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16-plus Care Options

Volume 584: debated on Thursday 17 July 2014

Select Committee sStatement

We now come to the second of the Select Committee statements. We will use the same format. The Chair of the Select Committee on Education will make a statement on the report for no more than 10 minutes, during which there will be no interventions taken, then Members will be able to ask questions on the subject of the statement. Again, that will last for approximately 10 minutes in total. I therefore call the Chair of the Education Committee.

It is a pleasure to be in the Chamber today with so many members of the Select Committee and other colleagues as we launch our report, “Into independence, not out of care: 16 plus care options”. Our report on 16-plus care options is about a group of young people that is often overlooked and a policy area that is unfashionable and forgotten. We first raised our concerns in our “Children first” report, published in October 2012. During our inquiry into residential children’s homes, the report for which was published in March, we became increasingly concerned about the quality of care and level of support provided for older adolescents as they moved towards greater independence and adulthood, often because of a misguided belief that they are more resilient than younger children.

This inquiry confirmed just how serious the shortcomings of 16-plus care options are. Our inquiry was launched on 22 January and set out the following terms of reference: the kinds of accommodation provided for young people aged 16 and 17 who are looked after by local authorities; the suitability, safety and regulatory nature of alternative accommodation; whether staying put should apply to those in residential children’s homes; and whether the provision of alternative accommodation should be extended to the age of 21.

We wanted to make sure that our inquiry was informed by young people affected by the issues we were considering, so we held an informal seminar at the outset of the inquiry to hear the views of young people and care leavers. We visited Ipswich to see examples of “other arrangements”, as they are described in the jargon, and met local authority officers from the region and service providers as well as the Suffolk children in care council. We had nearly 40 submissions of written evidence from a wide range of witnesses and we heard all evidence from two panels of witnesses before questioning the Minister, who I am delighted to see in his place on the Front Bench.

Our report makes three fundamental recommendations. First, the Department for Education must consult on a framework of individual regulatory oversight for all accommodation that falls within “other arrangements” to ensure suitability while allowing for diversity of provision. These “other arrangements” are those in which 22% of looked-after 16 and 17-year-olds live, and we found that too often they are neither safe nor suitable. Efforts are made to ensure the safety and suitability of provision for children and young people in other settings—childminders, foster carers, children’s homes, schools and sixth-form colleges are each and every one of them regulated and inspected, yet “other arrangements” for some of the most vulnerable young people in this country are not.

Current quality assurance relies on Ofsted tracking a sample of cases. This would not be an acceptable approach for any of the settings that I have just listed, and it should not be acceptable for the accommodation in which some of society’s most vulnerable young people are housed. Individual regulation and inspection is the only way, we believe, to ensure suitability.

The second key proposal is that the DFE must consult urgently local authorities to establish a reasonable time frame for the absolute ban on the use of bed-and-breakfast accommodation for looked-after young people. The Department says that bed and breakfasts are not suitable for this group, yet they continue to be used, sometimes for a long period. We heard shocking accounts of looked-after 16 and 17-year-olds placed in bed-and-breakfast accommodation which was not only unsuitable, but made the young people feel frightened and threatened.

We recognise the negative implications of a hastily introduced outright ban. That is why we urge the DFE to consult local authorities and establish a realistic time frame in which alternative emergency arrangements can be found, settled and established. This will require local authorities to be creative and to work together, but it is vital that the urgency of the situation is not lost. We know from the performance of some councils that it can be done and is being done, so let it be done everywhere and for all.

In the meantime, the message is plain: bed and breakfasts are not suitable and should be used only in extreme, emergency situations, and even then never for more than a few days before the ban comes into force. In addition, local authority children’s services should report to the Department the numbers of looked-after young people placed in bed-and-breakfast accommodation so that we have a clear picture of how much this unsuitable accommodation is being used to house these vulnerable young people.

Our third key recommendation is that looked-after young people living in residential children’s homes should have the right to stay there until they are 21, just as those living in foster care now can, thanks to changes brought in by this Government. We recommend that the DFE extend Staying Put to residential children’s homes. We were not convinced by the Minister’s arguments against an extension of this policy. It may not be in the best interest of some young people, or their preference, to stay in their residential children’s home, but many who are settled and thriving would greatly benefit from the stability of staying put in the home which is their home.

The DFE argues that the quality of children’s homes must improve before it will allow young people to stay beyond their 18th birthday. That argument does not bear much scrutiny. The most recent figures from Ofsted inspections at the beginning of this year show that for overall effectiveness 68% of children’s homes inspected were judged good or outstanding, and just 6% were found to be inadequate. Furthermore, forcing young people to move at the age of 18 from a home that may be judged good or better by Ofsted to unregulated and sometimes unsuitable settings makes no sense.

In addition to these fundamental recommendations, we found that there are several other aspects of 16-plus care options in desperate need of attention, which can be split into three broad areas. First, our report focuses on the planning and preparation for a young person’s move to independence. In particular, young people need to know more and have the chance to say more, while also being given the support and encouragement to maintain the relationships that matter most to them.

Secondly, our report sets out the necessary steps to ensure minimal disruption and maximum stability during a young person’s transition to adulthood and independence. This includes offering a safety net if life takes a turn for the worst; providing support to the age of 25, without exception; and providing the much needed peace of mind as a young person prepares for important exams, by ensuring the stability of their placement at that time. Thirdly, we stress the importance of providing options, be it staying in “other arrangements” until the age of 21, or simultaneously meeting the wish for independence and the need for continuing support through Staying Close, which is where accommodation is provided close to, for instance, a residential children’s home where a young person has developed solid relationships with trusted adults.

We were deeply impressed by the young people we met, who spoke to us openly and honestly about their personal experiences. Their contributions added value to our inquiry and confirmed our view that these young people deserve better. This report is a step towards ensuring that they get it.

I commend the Education Committee on an excellent report. There is a host of questions that I would like to ask, but I know that Madam Deputy Speaker would not want me to do that, so I shall confine myself to one and seek out the Chairman and other members of the Committee on another occasion to explore many of the issues raised in the report, including the use of personal advisers and extending Staying Put.

I was particularly shocked by the bed-and-breakfast revelations. Was the Committee able to form a picture of the likely numbers of young people in care who are required to live in bed-and-breakfast accommodation beyond a period of 28 days? The Committee was right to say that an immediate ban would be problematic and that there should be a period of reflection, but does the Chairman think it advisable for the Government to consider an immediate restriction that ensures that no young person in care can be required to live in bed-and-breakfast accommodation for longer than 28 days?

I thank the shadow Minister for his question. We did not specify in the report precisely what that limit should be, but we are entirely in sympathy with that thinking. We would be more ambitious. We think 28 days is outrageously long. A stay of a week would be too long; probably five days would be acceptable. The case that was put to us is that at 11 o’clock on a Friday night—the famous 11 o’clock on a Friday night case—a place must be found for a child. Okay, but by the following Wednesday, the whole power of the local authority, which is in the position of parent, cannot find something different for the child? We found that hard to believe. We did not specify the duration because we wanted to give maximum flexibility, but a lot less than 28 days would be the collective view of my Committee.

I am particularly proud of this piece of work. I think it is one of the best that we have done as a cross-party Committee, of which I am a member. Does my hon. Friend agree that for far too many years the long-term prognosis for far too many of our young people in care has been bleak, and that the recommendations based on the evidence in the report go a long way to rectify some of those injustices?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question and for his hard work and commitment in this area and others on the Committee. I know he would join me, as would Members across the House, in recognising the personal commitment of the Minister to make a difference in this area, and that significant improvements have been made under this Government. None the less, outcomes for young people in care in this country for far too long have been bleak, as my hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley (Craig Whittaker) puts it. When we look at how many people who have been in care end up in prison, in prostitution, or struggling with drug and alcohol dependency, that does not say a lot about the parenting that we have put in place for those young people, and we know that other countries manage to do a lot better, both educationally and in broader terms, to prepare people for adult life.

What better test of a civilisation than how it looks after young people whose families may have disintegrated and failed to provide them with support? What better way to judge that civilisation than by its ability to meet the needs of those young people and make sure that those most vulnerable people get a fair crack at life and are supported all the way into adulthood, rather than too often abandoned at a young and vulnerable age?

I associate myself with the comments of the hon. Member for Calder Valley (Craig Whittaker). I am particularly proud of this report, which I think is one of the most important that the Committee has produced over the past four years. It contains many recommendations, and I am looking for positive responses from the Government on all of them, but I will mention the two that I think are most urgent. First, we recommend that Ofsted should inspect provision for children leaving care at 16. As the Chair of the Committee said, we would not allow schools, further education colleges or children’s homes not to be subject to inspection by Ofsted, so why should we allow provision for our most vulnerable children leaving care not to be? Secondly, we recommend that Staying Put should also be available to children in children’s homes, who are often taken into care late and are often the most vulnerable. They are the most likely to end up unemployed, homeless, in prison, subject to substance abuse and so on. I am particularly concerned that we get a positive response to those two recommendations and hope that the Chair of the Committee will support that.

I very much agree with the hon. Lady. I am pleased to see the newly promoted Financial Secretary to the Treasury on the Front Bench. Even if we were to view that group of people in the driest economic terms, we would see that investing to save by ensuring that they get the stability and support they need when they are at their most vulnerable, which is when they are young, would pay off in the long term. That would reduce the number of people in prison or calling on other services because their lives have not worked out right. I know that Treasury Ministers are always told to invest to save, but here we have a moral need to do the right thing by those young people but also, when we consider how catastrophic the outcomes are for so many of them, an overwhelming economic case. Even in these tough times, we should find the resources and focus them on that group, because we will make proper improvement on every front, as the hon. Lady rightly points out.

I praise my hon. Friend for his statement and commend his Committee for an excellent report. Were the Secretary of State for Education or the Minister to say to him later, “Look, Graham, we have a lot on our plate at the moment and lots of things we are trying to push through, so which one recommendation could we pursue for you?”, what would his answer be?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question, despite his attempt to narrow me to one recommendation. I would hate to tempt the Minister into saying that we can have only one recommendation, because the report contains a coherent set of proposals that hang together, and I know that they fit with the direction of travel on which the Government have already set out. None the less, one should always answer the question, so I would ask the Minister to look at the “other arrangements” and ensure that they are regulated. It is not just those who have left care who are in the “other arrangements”, and the number of 16 and 17-year-olds leaving care has been massively reduced under this Government, on which they should be congratulated. Often young people are still in care when they are in the “other arrangements”, so we are still in loco parentis. The fact is that that accommodation is not inspected or regulated, and we do not think that sampling is enough. That is the one thing that, above all else, must change.

The Chair might have anticipated my question by referring to the Financial Secretary to the Treasury. The Chair will recollect the series of visits we undertook and the discussions we had with young people, as he mentioned earlier. They felt abandoned in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. One young woman told us about people braying at her door late at night, and another told us that she had been left for weeks on end in unsuitable accommodation. He and I agree, as does the Committee, that bed-and-breakfast accommodation should be banned as soon as practically possible for young people, but does he also agree that local and national Government need to have, and need to provide the necessary resources to have, proper emergency provisions, perhaps by sharing between authorities, and end the practice that so often puts young people at risk?

I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for his contribution and the passion he brings to these issues and, quite rightly, to challenging the Government and asking for more on behalf of those young people. He is absolutely right. I know that the personal testimony we heard seared his conscience, as it did mine. We heard those young people consistently and articulately describe the awful situations they found themselves in, such as bed-and-breakfast accommodation with troubled adults around them, in one case knocking on the door of a young woman who was barely 16 years old, inviting her to come to their room. She was traumatised and frightened and, supposedly, in the care of the state.

I add my voice to those of Members who have already said how important it is that the report has been published and that we support this group of incredibly vulnerable young people with all the financial benefits that would come from it. As the report states, the young people in residential children’s homes are often the most vulnerable. That is why its recommendations on extending care to the age of 21 in residential settings are so important. I, too, was struck by the evidence we heard from young people during the inquiry, particularly on the importance of relationships, whether with carers, other professionals, friends or mentors, and the difference that can make to young people. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that support needs to be about extending care to the whole group of people leaving care, the quality and availability of the settings, and the psychological benefits of long-term relationships, both professional and personal?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for taking such a close and passionate interest in the subject and for his work on the Committee. He is absolutely right. As we have seen in all the work we have done on child protection and vulnerable children, it has come down again and again to the quality of relationships. That is why it is so important that relationships should be maintained and why we have made our specific recommendations on staying put and on contact with siblings. We heard testimony from young people who did not want to be forced to see their parents but who wanted to see their brothers or sisters, whom they loved and had great relationships with. That needs to be improved.

Extending Staying Put to residential care homes is an expensive option, because the cost of providing a care home place is high. It means that having stabilised someone, they are then given the option—let us remember that they can leave at 18 if they want to; they will not be forced to stay—to remain in a place that is happy to have them, where they want to stay, where they can have stable relationships and from which they can go to college and start to build a life. It is probably the most expensive of the suggestions in our report, so I am delighted to have such a senior and influential Treasury Minister on the Front Bench to hear the arguments, because that truly would be a good investment in the future of the country and the future of young people who have been let down not only by their families, but, too often, by the state.

Bill Presented

National Insurance Contributions Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Mr Chancellor of the Exchequer, supported by the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, Danny Alexander, Mr David Gauke, Priti Patel and Andrea Leadsom, presented a Bill to make provision in relation to national insurance contributions; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Monday 21 July, and to be printed (Bill 80) with explanatory notes (Bill 80-EN).