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Children and Young Persons Bill [Lords]

Volume 477: debated on Monday 16 June 2008

[Relevant documents: The First Report from the Children, Schools and Families Committee, HC 359,Children and Young Persons Bill [Lords]; and the Government response, Third Special Report from the Committee, HC 711; and The Fifteenth Report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights, Legislative Scrutiny, HC 440, and the Government’s reply, letter of 4th June from the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State (Children, Young People and Families) to the Chairman of the Committee.]

Order for Second Reading read.

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Every child should have the right to be happy, healthy, safe and successful, and we must help families to stay together and achieve the best for their children. When that is not possible, however, it is our duty to ensure that an outstanding system of public care is in place: a system that is ambitious for children, provides them with good parents, puts a premium on their needs and wishes, and will accept for those children no less than we would want for our own. Many Members in all parts of the House have promoted the interests of children in care, and I welcome the support that the Bill has received. I am sure that today’s debate and our deliberations in Committee will continue that constructive dialogue.

As well as introducing specific measures for children in care, the Bill enables a statutory duty, for the first time, to be placed on the Secretary of State to promote the well-being of children, complementing the existing duty to promote educational achievement and embedding the principles of Every Child Matters at the heart of government. As with all duties, uses of the duty for significant long-term commitments will always be subject to the usual parliamentary procedure and authority, but this unequivocal commitment to all children, a landmark in any terms, matters most to those for whom the state has parental responsibility.

Approximately 60,000 children are in care at any one time, in most cases because of abuse or neglect. They need the highest standard of care to help them to overcome the multiple disadvantages that they often face—disadvantages that all too often contribute to a host of poor outcomes. For example, looked-after children are five times less likely to achieve five good GCSEs, eight times more likely to be excluded from school and nine times more likely to have special educational needs. Just under half have a mental health problem, and a quarter of adults in prison today have been in care.

While I welcome the Bill, I believe that if we are to achieve its central aim of improving outcomes for children in care, we must improve the quality of inspection of children’s homes to ensure that they provide the best possible care for young people. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the current review of national minimum standards should include an obligation for inspection reports to contain a summary of proper evaluations of all incidences of running away, assault and criminal damage, so that placing authorities are better able to assess whether a home is meeting the Staying Safe criteria?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s work, and the expertise that she has acquired in helping us with our proposals. I am particularly grateful to her for examining what happens, or currently does not happen, to inspection reports. I know that she has discussed the issue with the Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan). We shall want to explore with her ways in which the use to which inspection reports are put can include the elements that she has mentioned, and thus become a much stronger lever for improvement in the quality of care.

On outcomes for children in care, I welcome the provisions on support for those in higher education, but will the Minister give more support to children who want to go into vocational education or apprenticeships in the way that I did?

Yes, that is equally important. The current provisions allow for the funding of first-time level 2 and level 3 vocational courses, and also for local authorities to contribute to children’s subsistence costs when they go into vocational education—and I am pleased to say that more of them are going into that. The real issue at present, however, is that only 6 per cent. go to university, which is why we have placed an emphasis on enabling them to do so more readily.

The figures I was citing mean that a child in care is more likely to end up in custody than at a university. That is not to say that outcomes for children in care have not improved over recent years; they have done, as a result of measures introduced by this Government. The five-year Quality Protects programme began the reform of children’s services, the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000 was designed to delay young people being discharged from care until they are ready, and the Children Act 2004 and the Every Child Matters programme are transforming multi-agency arrangements for vulnerable children. Indeed, the Every Child Matters programme and the children’s plan have given us the essential platform for the further reforms in this Bill.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way and for the great leadership she has shown in this area. On the vulnerability of young people leaving care, is she going to mention the possibility of extending the care period beyond the age of 18? If she is not going to mention it, has she nevertheless considered it?

I will refer to that shortly, if my hon. Friend will bear with me.

In addition to the measures I have mentioned, there has been significant extra spending. Between 2001-02 and 2006-07, Government funding rose from £1.3 million to £2.1 million, during a period when the number of children in care levelled off.

All this has made a difference. The proportion of such children in education, employment or training at 19 has increased by 8 per cent. and educational attainment continues to rise. The truth is, however, that although the life chances of all children have improved, those of children in care have not improved as fast, and although their poor outcomes are undoubtedly significantly related to the serious problems with which they come into care, for too many children they are also exacerbated by the very experience of care itself. Multiple placements, successive social workers and moving school at crucial times all militate against the stability and strong attachments that these children need in order to thrive. Therefore, our priority in this Bill is to achieve a step change in the improvements we have already begun to see for children in care, to enable them to progress further and faster and, crucially, to close the inequality gaps between them and other children.

The Bill follows the Care Matters White Paper that we published last June, which set out our strategy to transform the life chances of children in care. It drew on detailed and extensive research and a wide-ranging consultation with children and young people themselves, parents, carers, local authorities and voluntary organisations. The Bill and the White Paper enshrine four key principles: good parenting from every person involved in these children’s lives; the voice of young people being at the heart of the system; stability and continuity as its hallmarks; and an uncompromising culture of high aspirations.

We all understand the importance of strong, warm, interested parents in developing happy and successful children. When a child lacks that support from their own parents, we have not just a legal, but a moral responsibility to look after children in care as well as any good parent would. The Bill embeds good “corporate parenting” across the whole care system—from carers, teachers and social workers to directors of children’s services and elected lead members. As the Care Matters implementation plan makes clear, everyone in the system must not only care for looked-after children, but also care about them. Replicating the care that a child would normally receive from parents means a change of culture, which we expect directors of children’s services and lead members to drive forward. It also means a relentless focus on the quality of care in the places children live.

Despite some excellent provision, only a quarter of residential homes meet 90 per cent. of the national minimum standards. That is completely unacceptable. The Bill therefore gives Her Majesty’s chief inspector more power to take swift and decisive action when standards are not met. Clause 26 allows her to issue a “compliance notice” to providers failing to meet expected standards, while clause 27 allows the chief inspector to restrict admissions to residential settings where necessary. Simultaneously, we are reviewing the national minimum standards to make them clearer and more focused on outcomes for children. The Bill also addresses foster care approvals, establishing an independent review mechanism similar to the current mechanism allowing prospective adopters to challenge decisions by adoption agencies.

Improving quality also means developing a truly world-class children’s work force. In social care, that means a stable, motivated work force who are appropriately trained, skilled and confident in their abilities.

I am listening with interest to the Minister’s comments. She will be aware that the heading of clause 8 is “Well-being of children and young persons”, yet parliamentary hearings in May 2000 recommended that staff in all social service departments should receive further training on female genital mutilation. It is thought that about 98,000 girls under the age of 15 have either undergone, or are at risk of undergoing, female genital mutilation, yet there has not been a single prosecution since the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003 became law. Therefore, we are failing those children.

More might need to be done to raise the level of awareness and consciousness among social workers, and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will pay attention to whether that is necessary in his work on the work force reforms. I hope the hon. Gentleman will agree, however, that we have taken the necessary action to outlaw that practice, but I agree that social workers need to be alive to the possibility of it happening.

Alongside the provisions in the Bill, the Government are investing £73 million over the next three years to improve the quality, capacity and supply of social workers for children and families. I am sure that other Members will wish to join me in paying tribute to the social workers, foster carers, residential workers and others who contribute so much to children in care. They are on the front line, keeping children safe every day, yet they are often in the firing line for critics and headline writers. We must be relentless in eradicating poor practice, and we will be, but we should also applaud the talent and commitment of those doing the caring, without whom the measures in this Bill could not be achieved.

Part 1 of the Bill will also enable the piloting of new social work practices, allowing local authorities to delegate some of their social services functions to more autonomous agencies. We want to explore through these pilots whether additional flexibilities and freedoms will deliver a more personalised and effective service to children. We will be working closely with partners to implement the pilots, and we will commission an independent evaluation before deciding whether to extend these social work practices nationally.

Effective corporate parenting depends upon close contact between practitioners and the children. Clause 16 places a duty on social workers to visit regularly all children in care, whatever and wherever their placement, and including those in custody. Clauses 18 and 19 also require regular visits by social workers to disabled children placed away from home long term, as well as support for the family at home.

The second key principle of the Bill is that the child’s voice should be central. In future, the child’s views must be actively solicited and taken fully into account, as any parent would do.

I welcome the clauses that give more powers and responsibility to independent reviewing officers and more independent visitors to children, but will my right hon. Friend also look at improving the availability of independent advocacy to these children because, through independent advocacy, their voice will definitely be better heard?

I am well aware that my hon. Friend has long championed this issue and I pay tribute to her role in supporting the interests of children in care. The measures in the Bill on independent reviewing officers will go a very long way toward making sure that children have a stronger say. I certainly want local authorities to appoint independent advocates where that is necessary, but I point out to my hon. Friend that, in this Bill, we are trying to get everybody involved with children to see themselves as advocates for those children. That, to me, is what the system lacks at the moment, and that is what we are hoping to achieve.

On independent advocates, whom I have dealt with myself, does the Minister not accept that where the local authority is paying their salary, that creates a conflict of interest? Does she not further accept that a child who is Gillick-competent should be permitted to appoint their own solicitor from the age of 12-plus, rather than the guardian ad litem coming in and ignoring the views of the child?

I do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s premise; nor do I think that that does a true service to the people who undertake the independent advocacy function. They are perfectly capable of representing the views of children and advocating for them, which is why they want to do that work. It does not matter terribly much who is paying for that, and I do not think that it compromises at all their ability to press the interests of children.

Clauses 11 to 15 lay the foundation for a systematic refocusing of the independent reviewing officer’s role and practice. They make a single, named IRO responsible for monitoring the performance of the local authority and overseeing the care planning process, so that it is fair and reasonable and gives proper weight to the child’s wishes. The IRO will not only spend time with the child before a care planning review, but will check that other professionals are also listening and responding to the child. I considered carefully whether we should now, at this point, make the IRO fully independent of the local authority, and I can tell Members that it was a finely balanced decision. If these reforms do not quickly achieve the step change that we require, we will go further, which is why the Bill includes an enabling power to make IROs fully independent of local authorities if necessary.

Stability is the foundation for any child’s development, and yet the experience of care for many children is one of instability and unpredictable change. Looked-after children are five times more likely to move schools in years 10 and 11 than other children. Some see as many as 30 social workers or go through nine or 10 care placements within a few years. Children cannot be happy and they cannot do well at school or be ambitious for the future when they are subjected to such regular upheavals.

Foster carers from my constituency came to the House today and wanted to make it clear to me that they support this Bill, as I do, and I pay tribute to them for the good work that they do. The one point that they really wanted me to press with my right hon. Friend—it relates to stability, the ability to stay on at school and associated issues—is their support for the “staying put” scheme, which is coming out in pilot form today. They are very keen to know when it might be rolled out nationally, and they are very supportive of that proposal, as, indeed, I believe many Members of this House are.

I thank my hon. Friend for that and I join her in paying tribute to the fantastic work that foster carers do. I know that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State met a group of foster carers today to talk about the “staying put” pilots, and he announced the 10 areas. We want to see rapid progress as far as we can, and it is important that we look at the legal and financial barriers that need to be overcome, which is why we are piloting in the first instance. However, the direction of our intention beyond the pilots is very clear: to see a need for young people to be able to stay in foster placements well beyond the age of 18.

There is already ample evidence, particularly from Northern Ireland, of how successful these schemes can be. Foster carers from Dudley whom I have met are looking for a roll-out even sooner and wondering why the pilots are necessary, because there is ample evidence to show that something similar to the “staying put” scheme works already.

The scheme that my hon. Friend mentions is itself still relatively new and we are waiting to see the results, but as I said, the Government’s intention is clear. I and my colleagues accept the argument that, at a time when most of our children leave home, on average, at the age of 24, it is very reasonable to expect that children who have come into care need to stay in their placements beyond 18. How quickly we can go will depend on the pilots and on resources, but that is our direction of travel.

The Bill seeks to improve stability in every aspect of a child’s care. Clause 9 will make sure that local authorities pay greater attention to the educational impact of care placement decisions. We will use regulations to prevent any upheavals in years 10 and 11, when children need to focus all their attention on GCSEs, unless there are exceptional circumstances for the child. We also know that children placed out of their local authority area often do less well than those placed closer to home, so clause 9 will also restrict out-of-authority placements, subject, again, to the best interests of the child. Clause 10 will require local authorities to commission, plan and provide sufficient placements in their area. In addition and as I mentioned, this morning my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State announced the areas for the “staying put” pilots, which will allow young people to stay on beyond 18, with the agreement of all concerned.

Of course, the best way to improve stability is by preventing children from going into care in the first place. Children have told us that, when they cannot stay with their parents, they want to be cared for by family and friends wherever possible. The Bill therefore requires local authorities to give preference to placements with relatives where that is in the child’s best interests, and to give support to family carers. Clause 24 enables authorities to exercise wider discretion over cash payments to those caring for children in need. Clauses 36 to 38 remove some of the barriers for kinship carers applying for residence and special guardianship orders, and extend residence orders until the child reaches 18, rather than the present age of 16.

Does the Secretary of State see this provision, which I very much welcome, as a way of alleviating some of the legitimate concerns that Members throughout the House have had regarding grandparents in a position of care?

Yes, and that is true of all those provisions, including the ones I mentioned on cash payments and giving preferences for placements. During the consultation I talked to many grandparents, and I am aware, as the hon. Gentleman doubtless is, of heart-rending stories that people told of how matters were made really difficult by the current arrangements in many local authorities. We want to make sure that such things do not happen, because if children can live with grandparents and that is in their interests, that is by far the best place for them to be. We want to make sure that practice changes in this regard.

Clause 25 gives statutory underpinning to short breaks for disabled children being developed over the next three years through the £359 million “aiming high for disabled children” programme.

Finally, alongside improving the experience of those in care, we must also raise their aspirations and those of everyone caring for them. Schools must understand the unique learning needs of children in care and have the capacity to help them fulfil their potential—whatever their starting point. Clause 20 will make sure that there is a designated teacher in every school to give children in care the encouragement and personal support they need to realise their talents. Clause 17 will require local authorities to make arrangements for an independent, trained volunteer to be appointed to visit any looked-after child if it is in their interests. As I said earlier, we want more looked-after children to set their hearts on going to university, and to achieve that ambition. We know that financial barriers can also be a deterrent, so clause 21 will make a bursary available, of a minimum of £2,000, for every child in care who goes to university.

The right hon. Lady said “finally”, but she has not yet mentioned clause 2, which deals with adoption. Using this Bill, is there anything that we can do to ensure that children are not denied a stable and loving family because of political correctness getting in the way—to ensure that potential parents are not denied children because of factors such as obesity, age, being of the wrong race or even being too posh?

I am struggling to understand what the hon. Gentleman is referring to, because clause 2 is in the set of clauses dealing with social work practices. If he would like to speak to me afterwards or write to me about the matter, I shall do what I can to clarify his particular concern.

I thought that the clause deals with the functions of the adoption agency and the responsibility of the county councils in that respect.

The local authority’s functions in relation to adoption are excluded from the functions that social work practices will have; that is the reference contained in the clause, and it is very specific.

To return to the first point that the hon. Gentleman raised with me about going to universities, I can tell him that for young people who are in, or who want to return to, education or training, clauses 22 and 23 extend the existing duty to appoint a personal adviser for young people up to the age of 25.

Does the Foyer movement have a role to play in this, because, in a sense, it has worked as a bridge for young people who may not have been in care but who obviously find themselves in difficult circumstances? The movement has worked closely on an individual level with those young people, and its successes are often there for us to see when young people go on to university. Will that be enhanced by the Bill?

I am great supporter of the Foyer movement. I agree with my hon. Friend that it makes a great contribution, mostly in preventing certain young people from having to be taken into care and accommodated by local authorities and in providing young people who are leaving care with a supported situation that can help them move to independence.

We owe it to children in care to do everything possible to overcome their difficulties, to help them on the road to health, happiness and success, and to enable them to have a good childhood and a promising future. The measures in the Bill, together with those in the White Paper, can transform the experience and the prospects for children in care, now and in the future. I commend the Bill to the House.

We certainly welcome the Bill. This is another year and another children’s Bill, and, as with previous such legislation aimed at protecting vulnerable children, we will support it. This latest and long-awaited Bill deals with probably the most vulnerable group of children and young people in the UK—those in the care system. As the Minister has rightly said, it has been a scandal for too long, and remains so, that the treatment of, and outcomes for, children in the care system are woefully poor. Those children have been the victims of systemic neglect and of an institutionalised paucity of expectations for too many years, and it is vital that the Bill marks a major turning point in reversing that.

I welcome what the Minister has said about the change of culture that is required, and I share her praise for social workers and foster carers, many of whom have lobbied us today about their vital and dedicated work. Some 61,000 children are in care in England and Wales, 42 per cent. of whom will return to their families within six months. However, we should not forget the estimated 350,000 adults who have spent part or all of their childhood in foster or residential care in this country. For many of them, the experience will become a generational legacy, as their own children end up in the care system, which happens all too often.

We have heard about the scandal of outcomes for children in the care system in areas such as education. Despite the public service agreement targets, the priority action toolkits for key stage 4 looked-after children, the Education Protects programme, life chances funds and so on, the achievement of children in the care system on basic measures such as the achievement of five good GCSEs is still too poor. Worse still—the Minister alluded to this—the gap between children in the care system and mainstream children has widened over the past few years. All standards have gone up, as measured by GCSE achievement, but the gap in achievement between those who are and those who are not in the care system has widened. Furthermore, the increase in achievement has not been nearly as fast for those in the care system as for all children, which is deeply worrying. In addition, children in the care system are more than 10 times more likely to be excluded from school. Some 33 per cent. of them end up not in education, employment or training; just 2 per cent. of them go on to university; and 27 per cent. of them have statements for special educational needs compared with just 3 per cent. of all children.

The same thing is happening in the justice system. Some 25 per cent. of people in prisons came through the care system, and the figure is anything up to half of those in youth offender institutes. Such children are four times more likely to smoke, drink under age and take drugs, and last year, 9.5 per cent. of over-10s in the care system were cautioned for or convicted of an offence. Not doing something more urgently about this situation is a false economy, because by the age of 19 a persistent offender will have cost £164,000 every year. That figure includes the cost to the victim, the court costs, the cost of prison and benefits and the cost to social services, which is an enormous cost not only to society but, most importantly, to the individual involved.

We must also consider teenage pregnancy rates—one in four women leaving care is either pregnant or already a mother—and health statistics. Children in the care system are more than five times more likely than children in general to have a diagnosable mental illness, and many still do not receive the health checks that they are supposed to receive within the first 14 days of coming into the care system. Some two thirds of those children will have at least one physical health complaint. Perhaps the most tragic and disturbing statistic is that last year no fewer than 100 children in the care system died, which was an increase on the figure of 95 in 2004. We often talk about children who are killed at the hands of their carers or parents—the relevant figure is about one or two a week—but more children are dying within the care system for a host of reasons.

The system is there to protect those children from the ravages of deprivation and health inequalities, so those figures are deeply disturbing. The Bill is desperately required and very welcome, but there is an urgent need to translate its good intentions and good directions into actions and results. We will do everything possible to speed the Bill’s implementation. It has enjoyed close and positive scrutiny and improvement in the other House. I pay tribute to Lord Adonis, who has great personal experience of children in care, to my noble Friend Baroness Morris of Bolton, who has great expertise in and dedication to this area, and to many other Lords who brought about constructive improvements to the original Bill. They, like the Minister, are all too aware of the challenges that we all face in helping children in the care system, because the effects of failure will impact on the whole of society and are not restricted to the cost of more than £2 billion a year of children in the looked-after system.

We welcome much of the Bill, such as, for example, the rewriting of clauses 7 to 10, particularly in respect of the mechanics of placement and the preference for placement with extended family members, which should be, but is not, happening already. We also welcome the references to proximity placement, which has been discussed since Sir William Utting’s report in 1997 suggested a 20-mile radius cap. Although kinship placements are supposed to be the preferred option in this country, only 1 per cent. of social worker-instigated placements ended up with kinship carers, compared with 45 per cent. in Denmark, for example.

We need to maintain continuity of school and education. The poor outcomes are not surprising, given that the social exclusion unit reported that 29 per cent. of children had undergone three or more educational placements during secondary school and that 25 per cent. of children had been in six or more care placements during the same period. We also support the Bill’s hierarchy of kinship care placements locally to retain a familiar environment. We are talking about providing appropriate foster carers locally or, ultimately, in a residential home, where the appropriate care can be made available, especially for those with complex needs.

We recognise that residential children’s homes, which look after about 6,500 children at the moment—they tend to look after older children—have a place. They may be more appropriate as the first port of call, but the average cost of some £2,100 a week in those residential homes is leading to some local authorities cutting placements, although those fees include contracting for psychiatric and other specialist services in many cases.

We need to take on board the shortage of skilled foster carers as well. On any day in this country, 50,000 children are living with 43,000 different foster families. Just last month, local authorities said that they urgently need at least 5,250 more foster carers to come forward this year, with the worst shortages in Manchester and the north-west. That results in thousands of children being sent to residential homes or being forced to travel miles to temporary placements and siblings having to live apart from their brothers and sisters, according to the Fostering Network.

We welcome the greater specifications for visiting children far away from home in the residential placement provisions contained in the Bill. We welcome all those measures, not least because many of them were included in the 2005 Conservative manifesto, “Action for Vulnerable Children”. [Interruption.] I am sure that hon. Members want to participate in the shared congratulations. As the Minister has rightly said, all of us have campaigned on those issues for many years. However, we must recognise that what counts is not just passing the Bill, but the effectiveness with which it is put into action, backed up by resources and implemented by professionals at the sharp end who are appropriately trained, appropriately motivated and free to get on with their jobs.

This week, we remember yet again the death of Victoria Climbié more than eight years ago, because the social worker who was responsible for her welfare has had her appeal upheld by a tribunal, but how much have we actually learned post-Victoria Climbié? Is the whole system of children protection now in better shape to protect children from death and injury at the hands of parents or carers, or to give children the best second chance of a successful and stable upbringing when taken into care? If it is in better shape, why are so many children still dying before they can be taken into the care system or even after that? Is the system sufficiently flexible either in care or with the birth family?

This is a good Bill. Lots of work has been done to improve it, but there are a number of areas where it can be made better and will stand a better chance of working in practice, and we will table amendments to that effect. I hope that the Government will continue to engage with us in a constructive manner, as they have in their lordships’ House. In particular, we want an amendment that will put a welfare checklist at the forefront of the Bill. There are concerns that many of the measures in the Bill do not go far enough and that many local authorities will only do the minimum to comply, not least given the constraints on spending, because of all the other children protection requirements that the Government are rightly introducing, and the more thinly spread funding for children’s centres, which are now competing for funding within children’s services budgets.

We suggest a checklist at the beginning of the Bill mirroring section 1 of the Children Act 1989, which forms the heart of that legislation and which remains an important benchmark today. For every case, the actions of the local authority or other agency that acts for looked-after children would be expected to measure up against a checklist of considerations designed to be in the best interests of individual children, and such bodies would be accountable for that.

We will table an amendment to propose the post of a chief social worker. That measure was recommended by the Conservative party commission on social workers, which reported last October and which I chaired. Such a person would be the public face of social workers, akin to the chief medical officer or the chief veterinary officer. We have such an officer for animals, for goodness’ sake, and we should have one for people who deal professionally with children as well. The officer would be directly responsible to the Secretary of State and advise on ways to promote the image and perceptions of social workers among the public and on how social workers can do a better job and be held accountable when that is not the case.

Too often, the perception of a social worker is as someone whose first contact with a vulnerable family is the knock on the door to initiate proceedings for a child to be taken into care. They are caricatured as child catchers. Not only is that deeply demoralising and not in the interests of social workers, but it is certainly not in the interests of the children and vulnerable families with whom they work and with whom they need to establish a relationship of trust and empathy in difficult circumstances. Such a role is used in New Zealand, and I have had a long conversation with Marie Connolly, who is the chief social worker for New Zealand. There are signs that that post has done a lot of good for the perception and standing of social workers in that country.

We revealed yesterday that one in five of the 76,000 social workers in this country have signed off work for 20 consecutive days or more in the past five years. That is not good for the profession, and it lies behind why we still have high vacancy rates. My local authority has vacancy rates of about 20 per cent. for child social workers, yet those people are absolutely integral to the success of child protection legislation and the Bill, and we need to do more to boost their position.

We support the inclusion of new clause 7 in the Bill to extend the duties in respect of the welfare of children to the Border and Immigration Agency. That provision was proposed by my noble Friend Baroness Morris and passed in the House of Lords with a large majority against the Government, and we very much hope that the Government will not seek to remove it in Committee.

We want more direction in the Bill. Wherever possible, and in accordance with the interests of the child, the default position should be that an extended family member is the priority for a placement. We want greater safeguards for children in care over the age of 16. As the Minister mentioned several times, it is absurd that the majority of children leave care at the age of 16 or 17, when they are facing most turbulence in their lives with exams at school, the possibility of getting a job and trying to sort out accommodation. Yet for our sons and daughters, with their birth family, that happens when they are at least 24. We look forward to a discussion with the Minister on that front. There has been some progress since the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000, but 41 per cent. of children leave care by the age of 17.

We need to give more focused, ongoing support. We need far tighter controls over multiple placements. We need greater specifications for the qualifications of responsible social workers who visit children placed out of the area, usually in children’s homes—out of sight and out of mind in too many cases. That was supposed to happen already. Some of us took a delegation to see Lord Warner, the then Minister responsible, but it is still not happening in too many places. In my authority in West Sussex, it is estimated—it can only be an estimate—that more than 700 children have been placed in the care system by other authorities. That compares with 42 children placed by West Sussex out of county—in Kent, the figure is estimated to be 1,250. Yet the local children’s service department, the local police, the local council or the local justice system must pick up the pieces when things go wrong. That notification should be happening; it is not happening, and it must happen in the interests of all those involved.

Clear concerns have been expressed by the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders, which produced a survey showing that 81 per cent. of looked-after children appearing in court in those areas where they were placed out of their home authority did so without the prior knowledge of the local youth offending teams. Again, that is an absolute travesty.

We welcome the inclusion in the Bill of a designated teacher responsible for promoting the welfare of looked-after children. Again, that should be happening already—if it is not happening, it must happen, and the guidance must be followed. We also want a designated governor to oversee that teacher and ensure that the governing body is fully behind the new role, and we shall table amendments to that effect.

We will table amendments stipulating that incentive payments cannot be paid to local authorities to increase adoption numbers, which is a perverse incentive that we cautioned against during the consideration of the Adoption and Children Act 2002. One has only to look at the extraordinary discrepancies between the number of adoption placements in certain authorities and the Minister’s admission that those payments had been made to question why that perverse incentive still exists. In Committee, I will quote the Minister’s written answers to my parliamentary questions, which show that those payments, which are not in the interests of children, have been made.

We also want to give greater powers to foster carers, so that they can take on the role of as normal a parent as possible. We want them to have the authority, without having to refer back to the social worker, to say whether a child can have a sleepover with a mate from school or go on a school trip. At the moment, much of that must be delegated back to the social worker. We need foster carers, many of whom are long-term foster carers, to be able to play the role of the pushy parent—a figure whom those children lack and so desperately need in the place of a birth parent.

We need to give foster carers greater powers by sending out a clear message from the Government to local authorities to back them. Similarly, we need safeguards to ensure that foster carers do not become the victims of vexatious allegations by difficult children. There needs to be a balance so that children are protected. As we heard from foster carers again today, too many vexatious complaints against them result in their being instantly suspended and their allowances’ being suspended too. We need to get the balance right.

In our amendments, we will return to the thorny subject of private fostering. It was mentioned and recommended by Sir William Utting in 1997 and by some of us in amendments to the Adoption and Children Act 2002. It was mentioned in my private Member’s Bill in 2003 and again in 2004, when the Minister came up with a sunset clause that the Bill will extend and that we will try to abolish. Surely, now is the time at long last to implement a proper legal requirement for the registration of private foster placements, given that the voluntary scheme has yielded only a relatively small number of cases. Too many private fostering schemes go on at the moment without the knowledge of local authorities and without proper safeguards for vulnerable children, as we have seen in certain tragic cases over the past few years.

We also want to see better safeguards on birth parents’ passing on medical records for adopted children. Again, there are too many cases of children who have been through the care system falling foul of what turns out to be a congenital illness. If the medical records had been available from their birth parents, preventive action might have been taken.

We also want to explore how we can get greater transparency in the family courts, which remains a serious bone of contention. We also want to see greater rights of sibling contact, if children cannot be placed together. A National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children survey showed that 40 per cent. of children and young people said that they did not have enough contact with siblings. That evidence was backed up by A National Voice and the Who Cares? Trust. Such contact should not merely be allowed by local authority, but facilitated and promoted. I am sure that many other considerations will come up in Committee and I greatly look forward to debating children’s issues with the Minister again.

Most of this is not rocket science. There are already many examples of good practice around the country. For example, a few months ago I opened the new Horizons education and achievement centre in Ealing. It is a fantastic institute manned by former care leavers who have been to university and come back and who now teach educational, computer and other skills to young people in the care system. It is no coincidence that 14 per cent. of children in care in Ealing now go on to university, which is substantially more than the national average.

In Barnet, the authority has invested in a buddy system. Every child in the care system has a buddy who is an officer in the local authority, from the chief executive down. That officer looks out for them and asks the questions that a pushy parent would ask at a school parents evening or about health records. Barnet invested in its social work force some years ago. It invested to save, and it is now no coincidence that the vacancy rate for child social workers in Barnet is less than 4 per cent., which is one of the best in London.

Other great examples of best practice include the Community Service Volunteers scheme—I think that the Minister has mentioned it. I declare an interest as a trustee of CSV. It has piloted the use of volunteer social workers in child protection in Bromley and Sunderland. The volunteers primarily support the parent with the stress of having their children on the register and the threat of their children being taken into care. They can establish more stability by helping parents to manage the heavy schedule of meetings with schools, social workers and health professionals, attending parenting classes and ensuring that children go to school or nursery, and they can help to organise a routine at home. When the approach was piloted in California, instances of child abuse fell by 80 per cent. The volunteers are viewed differently from social workers, who are metaphorically in uniform. They have a great role to play, and I hope that the legislation will allow the flexibility to promote similar schemes and the use of volunteers, whether through CSV or other organisations.

Family support is key. As the Minister has said, we are talking about children and the care system, but we need to do an awful lot more to prevent children from entering the care system in the first place. The charity NCH, for example, has been running the Phoenix project, which I recently visited in Merton. The project works with families in crisis using a solution-focused therapy model of work. Support is offered for a period of three months, with all interventions regularly reviewed. When the work is completed, families are tracked after six months to see whether their progress has been maintained. The project consists of a rapid response team, an adolescent resource team, family group meetings and so on. It has found an enormous fall in the number of children who then go off the rails, thanks to the fact that those families have been kept together.

Let me give a third example, which is another project by NCH in Fareham on intensive fostering. Intensive fostering has learned from the positive practice used in remand fostering of co-ordinating services around the young person. This tried and tested method has many proven benefits. Research by the British Association for Adoption and Fostering to evaluate the NCH’s remand fostering scheme found that more than 70 per cent. of young people committed no offences during their placement despite persistently offending before and that all the young people were engaged in school, training or employment by the time that they left the placement. Intensive fostering has a great role to play, because it has been piloted and has been shown to work.

Those are good schemes that are working, and we need the flexibility to promote more of them. Perhaps there is too great a focus on the child rather than on the problems undermining a family that might result in the loss of a child to the care system. We need to talk more about fostering families, rather than just fostering the child, and keeping families together wherever possible. We need greater flexibility and greater innovation.

We must ensure that the work force is appropriately trained, motivated and free to get on with the job of looking after children at the sharp end. We need to end bureaucracy and the excessive aversion to risk that can culminate in perverse incentives to take more children into care rather than working preventively with families to keep them together. At the other end, the system hurries children aged over 16 out of the care system to free up social worker time and resources. That is likely to turn out to be a false economy as vulnerable young people slide back into the mire of the familiar problems that I described earlier.

We also need to listen more and take note of children and young people. A report by the “What Makes the Difference?” project revealed that 40 per cent. of young people in care said that they rarely or never have a say in a placement, which is another great sign of weakness that we need to address and reverse.

The Bill is a last chance for many in the care system whom we have failed for too long. Every two months’ delay represents 1 per cent. of childhood with the child in the care system condemned to mediocrity and the likelihood of underachievement. That situation is simply not acceptable any more. It is an enormous waste to society as a whole, to us and, most of all, to the 61,000 children and young people in the care system for whom the failure to invest seriously in the problem has been a false economy for far too long.

We should approach the Bill by asking ourselves whether the current system, or the proposals, would be good enough for our own children. If we cannot answer yes, we are not doing our job properly. For those reasons, we wish the Bill well and will engage positively with the Minister in Committee.

Before I start, I want to make it clear that I have a relationship with NCH that I have taken up again since I left government. I have been involved with the organisation for most of my life, although I took a more objective view, of course, while I was in government. I have been involved in the issue of children in care for many years and I trained as a family case worker many years ago, before several people who are taking part in the debate were born.

I know that the Government have taken the issue of children in care very seriously, and have made a series of efforts to change the opportunities for such children. Indeed, they have significantly increased investment; I am surprised that the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) did not acknowledge that. The reality is that significantly more investment has been made, both directly in the care system and in a series of other ways—through the work that my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Frank Dobson) initiated early on in our time in office on the Quality Protects programme, through investment in communities, through programmes such as Sure Start, through increasing support for parents and through the family intervention projects that the Government have supported.

However, it must be said that we are still not content with the results. That is why the Bill is particularly well timed. It allows us to take account of what has already been done, but it also says to all involved in the care system, “Have another look, because despite increased investment and increased opportunities, things are not working sufficiently well for the most vulnerable children in our society.”

Two years ago, I was asked by the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, to have another look at social exclusion. One of the issues that he asked me to consider was the care system. He was particularly arrested by the poor educational outcomes. For me, it was a good opportunity to look again at what we could do really to move things on again. There are lots of points that I could make, but many other Members want to speak in this relatively short debate, so I will confine my comments to some of the critical issues, although other issues raised by Members, including my right hon. Friend the Minister for Children, Young People and Families, are very important, too.

In particular, I looked at why we were not getting the results that other systems were getting, although we spent more per head on children in care than others did. There are two or three points to raise. The first is early intervention and preventive work. The Government are now much more clearly focused and targeted on that. As my right hon. Friend the Minister has heard me say many times, early intervention work has to be clearly focused and to systematically pick up the most disadvantaged children and families, and it must be rigorous. There are a number of programmes doing such work now. I am delighted that last week, the Government increased the number of areas that can benefit from nurse-family partnerships to 90, from the 10 that were initiated last year. That is proving to be the most effective programme worldwide, not only according to the cost-benefit analysis, but in terms of its impact on the most vulnerable children and their chance to have opportunities when they grow up and to not face the level of disadvantage that too many children do.

Generally, we have to be much more rigorous in picking up on the most vulnerable. That is a challenge to several people in the House who object to data sharing. I believe that it should be a criminal offence not to share data concerning the most vulnerable, because not to share those data is to say, “We think your individual liberties are more important than your opportunity to prosper and succeed.” The two things get confused for the very young child. My right hon. Friend the Minister has problems ensuring decent data sharing. When we go to schools, teachers say, “We know which children will have difficulties as soon as they first come in,” yet the data are not systematically and rigorously shared in a way that would ensure good intervention right from the beginning. Hon. Members can tell that I feel passionate about the issue; I will move on.

There are also preventive services to consider. The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham mentioned NCH’s work on family intervention. The Government have taken hold of, and extended, NCH and other projects. There will now be about 50 family intervention projects across the country. There are other ways in which we should intervene at the very earliest stage to give a family support, so that children do not end up having to be placed in care, for whatever reason. There are good programmes that we know work, and we have to get on with them in every area of the country. NCH makes a powerful point about children on the edge of care in its briefing for Members: good, preventive services involving the whole family can make a huge difference and can help to ensure that children do not end up in the care system.

In my second look at children in care, I became convinced that work-force issues are another area in which we have not got things right, so I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families is chairing a working party on the subject. I encourage him to be ambitious. Members present on both sides of the Chamber have considered the example of the social pedagogy model in Europe. Using that model would mean ensuring much better, longer training for people who work with our children, but I find it perverse that we continue to accept that sometimes the least qualified and trained people are those who work with the most vulnerable. As a result, they frequently do not take hold of a situation because they are fearful of it, and because they know that they do not have the quality, reserves, training or strategies to deal with whatever problem comes up.

When there is a problem that, in this country, would frequently mean someone calling the police, in Denmark, Germany and Finland, the key worker deals with the problem. Obviously, if it is a really serious problem, the police have to be called in, but frequently it is not, and the worker deals with it. I went to two or three children’s homes in Germany where the worker would automatically do an hour’s work with the young person when they came in from school, to make sure that the day was understood and that the young person knew what would happen the next day, and to support the young person in doing their homework. That was not considered anything special. An educational worker was not brought in to do that work; the child’s key worker—the person who worked with them most consistently—did it automatically. I know that the Government are looking at the social pedagogy model, and I encourage them to be brave, to start pilots that involve social pedagogues, and to monitor the effects.

A point that struck me powerfully and that has made me stop and think a great deal is the relationship with the family once a young person is in care. In this country, there is the odd example of good work in that regard, but that good work is not nearly sufficiently systematic, and does not nearly take place often enough. Too many of the young people who have been or who are in care whom I meet are frustrated that they have so little contact with their natural family. I found that out way back when I was a social worker. Even if the relationship with the family has been destructive—even if it has been really poor—young people none the less want to know about their family. They want to know how to deal with them. They want to know who their mother and father are. They want contact. Too often, we say that that is too difficult and that they would be better off without it, or we just do not do the hard work to make sure that they are placed somewhere where that will be easy.

When I was in Germany and Denmark, it was not thought out of the ordinary if the parents came for breakfast or lunch, or visited in the evening. That was the norm, and the work force saw their role as negotiating the space between the child and the family. When the child leaves care, even if there has not been any contact, they go into environments that are not controlled for them. They go into a different environment, and many children seek to re-establish contact with their family, and they experience a series of different emotions, including anger, frustration and concern.

I am following very closely what the right hon. Lady is saying. I visited that children’s home in Copenhagen shortly after she did. Is not the point, which she rightly makes, that in this country, things are black and white: someone is in the care system, or they are with their birth family? In homes in Denmark where children may go back to their birth parents or to a member of their extended family, or have them over for dinner during the week, there is far greater flexibility: there is a middle way. It is that flexibility that we lack in this country, and I hope that the Bill will go some way towards bringing it about.

I understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but it is about a bit more than flexibility. It is about the quality of the work force and whether they can handle that relationship. It is about whether they are confident about negotiating that space. Our legislation says that they are in loco parentis, which means that they try to be the parent, but frequently that is not what is required. It may be required for some youngsters, so it should be available, but the next stage is personalisation, to recognise much more effectively what the individual child needs and what is the right response to them.

I have a great deal of sympathy with what my right hon. Friend is saying, and she makes an important point. Like me, she may have seen examples of foster parents in this country who have managed work with the child and their natural parents. They are a bridge, and use the negotiating skills that she described. Does she agree that we should move forward with that model, and provide help to develop the skills of families in their own homes? I am sure that she will agree that foster parents can do that.

I absolutely agree, and I believe that it is possible. When it works, it is empowering for foster parents, the children and the natural parents. It is counter-intuitive for most people, but we have to be brave on behalf of those children and young people, who do not get a good deal from us.

As well as foster carers having the role on which my right hon. Friend has just agreed, does she accept that there is no reason why residential care staff should not have the same role, too, and that residential care homes ought to become resource centres for such work?

I certainly agree with that, and I sometimes think that we have denigrated residential care to damaging effect, because for some children it is the right experience. Wherever they are placed, the issue of where they come from and how it affects how they see themselves and how they behave in the world is the critical thing with which we have to deal. They must be able to get the confidence to know who they are, and be able to deal with that, so that they can deal with the rest of the world.

Finally—and this is probably controversial—it is too easy for local authorities just to let children go. I am pleased with what my right hon. Friend the Minister said about the “staying put” pilots, but we have to be more ambitious in future, and recognise that local authorities must take responsibility for a long time. They should not just agree that someone should keep a relationship with their foster parents, but should be legally charged if the child ends up in custody, for example. There should be incentives for local authorities to make sure that the child keeps out of custody. We should also think about rewarding them if the child reaches university or obtains a qualification that gives them the licence to work. We must be much more ambitious in how we look at local authorities’ responsibility for children in care, so that they take responsibility for what actually happens to those children, instead of taking the view that they just have them for a period and do what is necessary, rather than regarding their responsibility as an ambition to transform opportunities for that child. That is where I want to get to—it is ambitious—but I know that we are going the right way.

We would very much like to welcome the Bill, but obviously we are sad that it has been introduced against the background of extremely poor outcomes for our most vulnerable children for far too long. Thirteen per cent. of young people looked after for at least a year achieve five A to C GCSEs, against 62 per cent. of all children. Twenty-seven per cent. of the prison population was taken into care as children, as opposed to 2 per cent. of the general population. Children in, and leaving, care are at high risk of pregnancy—almost half of care leavers are mothers within 18 to 24 months of leaving care and, saddest of all, the children of children who have been in care are likely to be taken into care themselves.

However, there are many examples of good work and practice, and we need to make sure that there is much better access to good practice across the board. Our shared objectives today—and I believe that there will be a great deal of cross-party work on and support for the Bill—are about improving the life chances of a large number of young people. At any point in time, there are about 60,000 children in the care system. Some children are fostered on a short-term basis and can return to their families. Others go on to be adopted, and others are fostered on a long-term basis. It is particularly striking that 45 per cent. of children who enter care are adolescents. They are especially vulnerable, and they are not in the care system for long before being faced with the challenge of GCSEs.

I sincerely believe that we must be relentless in our ambitions for looked-after children, but we must be prepared to give support over a much longer period than has previously been the case in all local authorities. I am concerned, too, that a young person in our country is rarely taken into care after the age of 15. I hope that decisions are driven by what is best for the young person and their wishes, and not by local authority concerns about the cost of providing housing and other services.

In 2005-06, authorities in England spent a net total of £2.05 billion on looked-after children, compared with just £687 million on family support services—a ratio of 3:1. In a recent answer to a parliamentary question from my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws), the Minister provided figures that showed great variations in the number of children taken into care per 10,000 of the population under 18. For example, figures for 2006-07 show that Kirklees had six such children; Merton, four; and Kent, four. However, on the same basis, other authorities had figures as high as 24. The boroughs that I cited with the lower figures have a spending ratio nearer to 2:1. We must conclude that, at the very least, family support is one important factor in the equation.

NCH tells us that the annual cost of a mid-range, intensive family support service to prevent admission to care is just over £300,000, which provides support for 60 young people and their families. An average success rate of 80 per cent. means that accommodation is avoided for 48 of those young people. Compared with the average cost of foster care or a children’s home placement, it represents a large monetary saving. However, the greatest savings must be in respect of the value of the services to the people, which enables a child to remain with their own family and community, and in the contribution to long-term development and well-being.

Preventive family support services are all-important, as is ongoing support for vulnerable families and, indeed, support within the foster family, if that route is judged to be in the child’s best interest. I listened with great interest to the right hon. Member for North-West Durham (Hilary Armstrong), who seemed to be almost describing a bridge between the family and the care placement—whatever that would be. It is quite an exciting idea, which could be backed up by the family support measures that are, basically, in place in some areas. My challenge to the Minister is in respect of what can be done to spread further the good practice on early intervention, which, according to the statistics, is clearly so lacking in many places.

In previous debates about children and young people, I have often felt and said that every child matters except young asylum seekers and children in custody. As the Bill has progressed through the other place, there have been welcome moves to address a few of the issues. I welcome new clause 7, which should have been included in section 11 of the Children Act 2004 when it was debated. The Border and Immigration Agency should be subject to the duty to make arrangements to safeguard and promote the welfare of children who have been trafficked or who are seeking asylum, placing an equal duty on all services that come into contact with children, and further steps could be taken—for example, with the appointment of a guardian for every unaccompanied child in the asylum process.

As has already been said, looked-after children and care leavers are over-represented in the criminal justice system. About 40 to 49 per cent. of children and young people in custody have been in local authority care at some point, and 18 per cent. are still subject to care orders. In the other place, the Government provided some welcome assurances about the new duty that will be placed on local authorities to visit every child whom it looks after, and about ensuring that they provide improved continuity of care for those entering or leaving custody. That is such an important issue that I hope the Minister will today reassure us about monitoring and about any future guidance and regulations. There is a much wider debate to be had about the numbers of children in custody, about deaths while in custody and much more, but I shall refrain from entering on that today.

When looking at the whole care system, a good starting point is always the views of the young people themselves. I shall touch on some of the key messages from children which emerged from the 2006 report “Children’s Views on Standards” by Dr. Roger Morgan, the children’s rights director. One of the first messages was:

“Treat each child as an individual, not as a member of a group.”

Our general discussions have already touched on that point, but it was brought out very succinctly by a young person. Another message was:

“Allow us to have a real say in decisions affecting us”.

A further message was:

“Improve asking and listening to children’s views, wishes and worries - and feed back to us what you do with what we tell you”.

We in this country are pretty bad at giving feedback, particularly when children have made a request. Another message was:

“The three biggest wishes about social workers are that they should help with personal problems, that they should get you practical help when you need it, and that they should always be there to listen to you.”

One of the most important things that we must obtain from the Bill is the assurance for every child in care that there will always be somebody who is there to listen. That is the key relationship with the child. It might be at any time of the day, as we know from our family experience.

Does my hon. Friend also see that role in a school context, to be undertaken by the designated member of staff? When we think of schools, we think about the undeniable need to raise expectations regarding academic achievement, but that pastoral role—that holistic approach—should also be developed by the designated teacher. Does my hon. Friend agree?

I do agree. That approach has been missing in many schools despite their having had guidance that there should be a designated teacher. We know that, in reality, it has not happened. Of course, the issue is not just about the academic side; underpinning that side is good pastoral care and appropriate care. We never know who the child or young person will find as their best confidant, but it is important to ensure that they find them.

Many aspects of the Bill attempt to address the issues that children and young people have raised, and I welcome the strengthening of the independent reviewing officer’s role. However, more may need to be done about the independent aspect and the extension, so that more looked-after children have independent visitors. Both proposals aim to further the interests of children, but in addition independent advocacy is crucial because it ensures that the child’s voice and rights are represented by a professional outside the system.

Early-day motion 1126, tabled by the hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble), has the support of 144 Members. Recently, the Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families concluded:

“It is clear from all the evidence that a truly independent voice is needed for all looked-after children to ensure their needs and wishes are properly considered and acted upon in the care process.”

I welcome all that the hon. Lady has said, but does she agree that the extension of looked-after status to disabled children is a trick that may have been missed? They are often in placements for 52 weeks a year. On the Children, Schools and Families Committee, we have both heard of stories in which the most vulnerable of vulnerable children do not receive their visits or anything until it is far too late.

I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. I shall certainly come on to that point, but at this stage I shall just say that independent advocacy is particularly important for those severely disabled children who may be forced by the severity of their condition to remain in a residential placement for most of the year. It is very important that their voice is heard, and in respect of children with extreme needs I can see that happening only when they have somebody who can work closely with them and almost tune in to how they feel about certain issues. That independent advocacy is vital, particularly when such children are far away from home.

As far back as 1997, Sir William Utting, in his report “People Like Us”, concluded that looked-after children needed independent advocacy as a source of protection and as a means of making their voices heard within an otherwise closed system. Most importantly, children and young people say that they want advocacy. A National Voice indicated that up to 90 per cent. of children it surveyed held that view. There are two aspects: the expression of a child’s views by those responsible for the outcome; and the representation of a child’s view and their rights by a professional advocate. Those are two very different things, and the role of the independent review officer never entirely covers both aspects. I would firmly come down on the side of those who have long argued for a statutory right to independent advocacy for looked-after children when significant decisions are being made in their lives. It is sometimes suggested that with all these adults in a child’s life, an advocate would be just one more, but I think it would help them to make sense of the roles of all those adults.

We have heard a lot about the work force, and of course social workers are absolutely key to the futures of looked-after children, who want a stable relationship with their social worker and find it very disruptive when there is a churn of temporary social workers in all the areas where there are shortages. The right training for social workers is absolutely vital.

I have some reservations about the proposal for independent social care practices. We do not know whether that will produce the outcomes that might be achieved—we do not have evidence one way or the other. I can therefore see the point of having pilots, but we are in danger of having more and more pilots with long periods before evaluation. In this case, I wonder whether we will get more social workers or end up with the displacement of social workers. As the Select Committee said, the pilots need to fill the evidence gap on social work practices. It is vital that they are properly evaluated and are not rolled out unless there is clear evidence that they will provide essential continuity and stability for looked-after children. The evaluation must also take account of any knock-on effects on our local authorities in terms of whether there has been any diminishing of services, perhaps because of an overall shortage of social workers. The jury is out on that.

We saw some welcome policy evolution in the other place. We started with the commendable objective that we wanted to have as many children placed within their own local authority as possible, but overlooked the fact that some children need to access highly specialised provision that will not be in the immediate area. We have reached a point where local authorities have a duty to secure a sufficient and diverse provision of accommodation for looked-after children in their area, to make decisions that are in the best interests of the child when there are out-of-area placements, to take on board the issue of schooling, particularly in the critical years 10 and 11, and to look on kinship as a preference when there is consideration of a child perhaps being moved away from its immediate birth family. I have long been committed to the idea that we should expand the use of kinship care, which is very patchy across the whole country. We need to be clear about what financial payments are made in those circumstances. I am sure that we have all had visits to our surgeries from grandparents who are struggling to cope because there has not been the necessary funding.

Does my hon. Friend fear that some local authorities have hidden behind the term “exceptional circumstances” in the existing legislation in respect of their willingness to award grants to grandparents and others?

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I understand the point that we do not want people doing this just for money; it has to be more than that. On the other hand, I hope we can make progress with regard to situations in which hardship is created or where it truly would be the solution that was in the best interests of the child.

The hon. Member for Stourbridge (Lynda Waltho) intervened on me about looked-after status for disabled children in long-term residential care. The situation strikes me as very odd. I have heard from parents whose children go into short-term respite care and are upset because that means that they have to have looked-after status. It is an interesting anomaly that we need to consider carefully in Committee. It is clear that in relation to long-term residential care there would be several benefits in having looked-after status—an allocated social worker, a care plan, a contact plan, a health assessment and health plan, and so on.

We have heard about the excellent work that is carried out by foster carers. I, too, had the great pleasure of meeting many foster carers this afternoon, and I can only praise them for the work that they take on. It is important to provide the necessary training and to professionalise their work. In particular, I would like to see more use of intensive fostering, which is used in Scandinavian countries and keeps children out of custody. That is important. We need to give more support to foster carers. An issue that was particularly raised with us today is that 30 per cent. of foster carers are faced with allegations at some time or another, and there is the peculiar situation whereby they appear to be presumed guilty right from the word go, entirely contrary to normal practice in this country. It is important that fees should continue to be paid. We heard about examples where once allegations have been made, even if found to be unfounded, not only are fees stopped but those allegations appear on a criminal record. That can affect foster carers’ futures. A full reason should at least be given of why the allegations were found to be unfounded. This is probably not directly relevant to the Bill, but I want to place on record the fact that it needs to be examined.

I emphasise the need to give more powers to foster carers, particularly those who are performing the parental role. When I was a chairman of education services in 1997, looked-after children would come to tell us how difficult it was to get permission for a sleepover. We have got through that problem, but now there are others whereby foster carers do not have the power to give consent for normal children’s and school activities. Action must be taken on that.

I was pleased to hear the Minister announce that one of the pilots is to be in Dorset, so I will be able to look at it first hand. I share others’ disappointment and frustration in the sense that we all think this is intrinsically a good idea and want to get on with it. I hope that the Minister will agree that as information evolves and the system is seen to be working, the pilots can be rolled out rather more quickly than might be the case if we were to wait three years for the evaluation.

I welcome the bursary that is offered to support looked-after young people at university, but there should be parity with further education and training. We want young people to take whichever route is the most suitable for them, and they are liable to be disadvantaged at this age.

On many occasions I have discussed the provision of therapeutic services for all abused children. In 2006, the then Department for Education and Skills said that of 60,000 children in care, 63 per cent. were in care because they had experienced some form of abuse or neglect. The long-term consequences of child sexual abuse include anxiety and depression, anger and guilt, difficulties functioning at school, poor self-image and difficulties with personal relationships and parenting. Adults who are being treated for mental health problems often identify childhood abuse as an influence. Research shows that 25 to 40 per cent. of all alleged sexual abuse involves young perpetrators, and the majority of those children and young people have been or are being sexually, physically or emotionally abused themselves. Therapy at an early stage could help to reduce the scale of the problems over time by breaking the cycle.

Therapy can transform children’s lives, but provision is inadequate and patchy across the country. As a consequence of my long-term mission in this area, I support the need to address disproportionately poor health outcomes more generally. I welcome the Government’s proposals to make guidance statutory for PCTs as well as local authorities, but I certainly want to explore in Committee how we can better address the significant physical, emotional and mental health needs of looked-after children. As far as their health is concerned, it is important to ensure that we have truly joined-up working at national and local level.

I shall also comment briefly on private fostering. In the Committee considering the Children Act 2004, I proposed a compulsory registration scheme for private fosterers. The then children’s Minister, the right hon. Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge), said in defence of the notification scheme:

“The clause is in the Bill because we want to strengthen the scheme and give it one last chance to work…Secondly, we will require local authorities to monitor the operation of the scheme far more closely, and to provide information for us on how many registrations they achieve each year.”—[Official Report, Standing Committee B, 21 October 2004; c. 288-89.]

The figures so far show that there were 730 notifications in 2005, 980 in 2006 and 1,250 in 2007, against a background of an estimated 10,000 children being privately fostered. How can children be adequately protected and safeguarded if we do not know the conditions in which they are looked after? It cannot be right for the Government to say, “We’ll have another three years, and we’re going to do better this time.” We need to know how the Government are going to do better in the next three years.

In reading the report of the debate in the other place, I felt that the noble Lord Adonis was always ready to say, “That’s already in regulations. That’s covered under this legislation. That’s already in guidance.” I am sure that that is absolutely true; so much should be happening to help looked-after children, but the fact is that it is not. The designated teacher is a good example: a provision was in the guidance, but surveys show that it was not put into practice. Time is short, and we must make the legislation work. I hope that we can all work together sensibly and seriously on this serious and important Bill.

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to make what is my maiden speech.

I wish to speak briefly on the Bill before the House, but before doing so, I want to pay tribute to my predecessor. For 34 years, Gwyneth Dunwoody served Crewe, from 1974 until 1983, and thereafter Crewe and Nantwich, with unwavering dedication and distinction. The longest-serving female Member of Parliament, Gwyneth Dunwoody was not only a truly great parliamentarian, but a uniquely formidable fighter. She stood up and fought for all her constituents and was steadfast in her belief in, and defence of, the independence of this House.

Gwyneth Dunwoody had a clear sense of what an MP is for and never wavered from her core beliefs. I am sure that hon. Members from all parties will agree that her enduring spirit, acerbic wit and unstinting passion for the Parliament and the people she served will for ever remain within the fabric of this House. We all owe her a great debt. As it is a privilege and honour to follow in her footsteps, so it is a privilege and honour to represent the good people of Crewe and Nantwich. I make known my gratitude to them for sending me here and I hope that I can repay their trust.

In the normal course of events, I would now seize the opportunity to take the House on a journey across my constituency. However, the events of my election were anything but normal. Many, if not all, hon. Members have already had the great pleasure of having visited Crewe and Nantwich in the last six weeks—most, I trust, of their own volition. Some Members had the undoubted advantage of moving into my constituency for the duration of the by-election, a worthy experience that I am sure will remain with them. Nevertheless, I ask the House to allow me a few moments to remind them of its many and varied qualities. What I hope they found was a place blessed with a strong and proud community and a deep and diverse heritage, together with people of frank honesty and open decency, for certainly that is true.

Known as the gateway to the north-west, Crewe and Nantwich straddles urban and rural communities that, together, contain a rich range of human activity and life. Lying in the heart of south Cheshire, Crewe remains synonymous with the birth and rise of the railways through the 19th and early 20th centuries, and indeed it was down to that industry that the town was born. Its influence in the town and the prosperity that came with it can be seen in the impressive array of Victorian buildings and open spaces. I recall my grandmother reminiscing to me about the tea dances she attended in the 1930s at the Crewe Arms hotel, the world’s first railway hotel built in 1838. Crewe continues to play an active and central part in the railway industry today.

In recent years, Crewe has built upon its manufacturing base with a strong service industry that has attracted national and international investment from public and private sectors alike. In 1986, Crewe business park became the UK’s first “green” business park, and developments such as the Crewe Gates industrial estate have encouraged new business and industries to move into the town. Crewe has a growing sense of enterprise that has enormous untapped potential. Further regeneration in and around the town centre can only help to set that potential free. My predecessor worked tirelessly towards her vision of Crewe becoming a university town. With substantial investment in place for many of the further and higher education institutions located in the town, that vision is closer to becoming a reality.

Nantwich is a picturesque market town that predates the Norman conquest. Those born within the town’s boundaries are affectionately known as “dabbers”, and there are many old wives’ tales that purport to explain the origin of the term. Sitting on the banks of the River Weaver, Nantwich began as a salt town that gave way to a leather then clothing industry. Today, Nantwich boasts a thriving tourist trade. Visitors to Nantwich are attracted by the magnificent market square, dominated by the 14th century parish church of St. Mary’s, christened the cathedral of south Cheshire, and surrounded by leaning half-timbered black and white Tudor architecture.

The English civil war reached one of its turning points at the battle of Nantwich in 1644, when the parliamentarians held back the royalists. While I have every respect for the primacy of this Chamber, I am glad that that siege is only re-enacted every year on what is known as Holly Holy day.

The success of Cheshire cheese-making is celebrated annually at the Nantwich international cheese show. That is, in part, a product of the rolling open Cheshire countryside in my constituency, which is home to a dairy industry that is now, sadly, struggling. In the past seven years, more than 50 dairy farms in my constituency have closed and our farming community is in a desperate plight. The peppering of rural villages does what it can to support the rural economy, but these are parlous times.

Across Crewe and Nantwich, the role played by charities and volunteer groups has never been more important. My contact with young and old alike in organisations such as Crewe YMCA and Cheshire Age Concern has demonstrated to me the difference that they can make.

The people of Crewe and Nantwich have much to be proud of and I, as their Member of Parliament, shall work hard to stand up for each and every one of them. That includes those whose needs and vulnerability are among the most acute—children in care.

Having spent the past 25 years living with, and helping care for, many foster children, and the past decade working in the care system, I know only too well the fundamental importance of putting children first and giving them the childhood that they deserve. I, too, welcome the Bill and support its efforts to improve outcomes for children in care. It contains many praiseworthy objectives: improving stability of placement; education and support for longer; promoting early intervention, and increasing family support. However, we must ask ourselves: does it hit the spot and does it go far enough?

For too long, most social workers have started out on their career hoping to make a difference to the lives of disadvantaged children, but have finished up frustrated by risk assessments, box-ticking and targets, so that, eventually, their objective is to protect their department, not the children whom they are there to help. The time spent by social workers dealing face to face with the children whom they are there to protect, nurture and support is less than 5 per cent. of their working day. I believe vehemently in empowering professionals to do what they do best—their job. I hope that the Bill will go some way towards giving social workers the trust and freedom that they need to treat each child as a special case.

I welcome clause 20 and the statutory requirement that it introduces, but I would add this. Every designated teacher with responsibility for promoting the educational achievement of children in care registered at their school requires, in my view, additional training to ensure that each child’s specific and specialised needs are properly met and that they are afforded the opportunity to flourish rather than fail. A case in point is the growing number of children in care who are affected by attachment disorder as opposed to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Teachers will need additional training to understand that difference and how to respond effectively.

I also believe that the Government need to increase the number of registered foster carers as a priority. A more embracing and welcoming recruitment programme, which provides better guidance and less bureaucracy, will, I am sure, stimulate more interest and commitment to a noble, rewarding, and, at times, undervalued role.

During the by-election campaign, I had the unexpected but great fortune to cross paths with the mother of three children fostered by my family some years ago. They are, of course, now my constituents, and, I am pleased to say, thriving as a family and as individuals. They are testament to how our care system can work. Sadly, we have been failing so many other children in care for too long. I trust that the Bill will be a worthy, albeit overdue, step towards making our children really matter.

I am grateful to the House for its indulgence. I will continue to champion this and all other causes that affect the people of Crewe and Nantwich—after all, that is my duty.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr. Timpson) on his speech. I especially applaud him for his kind words about his predecessor, who was a perfectly splendid Member of Parliament and a role model for us all. I recognise his description of his constituency, having spent many an hour there recently and meeting many interesting people.

Perhaps most important, it is a pleasure to follow the hon. Gentleman’s comments about the Bill. He has recognised its importance for vulnerable people, whom we all represent, and the need for us to move forward. Like him, I welcome the Bill. It makes a clear commitment to encouraging aspirations among young people in care and reducing the gap in outcomes that all speakers this evening have highlighted. That can be done only if children and young people feel cared for.

The results of a peer project, which a recent edition of Community Care magazine outlined, showed that the most important thing for young people was feeling cared for. It was heartening that three quarters of those who took part in the project felt cared for by their local authorities. However, it was often because

“of a particular individual going beyond the call of duty in the support they gave”.

That could be a foster carer—many references have been made to their important role—a residential care worker, personal assistant, leaving care worker, social worker or a teacher. Words that are key to our debate summed up the research:

“The resilience many exhibited, despite often damaging pre-care experiences, suggests that additional practical support and ongoing emotional and psychological support could make a difference in helping them to achieve their ambitions.”

Over the years, I have met many remarkably resilient young people. We should think about them and consider the way in which we can give them the additional practical and emotional support that they need, want and applaud when they get it. That is why the Bill is so important.

The pledge that local authorities set out to children in care must be more than words. I will mention some aspects of the Bill that I welcome before moving on to two key issues that I want to explore in more detail. Some issues have already been mentioned.

I welcome the new duty on local authorities to provide short breaks. I worked closely with my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke) on a series of parliamentary hearings that highlighted the pressures on families with children with disabilities. A key matter that they called for was short breaks—respite care. I also supported a private Member’s Bill, which the hon. Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter) promoted. Everybody who was involved with the private Member’s Bill and the parliamentary hearings will applaud this Bill’s provisions for short breaks.

I also welcome the creation of the role of the designated teacher; the introduction of the bursary of £2,000 for care leavers going into higher education; the “staying put” pilot; extending entitlement to the support of a personal adviser up to the age of 25 for care leavers in education or wishing to return to education; piloting the role of the virtual head; and the additional funding for personalised learning for children in care, who are at risk of not reaching the standards that they should attain.

Other hon. Members have mentioned poor educational outcomes for children in care, but no one has pointed out that children are often in care because they were already outside the education system. Dysfunctional families or personal problems meant that they were all too often truants. By the time they enter the care system, they have already lost much schooling and, just as important, the habit of going to school. They are reluctant to go back because they know that they will be behind their fellow pupils and they are embarrassed about that. Given that we are considering educational outcomes for children in care, we must recognise the background and examine the special measures that we can introduce to keep them in school and bolster their confidence as well as improving the education available to them.

I want to talk about two areas in more detail: first, the voice of the child; and secondly, social work practices, which have not been mentioned in any great detail thus far. On the voice of the child, I welcome the strengthening of the role of the independent reviewing officer and the opportunity for more looked-after children to have independent visitors. However, I again urge the Minister to consider the role of independent advocacy—I know that I seem to say that every time I meet him, but it is an important issue. As has been mentioned, early-day motion 1126, on advocacy for looked-after children, which I tabled, has the support of 144 hon. Members.

The purpose of independent advocacy is fundamentally different from that of the IRO or independent visitors. I do not want the Minister to misunderstand my championing of independent advocacy. I recognise what he and colleagues say about all professionals involved with the child having a role in advocating on their behalf. Social workers are trained as advocates on behalf of the people with whom they work, and teachers, foster carers and all the other people involved will speak up for that child. However, speaking up for the child is not the same as sitting down with them, asking them what they want and then putting their wishes into words. Sometimes those words will not be ones that professionals want to hear. That is why the young person needs an advocate.

Let us try to put ourselves in the place of a 12, 13, 14 or 15-year-old going into a meeting with all those professionals, who are experts in their field. Would we really open our mouths and say things that we knew would annoy them or with which they would disagree? Some young people might do that, but a lot will not. That is why they need a voice to speak up for them—not someone to say what is best for them, but to say what they want. The young person might not get it, or it might be impractical; nevertheless, their voice should be heard.

As president of Blackpool Advocacy, I have seen for myself the vital work that independent advocates do. The question of who pays for independent advocacy was raised in an earlier intervention. That is an important issue. An advocacy service tries to get money from wherever it can to deliver the work that it does. The important point is that the service’s contract—whether it be with the health authority, a local authority or whomsoever is paying for the services—makes it clear that it is independent. The young person who goes to an independent advocacy service will therefore be guaranteed independence and someone speaking up for them and nobody else—indeed, the advocate might argue with the person providing the funding.

As was mentioned earlier, in his report, “People Like Us”, Sir William Utting emphasised the importance of advocacy services, which help to protect children in the care system. More than any other group, disabled children need independent advocacy, especially if they are placed away from home. Many children with a disability have communication problems. It is often frustrating for them to try to explain what their feelings are. The social care staff or other professionals who deal with them are all under pressure, and will often make assumptions about what that young person wants, instead of trying to develop the communication skills to understand what that young person is trying to say. Having an independent advocate working on behalf of young people with disabilities, and especially those with communication problems, is vital.

The Bill is very good, but it could be made even better, if the 13,000-plus disabled children and young people placed away from home in England could have a statutory right at least to be offered the opportunity of advocacy services. Not everybody will want or need them, but they should be entitled to the opportunity to ask for them. I therefore hope that the Minister will consider strengthening the guidance on that matter.

I know that there is already a lot of guidance on making advocacy services available, but I also know, from research that the Children’s Society has conducted, that not many advocacy services have the skills to deliver to children with disability. Therefore, although I am arguing the case for independent advocacy and saying that the Government should do more to strengthen guidance on the matter, I am also arguing that advocacy service providers need to build up their services, so that they, too, can properly respond if, as I hope, we expand young people’s entitlement to advocacy services. My final point on the matter is that the Children’s Commissioner for England said in response to the “Care Matters” Green Paper:

“Advocacy offers crucial protection where children face particularly complex circumstances, are in contact with…different services, or have communication difficulties.”

Again, I urge the Government to consider the issue carefully.

Hearing the voice of the child is especially important for children with disability who are placed away from home on 52-week-a-year residential placements. We in Blackpool are fortunate, in that a Lancashire child can usually be placed fairly near home, because Lancashire is such a large county. However, I know of many other young people who are placed far away from home, because there are no local services. My fear is that some of those children who are placed away from home will not receive visitors, will perhaps lose touch with their families, will not have someone who can speak up for them and might feel that their voices are not being heard.

Those young people not only need advocacy services, but should at least be considered for looked-after status, as the Every Disabled Child Matters campaign and other campaigners have argued strongly. Many of them will already have looked-after status, but there are some 338 disabled children on long-term placements away from home who are not looked-after children. Some of those children might not need looked-after status. I am not urging the Minister to ensure that every child affected should have looked-after status, because that might not be appropriate. However, local authorities, which currently have a duty when placing a child away from home to consider looked-after status should do so within strengthened guidance from the Government.

I fear that there is a good deal of confusion about what looked-after status means. It does not necessarily mean a child being in care. A child can be looked-after under section 20 of the Children Act 1989, which means that the parent still has parental responsibility but is working in partnership with the local authority. That would be the ideal outcome for many young people. We have heard in many contributions this evening about the importance of maintaining a child in the family or, if they have to be taken out of the family for whatever reason, of maintaining the link with the family. If a disabled child is looked-after under section 20 of the 1989 Act, those links can be maintained. The child can still have that family link, but receive all the benefits that looked-after status brings.

The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) listed some of those benefits, which include the entitlement to a social worker, three-monthly visits from the social worker, a care plan and contact plan, health assessments and a health plan. However, there is another key aspect, in that if the child has looked-after status for 14 weeks prior to their 18th birthday, the council has further duties of care at least until that child is 21. For a child with disability, that can be even more important than for other children in care in the looked-after system.

For all those reasons, I hope that the Minister will consider strengthening the guidance. There was some debate in the other place about every child being looked after, but I am not saying that; I am putting the needs of the child first, and doing this for every child would not necessarily be in the best interests of some children—it should be considered at the very least, however. I note that a report from the four UK children’s commissioners to the United Nations committee on the rights of the child, stated:

“We are concerned that disabled children in 52-week residential placements do not have the same statutory rights and protection afforded to children in the care system. These children should be granted looked after status to ensure they are provided with legal safeguards including more rigorous care planning provision and review.”

I agree with those four commissioners.

I shall move on to make some brief comments on the proposals to establish social work practices. Social work practices could offer new opportunities to support young people and provide new opportunities for social workers to practise more creatively in supporting them. I am sure that local authorities would like to see clearer guidance from the Government on their role with regard to social work practices and on how their development might impact on the services that local authorities directly provide.

As the chair of the all-party group on social care, I know that we have recently completed an inquiry into the challenges facing the social care work force. Our key findings concerned status, recruitment and involvement. If these social care practices can improve the status, recruitment and involvement of social workers, they will be welcome. I know that the British Association of Social Workers has welcomed these proposals—well, it has certainly welcomed the setting up of pilots. Let us make sure that the pilots are practical, that they are spread around different parts of the country and that lessons are learned from them. If the pilots are successful, let us roll them out.

I note that some voluntary sector organisations say that they may rethink whether to bid to be involved in the pilots, mainly because of the possibility of proposals to pay them according to performance outcomes. I am sure that the Minister will liaise with those voluntary sector organisations on the development of an outcomes framework, which could be linked to payments in such a way as to reassure such organisations about their involvement in social work practices. It could be a win-win situation.

I finish by saying that I welcome the Bill, which includes wide-ranging measures that will improve the life chances of the very vulnerable young people for whom we, local authorities and parents have a responsibility. We should all work together to ensure that those responsibilities are fulfilled so that we and those young people can move on.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble), who speaks with such authority on this subject, as, indeed, did my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr. Timpson). I am delighted to have the opportunity to endorse the tribute paid by the hon. Lady to my hon. Friend, who I am sure the whole House would agree has made a very distinguished maiden speech. He observed all the conventions, but he did much more than that. He paid eloquent tribute, quite rightly, to his predecessor and to his constituency, while also bringing to bear his experience and expertise on the subject matter of this debate in a very telling way. I predict that my hon. Friend will have a long and distinguished career in this House. It was a privilege to be present at such an auspicious start to his journey.

The House will be relieved to hear that I do not intend to develop the incidental reference in the opening speech of my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) to the 2005 Conservative election manifesto. That is not my purpose this evening. I, too, welcome the Bill, but I want to focus on a particular aspect that has not yet been touched on this evening.

Clause 8 gives the Secretary of State a statutory duty to promote the well-being of children, and part 3 sets out a number of provisions relating to adoption. It is to the law and practice of adoption that I wish to address my remarks. Clause 8 is, of course, quite right. There is no more profound duty for society as a whole than the well-being of children. We have all been shocked again and again by incidents of the most terrible abuse inflicted on children—incidents that we find it very difficult to believe can occur in our country in the 21st century. That applies, too, where what happens does not hit the headlines and falls far short of grievous abuse, as many children in our society suffer disadvantage of one kind or another.

The ideal environment in which a child should grow up is a loving family. That is what is most likely to increase the sum of human happiness. That is what is most likely to lead to children growing up to enjoy full and satisfying lives. That is what is most likely to lead to their avoiding a life of unemployment and crime.

Nothing I say this afternoon should be taken to reflect on the dedication of those who look after our children who are in care. They have a difficult task and I pay tribute to them—to the vast majority of them—who do their very best to perform this task in a selfless and conscientious way. But the statistics tell us clearly that children in care do less well—significantly less well—than other children. The gap between the words with which the Minister for Children, Young People and Families opened her speech and the reality is, alas, a large one.

In September 1999, the Government established 11 objectives for children’s social services in England. I shall not go through all 11; I do not need to, because some of the examples that I intended to cite have already been cited by the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham. Let me nevertheless touch on one or two. For example, 13.4 per cent. of looked-after children missed at least 25 days of schooling in 2006. Among year 11 students in 2006, 66 per cent. of looked-after children obtained at least one GCSE at grade A* to G or GNVQ, compared with a national figure of 98 per cent.—66 per cent. as compared with 98 per cent.

Most tellingly of all, perhaps, during the year ending 30 September 2006, looked-after children aged 10 or older were more than twice as likely to have received a conviction or a final warning or reprimand than other children.

The conclusion that I think any sensible Government would draw from that depressing litany of statistics is that where there is a viable alternative to care, and in particular where it is possible for a child to be brought up within and by a loving family, everything possible should be done to facilitate that alternative, to encourage it and to smooth the path of those who want to provide it.

The most obvious alternative, or at least one of the most obvious, is adoption. Of course, that will not be possible in all cases for every child, and of course great care must be taken to ensure that any potential adoptive parent is properly checked and helped to understand the difficulties and pitfalls that may lie ahead, but surely that does not mean that those who could provide a loving family should be discouraged, deterred or forced, as so many are, to look abroad for the child they want to bring into their family, yet as we all know, that is exactly what happens in far too many cases.

I have long been concerned by that state of affairs, but my interest was sharpened by a report that I read recently in The Mail on Sunday on the difficulties encountered by Gavin and Teresa Allen. Mr. Allen is an executive editor of the BBC’s “Question Time” and “Politics Show”, and Mrs. Allen is a director of a staff recruitment business. I should say that, as far as I know, I have never met either of them, although I did check with Mr. Allen this morning that he had no objection to my raising his case in the debate.

The Allens have been together for nearly 20 years and married for nearly 10. They have a comfortable home and supportive family and friends, and they were judged to be a suitable couple to adopt. They were willing to adopt any child who needed a loving family home. Yet despite years of trying, when it came down to specific decisions on specific children, adoption panels repeatedly decided that they were unsuitable in that case. They have come to the shocking and devastating conclusion that all they can offer is outweighed by the huge disadvantage of the fact that they are white and middle class.

The Allens’ story is one of many. Their story, like so many others, paints a picture of adoption that is far from what I assume any of us in the House would want to be the case. Mrs. Allen told the newspaper:

“We have discovered that if you are white and have a decent living, the adoption authorities put you to the bottom of the pile.”

What is more, it seems that adoption panels judge a child to be from a minority ethnic group even when they are mixed race and primarily white. Mr. and Mrs. Allen say that they were repeatedly rejected because of their ethnic background

“even when a child was only a quarter black, Caribbean or even Irish”.

They were

“turned down to adopt a baby who was an eighth Jewish, something not even her foster family knew.”

Why does this happen? Why are countless children left to be disadvantaged by the care system when there are available suitable adoptive parents? Mr. and Mrs. Allen say that they believe

“the answer is obvious... one social services director told us categorically that he would rather a black child be brought up in the care system than in a white family.”

I pose this question to the Minister: is that state of affairs what the Government want?

According to the law, the paramount consideration in cases of adoption is the welfare of the child. That is exactly as it should be. It is true that the Adoption and Children Act 2002 requires an adoption agency to give due consideration to the child’s religious persuasion, racial origin and cultural and linguistic background. It also requires an adoption agency to give due consideration to the wishes of the natural parent. But I repeat, according to the law the paramount consideration must be the welfare of the child. So, although factors such as race and cultural background have to be considered, they should not be able to prevent a child from being placed with adopters of a different background if that is in the child’s best interests. Yet clearly, far too often, that is what happens.

Does the reason for that perhaps lie with the statutory guidance issued by the Government under the 2002 Act? That guidance emphasises the requirements to consider the child’s religious and cultural upbringing, as well as any wishes and feelings that the child’s parents or guardian may have about those matters. Is it perhaps the case that adoption agencies and social services departments are placing too much emphasis on that part of the guidance and not enough on the paramount consideration of the welfare of the child?

The answers to those questions seem to me to be of great significance. If social service departments are misinterpreting the law, and misinterpreting or failing to apply the law and the Government’s guidance, that might provide my party—and particularly my hon. Friends on the Front Bench—with a rare opportunity to change things while still in opposition nationally. After all, many—probably most—of the local authorities that exercise political control of their social services departments are now in the hands of the Conservative party. If those departments are getting it wrong, my hon. Friends should be able to use their influence to put the situation right. If, on the other hand, the guidance is wrong, the Government should change it. If, contrary to what seems to be the case, the law is wrong, the law should be changed, and this Bill provides the opportunity to do it.

I would very much like the Minister to answer the following questions. Is he satisfied with the current state of affairs on adoption? If not—I hope that he is not satisfied—why does he think that social services departments and adoption agencies are getting it wrong, and what does he propose to do about it? I look forward to his replies.

I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in this very important debate, especially as it is about protecting some of the most vulnerable children in our society.

The proposals are fantastic and will no doubt improve the general health and well-being of looked-after children. However, I want to speak briefly about extending those protections to all our children, and about a reform that is currently not in the Bill but should be—a ban on all forms of violence against all children.

I declare an interest as both a trustee of the UK Youth Parliament and a passionate supporter of the Children Are Unbeatable! Alliance—a cross-party umbrella group of more than 400 different organisations and professionals, which campaigns on the single issue of making the physical punishment or chastisement of children illegal.

This year, hundreds of thousands of children will be hit—with the approval of the law. If we were talking about any other group of people, there would be a public outcry. We would not be allowed to hide behind euphemisms such as “smacking” or “a clip round the ear”. If I were to hit someone whose behaviour I found unacceptable, I would be acting illegally. If I were to hit my five-month-old baby in a supermarket just because he was screaming, there would be little protection for him against such violence.

Smacking means deliberately hurting children as punishment. It should have no place in a modern, civilised society, especially at the moment when we are trying to put an end to all forms of violence. Parliament must send an unequivocal message that hitting all children is as unacceptable and unlawful as hitting anyone else. This is an equality and human rights issue. Children and young people do not have the same rights and protections as adults, yet are often in far more vulnerable situations.

I urge hon. Members to listen to the professionals working with children and families, who say that the unclear, unsafe and unjust legal defence of “reasonable punishment” in section 58 of the Children Act 2004 should be abolished right now to give children equal protection from assault. I refer to the Government’s public consultation only year, which concluded:

“Respondents generally felt that section 58 of the Children Act 2004 had made little positive impact on children, families and those working with them. It was considered that section 58 has not improved legal protection for children in cases of alleged assault by their parents. Many respondents felt that the only way to protect children is to ban physical discipline outright.”

Our own children’s commissioners last week called for urgent action on the issue. The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child says that reform should be an “immediate and unqualified obligation”. Above all, I urge hon. Members to listen to children—like my own five-month-old who cannot even speak yet—and to hear their fears and concerns. When the time comes for a fuller debate on the issue, I hope that all Members of the House will give children the full legal protection from hit and hurt that all of us in here take for granted.

I welcome all the steps taken in the Bill, but I think the most important comment that has been made about it is that it represents a radical step change in ambitions. I am sure the Minister will not be surprised to hear that I intend to begin by talking about the ambitions that we have for our children. What has been said today suggests that our ambition is not just to keep them safe and healthy; we want them to be happy, and then, when we see them safe, healthy and happy, we want them to achieve things. We want them to develop their own potential and become fully human beings, fully part of society, and fully achieving. At every step that the Bill takes, we must retain that ambition for the children whom it seeks to support.

It is extremely welcome that the Bill places a statutory duty on the Secretary of State to promote the well-being of children in England. That is indeed a radical step change. It represents a monumental difference in the way in which we in the House behave, because if our Secretary of State has that duty, we as Members of Parliament must have a duty to ensure that it is carried out.

The Minister will, again, not be surprised to learn that I want to press the ambition for children who are in care and leaving care to have the right of access to full and proper support until they are 21. If it is appropriate for them to stay with a foster carer they should be able to do so, but if that is not appropriate they should have alternative proper, effective support. The Bill gives us an opportunity to stretch out and to aim high. An ambition must be seized when the opportunity comes, and we in the House must take the opportunity now to agree that until the age of 21, young people need access to support. The Minister said at the beginning of her speech that most young people do not leave home and stop receiving parental support until the age of 24, so specifying the age of 21 does not strike me as over-ambitious.

Members have commented on how poor educational outcomes are among children in care in comparison with other children. Only 12 per cent. of looked-after children achieve five GCSEs or the equivalent, compared with 59 per cent. nationally, and only 6 per cent. of children who were looked after at the age of 16 had entered higher education by the age of 19. In 2006, 35 per cent.—one third—of looked-after pupils did not sit any GSCE examinations or GNVQ equivalents.

Some children take a little longer than others to achieve success, perhaps because they have rather more problems to overcome than others. The time when children are sitting GCSEs or A-levels is also the time when those in care are most likely to be leaving it. A quarter of children leave care in their 16th year, at a time when they are sitting exams. Very few children—a tiny fraction of the total— are still in care at the age of 18, but how many are still sitting A-levels when they have reached their 18th birthdays? For most children that is not particularly unusual, but for children in care it means that they will no longer have access to full and proper support from a local authority.

Fostering Network has given me the example of a foster parent fostering a young person who arrived as a teenager. He had suffered significant trauma but had managed to deal with it, had settled and was beginning to succeed. This young man became head boy at his school and was studying for A-levels in the hope of going to university. When he turns 18, however, all support from the local authority will cease, at the time when he will be doing his A-levels. In order to provide stability for him, his foster carer is spending almost £20,000 of her own money to convert the loft so that he can stay with her while she fosters other children. That is a phenomenal commitment, but she should not have to do it, and many foster carers could not do it. That story provides an incredibly convincing argument, however, for making sure that young people can access effective support from somebody who is totally committed to their success.

It is great that people will have access to advisers, but what about somebody they can phone up at night or at the weekend so that they can tell them about things? That is what makes the real difference when people are looking for support. What about that tiny fraction of people in care who go to university, and who need somewhere to go home to, or someone to ring up when they have a problem? Also, what about those other young people who should be going to university, or on to vocational training or further education? We must make sure that they have access, too. We do not need pilot projects to tell us that people do better if they have got someone backing them up. All Members of this House know that people do not make it on their own. We have a duty to make sure that we give these young people access to proper support when they need it, especially when they have had a bad start anyway and they need our intervention more than others.

When Fostering Network first came to talk to me about this, I thought I should be focusing on some of the other cases that people had been bringing to my attention, such as the 17-year-old who was pregnant and very vulnerable, had been placed in a hostel for homeless people and been told she could not get accommodation until the baby was born, or the 15-year-old I was made aware of who was taken out of foster care and instead was put into bed-and-breakfast accommodation. I thought I should be focusing on them, but then I realised that I was suffering from a lack of ambition, because all these young people should be getting access to support up to the age of 21. They all need the same thing. We must stretch our ambitions, because if we do not, we will not deliver for the more vulnerable children who are in care and who are finding it difficult and do not have people to intervene for them. I ask the Minister to address this matter with serious intent so that we can bring it forward.

We should not rely on pilots, but instead act on what we already know and use the evidence that there already is. In 2006, Joseph Rowntree research showed that 36 per cent. of young people reported being homeless at some time in the year after leaving care, and the Rainer Home Alone report found that almost one in six care leavers had unsuitable accommodation. We should give them access up to the age of 21 to someone who can help them get into proper accommodation and do all the things that a mum or dad or friendly relative can do when young people are trying to set themselves up in their own home and work out how to live in an adult world.

The Minister will not be surprised that I also wish to bring up the matter of support for children in care who cannot handle it and who have run away. When Lancashire police set up their “mountains into molehills” project, they used some very effective computer systems to track the reports that they were getting about children who had gone missing. They found that they were spending more than £6 million a year on investigating reports and that each report was costing them in the region of £1,000 to investigate, and when they did further analysis they found that the majority of the reports were about young people under 18 and the majority of those were about people in the care of the local authority who were consistently running away. One young girl did so 78 times—a cost of £78,000 in police time that did not benefit her. However, when the police got together with the local authority and the care homes and identified which children were at risk, and started working with the care homes to do something about why they were running away and to deal with that, running away incidents reduced radically. We have had the same finding from a number of different authorities; Leicester police force found exactly the same thing. What they are telling us is that if we work effectively to identify children at risk and then work with care homes to identify why this is happening, we can put it right and prevent these young people from getting involved in all the things that some of them get involved in. The evidence to the all-party group that held hearings on this issue showed that many of those young people were not just running away from something; they were being targeted by predatory adults and running to something. They were being groomed—and these were children in the care of a local authority.

I want to follow up the intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey), who has been working very actively on this issue, by asking the Minister a question. Will he ensure that inspection processes involve reports of instances of running away and of assaults, and that they take proper account of what is going on in care homes and of whether these things are being dealt with effectively?

Today, we have had the wonderful launch of the young runaways action plan, which is giving support for all young runaways, but unless we make sure that care homes and their staff understand that they have a key role to play and that it will be supported but also monitored, we will not make the proper change that we can make, if we are ambitious, for children in care.

Finally, will my hon. Friend the Minister give some further thought to children in custody? We have had quite a focus on the fact that a child in care is more likely to end up in custody than in university. I have had what is in many ways the privilege of working with some of the people at the young offenders institute in Thorn Cross, in my constituency. I have been really impressed by the dedication of the staff there, who have been working extremely hard to make sure that young offenders in that institute are in the first instance safe, but also have the opportunity to understand why they are there and how they can stay out in future. Those are absolutely crucial things. I would be far happier, as everybody here would, if we could be far more effective, so that young people do not get themselves into that position. However, I want to know how the Bill is going properly to support vulnerable young people in custody, so that they have access to a social worker who is not travelling a long distance and is perhaps unable to get there, but who is there and can develop a relationship with them, and who can be interested in and supportive of them in the long term.

I also want to know how we are going to ensure that young offenders have access to the kind of things being done at Thorn Cross, where the Cheshire fire service has a fire cadet programme. Young people learn about social responsibility, meet role models whom they can look up to, and are getting involved in doing good in their local community. It has been a very effective programme. As effective, in many ways, has been the programme from the Halle orchestra, which has been working with young people and involving them in music. When they are in a position to leave the institute, it tries to match them up with a youth orchestra or a band, so that they have a different peer group. Such things are really important in making a difference for young people.

Thorn Cross has developed lots of relationships in the local community, allowing young offenders opportunities to use some of the skills that they are learning. Some of them have never had any opportunity for education before, and they are getting NVQs at the young offenders institute and then going out into the community and helping voluntary organisations, thereby putting something back in. This is a really important issue and I am raising it so determinedly because we have got to be ambitious to protect the safety of young people in custody, who are young people in care, and to provide them with every help and encouragement to stop offending.

The report by Anne Owers, Her Majesty’s chief inspector of prisons, which was published in February, stated:

“The juvenile unit at Thorn Cross is the only open establishment for under-18s in the prison system. It is also the only juvenile establishment that this inspectorate has assessed as performing well across all four of our key tests—safety, respect, activity and resettlement. It is therefore particularly ironic that this will be its last inspection, as the Youth Justice Board has decided to withdraw funding and remove under-18s from Thorn Cross. This is therefore an obituary, rather than a report on progress.”

She continued:

“This inspection showed that the Thorn Cross juvenile unit was a beacon of good practice in working with a small number of young people and preparing them for the transition to life outside prison. This is a model that should be built on, not abandoned. It may be that this would be better delivered through smaller units in a number of locations – and this is something that the Youth Justice Board is now reviewing. However, to close Thorn Cross before there are any concrete plans for alternative open units, and largely for immediate financial reasons, is both disappointing and retrograde.”

I hope that the Bill will ensure that far fewer young people from care go into custody and that there is every opportunity for any young person who has committed an offence, in order to prevent any future offending. I recommend the Bill.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Warrington, South (Helen Southworth), to whose indefatigable and outstanding work, in particular on behalf of runaway children, I should like to pay the warmest possible tribute. I was delighted also to hear the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) reiterate her commitment to securing a ban on smacking, and for the avoidance of doubt I can say that if such an amendment to the Bill is tabled, I, for one, will be pleased to support it.

I hope that hon. and right hon. Members will understand if I reserve my most effusive words for my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr. Timpson), who is newly arrived in this place. It is customary, on occasions such as this, that hon. and right hon. Members, irrespective of party, should reflect upon the strengths of the Member and of the speech. In these circumstances, that poses no difficulty for me, because I echo the generous but thoroughly justified tributes that have already been paid to my hon. Friend. He spoke with wit, with eloquence, with passion and with wisdom— wisdom and discernment born of a direct experience of the care system, a hands-on involvement that gave him the knowledge that allowed him authoritatively and pithily to contribute to debate on the Bill. I, for one, welcome him as a new colleague and look forward with interest and respect to his future contributions to our proceedings, and I suspect that I will not be alone in thinking in those terms.

I welcome the Bill, which is an excellent measure. Doubtless, as so often these days, I shall contribute in my non-partisan way, which will provoke great suspicion and a certain amount of excoriating criticism from people who think that it is absolutely to be expected that one should try to behave in as tribal a manner as possible. For my own part, I have really no interest in doing so; when a measure is good, I believe in saying so. I think that this is a good measure, in terms both of purpose and, predominantly, of content, and the Government should be applauded for what is, unquestionably, an advance.

I hope that the Minister for Children, Young People and Families, who knows the very high esteem in which I hold her, will not take it amiss if I choose, therefore, to focus my remarks not on the excellent contents of the Bill, about which much has been said, but on those additions to it, or amendments of it, that in my view could make it better still.

I must say that I enthusiastically endorse what has been said by the hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble), which was underlined in interventions by the hon. Member for Stourbridge (Lynda Waltho) and others, including the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke), about the merits of—indeed, the requirement for—the insertion of a commitment to independent advocacy. That is not, in any sense, to belittle or dismiss the important improvements in arrangements in relation to independent reviewing officers. Much thought has been given to that subject, it has been open to consultation, Ministers have reflected on the matter, and Lord Adonis conducted himself in the other place with a diligence and breadth of mind that most of us who know him have come to expect from him.

I simply put it to the Minister of State that the role of the independent reviewing officer is important, but it is a discrete role. The role of the independent visitor is important, but it is a separate function. The role of an independent advocate should be established, valued, supported, extended and made an entitlement for people in care because of its own merits. It seems to me that the significance of the role of the advocate is that he or she would be genuinely separate from, uninfluenced by and independent of the decision-making process that his or her services on behalf of the child or young people could hope to influence.

Ministers have said that, yes, they can see the merit of advocacy, but they seem to be slightly timid and apprehensive about making a commitment to independent advocacy an entitlement. The argument has already been powerfully made. I think it could be contended quite forcefully—I am not a lawyer; I say that as a matter of some very considerable pride—that article 12 of the United Nations convention on the rights of the child would probably make a potent case in support of the establishment of independent advocacy. Moreover, I feel that particularly strongly in relation to those children in care who have special educational needs. The House will be conscious of the fact that that is something to which I attach great importance.

There has been a litany of statistics already in the debate; I simply want to underline one figure that was included in an earlier speech: 28 per cent. of children in care have statements of special educational needs, as compared with 3 per cent. of the school population as a whole. The hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood, in a compelling speech, gave the example of those children who have communication difficulties. They might have learning disabilities; they might also suffer from severe physical disability, but they might not. I want to underline the fact that children or young people with speech, language or communication difficulties of a significant intensity should be regarded as suffering from a disability every bit as anxiety provoking, debilitating and potentially life or potential limiting as would be a physical impairment or a mental disability. For children who probably know what they want, know what they need, know what their interests are, know what they want to be done for them and know how they wish to contribute to its being done to be unable themselves to articulate it is quite the most breathtakingly frustrating state of affairs. For such children, the right to independent advocacy could make a decisive difference.

The Minister of State has probably heard me make the point before that in relation to special educational needs—I respect the fact that the Government do not agree with me on this point—I feel that local authorities are in a virtually omnipotent position, in the sense that they assess, decide, pay for and more often than not provide what the child gets by way of special educational needs provision. My own view—it is shared by some although not by all contributors to the special educational needs debate—is that it would be wise to separate the assessment of need from the funding of provision. Whether or not that is desirable, I put it to right hon. and hon. Members that, if the average child with SEN is in a bit of a difficulty in negotiating with either a recalcitrant or simply a cash-strapped local authority, we should think how much worse it is for a child in care who does not even have the advantage of a parent or parents articulating, advocating, agitating, lobbying and campaigning on his or her behalf.

In those circumstances, there is a compelling case for independent advocacy, and I would go further, as did the hon. Members for Stourbridge and for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood, in saying let there be an extension of looked-after status from those formerly described as being in care to those who are permanently resident a significant distance from home within the education system. Decisions will be made on their behalf. Events are unfolding. Judgments have to be made. Advocates are required. It is not too late for the Government, during the passage of the Bill, to reconsider their position.

What I am bothered about above all is the concept of the unchallenged omnipotence of the public authority. Against that, one needs a counterbalance.

Does my hon. Friend suspect that there are occasions when the outcome of an assessment can be informed by the availability of funding to provide the right treatment?

There is absolutely no doubt that some judgments are determined on the basis of available resources rather than on the extent of the need. If I am to be fair to the Government, I must say to my hon. Friend that in probably any imaginable system some regard will have to be paid to resources. There has to be some limit; it is not possible to satisfy every demand. It seems to me, however, that the difference at the moment is that there is an inbuilt incentive to keep costs down and perhaps in some cases, inadvertently and subliminally, to put the issue of the purse before the requirement of the child or young person.

Reference has been made to the educational provisions of the Bill. I welcome what has been said about the designated teacher. The Government will want to take care to ensure that it is not automatically assumed across the country that, for example, the post should be taken up by the special educational needs co-ordinator. It might be advisable for that to happen, but it should not be assumed as a matter of course. If the SENCO already has an extensive miscellany of responsibilities and rather limited time in which to fulfil them, there might be merit in having somebody else perform that role.

There could be a need for training. That will involve a cost. It will require backfilling so that that member of staff can go away and receive the necessary training, advice, instruction and practical experience before coming back to deliver. There is thus a world of difference between the proclamation that such a thing should happen and the observable evidence on the ground that it is happening, but I am sure that the Minister is aware of that. We have to start somewhere and I welcome the inclusion of that measure in the Bill.

I share the concern that there is a mismatch between the commitment to an entitlement for those going into higher education provided for in clause 21 and the reference in the context of those seeking to go into further education to assistance to enable them to do so. Those words were not chosen accidentally. They clearly denote a difference in terms of the intent and scale of ministerial commitment. Let me be absolutely clear: the Government are right on higher education, and the measure is consistent with the agenda of trying to raise aspiration, to lift young people up and to say that there should not be some sort of artificial ceiling. Of course, historically, the figures for participation in higher education by those in care have been lamentably low. Although they have somewhat improved of late, they remain grossly unsatisfactory. That has been the case under successive Governments.

I do not knock the commitment that the Government have made. Moreover, I think that the chosen figure of a couple of thousand pounds is not entirely arbitrary. It has been chosen on the basis of the expected debt levels of someone coming from care into higher education and so on and on the financial disincentive that the present arrangements apply. That makes sense, but we are in danger, if we do not amend the Bill, of discriminating against those who want to go into further education, vocational training or apprenticeships. I cannot see any merit in doing so.

Comment has already been made on the fact that large numbers—by far the majority—of people in care leave before the age of 18. If they are still in care and leave at the age of 19, if memory serves me 30 per cent. enter the not in education, employment or training—or NEET—category. There is a concentration of need among those leaving the system who are uneducated, untrained, unqualified, often historically and currently unwell, and unable effectively to equip themselves to contribute to their own personal fulfilment or the strength of the economy or public services. We ought to be saying, “Let’s support them if they want to go on to further education.” Not to do so constitutes unwarranted, if unintended, discrimination, for the reason that I gave. I put it to the Minister of State and the Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, the hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan), that that seems illogical.

One could be forgiven for thinking, if one were a cynic—but I do not because I am not—that the Government were minded to provide higher education funding on the grounds that there will not be that much take-up, so the cost to public funds will not be all that high. That would be an unworthy basis on which to operate, but the Minister is nothing if not worthy, conscientious and dedicated, so I do not think that that can be the reasoning; however, that is how it looks to the cynic. We should make a comparable commitment to those seeking to go on to training, further education or apprenticeships; we will then be applying an equal standard to both categories.

I add my support to those who say that it was right for the Bill to have been amended in the other place, courtesy of the efforts of my noble Friend Baroness Morris of Bolton. I agree with new clause 7: it seems entirely right that the list of organisations subject to a public duty to promote the welfare of the child or young person should include what was the Border and Immigration Agency and is now the UK Border Agency. If right hon. and hon. Members look at the Children Act 2004, they will see a plethora of organisations that will be subject to a duty to promote the welfare of the child, although their primary purpose is something other than the promotion of that welfare. We are talking about the national health service, the education service, children’s service providers, the Prison Service, the probation service and the police service. To my knowledge, it is no longer argued about any of those that the imposition of that duty would somehow prevent them from fulfilling their primary purpose, or would dilute their effectiveness in seeking to do so. If they can combine their wider responsibilities with the fulfilment of that duty, I see absolutely no reason why the UK Border Agency should not be able to do so.

The Minister has distinguished experience in other Departments, including the Home Office. I ask her not to let the Bill be driven by the preconceptions or apprehensions of the Home Office. I appeal to her to be bold. There is sometimes a concern that one has to appease the red-top tabloids—that the media are obsessed with the level of immigration and that, to some extent, one has to diffuse the tension, allay the anxiety and remove the opportunity to be beaten with the tabloid stick. The Government should be bold about that. There will be cross-party support if the Government accept the Bill as amended in the other place.

What is more, public opinion on such matters is more sophisticated and enlightened than colleagues sometimes suppose. Yes, people are concerned about uncontrolled immigration, and it is right that that should be addressed, but they are also concerned about the rights, treatment, entitlement and pursuit of the welfare of children. No one is more vulnerable than a child who has been trafficked into the country, or who is a persecuted, timorous, frightened but hopeful asylum seeker. I appeal to the Government to consider the matter. In other respects, they have tightened up on judicial review; if they are worried that it will not be possible to return children to their countries of origin under any circumstances, that fear is not justified. I appeal to the Minister at least not to close the door on the subject, but to consider the merits of cross-party discussions and an agreement to retain the Bill as it is.

I agree with what has been said by other hon. Members about extending the provision of foster care, as requested by the Fostering Network and the national organisation that offers advice and support on the subject. I am not sure that we need so many pilots. The Northern Ireland Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety operates a miscellany of schemes, the results of which are clearly observable. There is a patchwork of other such provision in other parts of the country, too. We should not delay for the sake of delay. If we think that there is a reasonable evidence base, let us go with it. The cause is progressive, and it should be celebrated.

My final point is about the architecture of the Bill. I do not cavil at it, but it carries an implication. As Members will notice if they look at the Bill clause by clause, of the 45 clauses no fewer than 13 provide for secondary legislation such as order-making powers and statutory instruments. One of the two schedules allows for such provision, too. That is sometimes necessary—sometimes it is not—and that is the case in many instances in the Bill. Fair dos—I am content with that—but if substantial parts of the Bill are to be dealt with later by secondary legislation, and we are advised that many of those provisions will be subject to the negative procedure of the House whereby, unless there is a specific request to debate them, they are not debated, there is an obligation on Ministers to try to introduce draft regulations before the Bill completes its passage through the House.

That is an habitual war cry on my part, but the difficulty otherwise is that we are to some extent voting for a pig in a poke. I would like to know more of the positive detail of that secondary legislation. Let us see it. It is a good Bill, and it is under the stewardship of an immensely capable ministerial team. I wish it well, but it can be made a little bit better, and I hope that my comments are taken in the constructive spirit in which they are intended.

I must be brief. Like other Members, I heap praise on my noble Friend Lord Adonis, who simply played a blinder in the other place. He presented a decent Bill well enough, but he listened carefully to constructive and, I thought, convincing arguments made by peers and, as a result, he agreed to make numerous changes that improved the Bill immensely. He made changes such as placing the new duty on the Secretary of State to promote well-being, and the new duty on local authorities to plan a range of accommodation for those in care; and he agreed to the right to breaks from caring for disabled children. Those were major improvements; I just want more in this Chamber.

I chair the associate parliamentary group for looked-after children and care leavers, the ethos of which is to bring looked-after children and care leavers to Parliament, and enable people to speak directly to politicians and other decision makers. As chair, I hear the same complaints over and over again: drift in care planning; too many moves in care; the knock-on effect of educational under-achievement; unmet health care needs; poor preparation for leaving care; too many children leaving care inappropriately at 16; a lack of suitable accommodation after leaving care; and the basic fault of not listening to looked-after children, and not giving effect to what they say. Although the faces before me change, the messages continue.

Understandably, young people ask why, when we have identified the problems, politicians do not do anything about them. I therefore hope that the Bill provides an opportunity to do what they want us to do. The Government have not been inactive for 11 years—in fact, they deserve a lot of praise for what they have done for children in the care system. I remember the Quality Protects initiative; today, we have the brilliant Care Matters agenda; and, of course, there is the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000. More generally—and it is important to place looked-after children in the context of all children—we have had the excellent Every Child Matters agenda and the children’s plan.

At the end of March, the Government, the Association of Directors of Children’s Services and the Local Government Association published an implementation plan called “Care Matters: Time to deliver for children in care”, which provides all the tools and advice that people could possibly need to do a good job, and that brings me to the Bill, which gives them the job to do.

For me, the starting point is to avoid the use of care if at all possible in every case. That is not just about early intervention, as we have heard tonight, but about a child-friendly society. It is about eradicating child poverty, and making our communities much more supportive of parents and the difficult work that they do in bringing up children. If care is necessary, we should try to make it involve short-lived interventions that result in the successful return of children to their families. I use the world “family” in the broadest sense of the term, including kinship care. In particular, like other Members, I support those brilliant grandparents who care not only for their children, when they thought that they had seen the last of them as adults, but for their grandchildren.

I detect in clause 36 a helpful little step in the right direction in respect of the entitlement to apply for a residence order, but what is really needed to make care, such as kinship care, work effectively is properly structured support, including the ability of agencies to pay carers for bringing up children. I welcome in clause 24 the slight change in respect of cash payments that can be made to such people, but I am talking about help with the legal costs of getting the residence order and with the social security benefits that are constantly denied to the grandparents but that the parents would have received, and with all the other obstacles that are placed in people’s way when they are doing brilliant work on society’s behalf.

There is also no explicit provision for sibling contact. Although the local authority is required to allow contact, the authority is not required to facilitate it. Roger Morgan, the children’s rights director for England, who has been mentioned already, recently published the views of 433 children on improving care standards. The fourth main recommendation from the children was:

“Care placements should be designed so that brothers and sisters can stay together”.

The Bill carries across the provisions in the Children Act 1989 relating to a duty on local authorities to accommodate together siblings

“so far as is reasonably practicable”.

However, we must look at using this legislative opportunity to strengthen the duty on local authorities both to place children together, unless it is not in their best interests to do so, and to support sibling contact as part of their corporate parenting function.

Children may go into care from an abusive or neglectful environment. Distress, emotional trauma or more profound mental health issues might reasonably be anticipated, and those problems must be identified and addressed. The choice of an appropriate placement depends on that assessment, and work that is done early to provide mental health care or to promote emotional well-being will often make a major difference to a child’s life. The National Children’s Bureau reminds us in its briefing—perhaps surprisingly—of the many physical illnesses and conditions that are missed when children entering care are assessed. Those factors convinced me that effort and money must be invested in the physical and mental health care and emotional well-being of looked-after children to ensure sufficiently high standards of care for all looked-after children. On the question of how to achieve that, perhaps we can debate in Committee whether more is needed through the letter of the law, through regulations or through guidance.

On the question of foster care or residential care, two out of three children who go into public care are fostered. The majority of fostered children return to their own families within a year—clearly, a very successful outcome. However, foster care is not the right solution for all looked-after children; it depends on the assessment of each child’s individual needs. When foster care is the right choice, none the less, there must be an adequate supply of foster carers to meet the demand—that is, not only enough foster carers to meet total demand, but enough to match individual needs. Issues about pay and support for foster carers also need to be addressed if more children are to enjoy positive experiences in foster care placements. Support should encompass a system for investigating allegations against foster carers that is fair to complainants and fair to the foster carers themselves.

Some constraints are beyond the control of foster carers, such as local authorities pushing children out of care at 16 and the current legal age limit of 18 for a foster care placement. We politicians must do more to remove those constraints. Children in residential care were often, in their early lives, powerless in their families, so they may depend on their residential care worker to be their best advocate. All social care staff should be given professional development and support to enable them to be the most effective and efficient advocates for the children in their care. Their work must support what is done to intervene in, and help, families, even before children become legally subject to the duties of local authorities.

It is vital that we make social care work more attractive so that we can get away from the current situation, with which we are all familiar, of a high threshold of intervention in families because of a lack of overall social care capacity. That, in turn, should help to prevent the high turnover that such children often experience.

I have been asked to be brief, so I shall make just two additional points. First, many Members have called for the support of advocacy for children, and I very strongly support it. Secondly, it is absolutely terrible that youngsters are taken out of care without preparations for independent living, or taken out of care at 18 and put into a home that is not at all suitable for them. Many then fall into the kind of difficulties that we have heard about, involving all the depressing statistics cited at the beginning of the debate.

This Bill is our one opportunity to get things right for the next generation and, I hope, for all the future generations of children who will come into contact with the care system. Let us ensure that we do good job of it.

As time is limited, I will aim to say everything that I want to say in about three minutes to allow for three minutes for another speech.

Hon. Members will be aware that I chair an organisation called Justice for Families, which concerns itself with failures and miscarriages of justice in the family courts. This debate is like “Groundhog Day” in that we are again talking about all the various processes such as kinship caring that we wanted to achieve years ago, but that still do not happen. In essence, that comes down to a failure of accountability. Tomorrow morning, as part of an all-party group of MPs, I will table two new clauses, one of which deals with how people take advice in the family courts and the accountability of the process while maintaining confidentiality. The other deals with how we scrutinise the decision-making process in the family courts. We will not be allowed to attack that particular aspect, which is covered by section 31 of the Children Act 1989. That section is in part 1 of that Act, while parts 2 and 3 are covered by the Bill and can therefore be amended.

It is important to listen to people such as the hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble), who obviously understands what is really going on in this very complex process. Unless we find a mechanism for making all the practitioners—not just the good ones—follow the law, do things the right way, use independent advocates and avoid people perverting the course of justice by threatening to take their money off them, we will be wasting our time producing new statute, because it will be ignored by the worst practitioners. Another problem is that those practitioners are required to follow the Government targets, although I accept that the Government scrapped a lot of those targets from 1 April. The critical issue is one of accountability and following the law. Unless proposals for that are included, we will have all the nice, fine words but things will continue in the same vein.

I am most grateful to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) for allowing me a couple of minutes to squeeze in my speech at the end of this very consensual debate.

I would like to pick out two aspects of the requirement on local authorities to provide suitable accommodation. That will be a great challenge in many cases. Occasionally, I find that 16 and 17-year-olds have been given council tenancies, but these young people do not have the life skills, personal responsibility or discipline to be able to cope with living independently. We need to find other ways of giving them a halfway house between being a child and an adult and giving them the support and back-up of an adult.

The other aspect is the requirement to provide respite care for families with children with very special needs. I think particularly of children on the autistic disorder spectrum, whose families desperately need the opportunity for respite care. That accommodation will have to be tailor made and very specific to the needs of children who do not respond well to change and the unfamiliar, with highly trained staff to look after them so that those families can enjoy their respite without having to worry about whether their children are being looked after properly.

There are two special challenges for local authorities in providing accommodation for young teenagers who are not really mature enough to live successfully on their own without being a nuisance to their neighbours and in providing respite care for those who look after children with very special needs.

We have heard throughout the debate agreement on both sides of the House that every child needs a stable, secure and caring environment in which to grow and thrive, never more so than when they are unable to live with their own parents and the duty to care for them falls on to the state.

The reasons why children come into care differ, but for two out of three looked-after children the main reason why social services first get involved in a child’s life is abuse or neglect. Such children are already vulnerable, and the support that they are given should provide the stability and security that they need. It is important to note that the majority of children in care are aged between 10 and 15, which is not an easy period of life for many children and certainly not for those subject to the turmoil of going into care.

As my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) has said, we welcome the opportunity that the Bill presents to shape important improvements in the way in which looked-after children are cared for and to help them get the best possible start in life. It is our duty to ensure that the Bill goes as far as possible to address the many failings that hon. Members have referred to in their contributions.

I join the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) in congratulating the other place on many of the changes already made to the Bill. Government amendments in the other place have helped to clarify the need for an in-built presumption of the promotion of stability in every child’s life, with the child’s family continuing to play a pivotal role wherever possible. Family remains important, not only because family relationships are some of the most important in our lives, but because last year more than 40 per cent. of looked-after children returned to live with their parents. That enduring relationship remains important, and the Government amendments in the other place recognised that more needs to be done in the Bill to spell out the important role of the family in the hierarchy of options that a child has for placement, as set out in clause 8.

The clause also highlights the need for local authorities to ensure that placements allow children to live near home, that education is not disrupted and that a child lives with sisters or brothers, if they are also in care. Just as the Bill urges all involved in the care of looked-after children to raise their aspirations, the Government need to continue to raise their aspirations. As the Bill proceeds through Committee, we will seek the Government’s support for further amendments.

The debate in the other place led to some important amendments, and I pay tribute to the work done by my noble Friend Baroness Morris of Bolton, whose successful amendment of the Bill in the other place has resulted in a clear and robust statutory duty on the Border and Immigration Agency to safeguard and promote the welfare of children who pass through its care by amending the Children Act 2004. A number of other Government amendments were added in response to important concerns expressed by the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee and the Grand Committee. Today’s debate suggests a great deal of scope for the Government to go further.

We have heard several important contributions from all parties, but none were more important than that of my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr. Timpson), who took the opportunity afforded by today’s debate to make his maiden speech. I congratulate him on an outstanding maiden speech; he spoke movingly about his predecessor and her unstinting commitment to this place and to her constituents in Crewe and Nantwich. In the best spirit of maiden speeches, he brought to life the vibrant nature of his constituency, of which, as many hon. Members noted, we have first-hand experience. He brought to life its history and its potential, which I am sure will be realised through his hard work and commitment. It was most appropriate that he made his maiden speech on children in care, something of which he and his family have extensive experience. He spoke of some of the 86 children that his family fostered while he was growing up, and I am sure that his contribution has already demonstrated the value that he will bring to this place both from his family life and from his experience as a family lawyer.

We heard an important contribution from the right hon. Member for North-West Durham (Hilary Armstrong), who pointed out that the Government have made a significant investment in children in care in recent years. In the other place, the noble Lord Adonis confirmed that between 2001 and 2005 £230 million was spent to support children in residential care and £330 million was spent to support children in foster care. As the right hon. Lady pointed out, despite that investment only modest improvements, which do not match the investment, have been made. For example, the proportion of children who get five or more GCSEs has improved by only 3 per cent.

The right hon. Lady also mentioned the Government’s need to focus on those most in need and her work on social exclusion. I hope that her words resonate with the Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, the hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan), who will reply to the debate, because she is right that the Government have not taken the action that is needed to focus on children most in need. I have highlighted that, especially in the context of Sure Start, for which the Government have recognised the need to improve and increase the number of outreach workers. However, there is evidence of worrying cuts.

In trying to paraphrase my words, the hon. Lady needs to recognise the huge improvement that 1997 brought. She was not here, but I spent 10 years before 1997 in the House, when it was difficult to get any investment, or, indeed, much attention, for the subject of our discussion. I therefore congratulate my hon. Friends, but I also urge them to go further.

I thank the right hon. Lady for her intervention but, as she pointed out, investment is not enough, because we need reform to ensure that the money is made to work hard.

My hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham made a characteristically excellent contribution, which showed his commitment to and long-standing work on the subject. I want to highlight his comments about the widening gap between looked-after children and their peers. Many hon. Members referred to those worrying statistics throughout the debate and the cost that that presents to the state if those children, left without the support they require, enter the offenders’ system. Indeed, my hon. Friend pointed out that persistent offenders individually cost the state some £164,000 a year, and perhaps we need to take more account of that cost when we evaluate the importance of the measure.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) made a valuable contribution and raised an issue that other hon. Members did not mention—the problems that face those who wish to adopt a child in this country and the apparently overwhelming influence of a child’s ethnic background when local authorities judge parents’ potential suitability. The House will listen carefully to the Under-Secretary’s response to my right hon. and learned Friend’s contribution, because my right hon. and learned Friend has highlighted an issue about which hon. Members of all parties are deeply concerned.

The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) drew attention to several problems for disabled children in long-term residential places. I am sure that that will be covered more fully in Committee.

Two hon. Members emphasised the importance of independent advocacy. My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) spoke with his usual thoughtfulness and eloquence about the additions that he would like to make to the Bill, and he highlighted independent advocacy as one issue that requires further examination. He stressed the unique role that independent advocates play in supporting looked-after children and their value for the more than one in four children in care who also have special educational needs. The hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) also raised that issue.

My hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) raised, at the tail end of the debate, the important issues of accommodation for those leaving care and of respite care. She also mentioned something that clearly requires careful discussion in Committee, namely the challenges that the Bill sets local authorities. Many hon. Members have local authorities that do well in looking after the needs of children in care. My local authority in Hampshire has great experience of kinship care. I learned that that is not available in many parts of the country, but we take it for granted in my part of Hampshire. We need to ensure that local authorities can meet the challenges that the Bill creates for them.

I want briefly to pick up on something that the Minister for Children, Young People and Families, who opened the debate, said about health inequalities. She reminded the House that half of all children in care suffer from a mental health problem. I hope that that issue will be taken up either by the Under-Secretary when he closes the debate or in further debate, because only a fraction of those 27,000 children in care aged between five and 17 who have a mental health problem have any hope of receiving the support that they need. Indeed, briefings for this debate indicate that only 10,000 of those children will receive the support that they need from mental health services.

The Minister for Children, Young People and Families also discussed the importance of closing the inequality gap. I want to pick up on the words that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe used about the gap that concerns us all on the Conservative Benches—the gap between the words used in debates such as this and the reality that is delivered on the ground. We all want to work together to ensure that that gap closes.

There were also contributions from the hon. Members for North-East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), for Warrington, South (Helen Southworth) and for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming). Unfortunately, time is short, and I cannot go into great detail about the issues that they covered, but I am sure that they will want to play a full part in Committee and the remaining stages of the Bill.

The Opposition welcome the opportunity that the Bill presents. We will do all that we can to ensure that it is ambitious, to use the words of the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire, and that it does all that it can to raise our aspirations for what can be achieved for looked-after children. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham said in his opening statement, we will seek to press the Government further in Committee on a number of critical areas to improve the Bill’s impact on the lives of looked-after children in all our constituencies throughout the country and to emphasise the importance of strengthening family contact, because the family is the source of our closest and most meaningful relationships, which is why we want to introduce a presumption of contact between all children in care and their siblings.

Because we know how important stability is for children, we want to reduce the bureaucratic burden for social workers, so that there is less turnover in that profession and that, as a result, children receive the continuity of care that they need. Staff turnover among social workers in London is currently 15 per cent. every year, and it is even higher in other parts of the country. That is not only a great cause of concern for the children involved, but a great waste for local authorities.

Additionally, we want to help children who wish to stay in care until they are 18, and we want to give care leavers a nominated social worker whom they can contact for advice. Most social workers do a remarkable job in the most difficult circumstances. Their profession has undergone a great deal of scrutiny, and some would say that their reputation had been bruised in recent years. That needs to be addressed head-on. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham has said, we want to consider the appointment of a chief social worker, who would be the public face of the profession.

We want to ensure not only that foster carers are encouraged to enter the profession, but that they are protected from any unfounded allegations that may shake their desire to remain in it. We also want all private foster carers to be registered with their local authorities to increase confidence in foster carers throughout the country.

This has been an important debate on how we can improve the situation for children who are looked after. We should pay tribute not only to those involved in providing the care on the ground for their tireless work, but to those national organisations whose knowledge and expertise provide us all with an invaluable insight into the work that needs to be done. I am sure that all right hon. and hon. Members would like to thank those organisations that spent a considerable time providing us with the briefings that we needed in order to have such a high quality debate.

In conclusion, this debate shows that there is no difficulty in identifying the problems and no shortage of desire to raise the aspirations of those who work with looked-after children. However, over the past decade—and perhaps even before that—there has been a failure to deliver a real change for children who are looked after. We on this side of the House will work with the Government to help ensure that we make the most of this opportunity, because there is a will among all right hon. and hon. Members to ensure that the Bill really makes the difference that children in care need.

We have had a lively, high quality and mainly consensual debate this evening, which is as it should be on this subject—one that was neglected for many years, but that has had a great deal more attention recently. As we have all said this evening, it should have even more attention. The contributions to the debate have often been enriched by pertinent personal experience and expertise, which has greatly contributed to the quality of discussion.

I think that we share a common goal across the House. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Children, Young People and Families set it out in the opening speech, and hon. Members have continued to express it throughout the debate. Since tributes have already been made to the other place, I would like to pay my own tribute, particularly to Lord Adonis, who did much of the heavy lifting on the Bill at the other end of this building with considerable effect, panache and a great deal of support on all sides. The common purpose that we are trying to nurture is really about the well-being of every child. We want to secure for every child in the country every possible opportunity to make the most of their talents. That is the reason why the Department for Children, Schools and Families was created—to ensure that every child has every chance of success.

A successful future depends not just on exam results, as it begins at birth and it is nurtured in the home. It is fostered from support, stability and significant adults who care about children, keep them safe and encourage their progress. That is what the Bill and the broader reforms of our “Care Matters” agenda are intended to secure for every child, not just the fortunate few. We want to try to make our care system truly world class, so that those children and young people who, for whatever reason, are unable to live with their birth parents receive a level of care akin to that which any good parent would provide. It is the job of every professional within that system to support the well-being and development of children and young people as far as they can, not just as far as it applies to their job title. That applies not just to our care system, but right across children’s services.

In fact, everybody is part of team Every Child Matters. This legislation is a core element of our “Care Matters” agenda, which will support high-quality professionals providing a high standard of service in a world-class system. The aim is to provide children and young people in the care system with those fundamentals that my right hon. Friend the Minister talked about earlier: good-quality parenting, raising aspirations for young people in care, and giving those young people a real voice and, most crucially, stability in their young lives. I am pleased that hon. Members across the House have welcomed many aspects of the Bill in support of those aims: securing local, stable placements as a priority; the centrality of the voice of the child in everything we do; improving care planning; and better support to help young people make the transition into adult life.

Members have raised other specific issues during the course of debate, and I will try in the time available to do some justice to them, even if I cannot do full justice to all. The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) told us about some of the amendments he intends to introduce as the Bill progresses, so we look forward to seeing them. He mentioned a welfare checklist. Of course, section 22 of the Children Act 1989 already sets a framework for local authority decision making. It makes it clear that local authorities have a duty to “safeguard and promote” the child’s welfare; that the local authority must discharge this duty having particular regard to the need to promote the child’s educational achievement; and that the local authority must consult the child and give due consideration to their “wishes and feelings” before taking decisions that affect them, and give due consideration to

“the child’s religious persuasion, racial origin and cultural and religious background”.

That is almost entirely analogous in content to the welfare checklist.

The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham also mentioned the proposal to establish a chief social worker. Our approach, set out in the children’s plan, which was published last December and was reinforced in “Building Brighter Futures”, is wide-ranging and systematic in seeking to accelerate change across the whole of the children’s work force. Our ambition for that work force cannot be achieved by central Government or any single partner alone. Furthermore, there is already a work-force infrastructure in place that carries out many of the functions suggested by the report, including the General Social Care Council, the Children’s Workforce Development Council and the Social Care Institute for Excellence. Nevertheless, we look forward to seeing the hon. Gentleman’s proposals.

I was surprised that the hon. Gentleman got into the business about adoption targets. I did not realise that he was rowing in that particular river. The only adoption targets, which ended in 2006 and which he will remember had their genesis in the Adoption and Children Act 2002—we both served on the Bill Committee—were on the number already in care and waiting to be placed for adoption, and on speeding up the process. Those targets reflected the Government’s desire to reverse a long-term decline in the number of children already in care who found a permanent home through adoption. The right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), whose remarks I shall come to in a moment, referred to that aim tonight and supported it strongly when we considered that Bill.

I will not give way, although I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman had only three minutes in which to speak. Oh, go on then.

The Minister is saying that best value 163 was scrapped at the end of 2005-06. Does he not agree that, in fact, it was still extant for 2007-08 and has been scrapped only since then?

As I have pointed out to the hon. Gentleman on many occasions, there were no financial targets attached to the national adoption targets that we are talking about. Neither is there any evidence whatever that supports the contention that he has made on a number of occasions, which is that younger children becoming adopted is somehow linked to reward payments of some sort; there is absolutely no evidence whatever.

I can remind the House of what Mr. Justice Wall said recently about the hon. Gentleman’s campaign on some of those matters:

“My judgment is that his self-imposed role as a critic of the family justice system is gravely damaged… I find it not only unacceptable but shocking that a man in Mr. Hemming’s position should feel able to make so serious an allegation”

about that particular case

“without any evidence to support it. In my judgment, it is irresponsible and an abuse of his position.”

I advise the hon. Gentleman to provide evidence.

I am not getting into a personal dialogue with the hon. Gentleman because I need to refer to other hon. Members.

If I may, I shall move on to talk about some of the other contributions. My right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Durham (Hilary Armstrong) has great expertise in this area and she showed that this evening. She acknowledged what the Government have done so far and she played a large part in it, particularly in relation to some early intervention projects, which the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham mentioned, although he neglected to mention that many of them were introduced on the Government’s initiative and with Government support centrally.

My right hon. Friend also encouraged me to be ambitious about pilots in relation to social pedagogy. I can tell her that we share very strongly her interest in and commitment to social pedagogy, and we will shortly announce the successful tenders for developing social pedagogy pilots in children’s homes in England. More than £1 million is being allocated for those pilots.

The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) made a number of comments in her usual thoughtful way. In particular, she referred to the issue of private fostering. The strengthened notification scheme introduced by the Children Act 2004 has had only two years of operation, so we contend that it has not operated long enough for us to assess it properly. It was also mentioned by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham.

We are not at this stage convinced that a registration scheme would offer safeguards in a way that notification cannot. We believe, as does the British Association for Adoption and Fostering, which works extensively on private fostering arrangements, that we should seek to ensure that the current arrangements are operated effectively and evaluate them more fully before introducing a new registration scheme. I am sure that we will discuss that topic further in Committee.

The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole also raised the issue of variations of rates in care, which I am sure we can also discuss in further detail in Committee. Furthermore, she mentioned the UK Border Agency and the Lords amendment. We have certainly heard the points made by Members of the House and by peers in the other place in relation to that amendment. In the light of that, we will consider our response. I am sure that that is another matter that we shall discuss in Committee.

Like other hon. Members, the hon. Lady also raised points about advocacy, which I am sure we will debate in great detail in Committee. She quoted a little selectively from the Select Committee report, on the point that care needed to be taken with the pilots. I do not know why she omitted the previous sentence in the report:

“We welcome the provision in the Bill on piloting social work practices.”

The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr. Timpson) graced us with his maiden speech, and paid tribute with great eloquence, and I am sure sincerity, to his predecessor. In my ministerial capacity, I received a letter from my late hon. Friend two days after she passed away, which started: “Dear Kevin, Thank you for your response to my recent letter”—I will not mention the subject—“it is totally useless.” That sums her up. The hon. Gentleman also told us with great sincerity about his personal associations with children in care, and spoke effectively and passionately about the recruitment of social workers. I am sure that he will make a great contribution to the House.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) for her usual passionate support of advocacy. She will make her voice heard throughout the rest of proceedings on the Bill.

My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) spoke about an issue that is not in the Bill, namely smacking, although she will probably tell me off for calling it that. We changed the law on the matter in 2004, and I must emphasise that in the review from she quoted, the majority of parents did not support a ban on smacking. In the absence of evidence that the law was not working, the Government decided that there was no case to change the law.

The right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe raised an individual case, which has been highlighted in the media, in relation to adoption. Obviously, I cannot comment on the individual circumstances of the case, although I have read those media reports. All I can say is that local authorities, under the law and under the guidance, must find a placement that meets the needs of the child. A child should not be denied the opportunity of a loving family only on the basis of the ethnic background of prospective adopters. The Government’s policy is quite clear: it was set out originally in 1998 in the local authority circular, “Achieving the Right Balance”. It has not changed—the matter was debated under the 2002 Act—and local authorities should comply with that. I cannot emphasise that too strongly.

As ever, my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, South (Helen Southworth) spoke with great eloquence and passion on these subjects. It was a great pleasure to be at No. 10 Downing street with her earlier today to launch the action plan for runaway children. With parliamentary colleagues across the House, she has played a huge part in pressing the Government to take action. I congratulate her on that. She spoke movingly of the need to make sure that the transition out of care is properly managed. I spoke to the Fostering Network lobby today on some of the issues raised in her speech, and particularly about the “staying put” pilots, which will enable people in the 10 areas I mentioned today to stay on until at least the age of 21. We will debate in further detail in Committee the reasons why at this stage we need to collect the evidence to get that policy right.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) who, as ever, contributed with great eloquence to our debate and raised a number of extremely important issues, with which I do not have time to deal in great detail now. Suffice it to say that we will take on board his point about secondary legislation, but we will need to consult on the regulations.

On that basis, given the short time available to me, I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.