Contact Between Prescribed Persons and Adopted Person’s Relatives
I beg to move, That this House agrees with Lords amendment 1.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Lords amendments 2 to 42.
Lords amendment 43, and amendment (a) thereto.
Lords amendments 44 to 72.
Lords amendment 73, and amendment (a) thereto.
Lords amendments 74 to 120, 126 to 149 and 151 to 157.
Lords amendment 158, and amendment (a) thereto.
Lords amendments 159 to 176.
It is a pleasure to set out to the House a number of Lords amendments. The changes will improve our reforms, and make a real and lasting difference for children and families. I hope Members will support them. I will try to be as succinct as possible in explaining each set of amendments.
As the House will recall, part 1 of the Bill covers adoption, and we have made Lords amendments 1 to 11 to this part. Through Lords amendment 1, we have added a clause that will enable us, by regulation, to ensure that those with a prescribed relationship to people adopted before 30 December 2005 can apply to access intermediary services to facilitate contact with the adopted person’s birth relatives.
Will the Minister please say whether there will be a presumption in favour of disclosure to children and grandchildren? Specifically, if an adopted person does not wish to have contact with the birth parents, does the amendment state that prescribed persons can go against those wishes?
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for his continued interest in this important matter. The whole basis of the amendment is to extend the provisions that already exist, so that anyone who wants to make further inquiries, about accessing information or making contact, has to do so through the intermediary services. There is not a presumption, therefore, in that sense. We are looking to go beyond the direct line of descendants from the adopted person, who obviously fall within the prescribed relationship category, and consult on whether we should widen that to others. The provision certainly does not work on the basis that if someone does not want to have contact there is a presumption that that will take place.
The intermediary service is there to ensure that anyone who seeks access does so in a way that does not compromise the position of the person they are seeking either to gain access to or make contact with. That is in line with the approach that already exists, and which works well and successfully. What I can say on the record to reassure my hon. Friend is that this will not force anybody to have contact if they do not wish to do so. Clearly, there will be lots of reasons why people will either want to make contact or have access to records. For example, someone may want to understand the genetic history of direct descendants to see whether there is a prevalent hereditary disease to which they are more prone.
At this juncture, may I say how grateful I am to my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North (Nick de Bois) for his tireless campaigning on this issue, as well as to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Government Policy, my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr Letwin), who has continued his personal interest in pursuing these important changes? I believe that the changes will ensure, where it is appropriate to do so and through the intermediary services, a greater prospect for those who want to establish contact or have access to information, to be able to do so without compromising those who may be also involved.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way and for his generous words. I put on record that many of my constituents, and many people from outside my constituency, have contacted me on this matter. I have been able to say to them that this has been Parliament at its best, working with Ministers on this subject. I am grateful to him for the advice and support of his office in moving towards an acceptable solution.
I thank my hon. Friend for those words. As he knows, this has been a long-standing issue on which we have sought the advice of the Law Commission and others to establish a way forward. The fact that we can now legislate and implement these provisions represents a good outcome for many people, including his constituents.
In amendment 2, we have clarified the point at which the fostering for adoption scheme must be considered for a child and established that before a local authority considers placing a child in this way, it must first have considered kinship care and decided that it was not the most appropriate placement. Also in part 1, through amendments 7 to 10, we have introduced an affirmative resolution procedure in relation to the Secretary of State’s powers to direct local authorities to outsource adoption functions, in relation to the use of personal budgets and in relation to allowing approved prospective adopters to search and inspect the Adoption and Children Act 2002 register in pilot areas.
On part 2 and family justice, many hon. Members will be pleased that the noble Lords accepted the principle and purpose of clause 11. However, we have accepted amendment 12 to clause 11 from the noble and learned Baroness Butler-Sloss. As hon. Members will also be aware, clause 11 introduces a presumption that a child’s welfare will be furthered by the involvement of each parent, where this is safe and subject to the overarching principle that the child’s welfare must be paramount. Baroness Butler-Sloss’s amendment addresses concerns raised that the clause could be misinterpreted as giving a parent a right to a certain amount of time with a child. That was never the intention, as I have said several times during the Bill’s passage. The amendment addresses those concerns by clarifying that “involvement” does not mean a particular amount of time.
Importantly, the amendment does not change the effect of clause 11, as it will remain for courts to determine what arrangements are right for each child in the light of the evidence before it. I want to put on the record my gratitude to my hon. Friends the Members for Dover (Charlie Elphicke) and for Northampton South (Mr Binley) and, in particular, my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), who has championed this change in the law for many years. I have no doubt that had he not done so, we would not have made the significant progress we now have.
I thank the Minister for his comments. I understand the logic of Baroness Butler-Sloss’s amendment in not referring to a particular division of a child’s time. Despite being at loggerheads with her over many years, I can see the logic of that. Will he explain, though, why her amendment refers to “direct or indirect” contact? What does that add to the Bill?
As I said in Committee, I did not feel it was necessary to add anything more to the clause in order to explain its function, but that was not the view of their lordships. The reference to “direct or indirect” contact makes it clear what we mean by “contact”. As I know from my time practising in the family courts, many orders are set out in those same terms. It does not mean, however, that indirect contact, in itself, fulfils the presumption that we have now set in law; it simply makes it clear what we mean by “contact”.
I thank the Minister for establishing the important principle that children’s rights include knowing, and having contact with, both their parents, but for the benefit of the House and those outside, will he confirm that “indirect” contact will not be interpreted as meaning just a phone call at Christmas or a book of photographs, and that it will be meaningful contact, even if indirect?
Once again, I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his persistence in pushing this issue. I cannot prescribe exactly the outcome of every case before the courts or the view of a judge concerning the correct order to make. However, the clause seeks to make it abundantly clear that, where it is safe to do so and in the child’s best interests, the child should have meaningful contact with both parents. How that contact takes place is then for the judge to determine according to the usual criteria. I was trying to make it clear to my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham that indirect contact, on its own, could not, in every case, fulfil the presumption. It is important to put that on the record, and I wrote to him today about that to put—I hope—his mind at rest.
On contact, will the Minister clarify the position regarding children’s views and the paramountcy principle? From what he just said, I am slightly concerned about the view of the judge. I know he thinks it important that the needs of the child come first, but how do we ensure that contact is appropriate and avoid inappropriate contact that does more harm than good?
We will do that by ensuring that the paramountcy principle still holds water and that the judge’s discretion is not fettered by this change in the law. We went to great lengths to set out, with the help of parliamentary counsel, exactly how that would operate. Baroness Butler-Sloss, with her esteemed legal mind, was happy to accept it in the terms we set out. So I do not see any conflict. We have been clear from the start that this is about the right of the child to have a meaningful relationship with both parents, where it is safe for them to do so and in their best interests, and their lordships have agreed to that presumption and principle. The only change that has come, as a consequence of their amendment, is that we are stating in the Bill something that we had already made clear was our intention in both the pre-legislative scrutiny stage and in subsequent stages in the House.
I would like to recognise the considerable contributions by the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd)and my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly)to our important reforms of the family justice system. Their expertise and insight have been invaluable. I was a fellow Cestrian member of the Bar and, like him, plied my trade along the north Wales coast, and I know that the right hon. Gentleman’s legal clout will be sorely missed in the next Parliament and beyond.
Part 3 takes forward our fundamental reforms to special educational needs and introduces integrated education, health and care plans for children and young people with the most complex special educational needs, extends comparable rights and protections to 16 to 25-year-olds in further education and training, as found in schools, and introduces a new local offer to ensure that parents, children, young people and those who work with them can see the support that should be available to them.
I welcome the enhanced offer in the Bill as a result of our deliberations in Committee. Earlier today, I had a meeting with senior consultants in social services and charities concerned about the situation of seriously ill children, their families and the social work support they need. How will the incorporation into the Bill of the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970 help those children, who might be terminally ill, but will certainly be seriously ill, and their families get the social work and educational support they need at a very difficult time?
If the hon. Lady will forgive me, I will be dealing in more detail later with the social care element, the 1970 Act and how that sits within the Bill. However, during the course of the Bill, I have met hon. Members concerned about children who might be terminally ill, perhaps with cancer, seeking support from elsewhere, outside their educational environment. We have taken that into account in the Bill and in the code of practice, which is still being drafted but will soon be available, so that those who require support through their education receive it when they need it and in a way that makes a difference.
I had the opportunity to meet CLIC Sargent and a Labour Member who has a particular interest in this matter to discuss many of their concerns. That has already resulted in some changes to the draft code of practice, and CLIC Sargent remains involved—as do many other organisations, charities, parent-carer groups, parent partnerships and others—in shaping the SEN code of practice so that it reflects what we know works on the ground. That will continue as we move into the implementation stage, should the Bill become an Act in due course. Given these reforms, for which many families, professionals and charities have been waiting for 30 years, it is fair to say that many of our conversations with CLIC Sargent and other groups—particularly the discussions about the all-important detail, which is ultimately what will matter—have been helpful.
I, too, am particularly pleased that the local offer has been somewhat strengthened, as it will be central to the success or otherwise of the new system of support for children and young people with special educational needs. However, I still do not think it is good enough for the unwritten postcode lottery that we have now just to become a written one. Does the Minister not agree that we need a baseline against which parents can judge whether their local offer is good or even sufficient?
I thank the hon. Lady—for probably the 14th time during the passage of this Bill—for her continued constructive approach to this part of the Bill. I know she has a keen interest from her own family background in ensuring that we produce a system that has children and their families at its heart. We had an interesting and quite long debate in the Commons and another place about the local offer and minimum standards, as well as—from memory—a number of Westminster Hall debates.
It is clear from both the regulation on the local offer that we have set out and the code of practice that having a national framework not only provides some of the stability in provision that the hon. Lady is looking for, but allows the local offer to be truly local, so that people have a genuine reflection of what their local authority expects to be available and deliverable for children and families in that area. Therefore, although I hear her continued call—which I think is for national minimum standards—I think we have got the balance right between having a national framework and giving parents and young people the opportunity to be consulted on the local offer and comment on it as it is developed, and also, given the addition to the Bill and the code since the Commons stages, ensuring that local authorities respond to the queries and concerns raised by families.
As the hon. Lady knows, we have to use the affirmative resolution procedure in this House for the code of practice and that will provide an opportunity to look at some of these issues. The other thing we have done to ensure that implementation is as successful as it can be across the country is to carry out a local authority readiness survey. We are working with local authorities that are perhaps not as well advanced as others in starting to prepare for the changes, which includes looking at the local offer and what steps they have taken so far to involve families in its evolution. That will continue as these reforms become a reality from September.
I appreciate the Minister’s giving way. Things will vary around the country, as my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) said. Will he look at sharing good practice, and does he think it wise for the Government to be saying, “This is what we consider to be best practice,” in order to give local authorities that do not have best practice an indication of what they should be doing?
We have already provided local authorities with a raft of good practice and data to help them not only to improve their understanding of what is required of them, but to do better at the earlier end of the process —in commissioning, planning and assessment. We can learn a huge amount from many of the voluntary organisations that are out there in the field, working closely with families and statutory agencies to ensure that they get the best possible outcomes. We have a number of grants and contracts with those voluntary organisations to support them in doing that. That will be a key part of ensuring that our reforms start to bite in the way that we have already started to see in many of the pathfinder areas.
We have also extended the scope of a number of significant clauses to children and young people who are disabled, but do not have special educational needs, through Lords amendments 14 to 39, 41 to 46, 48 to 51, 62 to 65, 67 and 118. I am pleased that we were able to make that change, which has been widely welcomed. For example, Julie Jennings, a board member of Every Disabled Child Matters, has said:
“The changes announced today mean that all disabled children and young people, will benefit from the Children and Families Bill when it is introduced. This is very welcome news, indeed.”
To reflect that, Lords amendment 176 would amend the long title of the Bill to include children and young people with disabilities. We have also made it clear, in clause 21, that health care and social care provision that educates or trains a child or young person is to be treated as special educational provision. That relates to an understandable concern of many Members of this House, so I hope the change in Lords amendment 13 is welcome.
I thank my hon. Friend for raising that point. We had many arguments about the “wholly or mainly” provision in the original draft of the Bill, and I am grateful to him and the noble Lord Nash for listening to the case that many of us made against it. We now have clarity, which we hope will prevent the sort of damaging litigation that has plagued special educational needs provision over the years.
My hon. Friend speaks with great wisdom and force, as he has done throughout the passage of the Bill, particularly on this part. To hear him utter those words gives me great confidence that we have done the right thing and ended up with both clarity and a sense of what is now required as we move forward.
The local offer was discussed at some length in this House. We have amended part 3 further to improve accountability and the responsiveness of the local offer. I do not think it would be right to make the changes sought by amendment (a) to Lords amendment 43 in the way proposed. These issues have been debated at length in both Houses, both of which accepted the Government’s arguments, which I will briefly explain again.
The local offer will contain provision made by a wide range of organisations, including small voluntary sector groups or informal arrangements—for example, a circle of friends group for disabled young people set up by local young people. The services may be expected to be available, but this cannot be guaranteed. Requiring local authorities to publish what is available might deter them from including such provision in the first place, and children and young people will miss out. In publishing what it expects to be available, the local authority cannot say, “Well, we think this might be available one day, so we’ll put it in.” For the avoidance of any doubt, we will make it clear in the SEN code of practice that the duty on the local authority to set out what it expects to be available is not about what it would like to be available, but about what it actually expects to be available.
We have also made a set of amendments that will shift the focus from explicit consideration of age when assessing education, health and care plans for 19 to 25-year-olds, and that instead require local authorities to consider whether a young person requires more time to complete their education or training, and whether the specified outcomes have been achieved before the plan can cease.
Lords amendments 72 and 73 build on the health duty introduced in Committee in the Commons by including in the Bill provision made under the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970, under which there is an existing duty to provide social care services to disabled children. Those amendments were welcomed by the Special Educational Consortium and a number of peers on Third Reading in the other place. Lord Rix said:
“The government amendments move us closer to the holy grail of integrated education, health and social care,”
“undoubtedly aid children and young people with a learning disability and their families.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 5 February 2014; Vol. 752, c. 209.]
Well remembered, Minister!
I think that there is much that we can support in the Bill, but I wanted to ask about the single point of appeal and the reviews and pilots that are taking place. Will the Minister explain how the findings will be used in the further development of the appeal process?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for returning us to the important issue of redress. I shall go into a little more detail in due course, but I can say now that I was conscious from the outset that we should do all that we can to integrate education, health and social care throughout the system, including in the areas where there was disagreement. I think that we have gone a long way towards achieving that during the passage of the Bill so far, but if the hon. Lady will bear with me for a few moments, I shall wax lyrical for her and the House’s benefit.
I understand the intention behind amendment (a) to Lords amendment 73. It is, of course, vital for parents and practitioners to understand the duties to deliver the social care services specified in the education, health and care plan. However, let me reiterate the points made by Baroness Northover when she spoke to Lords amendments 72 and 73.
The Government amendments mean that when a local authority decides that it is necessary to make provision for a disabled child under section 2 of the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970 following an EHC assessment, the authority must—I emphasise “must”—identify which provision is made under section 2 of the Act, specify that provision clearly in the EHC plan, and deliver the provision. Furthermore—I hope that this is helpful to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe)—we will ensure that the SEN code of practice specifies the services under section 2 that must be included in the EHC plan and explains the existing duty to provide those services, in order to provide clarity and reassurance for parents and practitioners.
The code of practice will clearly specify the other social care services that must be included in the EHC plan and relevant local authority duties, including services provided for children and young people under section 17 of the Children Act 1989 that are not covered by the 1970 Act, such as residential short breaks, and adult social care services for young people aged 18 to 25, where a care plan is drawn up under provisions in the Care Bill. Given those reassurances, I do not think it is necessary to legislate for a further requirement to identify existing duties in the EHC plan.
Lords amendments 86 to 97 and 113 constitute a strong package to improve the join-up between education, health and social care when parents and young people wish to complain or seek redress. That includes extending mediation and establishing a review of appeals and redress in the new SEN system. Following a commitment that I gave on Report, we tabled a meaty group of amendments that will strengthen protections and support for young offenders with SEN. They require local authorities and relevant health commissioners to arrange appropriate special education and health provision for young offenders in custody, enable EHC assessments to take place while a child or young person is in custody, and require secure youth institutions to co-operate with local authorities and to have regard to the SEN code of practice.
The package also includes amendment 114, which would remove clause 70. I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland) for his involvement in and guidance on the issue, and on many of the changes I have just outlined. As he knows, I was as uncomfortable as he was about clause 70. Although it was a legal necessity at the beginning of our deliberations, it did not really reflect the ambition that we shared, and I hope that he is as pleased as I am to see the back of it.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I know that he worked with the Ministry of Justice and, in particular, with the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Kenilworth and Southam (Jeremy Wright), who was as committed as we were to ensuring that this was an ambitious Bill that covered all the right areas. I pay tribute to both Ministers for ensuring that children and young people who need rehabilitation as much as punishment can be assisted, and we can reduce reoffending. That is very important too.
I agree with everything that my hon. Friend has said. Perhaps I should also put on record the important contribution of Lord Ramsbotham, who, having worked at the top of the Prison Service, has continued his work in Parliament and enabled us to make the inroads that we have made in the Bill.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart)— whose continued scrutiny of and interest in the Bill have been extremely welcome—and all the other members of the Education Committee. I thank the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) and my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) for all the challenge and support that they have given to this part of the Bill. Let me also put on record my deep gratitude to my hon. Friend the Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather) for doing so much of the groundwork, without which the Bill might never have become a reality.
Part 4 contains a number of important measures that will help to make more high-quality, affordable child care available to parents. It addresses the long-term decline in childminder numbers by establishing childminder agencies, removes the requirement for local authorities to produce a bureaucratic three-yearly assessment of child care in their areas, and introduces paving legislation for tax-free child care.
On Report in another place, we were pleased to introduce Lords amendments 157 to 160, which contain a clear requirement for Ofsted to report on the arrangements whereby childminder agencies assure the quality of the early education and care offered by their childminders. I note that amendment (a) to Lords amendment 158 relates to that subject, and I can confirm that our intention is for Ofsted to conduct sample inspections to secure that assurance. Ofsted recently published its consultation paper on childminder agency inspections, which includes details of its proposal to carry out sample inspections of early years providers, so we do not agree that such a provision is needed in the Bill. I am happy to discuss the matter with both the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), and the hon. Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell) as we try to proceed with these important changes.
We also introduced technical amendments, Lords amendments 161 to 175 to schedule 4, to clarify the arrangements for childminders to appeal against suspensions by their childminder agencies and to clarify the disqualification regime for staff running or working in a childminder agency. Lords amendment 119 allows regulations to be made setting out the arrangements whereby local authorities fund early years providers delivering the free child care offer, and limiting any unnecessary conditions that local authorities could place on providers. I am pleased that we were able to introduce new policy to the Bill, which, if accepted, would create a new part 5 entitled “Welfare of Children”.
Lords amendment 120 removes the restriction on the types of performance in which a child under 14 can be licensed to take part, which will enable children to take part in a wider range of performances. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham for his admirable persistence in keeping that issue to the fore. I know from the correspondence that I have subsequently received from a range of organisations and individuals who are vexed by the issue how warmly those changes have been received. Let me put on record my thanks to Sarah Thane, whose work ensured that the issues were properly examined and have resulted in important legislative and non-legislative changes. I am continuing to work with the Local Government Association to enable local authorities to gain as much information as possible on how they can streamline their own procedures so that many more children, as well as being safe and having their welfare taken into consideration, have the opportunity to participate in what can be extremely valuable additions to their early lives.
Lords amendment 126 adds an important new clause to improve the assessment of the needs of young carers. I thank the hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) and the National Young Carers Coalition for their constructive and patient approach and interest in this subject. Matthew Reed, the chief executive of the Children’s Society, welcomed the amendment, saying:
“We applaud the Government for taking a huge leap to support often incredibly vulnerable young carers who are slipping through the net, undetected by the support services they desperately need.”
Lords amendment 127 adds a new clause which consolidates and streamlines existing legislation for individuals with parental responsibility for a disabled child, under which they have the right to an assessment of their needs by a local authority.
On amendment 126 in respect of young carers as well as parent carers, may I thank the Minister very much for the way in which he has engaged with carers organisations, me and many other hon. Members? These issues first surfaced in the Joint Committee’s scrutiny of the Care Bill, and I thank the Minister for care and support, my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), for the way he has engaged with these issues, too. Will the Minister here tonight now give some consideration to the following? Now that we have these two parts of the Bill and we complete the range of improvements for carers, can we make sure we have joint guidance from both Departments covering all carers?
May I first pay particular thanks to my right hon. Friend and also to the hon. Member for Aberavon (Dr Francis) for their dedicated work and interest on behalf of parent carers? That was clearly on display at the meeting I had with them both not too long ago. My right hon. Friend will see that my hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for care is sitting alongside me, and we both heard that constructive and sensible suggestion, and we will both take it up and discuss it in more detail and see whether we can make some important cross-Government changes so that those who are looking at the guidance that is relevant to them find it easier to access and understand it, rather than trying to find information in a host of different places.
It is helpful to get these points clarified. I think my suggestion would be helpful, in particular because this welcome new provision for parent carers makes specific reference to the well-being principle in the Care Bill; and making sure that guidance is co-ordinated will ensure that there is no difference in application, regardless of whether someone is in a children’s service or an adult service.
My right hon. Friend makes a sensible and logical suggestion; we will go away and consider it and come back to him in due course.
Amendment 128 added a new clause enabling any young person who was in care immediately before their 18th birthday as an eligible child to continue to reside with their former foster carer once they turn 18. The local authority will be under a duty to support such arrangements, commonly known as “staying put” arrangements, until the young person reaches the age of 21. This is an issue on which many of us with a background in fostering and adoption and those involved with the all-party group on looked after children and care leavers from both sides of this House and in another place have worked for many years. I am delighted that we have been able to find the funding to do it, and I would like to thank the Earl of Listowel and my hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley (Craig Whittaker) for their work on this area. I am very sad that the late and much missed Paul Goggins is not with us today to celebrate this important step forward for young people leaving care. As was typical of Paul, I suspect he would have shied away from taking any of the plaudits, a trait that set him apart and from which we could all learn. We owe him a huge debt.
In welcoming this new clause, Janet Rich of The Care Leavers’ Foundation said:
“Step by step this Government has demonstrated that it truly understands the difficulties which face care leavers as they set out on the journey towards adulthood. Today’s announcement is another positive step on the journey towards State-as-parent acknowledging the duty they owe to this uniquely vulnerable group of young adults”.
I agree with the move the Minister is proposing. I think it is very good news. I also welcome what he said about Paul Goggins. Is this the start of a move to raise the age for care-leaving, given that many adult children stay at home much longer than this? Will the Minister say something about the potential for extending the care-leaving age for children in residential homes as well, as it is my understanding that that is staying at 18?
I share what I think is the hon. Gentleman’s ambition, and that of many others, to move away from seeing age as the sole indicator of whether a young person is ready to move on when they are in the care of the state, and, as we have done in the Care Bill and elsewhere in this Bill, to move towards looking at it as more of a continuum of care, trying to shape what is necessary for the young person around that young person, rather than simply using the blunt instrument of a birthday to decide their future.
This is an important step in relation to the three-quarters of children who are in foster care and securing their future into adulthood, but of course, as I made clear in an Adjournment debate only a week or so ago, I want to see us move towards this as a norm rather than an exception. That is why, although we have some much needed wide-reaching reforms to the residential care system, I see that as part of addressing how we can use residential care in a much better way than we have in the past, not simply seeing it as a last resort, which has too often been the default position. I hope that that reassures the hon. Gentleman that I very much desire to see what we have done with the “staying put” arrangements for foster children spread more widely at the right time and when we have confidence that it will do what we want it to do, which is to improve the lives of those who are moving on from care and into independent living.
We worked closely with a number of organisations to bring about amendment 129, which introduces a new duty requiring maintained schools, academies and pupil referral units to support pupils with medical conditions. This issue was first raised in the House by my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Mr Sanders). We are currently consulting on draft statutory guidance and advice that will support the duty, but it is encouraging that the likes of Diabetes UK had this to say about the change:
“The Government’s announcement that it will amend the Children and Families Bill so that schools have a legal duty to support children with health needs has the potential to make a huge difference to the lives of around a million children.”
Amendment 130 adds a new clause to clarify the law in relation to the Secretary of State’s power to intervene when a local authority is failing to deliver children’s services to an adequate standard. Amendments 131 to 134 seek to improve the quality of children’s homes, and particularly to enable us to develop a regulation and inspection framework for children’s homes that sets high standards for children in residential care and offers them the support required to achieve positive outcomes. This has been a significant piece of policy development, founded on the formidable efforts of the hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey), who is in her place tonight and whose own all-party group report and continued close involvement have been of huge assistance. As she knows, this is part of a wider reform package that is already under way and I have no intention of shying away from the necessary changes required to ensure that children who are in residential care get the best possible care based on the best possible decisions.
Amendment 135 introduces a new clause to require state-funded schools, including academies, to offer a free school meal to all pupils in reception, year 1 and year 2. Giving every infant pupil a healthy and nutritious lunch will bring educational, health and social benefits, particularly for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Amendments 136 to 138, which cover the provisions on the Office of the Children’s Commissioner, will require the Children’s Commissioner to have “particular regard” to the United Nations convention on the rights of the child and to give an account in his or her annual report of the steps taken to involve children and how their views were taken into account in the discharge of his or her functions.
Amendments 139 to 142 are minor and technical amendments relating to the part of the Bill that deals with the introduction of shared parental leave. They would give the Secretary of State the power to make regulations to allow for a notice to curtail statutory maternity pay, maternity allowance or statutory adoption pay to be revoked subject to restrictions and conditions. Finally, consequential amendments 144 to 151 would make commencement dates clear in the Bill where necessary.
I commend these changes to all hon. Members. I firmly believe that they have improved our legislation and that, more important, they will make a profound and tangible difference to the lives of children and families.
This feels like the end of a long, hard road for the Bill. As the Minister said, the Bill has been substantially amended since it left the Commons, and for that we owe their lordships a huge debt of gratitude. I should like to take a few moments to acknowledge the efforts of some of the individuals involved in the process, including my hon. Friends the Members for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) and for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), who did the heavy lifting on the Bill in the Commons. I also want to thank Baroness Hughes of Stretford and Baroness Jones of Whitchurch, as well as the numerous Cross Benchers involved, and my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) and my colleague in the shadow Education team, my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell), who worked so hard on the Bill in Committee and more recently. I also want to put on record my gratitude to our friend, the late Paul Goggins, who worked so hard on so many aspects of the Bill.
As I have said, the Bill before us now is vastly changed and improved, but only because of the herculean efforts of those in the Lords. Sadly, before it left this place, the Minister rejected all but one of the amendments from Members in the Commons. This is a Government who appear to want to make legislation in the other place. I am delighted that the Minister has now accepted so many amendments. We generally welcome the changes on adoption and, in particular, Lords amendment 2, as well as the decision to recognise the importance of kinship and friends when considering children for adoption. I welcome amendments 3 to 7, and the limitation on the Secretary of State’s powers to force the outsourcing of adoption services, especially as we have such a capricious Secretary of State at present—
I’ll buy you a dictionary.
We also welcome amendments 9 and 10, which add safeguards on regulations to give prospective adopters access to information on the register. Finally, in that section, we are happy with amendment 12, as we want children to have access to both parents after a separation when that is in the best interests of the child, but not when it involves an arbitrary division of the child’s time between the parents.
I am delighted to hear that the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues have now accepted the principle of shared parenting. Will he tell us what changed his mind? I seem to remember that he signed the early-day motion in favour of shared parenting but subsequently voted against the proposal in the 2006 Bill, so what has changed his mind? I am delighted that he has now come full circle on this matter.
I think there might be a slight difference between our definitions of shared parenting. That might be the simplest explanation. I am in favour of children having access to both parents, as I have said.
We are pleased that amendments to part 3 mean that the Minister now recognises the need to provide for children who have a disability but not a special educational need. I also welcome the Government’s conversion on the need to cater for young offenders, many of whom do have special educational needs. I congratulate the Minister on accepting amendment 128—the “staying put” amendment—which means that children in foster care will now be able to stay with their foster parents until the age of 21. I want to acknowledge how much personal effort he has devoted to these changes, along with all the others who have been arguing for them.
I also welcome efforts to improve the appeals system for parents, who often feel that the problem is not that their child has a disability or special need, but the lifelong battle they are forced to engage in with the authorities to get their child the help and support they deserve. Of course, the amendments covering young carers address a glaring omission in the original Bill, and we are all grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) for all her efforts on that point.
Many more areas of the Bill have been vastly improved by their lordships’ intervention, but I wish to discuss the amendments standing in my name and those of my colleagues in the shadow education team, which deal with a number of concerns we have about how the Bill will work in practice. We do not intend to press any of these amendments to a vote, but that does not diminish our concern about how these issues will develop. On our amendment (a) to Lords amendment 43, we want to make it abundantly clear that the local offer must not be the minimum a local authority thinks it can get away with; it is no good producing legislation full of good intentions while simultaneously stripping resources from local authorities, thus making it almost impossible for them to deliver on these intentions. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West, I hope that we can be assured tonight that the Minister will be instructing his officials to monitor the implementation of the Bill and ensure that reasonable local services are provided across local authorities, and that where omissions or obstacles are identified, he will intervene to make clear that it is not acceptable, and that it is not the intention of his legislation, to create a postcode lottery where access to services and provision depends on where someone lives and what impact Department for Communities and Local Government cuts have had on their local authority area.
On Lords amendment 73 to clause 37, and our further amendment, it is our wish to make it abundantly clear that there should be no get-out clause for local authorities in providing access to social care provision specified within an education, health and care plan. If that is not the case, this Bill will have failed and the Minister will have let down hundreds of thousands of families up and down the country who have taken him and his Government at their word that this is a brave new world of joined-up provision, designed to try to relieve them of their daily struggles for support. I welcome the Minister’s comments on the code of practice, but I want to know that he will step in if there is any question of a local authority seeking to evade its responsibilities to provide social care as specified in the plan.
Finally, we continue to doubt the entire wisdom of childminder agencies, but we recognise that this is largely a cost-saving measure by a Government who cannot give Ofsted the resources to inspect individual childminding provision. On clause 51D and Lords amendment 158, and our further amendment, we are seeking to make it crystal clear to the Minister that we do not want shoddy childminder agencies on the cheap, with little or no regard paid to the quality of care provided for the children. As the Minister will know, the Department did not consult effectively with childminders on this proposal, and it is not broadly welcomed by childminders. None the less the Government have gone ahead, so we need to be clear that Ofsted will have sufficient powers to check the quality of care provided by individuals within the agencies, especially at the first whiff of concern that the agency or individual provision is not up to standard. There is a potential conflict with childminder agencies, in that they will be both inspector and inspected, and they will have a financial incentive to recruit childminders.
Is my hon. Friend as concerned as I am about who is going to pay for all the costs of these childminder agencies? Will the costs be passed on to the childminder agency, which will in turn have to pass them on to the parents, thus increasing the cost of using that childminder?
The Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years and the Family and Childcare Trust say exactly that this model will increase costs for parents. A recent Netmums survey shows that people say that Ofsted inspection of childminders increases their confidence in the suitability of the childminders they choose, while an almost equal proportion say that regulation by an agency other than Ofsted would reduce their confidence. We will be keen to hear more about how the Minister will pilot his approach and how it will work in practice. Will he take on board the fact that parents will want to access reliable information about the quality of childminders, which they currently obtain through Ofsted inspection grades and reports?
I understand that the number has fallen since this Government came to office, but the hon. Gentleman misses the point. I am talking about childminding on the cheap, yet with a service of insufficient quality to make it worth having. If that is the outcome, it will be understandable when parents do not agree with him.
The Government have already scrapped local authorities’ power to consider the sufficiency of child care in their area. If they fail to equip Ofsted with proper powers to investigate what is happening at a childminder’s place of work, they risk exposing vulnerable young children to untold risk. I am sure that the Minister would not want to be associated with that legacy.
The hon. Gentleman is probably wrong because I think he is referring to the impact of Ofsted registration—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) can neigh as much he likes, but we are talking about the quality of child care.
My understanding is that the situation is as my hon. Friend set out. When Ofsted started to inspect childminders, dormant childminders—people such as me who were registered, but had never practised childminding—fell off the books. The people affected either were not active childminders or were not prepared to improve their quality and follow Ofsted standards.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I hope that there is now some agreement on what happened.
I do not wish to detain the House any longer. We welcome the Lords amendments and we are broadly in favour of the Bill, although we think its implementation will be all important. We urge the Minister to make it clear that, as far as he is concerned, getting the Bill through Parliament is the first stage; the question of whether it operates as he intends is the real test of whether it is indeed landmark legislation.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe). Although he has come to his brief towards the end of the Bill’s passage, I know that he shares the aspirations of those of us who care deeply about not only children with special educational needs, but children and young people in general, which is why I warmly welcome the Lords amendments.
I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will not mind if I remind him of our lengthy debates in Committee, when we were joined by the hon. Members for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) and for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell), as well as hon. Members who are not in the Chamber. I do so because I think that the Bill’s passage through this House offers a very positive example of how scrutiny can work. The length of time we took—the Committee’s proceedings were extended by several sittings to allow all the debates—allowed us to lay a good foundation so that their lordships could consider our concerns and act upon them.
I am grateful to be in the Chamber tonight to hear the hon. Gentleman’s contribution. Does he agree that it was the hundreds of amendments and the hundreds of hours—it felt like hundreds—of debate in the Commons that laid the groundwork that allowed the Lords to bring forward the amendments that the Minister is able to accept today? If that is how it has to be, then we did our job, but it is a shame that more amendments could not have been made in the Commons.
I agree that it would have been nice to have made some of the amendments in the Commons, but I understand that in the other place there is more time for deliberation and for votes, so the fact that we reached this stage in that way does not trouble me. We are in the right place and the legislation is now in good order. Let us not forget that the process that got us to this stage predates First Reading, because there was an extensive consultation process. A consultation paper was issued in 2011, followed by many months of proper consultation not only with education providers and the third sector, but with children and young people themselves, whose views have been brought to bear in large measure in the Bill.
Only this morning I visited one of the special schools in Swindon, the Uplands secondary school, where the Uplands Educational Trust was holding its annual general meeting. It is a new organisation that has been set up purely to start offering post-19 provision for young people who have gone through the school system and hit the cliff edge of transition, which is still a problem that bedevils parents, carers and young people in the education system and beyond. It is an admirable and excellent initiative that I fully support. I believe that such organisations will be the mainstay of enhancing and developing post-19 provision right up to the age of 25 and beyond for many young people with disabilities and special educational needs. Without the input of such organisations, I worry that the aspirations in the Bill for extending provision to those crucial years will not be met.
The message that came home loud and clear from parents and carers today was that although they warmly welcome the Bill, the implementation will be key. Once again I heard from many parents who find the transition period the most difficult one of all, despite the good intentions and the good work of local authorities, such as Swindon borough council. The message that they wished me to convey to the House is that in many cases, involving the parents and carers—the greatest experts when it comes to their children and young people—is vital to making transition work.
If we are to get that right, the code of practice that will be brought into force later this year, as set out in the Bill, will be crucial. I am glad that the code will be approved through the affirmative procedure in this House in its first iteration, with subsequent revisions made using the negative procedure, which should allow for frequent updating. The existing code has not been updated since 2001—hardly the embodiment of the living instrument that I and many others expect the code of practice to become. It is my sincere hope and fervent wish that the Government take on board the failure of that code to keep up to date with modern practice and to ensure that it truly is a living and adaptable instrument that reflects not only the aspirations of children and young people with special needs and disabilities, but the reality of experience on the ground. Implementation is everything.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady. She and I have spoken about these issues in the past, and I know that she shares on behalf of her constituents the aspirations that I have for mine.
Other hon. Members have mentioned implementation, but it is important to reiterate the point. I stress the importance of the pilot scheme for the single point of redress as regards the appeals mechanism for parents who have met with a refusal or a decision that is not, in their view, in the interests of the child they look after. I argued long and hard with my hon. Friend the Minister for a streamlining of the system. My worry was that despite the proper attempt to bring health, education and social care together, the courts and tribunal system would still be fragmented in the sense of people having to launch and lodge appeals in different formats.
My hon. Friend has rightly placed great emphasis on mediation. I support the provisions that relate to the use of mediation for parents, because we do not want more of the adversarial combat that has bedevilled the fight that many families have had to undergo to obtain SEN provision. It is important that the pilot becomes a reality, that the intentions in the Bill are not left to lie gathering dust, and that there is a proper evaluation of the pilot so that, if it proves necessary, we can go down the road of having a single point of redress provided by the first-tier tribunal. That is important in making the system user-friendly, simple, streamlined and clear.
Some of the most important amendments deal with the extension of the duty on local authorities to identify not only children and young people with SEN but all children and young people with a disability. That is a hugely important concession that goes a long way towards satisfying the concerns of those of us who were worried about what happens to children and young people who are, for example, on school action or school action plus and would not be caught by the provisions. These amendments, which are replicated throughout the Bill, will make a huge difference to the lives of young people with a disability. They also give added impetus to the need for early identification of a health issue. Leaving these matters until full-time education is not good enough when there is so much more we can do during the early years and, indeed, the very early years to identify disability so that, way before the child gets to school, action is taken not only to diagnose the condition, whatever it may be, but to assist them and their family with its consequences.
I warmly welcome the whole-family approach that is now being taken in the context of carers. Together with other hon. Members, I supported amendments on young carers. I was very pleased that the recommendations about parent carers made by the Joint Committee on Human Rights, on which I serve, were also taken up in the other place. We now genuinely have a whole-family approach to the assessment of carers, and that is absolutely vital if we are really going to make a change on the ground.
My hon. Friend the Minister mentioned the position of young people in detention. The glaring deficiency in the Bill as originally drafted has now been amply dealt with by the very comprehensive amendments that were accepted in the other place. My friend Lord Ramsbotham deserves huge credit for the tireless work that he does on this and other matters. Particularly important is the fact that the disability of difficulty with speech and language communication will now be identified as a health issue at the earliest possible stage, and I think that will have hugely positive consequences for those young people affected.
I think we can say that this is a Bill of which we can be justly proud and that we will be able to look back on it in the same way we look back on the Education Act 1981, which first legislated on the SEN concepts with which we are now so familiar. That Act is now being succeeded by a Bill that takes on those concepts for a new generation and develops them in a humane, comprehensive and effective way. As I have said, however, if we do not get the implementation right on the ground, and if the local offers I expect to appear across the country are no more than mere signposting, we will have failed. To use a well-worn phrase, this is not the end or the beginning of the end, but it is the end of the beginning when it comes to judging the effectiveness of this historic Bill.
I welcome the “staying put” Lords amendment 128, which means that a young person can stay with their foster carers until they are 21. The Fostering Network ran an excellent campaign, bringing to our attention the many examples of young people in care who may have experienced poor parental care and neglect, who often go into care for the first time in their early teens and who need more time and stability to prepare for adult life. It is good that they will now be able to stay—provided they wish to do so, of course—with foster parents who will see them through that transition to independence. That has been very much welcomed by foster carers in my constituency.
I also congratulate the Earl of Listowel on his determined efforts to persuade the Minister to change his mind after his initial rebuff to hon. Members. It was clear that the Minister had great sympathy with the proposal and it is to his credit that he was able to find the money to underpin it. I regret that Paul Goggins, who, sadly, died earlier this year and ran a tremendous campaign on the issue, is not here to enjoy its successful conclusion.
I want to raise an issue with regard to the draft guidance issued on 4 February to support the Bill’s Third Reading in the House of Lords. A paragraph on preparations for ceasing to be looked after states that
“local authorities should start discussions with the young person and foster carer regarding the option of staying put as early as possible, ideally before the young person reaches the age of 16.”
Another part of the guidance states that there is no minimum time the young person needs to have lived with their foster carer prior to turning 18. One of my slight concerns about the way in which the guidance is written is that it might be interpreted as only being a consideration in a long-standing foster placement, whereas the provision gives young people the option to stay put with foster parents, even if they have only been there for a few weeks. It is important that this is seen as an option for those vulnerable young people who may have left a children’s home aged 16 and were not able to cope in the accommodation they were then offered. Foster care would be a good option for some of those young people in order to help put them back on their feet.
The hon. Lady makes a very important point. Although she correctly notes that this is draft guidance that is subject to further discussion, I believe that, in the main, it reflects the Bill well. I am, of course, happy to take up any specific concerns, particularly that which she has raised this evening.
I thank the Minister for that. I also welcome his amendments, which mean that Ofsted will be able to inspect children’s homes for good standards rather than minimum standards. It seemed strange that one of the young girls involved in the child sexual exploitation case in Rochdale had run away 100 times from a children’s home, yet that home was deemed “good” by an Ofsted inspection. I hope that will not happen again.
I very much look forward to the Minister’s proposals for introducing a reform package for the qualifications and training of staff working in children’s homes. It cannot be right that the most damaged children are often cared for by the least qualified staff. I wonder whether he might give us a time scale for bringing forward those proposals.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey).
I want to speak in support of the large group of Lords amendments that extend the scope of clauses 22 to 32 to include disabled children, as well as those with special educational needs, but I first want to place on the record my thanks and those of my Committee to the Minister for his close co-operation on the Bill over the long period of its development. His actions to improve it in response to our recommendations and those of many others have been greatly appreciated. Something about how he has conducted himself in bilateral and multilateral meetings has endeared himself to the House, which might explain why he has been given the accolade of Minister of the year. I will not seek to curse his future career with such praise any more, so I shall move swiftly on.
As has been said, when the achievements of this coalition Government are reviewed, the Bill will rank highly among them. This large group of amendments certainly strengthens the Bill. When the Education Committee conducted our pre-legislative scrutiny in the autumn of 2012, the evidence we heard made a strong case for the inclusion of disabled children, with or without SEN, in the scope of entitlement provision and education, health and care plans.
Mencap emphasised that it was undesirable that eligibility for much of the support in the Bill could be engaged only via an educational trigger, meaning that children and young people with primary health and care needs might not be identified as having SEN until they reached an educational setting. In her evidence to us, the former Minister, the hon. Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather)—sadly, she is no longer in her place—acknowledged the
“huge crossover with children with disabilities”.
The omission of reference to the disabled seemed to run directly contrary to the Government’s laudable aspiration to achieve the earliest possible intervention for those who need extra support. I am therefore delighted that the Bill has been amended in that way.
The only weakness I identify is the continued lack of regulation on the local offer for children and young people mandated by clause 30. The weight of evidence received by my Committee clearly supported the introduction of minimum standards for the local offer—the Minister referred to that earlier—which the Government have consistently resisted. I appreciate that Ministers have taken steps to increase the accountability and responsiveness of the offer made by local authorities, but I ask the Minister to undertake carefully to monitor the standards set by different local authorities across the country so that some do not duck their responsibilities, as other hon. Members have mentioned.
I want to speak in favour of Lords amendments 69 and 70. In our scrutiny report, my Committee welcomed the introduction of integrated education, health and care plans—or EHCPs, as doubtless no one will remember to call them—which are at the centre of those amendments. We were clear in paragraph 98 of our report that
“the cut-off point for EHCPs should be when educational outcomes are achieved”,
rather than by reference to any specific age. We heard from Di Roberts, the principal of Brockenhurst college, who gave the example of two learners with profound deafness: they were on marine engineering apprenticeships and had to have signers to help them with their training. They are precisely the young people who need extra support to follow their ambitions so that they can succeed in life. The Bill should not open a door to local authorities to take that support away, simply because someone needs longer to complete their education or training. A young person’s age is a comparatively superficial factor that should not be used to determine whether they would continue to benefit from an EHCP.
I want quickly to mention Lords amendment 110. It affects clause 67, which governs the new code of practice as regards special educational needs. I would be grateful if the Minister clarified when exactly the new SEN code of practice is expected to be published. I am told that it might not be published until June, which would leave very little time for the new system to come into force from September. I appreciate that it will take up to three years to migrate existing statement holders to the new code of practice, but I know that many parents would appreciate learning the latest information about the timetable.
I am aware of the time, so I shall touch on Lords amendment 128 only briefly. It will enable young people in foster care to live at home until the age of 21 if that is right for them and their foster family agrees. The Select Committee has long been concerned about the position of children who are fostered or in care, and about the accommodation and support that is provided for them. We welcome the announcement of greater support for 16 to 17-year-olds that was made by the Department last summer. This amendment continues the spirit of that work. It is both sensible and sensitive to young people’s needs. The comfort that is derived from having a family home does not end at 18. Allowing young people who may have had particularly disturbed childhoods to continue to enjoy the support of their foster family until 21 is quite simply the right thing to do. The Minister and the Government deserve to be congratulated on adopting the amendment.
I was delighted to see Lords amendment 129 included in the Bill. It inserts a duty to support pupils with medical conditions. Members from across the House will have had constituents come to them with stories of the difficulty of getting fairly straightforward and simple support for their children in school. They will have heard tales of parents having to leave work to pick up their kids and take them elsewhere. I spoke in favour of an amendment of this nature that was proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Mr Sanders) at Report stage in the Commons last June.
I have had the opportunity to meet the Crawforth family from my constituency, most recently on a school visit a few days ago. Their son suffers from type 1 diabetes. A recent study by Diabetes UK found that 46% of young people with diabetes—almost half—do not have a health care plan for managing their condition at school. Of those who have a plan, 17% do not feel confident that it is being implemented. Those statistics concern parents up and down the country, and understandably so. Lords amendment 129 will require schools to engage directly with the families of children with serious, ongoing health concerns and to co-operate with local NHS authorities to design strategies to reduce the risks. Its inclusion strengthens the Bill.
There is very little time left so, if the hon. Gentleman will allow me, I will not give way.
The proposed statutory guidance under Lords amendment 129 will ensure that schools have to observe national standards. That will go a long way to ending the current lottery in respect of children’s safety at school.
Lords amendment 135 represents something of an exception to my generally positive feelings about the Bill. I want to be clear at the outset that free school meals are a matter of basic social justice and I wholeheartedly support them. However, I am wary about extending free school meals to all pupils in reception and years 1 and 2, regardless of how well off their parents are. I ask the Minister whether it would not have been better, at a time of austerity, to target the extra funding more carefully, either by extending free school meals to families whose earnings place them just above the current entitlement threshold or by providing extra funding for valuable schemes such as breakfast clubs to help the pupils who most need them. Perhaps the funding could have been used to ensure that sixth-form colleges and further education colleges are not penalised by having to pay VAT or through 18-year-olds losing funding because of pressures elsewhere in the budget. Like any Government spending, this policy has to be paid for. It might not worry our coalition partners, but this amendment means that the Government will find themselves in the bizarre position of taxing families on low and middle incomes to subsidise children from affluent homes.
There is also a wider question about the priorities in our education system. Last Friday, I visited Walkington primary school in my constituency. It is a great school. Over the past three years, thanks to the hard work of its teachers, it has moved from the 52nd to the 12th percentile in terms of progress. It has achieved that despite receiving £500 less per head than the national median funding for primary schools. Funding is a constant struggle, not just for Walkington, but for schools across my home county of the East Riding of Yorkshire, which is the area that receives the third lowest amount of funding in the country. In that context, I find it hard to believe that some of the £600 million that has been allocated to the free school meals policy could not have been better spent to promote fairer outcomes for all, wherever they may live.
It is a pleasure to be called to speak in this important debate on this important Bill. I will start by declaring an interest as a family law barrister. Over many years, I have represented parents, guardians, grandparents, children, social workers and many other people. I have no doubt that the Bill will improve the prospects of some of the most vulnerable children in our society, in particular those who are in foster care and those who are placed for adoption.
We in this House often focus on the issues that divide us, but matters such as the prospects for looked after children always unite the House, and efforts have been made across the parties and in the other place to progress the Bill in a positive way, and to work on the detail and reach our agreed position this evening. I remember fondly—as will many other hon. Members, I am sure—the many hours spent on the Bill Committee considering these important measures.
I wish briefly to highlight two points this evening. The first is the extremely positive development in part 5 of the Bill that makes provision for young people to remain, or, as the phrase goes, to “stay put”, in foster care until the age of 21. It is almost impossible for any of us to imagine how, in addition to all the challenges that young people face when considering their careers and their journey into adult life, some will have the added uncertainty of their whole home support network being in possible jeopardy.
Too often I have seen court cases involving older teenage children where, despite the best efforts of all those involved—the judiciary, solicitors, social work team and so on—and a care plan that is always carefully worded and constructed along with the legislation, there is always a concern that there is only so much the court can do. Previously, up to the age of 16 or 17 there was that uncertainty, and a gap in the provision of services. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Minister in leading on these measures. The whole House has worked extremely hard to identify those gaps and to ensure that continued provision, which is much needed for young people as they move into the adult world. The Bill will need time to be implemented, and we will also need time to evaluate and assess the success of what is being proposed. Nevertheless, I think that all involved will see tonight as a significant step forward for looked after children.
My second point is about clause 11. The House has had the benefit of the expertise of Baroness Butler-Sloss who assisted in that section of the Bill. As the former president of the family division, she may perhaps offer more expertise than most of us when it comes to understanding how the drafting of the clause may be interpreted in the family courts. I have no doubt that the starting point for all courts when considering contact and residence applications has been, and will continue to be, that children will always benefit from a relationship with both of their parents, unless there is a good reason to move away from that.
As a family practitioner I have no doubt that contact and residence cases can be the most emotive and difficult litigation for individuals to commence. Put simply, it is to do with the relationship that people have with their own flesh and blood. In advance of such cases, those around the clients involved, such as the solicitors, not only give legal advice but often take on the role of friend and confidant as they guide the parents—or increasingly the grandparents—through such litigation. That highly emotive aspect to these cases is why the drafting of the Bill is so crucial—drafting is crucial for all legislation, but it is a particular issue with this clause.
Clause 11 is entitled, “Welfare of the child: parental involvement”. That maintains the important balance of children having a meaningful relationship with both parents, but it does in some ways move away from suggesting that there is any division in terms of time, which is different from what some of the other proposed phrases may have done. That was, of course, never the intention of using a phrase such as “shared parenting”, but I understand why a parent involved in litigation might interpret the words in such a way.
I thank all those involved, including the voluntary organisations, those in the family courts and, as I said earlier, Members from across the House and the other place who have worked extremely hard on this Bill. I commend the Minister who has done extremely well in leading on this important Bill. I for one look forward to this positive and progressive Bill being granted Royal Assent.
As a member of the Bill Committee, I would like to comment on two amendments made by their lordships. The first could improve the Bill, but I have some reservations about the second. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland) for reminding the House of the lengthy consultation period ahead of the Bill, which gave all interest groups the opportunity to contribute to both the Bill Committee and the Select Committee on Justice.
One aspect of interest to me in Committee and on Lords amendments—I tabled amendments—is special educational needs. Approaching 90% of SEN children do not benefit from having a statement, making it harder for them to access the support they need. I was therefore delighted that a number of proposals in the Bill will improve local accountability and delivery of services. That has been raised with me by Scope and Ambitious about Autism, which have campaigned effectively on that.
The Bill seeks to establish the right of parents to have their comments on the local offer of services published. However, amendment 47 was introduced to force local authorities to publish not only the comments, but what action the authority plans to take as a result of them. I support that amendment because I believe it is important that local authorities develop workable action plans in conjunction with parents, who should be part of the process and not simply have a plan imposed upon them. I therefore hope that the proposal means that we begin to see parents at the heart of decision making, and that that will become part of the code of practice.
It is important that the Government recognise the difficulties that families often face in accessing specialist support when that support is located out of area. I therefore hope that the code of practice ensures the promotion of specialist services that are accessible and are provided as locally as possible, perhaps by integrating the development and provision of specialist services with other local community services, and not separately, as so often happens at present.
One further point raised with me by, among others, the Special Educational Consortium, is the need for a single point of redress, which the Minister has mentioned. He recently stated that there is to be a review, but will he take the opportunity this evening to give the Government’s position on a single point of redress and the review, and on the pilot of the complaints and appeals process for education, health and care plans? Clarity would be very much appreciated.
On part 2 of the Bill, I am conscious that I am following my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Jessica Lee), who spoke to the amendment to clause 11. The noble and learned Baroness Butler-Sloss, who moved the amendment, is widely acknowledged as the country’s greatest expert, so it is with some trepidation that I raise the issue. She sought to clarify what exactly the clause means in practical application regarding non-resident parents. My fear is that, in so doing, the clause, which sought to enshrine the right of the child to have a meaningful ongoing relationship with both parents, is watered down. I seek reassurance from the Minister on that point.
The welfare of the child should be the court’s paramount concern, but it should not be the court’s only concern. The legal system must ensure that the child’s welfare comes first, but it should not ignore the welfare of parents, whether a mother or a father. Few people consider the emotional and psychological impact that enforced separation from one’s own flesh and blood can have. The unintended negative consequence of the paramountcy principle is that the feelings of separated parents are simply not considered. That situation must change in the interests of justice for parents. It is also sound public policy and will lead to children being less damaged by their parents’ separation.
However, even considering only the benefits of shared parenting from the perspective of child welfare, volumes of research show that shared parenting is hugely beneficial to children, especially when a father is separated from his daughter. Contact is more likely to decline if the child is female, meaning that young girls pay a heavier price for divorce and separation than young boys, as Dr Linda Nielsen’s recent paper sets out. Indeed, the paramountcy principle applied correctly so that the welfare of the child comes first means encouraging shared parenting, not discouraging or paying lip service to it. That is the core of my concern with the amendment. It appears to erode the positive steps that the clause originally made towards a culture of shared parenting.
My hon. Friend is exceptionally well known for her commitment to improving the lives of children, especially those with special educational needs and those caught up in what can be the misery of separated parents. However, does she agree that the major part of the problem is the failure of the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service and the courts to intervene and take a genuine stand against obstructive parents who engage in parental alienation and prevent court order access, which damages both the relationship between, and the mental health of, the child and the non-resident parent?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. CAFCASS has an incredibly difficult job to do, but too often it fails to deal with issues such as parental alienation, and it is important that we consider the problem of poor enforcement of contact orders when non-resident parents are granted access but resident parents ignore them.
The current situation does not work, and both coalition partners gave commitments on several areas relating to family law reform. Some of those issues—mediation and dispute resolution, better enforcement of contact orders and, I hope, reform of court practices—will be genuinely improved by the Bill, but both coalition partners also gave clear commitments on the subject of shared parenting or shared contact. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Minister said that courts are seen as creating winners and losers, and it is vital that both parents feel confident that the court will consider fully the benefits of their involvement.
The Government have worked hard to strike the right balance, called for by groups such as Families Need Fathers, UK Family Law Reform and the Association for Shared Parenting. Clearly, the legislative intent of clause 11 was to bridge the gap between delivering tangible progress on shared parenting while ensuring the paramount need of the child’s welfare was preserved through a presumption in favour of shared contact, providing there was no good reason to oppose it.
I was elected on a promise to seek a legal presumption in favour of automatic shared contact, something that the Bill achieved before the amendment was added, but clause 11, as amended, will not deliver what we promised. I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure me on that point and confirm that I am incorrect in that. There is a whole library of research showing the benefits to a child of a proper, meaningful and ongoing relationship with the non-resident parent. If, as a society, we are genuinely interested in tackling the impact of family breakdown, we must start by encouraging and enabling non-resident parents to remain active in their children’s lives.
The amendment plays into the hands of obstructive resident parents who wish to prevent a child from having a meaningful, ongoing relationship with an absent parent, and puts us back into a situation of winners and losers. Some 10% to 20% of separations—often those that are the most rancorous and upsetting, and in which winners and losers are created—come before the courts. It is right that the court should be bound by the paramountcy principle, but the culture of shared parenting should be driven home, forcing hitherto hostile and oppositional parents to work together in the interests of their child.
I hope that the Minister can provide me with the reassurance I seek. Apart from that, I believe this to be an excellent Bill on which we have all worked long and hard. I support the rest of the clauses and the amendments, and thank him for his attention on these matters.
I, too, have a long history with the Bill, having served in Committee, and being here for its final Commons stage today. It has been a real privilege to watch a master class from my hon. Friend the Minister in how to pilot a Bill with great dignity, courtesy and endless quantities of patience.
I also wish to pay tribute to the shadow Minister, who is no longer in her place but performed her role in Committee with great aplomb. She has handed over to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe), whom I pressed earlier on the subject of childminders. It has been a pleasure to serve on this landmark Bill, and it will also be a pleasure to see it brought into force.
I shall concentrate on one basic statistic. In 1986, the employment rate for mothers whose youngest child is under three was 25%. Today, it is 56% and rising. That matters because it says everything about how the world has changed. If so many more women are in work—more than half of all mothers with children under three—child care is instantly an issue. That is why I raised the issue of childminders. In my constituency, if a family is above the benefits threshold but cannot afford £10,000 or so a year for a nursery, it has a real problem. That is why childminders are so important for that intermediate child care and why I make the case for the need to consider people in that salary band. There is a lot of deprivation in my constituency, and many people in low-skilled, low-paid work are in that position.
It also means that, because both partners are in work, parental love, affection and child care have to be juggled. Involvement in the child’s life has been transformed in the past 25 years: fathers are more involved with their children. Both parents are more involved with their children than ever before because of social change. That is why I welcome the changes in the Bill that relate to parental leave. Shared parental leave is a recognition of how the world has changed so very much.
I have raised the issue of contact many times in this place: the rights of children to have access to their parents. I thank the shadow Minister for using that formulation, because it is very important. It is a damning statistic that, of the 3 million children who live apart from a parent, 1 million have no contact with a parent three years after separation. That is really tragic, particularly given the way the world has changed. One parent, who was heavily involved in a child’s upbringing, is suddenly no longer there at all. That is destabilising to the child. That is why, in times past, I brought in a Bill to this House to enforce contact properly and place a duty on all. The right is not the right of the parent, but the right of the child to know and have a relationship with both their parents: the right of the child to have access to their parents.
This massive social change over the past 25 years matters so much because not all our judiciary are young people living the lives of modern parents seeking to get by. Not all academics or our social work establishment are young and as aware as they could be in their daily lives of this particular situation. It is for that reason that I want to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) on her passionate, heartfelt and deeply thoughtful speech. She is absolutely right in all she says. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) on taking up this case originally and putting it forward.
The statistic on the involvement of both parents in the life of their child is particularly relevant to clause 11, which states
“unless the contrary is shown, that involvement of that parent in the life of the child concerned will further the child’s welfare.”
I, too, share the concerns raised today that the amendment originally tabled by Baroness Butler-Sloss in the Lords Grand Committee risks watering that down. I recognise my hon. Friend the Minister’s assurances when he says that he is confident that the amendment does not alter the meaning of the clause or its intended effect. I hope that that will be reflected in the guidance issued to the family division, and that the family division will take note of that. It is really important that this principle is not ceded, particularly given that Baroness Butler-Sloss included not just the irrelevant issue of the division of a child’s time that resulted from the Norgrove report getting distracted by the Australian experience and the issue of the direct and indirect access.
It would not be right to have a situation in which the only contact for a parent who has been heavily involved in a child’s life is a phone call at Christmas, a book of photographs or the odd letter exchange. That does not constitute a right to know and a relationship with both parents. The right of children to have access to both their parents is essential. It matters because they may wish to turn one parent or to the other parent for mentorship, guidance, love and affection. We should enable that to happen. We should recognise that the world has changed.
I have great sympathy with my hon. Friend, who has been a staunch supporter of this principle in her time here. I thank her for her support in times past.
In closing, I want to note what Baroness Butler-Sloss said in another place:
“I had very useful discussions with an organisation, Families Need Fathers, and I ask the Minister to see that any information that is sent out to various organisations also goes to that one because it has an utterly sensible approach. It is very keen that the non-resident parent should have a proper connection with the child to further the child’s welfare, but recognises that it is not shared parenting. It is an extremely useful organisation and I commend it.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 5 February 2014; Vol. 752, c. 206.]
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his speech and on introducing his private Member’s Bill, which followed mine a couple of years ago. I am concerned that Butler-Sloss’s amendment will water down the rights that we want to create for parents of either sex who do not generally live with the family. I urge the Minister, through you, Madam Deputy Speaker, to be absolutely firm on this point—
May I be the first to welcome you to the Chair, Mr Speaker? I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South (Mr Binley), who has been passionate about these issues for many years. Many of us have made common cause on this matter.
In conclusion, I simply enjoin the Minister to take up Baroness Butler-Sloss’s recommendation, in line with the guidance of Families Need Fathers, and to work positively to ensure that children have a right of access to both their parents and that the amendment is not misconstrued.
It almost passed my lips, and it has done now.
This has been a detailed debate of the amendments made to the Bill in another place. The changes are a testament to the dedication of both Houses to making the Bill the best it can be, and I completely understand the interest of hon. Members on both sides of the House in its implementation: it is an excellent Bill, and it is only right that we ensure its successful implementation. Provided we can find time for early and proper consideration of the secondary legislation, we expect to implement the Bill’s reforms quickly so that they can begin to make a real difference for children and families across the country.
I will seek to write to all hon. Members who have asked detailed questions in the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart) asked when the revised code of practice would be made available. It will be made available as soon as possible after Royal Assent, but I am sure he will appreciate that we want to get it right. My hon. Friends the Members for Dover (Charlie Elphicke), for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) and for Northampton South (Mr Binley)—I hope that the latter heard my earlier praise for his involvement in this important clause—raised important points. As the Bill stands, the presumption is clear, and I do not share the scepticism of some hon. Members that it has been diluted to the point of having no effect. This is a considerable change and should not be underestimated.
The principle and purpose that the Bill enshrines in law, in conjunction with many other measures we are taking, both through the Bill and in non-legislative ways, will help to ensure that more children have the opportunity to have a relationship with both parents. To enable that to happen in practice, we have made sure that the Judicial College is aware of the provision in clause 11 and the Government’s objective behind it. Although it is for the judiciary to consider its required training itself, we will continue to work with it to ensure that there is clear information about the intended effect and operation of the clause, so that they can be reflected, if need be, in future training.
It is important to make it clear that this is about the right of the child. The reason we have set about introducing the provisions in this clause—over many years, both in opposition and now in government—is to put across a strong message to many of the families who find themselves at the door of a court: we are interested in only one thing, which is making sure that any children involved in a case get the opportunity to have their rights put first and, as a consequence, have a meaningful relationship with both sides of their parentage.
As I made clear earlier in the debate, the paramountcy principle still holds in this case, as does the need to ensure that the child in question would be safe. That has to be the case, but what kicks in under those circumstances is the presumption that the child will have a relationship with both parents. That is an important change that we should all support.
Finally, I would like to take this opportunity to share some well deserved thanks.
On a day when 3.2 million diabetics are registered in the United Kingdom and we are seeing a rise in type 1 diabetes among children, will the Minister confirm that the duty to support pupils with medical conditions means that insulin pumps will be available and one or two teachers will be available and able to understand how to deal with diabetic hypos?
The clause in question puts the “Managing medicines” guidance on a statutory footing. That has long been called for and is a significant change. The equipment that will be available in schools is still a matter of discretion, but we look at these things carefully, particularly when it comes to defibrillators and the important role they play in schools, as well as other public spaces. However, I hope the hon. Gentleman is pleased with the advance that we have made on that aspect of the Bill.
It now feels like a very long time ago that work on the Bill began. The hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) said at the end of Committee last April:
“We seem to have been scrutinising the Bill for months”.––[Official Report, Children and Families Public Bill Committee, 25 April 2013; c. 815.]
That was nine months ago, so it is fair to say that we have been working on this Bill for a long time now. However, it is only right to acknowledge the four Select Committees that conducted pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill—the Select Committees on Education and on Justice, the Joint Committee on Human Rights and the Lords Select Committee on Adoption Legislation—and the great start they got us off to.
We have had some excellent debates in this House on the Bill. I would like to thank hon. Members for their participation and for how supportive they have been in helping the Government to develop the Bill. An illustration of how much work has been done is that, in both Houses together, 1,153 amendments have been tabled and debated. The Bill started off as a very good piece of legislation; with all the constructive and well-meaning work that we and Members of another place have done on it, I believe it is now a great piece of legislation. We should all be very pleased about that and the benefits that children, young people and their families will see as a consequence.
I am sure we all appreciate the hard work of the Clerks of the House and the Hansard reporters throughout the passage of the Bill, which I know has involved some late nights for them, for which I take some responsibility. If it is any consolation to them, I have also had a fair few sleepless nights—not that my children and family have had much sympathy with that. I also thank the many organisations that have engaged with us on the Bill, all of which have made an important contribution. I hope that they will continue to work with the Department as we proceed with the key task of successful implementation. A good many Ministers have been involved in the various stages of the Bill, and they deserve thanks as well.
I thank my hon. Friends the Members for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) and for Brent Central (Sarah Teather), who initiated this work with such vigour and aplomb. I thank my hon. Friend the Members for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), and the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison), with whom I have had the delight of sharing the Front Bench as a minority male. Importantly, I thank my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who shares my passionate determination to improve the lives of our most disadvantaged young people, and has not a capricious bone in his body: he has only compassionate bones.
I thank all our colleagues in the Department for Education, the Department of Health, the Ministry of Justice, the Department for Work and Pensions, and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, who have done so much to put departmental boundaries aside in the interests of children and families. Finally, I particularly thank my friends in the other place: Lord Nash—who has been stoic, good-humoured and unflappable—Lord Faulks, Lord McNally, Viscount Younger and Earl Howe; and I thank my noble Friend Baroness Northover for picking up the baton from Baroness Garden with such prowess and nerveless enthusiasm.
It has been an undiluted and, as it has turned out, a long-standing privilege to work on a Bill which will make a real difference to children and families, and which we have been able to manage in this place in ways that have been very constructive and often even consensual. In that context, I pay tribute to the hon. Members for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) and for Washington and Sunderland West for their leadership during the Bill’s earlier outings in this House, and to the hon. Members for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) and for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell), who have continued to work in the same spirit today.
Today we have recognised, and heard from, Members in all parts of the House who are passionate and committed in their pursuit of improvements for our most vulnerable children. Let me repeat my thanks to all of them, and particularly to those who were members of the Public Bill Committee between 5 March and 25 April last year: my hon. Friends the Members for South Swindon (Mr Buckland), for Dover (Charlie Elphicke), for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke), for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom), for Erewash (Jessica Lee) and for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes), and the hon. Members for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson), for North West Durham (Pat Glass), for Hyndburn (Graham Jones), for Manchester Central, for Croydon North (Mr Reed) and for Corby (Andy Sawford).
It would be remiss of me not to acknowledge the pivotal roles of my right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Sir Richard Ottaway) and my hon. Friends the Members for Guildford (Anne Milton) and for Ipswich (Ben Gummer) in securing the Bill’s safe passage by virtue of their professional and tactful stewardship. Numerous officials from various Departments have worked very hard on the Bill, and I am sure that the House will want thank them as well.
I cannot end my speech without singling out for special mention the Bill team and other Government officials, led with such distinction by Jenny Preece. I thank Jamie, Alan, Lara, Helen, Ruth, Katy, Lizzie, the lead lawyers Sofie, Paula and their colleagues, Phil, Stephen, Jonathan and everyone in the special educational needs team, and all the officials and lawyers—too many to mention—in several Departments who have contributed to the development, drafting and scrutiny of the Bill. Their efforts usually go unnoticed and undetected, and are carried out without fanfare. I, along with other Ministers and all Members—as well as you, Mr Speaker—owe them enormous gratitude. It has been an absolute delight to work with each and every one of them.
I hope that the House will agree that all the amendments made by another place are beneficial to the Bill and, ultimately, to children and their families. If so, we can then move on speedily to the task of turning this legislation into something that has meaning and impact, and, above all, is able to make young lives better.
Lords amendment 1 agreed to.
Lords amendments 2 to 120, 126 to 149 and 151 to 176 agreed to, with Commons financial privileges waived in respect of Lords amendments 15, 17 to 20, 22, 25, 27 to 31, 33 to 35, 37, 39, 41, 43, 44, 64, 66, 85, 88 to 90, 92, 94, 96, 97, 104 to 109, 115 to 118, 126 to 129, 135, 144, 149 and 176.