Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for minimum standards in respect of accommodation for young people leaving care; to impose a duty on local authorities to ensure that such standards are met; and for connected purposes.
This Government have made considerable progress in the support of vulnerable children and put in place exemplary legislation and regulation to improve the outcomes for those children. The Children and Young Persons Act 2008 established laudable principles and objectives to improve the experience of young people in care, to deliver high-quality corporate parenting, to listen and respond to young people, to bring stability and continuity into every aspect of a child’s care, and to create an uncompromising culture of high aspirations.
Those are incredibly laudable objectives, but they need to be underpinned by detail. Indeed, the Act is largely underpinned by extensive regulation, one aspect of which is currently out for consultation. It relates to young people between the ages of 16 and 18 who are in the care of a local authority and who are being placed in accommodation in an unregulated setting—that is, not in a children’s home or a foster home. This is the first time that there will have been a definition of suitable accommodation for those young people.
I shall refer to those plans in detail in a moment, in the context of my Bill, which would put in place minimum standards for young people of 18-plus who are leaving the care of a local authority and making the transition to independent living. As we all know, that time of a young person’s life involves an awful lot of support needs. They depend on other people to help out when they are trying to take those first steps. They are trying to work out whether a particular course of action is the sensible one, and whether it will take them where they want to go. They are asking themselves, “Where do I want to go?” or, in some cases, “Who do I want to be?” and “How can I take the steps to achieve that?”
At the moment, there is a gap between the laudable aspirations that I have mentioned and the direct experience of people in care and leaving care, and it is our responsibility to sort that out. A young person should not have to try to second-guess the system when they have no experience of these things. They need to be supported in the same way that they would expect to be supported by a caring parent. Such a parent would ask, “Is this accommodation suitable? Is it where you want to be? Where do you want to be? Where do you want to go to school and university? Where do you want to go to college? What do you want to achieve? Have you got a job? How can we support you?” We need to be able to work effectively to provide somewhere safe and secure in which a young person can fulfil their aspirations and do as well as they possibly can. We are not in that situation at the moment.
I have an example of a young woman who got in touch with the Who Cares Trust. She started a job in London, her first job. The work was hard and involved a lot of hours, and she had a lot of things to take into account. She needed a lot of help from her foster carers, even though she was at an age when they did not have to provide it. The flat that she had been offered was dirty. She said, “Don’t tell me people live in this filth.” Her foster carers could not believe it when they went in. It took a whole set of them a week to clean the place up. She said that there was grime, dust and growth on the walls, that the walls had holes in them, that plaster was missing and wallpaper was peeling off, and that there was damp and mould everywhere. She could not believe that she was expected to live in such a place, but it was the only option offered to her.
I recently had a meeting with a group of young people who came to Parliament to tell me about their experiences, along with a group of social workers. The social workers were great people; they were helpful and supportive. They said, however, that young people up to the age of 21 were being supported. One of the girls then asked a question, and it is a question that we need to find an answer to. She asked why, if young people were being supported up to the age of 21, she had been placed in a bed and breakfast with her baby when she was 18.
We talk about the intergenerational problems experienced by vulnerable young people, but we have the ability to help them to break out of them. We must mind the gap. At the moment, young people are telling us that they can be placed in bail hostels alongside people who have problems with drug addiction, or in places where prostitution is actively taking place. These are places where they would never have been allowed to go when they were in the care of a local authority, yet they are being placed in them by the authorities because there are no effective minimum standards.
Some authorities are brilliant—they have worked it out and know how to do it. Some agencies are incredibly effective: the National Care Advisory Service, which works directly with local authorities and young people, has tremendous experience of what works and what can be done well. Crucially, it has involved a considerable number of young people with experience of care in drawing up what they believe should be the minimum standards for accommodation. I have been in several meetings with them and gone through these matters in detail. What I have noticed most is the close correlation between what good local authorities and children with experience of care say is the minimum standard needed, and minimum student accommodation standards drawn up by universities and colleges in consultation with their students. It defies logic that an 18-year-old at a university or college now benefits from extensive, detailed minimum standards on whether accommodation is suitable, but an 18-year-old leaving care does not.
What is provided for an 18-year-old leaving care and going to university or college? During their time at university they have minimum standards, but during the holidays they have nothing. The basic need for standards of the most vulnerable children who go to university or college is unmet. Why must there be standards? If there are standards, the expectation is set. The Bill would define not good practice but what is safe or legal for anybody else. For a house in multiple occupation, a set of legal standards is required. Those standards must be available to our most vulnerable children.
Significantly, I do not have the considerable time necessary to go through the recommendations of the National Care Advisory Service in detail, but young people currently have to make a decision on the hoof, on one choice. Everyone in the House knows that there is a difference between an unfair tenancy agreement and a fair one. There is a difference in terms of safety between somewhere with a lock on the door to which the person concerned has the key, and somewhere that does not. Who would feel comfortable going to sleep in a place where they did not have a lock on the door? Who would feel comfortable going to sleep in a bail hostel without a lock on the door? I have had horrifying discussions with young people about their experiences in bail hostels where they cannot lock the door. That is not good enough, it is not acceptable, it is our responsibility to do something about it, and we have the opportunity to do so.
Currently, regulations are being put together for young people aged 16 to 18. As far as they go they are good, but they do not specify that a young person should have a private room, or that they should be able to secure it. That is not good enough, but it is significantly better than the provision for young people aged over 18. To mind the gap for young people leaving care from the age of 18, we should bring in legislation that is sufficiently robust for them to be able to challenge a poor decision, and to prevent predators moving into the market and exploiting the vulnerability of such young people. Beyond that, it must also be sufficiently robust to ensure that they are secure, safe, able to achieve, and able to grow into who they want to be and should be.
Question put and agreed to.
That Helen Southworth, Derek Twigg, David Cairns, Ms Karen Buck, Ann Coffey, Mr. Kevin Barron, Mrs. Janet Dean, Christine Russell, Mike Hall, Mr. Russell Brown and Annette Brooke present the Bill.
Helen Southworth accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 12 March, and to be printed (Bill 56).