Scottish Government’s intention to appoint a natural person to this role.

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