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Looked-after Children

Volume 462: debated on Thursday 28 June 2007

6. What plans the Government have to promote the improved educational attainment of children and young people in care. (146024)

11. How much he has allocated for the provision of individual tutoring for looked-after children in 2007-08. (146029)

The White Paper that was published last week, “Care Matters: Time for Change”, sets out an ambitious agenda for improving the lives of children in care, with an additional investment of more than £305 million. Its proposals include improving the education of children in care through a £500 educational allowance for each child in care falling behind at school, putting the designated teacher on a statutory footing to improve provision in schools, appointing virtual school heads to oversee the children’s education, and a £2,000 university bursary. In relation to individual tutoring, aside from the progression pilot that is taking place in 10 local authority areas, the HSBC Global Education Trust announced a £1 million allocation for one-to-one tutoring for children in care as part of the White Paper launch.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply and congratulate him on the work that he is doing in this respect. I know that he is aware that many children in care say that no one turns up to their parents evenings or goes to their school plays and sports days. What can he do so that those children get the individual care and attention that they need to attain educationally?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. One of the problems for children in care is that the state is not a very good parent. The state ought to be acting more as if it were a natural parent. As we discovered through the most extensive consultation, including with children in care and young people—often in prison—who had passed through the care system, such children did not have a champion. Having a designated teacher and lead professional at every level is key to solving the problem. The production of the White Paper was an extremely important step, but until we actually deliver by changing a situation in which the most vulnerable in our society are treated appallingly, we cannot truly say that we are a civilised society.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is important that we support carers, especially those who look after children in care? If a child has an unsettled home life, it does not exactly encourage them to study and they feel abandoned.

I agree, but the White Paper identifies the problem that we allow children to slip into care too easily when there are often friends and family who could look after them. Once children slip into care, they are moved around too much. None of these problems is the fault of the fabulous people on the front line who foster children. It is key that the first placement is the right placement so that children are not moved around too often. If they move around too often, they move school too often, which means, especially if they move during their GCSE years, that they fail at education. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise that point. I hope that he accepts that the White Paper includes a way forward.

I welcome very much what the Secretary of State says. However, many children in care suffer from speech, language and communication impairments and have special educational needs. What is he doing to ensure not only that such children who have statements of special educational needs receive the appropriate therapy, but that such children on school action and school action-plus receive speech and language therapy on the scale and with the intensity required so that they are not at the mercy of cash-strapped primary care trusts?

The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the issue, as he has done before. When he reads the White Paper, I hope that he agrees with the focus on a care strategy for each individual child in care, including those with such specific difficulties. Things are difficult enough for children with those problems who are in a settled family. Children in care do not have the same support as them and the same champions who can go to school to argue their case. That is why the care strategy and the lead professional are key to resolving that problem for children in care, as well as many others.

Further to the answer that the Secretary of State gave a moment ago to the hon. Member for Coventry, South (Mr. Cunningham) about kinship carers, when the Green Paper was published, the Secretary of State suggested that he would be examining improving the allowances and support for such carers. However, although the White Paper acknowledges the financial pressures on grandparents especially, it is rather vague about giving a commitment to improving allowances and on any specifics of the support that he would recommend. Is he still committed to improving that package and, if so, how will he do that?

Yes, I am. I am sorry that that is a bit vague in the White Paper. I hope that it will become clearer as we take the policy through because it is important. Grandparents in particular have a huge role to play. As, thankfully, people are healthier and living longer, there is a question of how we can use grandparents to greater effect.

None of these problems is really to do with money. As Martin Narey, the head of Barnardo’s says, this is one of the few areas in which the problem is not cash and finance, but the system. We have put in another £305 million. We will put more money in place to help kinship carers through local authorities so that we get this right. We are spending £2 billion already. The problem is the system, so if extra finance is required, we need to provide that.

The White Paper says that nearly 10 per cent. of children in care over the age of 10 are cautioned or convicted of a criminal offence in an average year. Given that, will he tell me what discussions Ministers in the Department have had with colleagues in the Ministry of Justice about ensuring continuity of education for children who end up spending a period in custody?

As is the case for so many other issues in the White Paper, local authorities have to accept responsibility right the way through. We propose—this will take legislation—that children should remain in care for longer, instead of being pushed out at 16, and that they should be able to stay with adoptive parents until they are 21. In addition, they will have an individual counsellor looking after them until they are 25. On children who are unfortunate enough to go through the criminal justice system, we are talking to colleagues in the Ministry of Justice about how we can co-ordinate action, but it needs to be joined up at local authority level. That is why I say that we could not have taken any of those measures without “Every Child Matters”; it provides the foundation for us to build on, so that we can properly tackle the issue.

I am sure that the whole House will wish the Secretary of State well, whatever today holds for him. May I say that I, personally, have always appreciated the courtesy and consideration that he has shown to me? I am sure that the White Paper on children in care will be one of the achievements in which he takes greatest pride. Indeed, its words on looked-after children may have a particular relevance to some Ministers present today. I remind the Secretary of State that it says:

“Far too many find themselves in placements which do not meet their needs, resulting in a high level of instability.”

It is also important to them to know

“details about the placements in advance, in order that they can be more meaningfully involved in deciding where they will live.”

May I invite the Secretary of State warmly to endorse those sentiments, and does he perhaps regret that he has spent only 13 months in his most recent placement?

I cannot speculate on what announcements might be made later, but the hon. Gentleman may be interested to know—this is absolutely true—that there was a power failure at the Department for Education and Skills this morning. All the lifts and the lights are out, so the power seems to be seeping away. The hon. Gentleman is very kind. I think that he is one of the most intelligent, thoughtful Members of Parliament anywhere in the House. I see that the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady), who was in the Chamber, has now disappeared, but I think that the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) was absolutely right in what he said on selection in his speech to the CBI a couple of weeks ago. All I can say about where we might go is that I have been in three Cabinet positions, and my shadow on every occasion has been the hon. Gentleman, so wherever I am going, I am pretty sure that he is coming with me.