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Westminster Hall

Volume 608: debated on Tuesday 19 April 2016

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 19 April 2016

[Valerie Vaz in the Chair]

backbench business

Unaccompanied Children

I beg to move,

That this House has considered unaccompanied children.

It is a great pleasure to secure the debate and to open it. I thank hon. Members on both sides of the House who supported the application to the Backbench Business Committee, but especially the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), who helped to secure the debate.

Sadly, the issue of unaccompanied children has in many ways become a focal point of consideration in Parliament, not least in the House of Lords. We will shortly consider the amendment tabled by Lord Dubs in relation to the campaign for 3,000 unaccompanied children to be accepted in addition to previous requirements. This is the sad reality of the situation facing children as they take a precarious route across Europe. Only yesterday there was a report that 400 migrants and refugees died when their boat capsized; they were travelling from Egypt to Turkey. The reality is that today another two children will probably die while crossing the Mediterranean. That is the context and it is a focal point of concern.

The focus of this debate, although hon. Members will no doubt want to deal with issues around it, is our responsibilities for separated children as they arrive in this country, whether they come by means of a formal resettlement plan—we can talk further about where that could take us—or whether they come via irregular routes into the United Kingdom. I want to have a long-term plan. My hon. Friends will know all about the mantra of a long-term plan, particularly in relation to economic plans. I want to get that mantra into the parlance on this issue: would it not be wonderful if Parliament had a long-term plan for separated children? I look forward to hearing from my right hon. Friend the Minister about that. We need a long-term plan for some of the most vulnerable children.

If we look at the statistics, we see that it is right for Parliament to be concerned about these children. In February 2016, children accounted for more than one third of all refugees and migrants, compared with just one in 10 in June 2015. There has been a 57% increase in the number of these children seeking asylum in the past year in the United Kingdom. Undocumented unaccompanied children are often beneath the radar, certainly before they get anywhere near the age of adulthood. There were 2,168 asylum applications from such children in the year ending June 2015. That was an increase of 46% on the previous year. The Minister for Immigration will be very much aware, not least because it is on his desk, that this is an issue of increasing importance for the Home Office.

It is important that we are compassionate. The word “compassion” is mentioned a lot these days, and rightly so. We must have an ambition properly to accept our fair share of unaccompanied children. The Minister was very much leading in relation to the announcement on 28 January. We look forward to hearing further details on the commitment in the coming days. There was a promise to step up efforts to reunite lone children with their families in Europe and the United Kingdom. There was a commitment to bring children who are on their own in conflict zones straight to the United Kingdom to prevent them from making perilous journeys, and there was a promise of more expertise and resources to help to protect child refugees in Europe and the United Kingdom. It is important that we have the right ambition, and I look forward to hearing those details.

As well as the compassion in terms of the length of commitment, I want to look at the breadth and depth of that compassion. We should be in this for the long term. That is an issue for children as they arrive here. I want to see how that looks and what it could look like, to ensure that we meet the concerns that have been expressed, not least by the Children’s Society, to which I pay tribute and which I thank very much. Those concerns formed the basis of my application and that of others to hold this debate. Its recent report, “Not just a temporary fix”, makes the point in the title, highlighting the need for a lasting outcome for unaccompanied children in the UK. This issue can often be missed in debate. These children, who come from some of the most appalling backgrounds and are often traumatised, are at risk of exploitation, not least as they make these journeys. As they come into this country, we need to ensure that we have the right package of support for them.

A point highlighted in the report that I have mentioned is the transition to adulthood. That is unsettling and unpleasant for all children, but particularly for separated children who have fled war and persecution. They have faced exploitation and destitution and have no parent or carer in this country to safeguard their best interests. We need to step in to support them to avoid their being at risk of further exploitation and destitution.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on attracting such support for this very important debate. I am glad that he is talking about long-term stability. Does he share my concern, which I think he was touching on, that we may have arguments about the number of children we welcome into this country, but we need to address the rights of those children when they become adults, particularly if they have been in care? They do not qualify for housing. They do not qualify for the Staying Put scheme. They do not qualify for various benefits. They do not qualify for loans if they want to go on to higher education. Their vulnerability does not change on the day they become 18, nor the danger they are in if they go back to their country of origin. We need to have a better long-term plan for those children as they progress into adulthood in the safety of this country.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend: he is already talking about a long-term plan for separated children. Undocumented children may well not even make an application for asylum, not least because they are under the cover of being children and have the protection of the state, but as they get close to the age of adulthood, an application needs to be made. Their status becomes insecure and uncertain and they are very much at risk of going through the care system and, sadly, out on to the streets, where they are prone to further exploitation. I will touch on that issue as well.

The support for those vulnerable children who have found their way by so-called irregular means differs from support under the formal resettlement programme. I pay tribute to the Government for the vulnerable persons relocation scheme and the 20,000 commitment. I think that 1,500 people have been resettled. That is part of a package that is not just about numbers. It is a serious package of support involving local authorities and communities. I understand that at the recent meeting in Geneva, attended by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Refugees, the British Government were praised as an example of good practice that other countries need to follow for their serious commitment to long-term support for these vulnerable people. That needs to be matched, including for those who arrive by different means. People may not arrive through that formal scheme, but they are no less vulnerable; their concerns and needs are no different. It is important that we do not in effect discriminate against them because of how they arrive.

When a child arrives by means of a formal resettlement programme, they are offered a five-year humanitarian protection visa. The Government have previously responded to concerns about what happens when such children turn 18; the likelihood is that they will be granted indefinite leave to remain. However, undocumented children, particularly those who arrive in the United Kingdom unaccompanied and by irregular means, are granted unaccompanied asylum-seeking child leave. That leave fails to represent the long-term solution that we all want, as it is granted for a period of 30 months or until the child is 17 and a half years old, whichever period is shorter. At that point, whichever comes first, the child is treated as an adult migrant and is not subject to the same protection that they had, but their needs have not suddenly changed dramatically just because an age threshold has been reached or they have reached the end of their UASC leave. We will fail that vulnerable person unless we provide long-term support.

The Children’s Society has found that the widespread granting of UASC leave, with further determination delayed sometimes until just before the child turns 18, does not serve the best interests of children and leaves them open to risk. We need to look carefully at who we are dealing with, because UASC leave often fails to represent a long-term solution, and it leaves young people anxious and uncertain about their future, which will store up problems. Such young people are transitioning to adulthood, and they want to have a say. Any child wants safety, support and a loving home, which continues as they get older—for these children probably even more so, given their background. The Government increasingly do that for care leavers. This is not just something that ends at 18; it is a longer-term commitment. So many of these vulnerable people, wherever they come from, need longer-term support.

We must have a different understanding of children. We should not rely simply on their reaching the high threshold set by refugee conventions and the established legal understanding of “refugee”; we should also recognise the needs of separated children who may not necessarily meet that threshold. Such children are at particular risk. We have seen across Europe that, appallingly, some 10,000 children—we do not know the exact numbers—have gone missing, many sadly into the hands of traffickers and exploitation. Such children are at risk, and they must be treated as such. We must consider how to categorise and support them properly with a child protection status that recognises their inherent at-risk status, which will not end just because they have come to this country and a place of safety. That status continues because of their background and their need for support so that, when they reach the age of 18, or if their ordinary application for asylum fails, they do not run the risk of further destitution and exploitation. It would be an appalling dereliction of our duty if, after we help to provide sanctuary from the risk of exploitation and destitution, they face that same cycle of risk in this country.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. I declare an interest as a trustee of the Human Trafficking Foundation and as a Kent MP. Kent County Council has an overwhelming case load of unaccompanied, vulnerable and needy children for whom to care. Does he agree that not enough local authorities will help out and take those children identified by Kent and that much more co-operation is needed between local authorities?

There is a proper long-term duty that has a disproportionate impact on Kent County Council. A case has been made in previous debates for how we could find a new way of enabling a fair distribution across the country. We recognise that local authorities have been willing to come forward, along with many community and other organisations. Towards the end of my speech I will mention some organisations that want to share the burden with local authorities. Communities want to come alongside to provide that long-term support.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate and on his commitment to the issue. When unaccompanied children are settled here and a parent is later found, does he agree that they should have the same rights to family reunion as adult refugees? I know that is a controversial subject, but other countries seem to manage it without any fear of abuse. There are fundamental rights to family reunion that should be upheld.

Family reunions are currently prevented by the rules on unaccompanied children, which are not in line with the rules for adults. The position that children cannot sponsor their parents or carers to join them means that they do not have the same rights as adults, which is a particular concern. The Government, considering their own and international legal obligations to protect the best interests of children already in this country, should not be in a position where they are effectively denying a child the right to be reunited with their family and to be safe.

It is important that we consider the situation more broadly, such as the issue of dependency in relation to families. Who is the family? There should be a broader understanding of dependency. It might not be the father or the mother; it might be a brother. I have visited Calais, and I have seen the appalling conditions at the Dunkirk camp. I spoke to a young person from Afghanistan who was fleeing a war-torn area, and he was desperate to be with his brother—this was when the French police were dispersing people, and he was at risk of being dispersed into the hands of traffickers. We need to find ways of providing safety for such people, and of recognising that his dependent relationship was with his brother. We need to find practical ways of supporting such people.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. It is good to see Members from so many parties here. Does he agree that funding for local authorities should be increased so that they can do the necessary child protection work so that we can speed up the reuniting of children with their parents?

There will be significant financial costs, and I hope that we will see the details of the commitment to relocate more unaccompanied children. The financial costs need to be clear. We need a proper package to be able to make that commitment—the vulnerable persons resettlement scheme included a financial commitment to local authorities—because we must take account of the additional costs of working with highly traumatised, vulnerable children.

In the childcare system, more than 24,000 missing children were reported from January 2012 to December 2013. Given that figure, we need to ensure that the care system is up to speed and fit for purpose so that children who risked going missing on their journey or, indeed, in their own country do not face the same risk of exploitation and destitution in this country. It is important to work with local authorities to find the best long-term solution, and I particularly draw attention to undocumented children who may never apply for asylum. We need to bring those children out into the open to show them that there is a future and a pathway for them in this country, rather than their waiting until the very last moment and becoming stuck in a system that lacks advocacy. They might then be prone to being outside the system and falling into the hands of those who may abuse them.

I thank my hon. Friend for securing this debate, which is important to a great number of us. Does he agree that, in this almost impossibly hard policy area, we must be driven by our heart and our head? We must focus on what works in the longer term for these children. We must be driven by evidence-based programmes led by experts, such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, for a long-term, enduring commitment to some of the most vulnerable families caught up in this tragic conflict. That would be something of which we, as a nation, could be truly proud.

I agree. We need to be guided by the UNHCR on vulnerability and on its assessment of children at risk. It is encouraging that the Government’s approach has focused on vulnerability, and that approach needs to continue for those in the region, in Europe and in this country. That must guide us throughout.

I share with everyone else an admiration for the hon. Gentleman’s securing of this important debate. We know that children of Vietnamese origin are much more likely than not to go missing. Does he agree that there should be a specific focus on that group of children, who are absolutely at risk from exploiters and traffickers, and that, at the moment, we are failing them by not having that focus?

I agree that we need to do that. The right hon. Lady and I are both members of the all-party parliamentary group on human trafficking and modern slavery, and I share her concern. Following the passage of the Modern Slavery Act 2015, we need to make sure that we recognise the inherent risk faced by such children and that there is a package available to do more than the current care system to provide help. We must end the uncertainty on the status of those children and ensure that there is a long-term commitment to their protection. Those children in particular are struggling, and there was a debate during our consideration of the Immigration Bill on restrictions on unaccompanied children receiving leaving-care support provisions, such as access to accommodation and subsistence, as well as foster placements, education, training and legal advice. Whether those children are applying for immigration or for asylum, we need to recognise that those needs continue.

On the issue of advocacy to which my hon. Friend referred, children are being trafficked younger and younger, facing loneliness and bewilderment. Does he agree that implementing a child advocate scheme similar to the one recently trialled by the Government could bring not only clarity to local authorities but the certainty and continuity of a long-term plan for children?

Yes, certainly. I championed child trafficking advocates along with other Members across the House, and we were pleased when they were eventually included in the Modern Slavery Act 2015. The scheme has been piloted with mixed results, but it is important to recognise that trafficked children have a similar profile to separated children coming to this country. In his response, will the Minister confirm a link with the advocates who help those at risk of being trafficked, as well as their relevance to separated children? If the scheme needs to be expanded, let us hear the details, but the national roll-out must properly include unaccompanied children.

I appreciate that a number of hon. Members want to contribute, so I will not hog the debate. I draw attention to the commitment made by the Under-Secretary of State for Refugees at the Geneva summit. He said that we need

“to harness the generous offers of support from the UK public by developing a community sponsorship scheme.”

That is welcome, and we need to see how it might work, particularly for separated children. For example, Home for Good, a fostering charity, has signed up more than 10,000 UK households willing to provide a home for such children. We need to use that welcome offer of support, which goes beyond what was happening back in September—“I’ll give my house.” It is a practical offer of long-term fostering support from an excellent organisation. Home for Good, among others, asks the Government to tell us how they will use the resources offered by charities, faith groups, churches and businesses to support unaccompanied children. I look forward to hearing the debate, particularly if it focuses on a long-term plan for separated children, and I welcome all hon. Members’ contributions.

I propose to start the winding-up speeches at about 10.30 or 10.35. A number of Members have indicated that they want to speak, so if Members can restrict their speeches to four to five minutes, everyone should be able to speak.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) on presenting his case and giving us all a chance to participate in this debate.

The migrant crisis was undoubtedly one of the defining issues of 2015, and it will undoubtedly be a defining issue this year as well. It is impossible to avoid it, and hard to find a member of the public who does not have an opinion on it, whether we consider the negative consequences seen in Cologne or the positive stories of relocated refugees settling successfully into a new society. It is a major issue that will take some time to resolve. In Belfast and in Northern Ireland, we have had our first refugees, sponsored by the Northern Ireland Assembly, which has encouraged them to relocate and be part of Northern Ireland. Church groups have also gathered around to ensure that that happens.

We have all seen the images of what ISIS or Daesh do: they behead, rape, murder and pillage. It is not hard to understand why any human being would want to get as far away from that as possible. More than 14 million Syrians in the country are in need of help, 7 million of whom are internally displaced, and nearly 5 million have fled abroad, including the hundreds of thousands making their way into Europe. Nevertheless, it is important to be rational and not let our emotions make us lose the run of ourselves. Syrian nationals were the fourth largest group of asylum applicants in the year to September 2015.

We cannot ignore the heart-breaking plight of genuine refugees. In 2015, some 3,043 asylum applications were received from unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, 56% more than in 2014 and 141% more than in 2013. More than half of all applications were from Eritrea, Afghanistan and Albania.

I want to underline the plight of Christians fleeing Syria. Some 900,000 Christians have been displaced in Syria, many of them families and children. Although we focus on Syria, it is clear that there is quite a spread of people seeking to come to Europe. We must be careful to do the right thing and have a compassionate approach, as the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate mentioned.

Regardless of our approach, we must ensure that refugees are processed correctly, in order to give genuine refugees the dignity that they deserve and root out potential criminal elements or security threats. We have all seen the distressing images from the Mediterranean. The news last night referred to the unscrupulous people in Libya and elsewhere who fill boats full of people, often without regard to safety. They are an obvious threat to people making the perilous and often fatal journey to Europe.

When it comes to children, especially unaccompanied children, we must act. We must be compassionate and do the right thing. The Syria crisis, in addition to the political situation across the middle east and north Africa, has resulted in an ever increasing number of unaccompanied migrant children making their way to Europe. Concerns about such children have been raised, not least after Europol warned that at least 10,000 unaccompanied children have gone missing since entering Europe. We must ask ourselves where those children are, what has happened to them, whether we are concerned and whether we are doing our best to find them.

People will know that I am a Christian and have strong views on these issues. From a compassionate point of view, I would say: where are those children, and what are we doing about them? Our Saviour said:

“Suffer the little children to come unto me”.

What are we in this House doing as Christians? What is this House doing as a leader of society to help those children?

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that a more consistent procedural approach across London boroughs and local authorities would also help to deal with the problem of missing children? Children go missing in this country too.

I accept that, and I thank the hon. Lady for outlining the issue clearly. Yes, we should have learned something in our own society about how to deal with and respond to the issue. We need, honestly and consciously, to take it seriously.

Does the hon. Gentleman also agree that it is important that registration occurs at the point of entry, so that we can track children and ensure that appropriate child protection measures are in place?

I wholeheartedly agree.

At least 3,000 displaced children will be resettled in the UK, but the problem is that the Government initiative to relocate child refugees will not include those already in Europe. It is not the case that the whole of Syria is marching into Europe, although sometimes people listening to the news might think that it is. That is not how it is; let us keep things in perspective and focus on the important issues. The European Commission’s chief spokesman said that 60% of those arriving in the EU as part of the movement were economic migrants rather than refugees. We must empathise with genuine refugees.

I am conscious of time, so I will finish with this comment. We should do what we can do to help. There are screening and security issues to be addressed, but we need to be part of the humanitarian effort, most definitely with regard to children. I can only hope that this debate will put pressure on the Government to reconsider and start helping with the efforts to assist unaccompanied children who are already in Europe. We need to get the right approach, reconsider the current one and be part of the humanitarian effort to help those poor children, who absolutely need and deserve our help.

I will start with a quote that some Members may have heard before. On 14 December 1938, Mr Noel-Baker asked:

“Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that these children in Germany in many cases are in really terrible conditions, without adult protection and without the means of finding food, and is he aware that the machinery of the Home Office for granting visas is so inadequate that the visas cannot be obtained in sufficient quantities to save their lives?”—[Official Report, 14 December 1938; Vol. 342, c. 1976.]

Unfortunately, 78 years on, not a lot has changed. We do not have much time to debate that issue, or indeed to debate what we could most effectively do to help children in the camps surrounding Syria, for instance, because this debate, secured by the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes), rightly focuses on what we can do for children who are already in the United Kingdom. As a minimum—the hon. Gentleman touched on this—we should provide a five-year humanitarian protection order, in line with those people being relocated under the Syrian vulnerable person resettlement scheme. That approach is needed simply because it provides security for the children and because it also makes the job of local authorities much easier, regarding what they have to plan for in the future for those children.

We also need the Home Office to extend the guardianship pilots for trafficked children to include unaccompanied children. I know that the Children’s Society is keen that the Minister for Immigration provides an update on the child trafficking advocates pilot, as well as clarification of whether he recognises the importance of there being an independent advocate for separated and unaccompanied children, particularly in their transition to adulthood and in providing support with regularising their immigration status before they turn 18. Indeed, there are strong arguments for extending that support beyond 18 to 21, as is the case with care leavers.

The provisions for transfers or disposals need to be addressed very early on. The worst that can happen to a child is that they remain in one place for an extended period only to be moved on much later. Action needs to be taken very soon on where children will be relocated within the UK.

We need effective and improved co-ordination mechanisms. My understanding is that in London, which was mentioned in an intervention earlier, the Greater London Authority is taking responsibility for co-ordinating certain aspects of the arrival of children, but that the mechanisms are not working very effectively. As I understand it, the latest figures suggest that a maximum of 10 children have been distributed through those mechanisms. Clearly, more action needs to be taken at a London level, so that co-ordination is in place and the boroughs can tap into what has been organised.

We also need to ensure that where family ties exist, every effort is made to ensure that family members in the same local authority area can provide support to unaccompanied children where appropriate. As well as improving conditions for the child, that approach has the advantage of reducing the burden on local authorities.

We need to make sure that there is better resourcing for foster carers, and we would like the regional assessment hub model to be explored further, although that is not a call to reduce the scrutiny of foster carers. A national register would also make a substantial contribution, because it would enable foster carers who move from one local authority area to another to remain available to provide foster care. Of course, the need to check things such as the foster carer’s new home would remain; a national register would not deal with such issues.

Some authorities are clearly on the frontline in providing funding—Kent has already been mentioned. The Home Office needs to model scenarios to compensate local authorities that step up and take responsibility for unaccompanied children. The Government also need to identify which authorities are currently overburdened and have to rely heavily on out-of-county options for their own looked-after population before they take on any additional unaccompanied children.

The target advocated by Save the Children and others—including my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron), who has outlined his blueprint for 3,000 children—is attainable, and it would make a substantial contribution towards dealing at EU level with the 30,000 or so unaccompanied children who are already in the UK. However, we need many of the measures that I and previous speakers have discussed this morning, to ensure that the framework—the support network—is in place before those children can be supported.

I very much welcome this debate and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) on securing it.

I imagine that we are all here today because we want Britain to play its part in dealing with the refugee situation and in looking after the unaccompanied children in this country, and across Europe and the middle east. The debate is very much about how we do that and how we ensure that we do it well.

I visited Calais last year—I think it was in October— and clearly I saw awful conditions there. There were very few children; the few children I saw were with their parents. However, we know that there are some unaccompanied children there and that those children who are there are usually in their teens, although some may be younger than that. I have also visited a refugee camp in Turkey, where I saw pretty good conditions—okay, it was a refugee camp that the Turkish Government chose to show visitors. However, I spoke to people there who were living in relatively good conditions, and without exception they wanted to come to Europe all the same.

I also represent a constituency in Kent and as my neighbour—my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant), who was here earlier—has already mentioned, we have a large number of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in Kent. It is one of the areas that is feeling the effect of this issue particularly heavily, but we also have experience of how to deal with it well.

In the limited time available to me, I will just make a couple of other points. The first is that in addressing this problem of unaccompanied children, we must absolutely be compassionate, but we must also avoid being emotional and failing to think through the unintended consequences of whatever choices we make. And we must realise that we are making choices.

In the debate as to whether we should bring 3,000 unaccompanied children over from Europe, for instance, we should be mindful that, although we usually talk about Syrian refugees, about half of the unaccompanied children in Europe are Eritrean, and many others are from Afghanistan and Albania, although there will be some Syrian children among them. We need to be conscious that those who are calling for more children to be brought here are calling for children of many nationalities to be helped. That would be one decision, and a different decision from choosing, for instance, to focus our efforts on helping children who are fleeing Syria. I am not saying that the children from other countries do not need help; any unaccompanied child needs some help. I am just saying that there is a decision to be made.

My hon. Friend has, in fact, just answered the question that I was going to ask. Does it make children any less vulnerable or at risk that they are from a country other than Syria? However, she just answered that question, for which I thank her.

Indeed I did, but I very much appreciate my hon. Friend’s point and thank her for it.

My second point, which is very much in keeping with the tone and focus of this debate, is the importance of doing a really good job by those who come here. The worst thing is to raise hopes among young people—in fact, it is even worse to encourage them to come here—and then to let them down and not do a good job. Having talked to organisations that are active in Kent in looking after unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, I know that it is difficult to do a good job. Children need an enormous amount of help, and they really need foster homes; they need to be placed in a family environment, and to be given health, mental health, schooling and all of that.

The particular challenge that we have in Kent is that foster homes are full. We have around 800 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children who are under 18 and around 400 to 500 care leavers, so we have a huge number of children to look after. We need a national drive to find more foster homes, to ensure that children who come here can be looked after and British children who need foster homes can also be found places in foster homes. There is a limited supply of such homes.

I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate said that 10,000 foster homes were available through the Homes for Good charity. That sounds like a fantastic supply and there needs to be some way of matching the demand with what appears to be the supply; I hope that the Minister can pick up on that point.

Finally, we need a plan for what happens when these children reach 18, and for care leavers. In Kent, we welcome the extra funding that the Government have provided for under-18s, which has made it more feasible to look after under-18s, but there is a question about care leavers, as they still need extra help, which requires extra money.

The most important thing is that when we bring unaccompanied children here, we do a good job. We must not raise hopes and then dash them; we must do a very good job by those children, so that they have a really good start in life.

I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately) because her points about emotion and about our fostering and adoptive care provision are crucial to the debate. Those points need to be focused on, not just by us in the debate but by the Minister, and I hope that he will use the debate and the contributions offered to formulate his policies and plans—I say this with the greatest respect—before Monday. If we are removing emotion from the debate, Parliament should not cajole the Government. If on Monday a vote went against the Government, and Parliament cajoled them into a position that they were either unprepared for or unwilling to engage in, it would be a disaster for unaccompanied children.

I will focus a tad on emotion. I recall that back in the summer I felt that the Government’s position was callous and heartless, and that it lacked the compassion of which we, as a country, should be proud. That was my emotional position at that time and I now accept that it was wrong. It was misplaced. It would have been wrong to resettle vulnerable people in this country without provisions such as homes, schools and GPs. Those things give them the best chance to assimilate, and so too with young unaccompanied children. It would be no justice to those who need the support, help and friendship of this country to bring them here without adequate support mechanisms in place. I hope, therefore, that the Government will take the opportunity not only to formulate their plans but to seek and receive the endorsement of Save the Children and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, so that we know that what we do has both the helping hand and the endorsement of organisations and NGOs that respect what this country is doing and recognise the contribution that we can make.

We have a proud history in this country, and the important point that the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent made is that when we consider today those many thousands of young people elsewhere who need our help it would be remiss of us if we did not also consider those in this country. If we could encourage more families to come forward as prospective adopters or foster carers, that would be a wonderful achievement for us, as a nation. If you take the Scotland and England figures together, there are more than 7,000 children in care homes so the idea that we would bring others to add to their number—and in many cases, their plight—is not something I can support. In building that support and that help, and in opening up the opportunity, I hope that this discussion can be of benefit not only for those seeking to come to a country of safety and sanctuary but for those who currently live without the true love and support of a family in this country.

I will conclude now, Ms Vaz, to give you some extra time for others. I look forward to hearing from the Minister, not just in his response to the debate but over the coming days and, with any luck, in advance of Monday, about just how best we can get a scheme that we can be proud of and that does justice to those who so much need it.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) on securing the important debate. When he started his speech he made some cracks about needing a long-term plan, and I want to talk about time, because one of the problems with the immigration system is that it does not recognise how important timeliness is in a child’s life. A week, a month or a year in a child’s life, in comparison with an adult’s, is an enormous amount of time. One of the problems is the lack of timely intervention and support for vulnerable children, in France and also when they are in the UK.

In the case of ZAT et ors in the immigration tribunal, the judgment said:

“Insufficient and inappropriate reception conditions for unaccompanied asylum seeking children”—

in France—

“were considered to impair their effective access to the asylum procedure”.

We also learned that the children in that case were not eligible for legal aid, and that there was an endlessly bureaucratic process for their cases even to begin. I hear about Home Office officials being sent to France to help sort out those things but I do not see the speeding up of individual applications as a result, so that is the first step we should take.

The second step is trying to help local authorities that are acting on the issue. A number of Members have spoken about the situation in Kent. I attended a presentation by Philip Segurola from Kent and, strikingly, in September last year, instead of the usual 20 or so individual unaccompanied children more than 200 arrived there in a single month. We need to support local authorities better to support unaccompanied asylum-seeking children.

Beyond that, we know that child advocates work—the mixed results claim about the advocacy trial is spin. The independent University of Bedfordshire analysis of the outcomes of the trial was overwhelmingly positive. It showed that children experienced someone being on their side. That is the most essential thing. With overburdened social workers, children do not have an experience of anyone being on their side in the labyrinthine bureaucracy of asylum seeking, and it is urgent that we ensure that every child at risk of trafficking or who has been trafficked, and also asylum-seeking children, get access to an advocate who can be on their side. Although it is true that some of those children went missing, in almost every case in the trial it was before they were allocated an advocate. A number of the case studies in the Bedfordshire report showed that it was the child advocate who found a child who had gone missing. That is the second area where we need to act urgently.

Thirdly, we need to change a procedure that has existed for decades. When a child applies for asylum, the Home Office does nothing—it does not take action; it does not investigate the claim; it waits until just before the child’s 18th birthday to take any action in relation to the claim. The process was described by the Home Affairs Committee as serving

“administrative convenience more than the best interests of children”,

and that is right.

I understand that it is difficult for a child to make a compelling case for asylum, but the state has a responsibility, at an early stage, to investigate the nature of the claim because three, four or five years later it is difficult to be able to support such a child. We are in a situation where children are failing to be supported in Europe, all over the place. In Lesbos they are being fed by sandwiches being thrown over a fence. That is unacceptable, and we should not be part of it.

My right hon. Friend makes an important point about not knowing the full situation and about a number of children disappearing. In light of that, I have put parliamentary questions to the Minister about the number of take charge requests that have come to the British Government and I have been told that they cannot provide that information. It really troubles me that we do not have the information on which to even make the decisions. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is a huge problem? How can the Government reassure us if they do not even have the facts?

Indeed, and it is not only the UK that does not have the facts; strikingly, many Administrations all over Europe, including in countries we admire for being bureaucratically effective, such as Germany, do not have the statistics. We really are not looking after children. The state is the parent in those circumstances and, frankly, we are the kind of parent who, if we were a human being, should be facing court for failure to adequately parent. That is not acceptable, and action is needed urgently.

I thank the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) for bringing this important debate to Parliament, and I thank you, Ms Vaz, for chairing this debate. I hope I can get through my speech very quickly.

I will talk about the experience of refugee children who do not have parents to care for them, but first I want to talk about the situation with unaccompanied children who are given the opportunity to come to the UK and the Government’s record on that. To be clear, I am referring to Governments of all colours; I am not in any way making a party political point. The Government have pledged to do more, and I am glad, because their record up to now has been pretty abysmal. When unaccompanied children come to the UK, they are placed in local authority care. Local authorities and communities do their best to care for them, but as soon as they turn 18 the situation changes drastically: they can apply for naturalisation, and too many are turned away. The only place they have ever found safety and comfort turns them away.

We give these children a home and a family. They make friends and learn English. Then, when they turn 18, we send them back to the war zone they came from. Between 2008 and 2012, we sent nearly 2,000 children back to Afghanistan. In the same period, we sent 345 children back to Iraq and at least 22 back to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In 2009 and 2010, we sent back children who were stateless. I do not even know how that works. They were stateless. No state was accepting responsibility for those children, and we sent them out of our country. A bairn who comes to our country as an unaccompanied minor and has no rights anywhere else is refused the right to stay after they turn 18. That is inhumane.

Things must change, and I am therefore pleased that we are having this debate today. The Scottish National party is calling for the UK Government to ensure that all separated children are allocated an independent legal guardian. I am glad that that point was made earlier. It is important that the kids have a voice and someone able to fight their side and navigate our incredibly complicated immigration system. We would like the UK Government to backtrack on the provisions in the Immigration Bill that discriminate against former looked-after children.

I will now turn my attention to the circumstances that displaced children and young people find themselves in throughout Europe, the middle east and other parts of the world. The other night, my four-year-old woke up having had a nightmare. I went in and gave him a hug and he went back to sleep. He had all his favourite toys around him. He had his own pyjamas on and was in his own bed. He knew that his mum and dad were just along the corridor, able to come in and give him the comfort and support he needed. The horror and terror that unaccompanied children must experience is unimaginable. Refugee children are waking from their nightmares and finding that real life is worse. Every day, every hour, displaced children are hoping and praying for comfort and safety. How can we, when we have the means to help them, justify leaving them in that situation?

I went to visit Kittybrewster primary school recently and the children there were talking to me about refugees. They were concerned for refugee children. They are passionate young people, and they grilled me at length about why the Government were not doing more to help children who are like them, but who are alone in a foreign country. They wanted to know what I was doing to help. They wanted to know what Members and the Government were doing to help. They wanted to know how dropping bombs on people in Syria would help to improve the lives of the many thousands of children who find themselves homeless and alone as a result of conflict.

Why, when we have more than enough, are we do not doing more to help those who have nothing? The Government have not been flexible enough. I do not think we should be removing emotion from the debate. We should be thinking about these children as young human beings whom we have a responsibility to help. We need to be doing everything we can to take action now. We should be helping people with compassion and humanity and not simply considering these youngsters as numbers.

I add my voice to those who have congratulated my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) on securing this debate. I will not talk about giving children a voice, because that has already been covered, as has supporting local government, which is hugely important, particularly in ensuring that no one area is overburdened at the expense of others.

When I visited Lesbos, an island that is not on the news most days, my first impressions were shocking in their tranquillity. It looked like any other Greek fishing village waiting for the summer trade to begin, but that belied what lay away from the port. The first camp was a functioning United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees camp. There were huts, and people had few possessions—only what they could carry. Charities such as Save the Children were doing a sterling job, providing safe places for families and vulnerable children. The play scheme, like any play scheme, was noisy and messy.

I want to address two issues, predominantly: timeliness, to which the right hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) alluded, and procedural appropriateness. The second camp was less ordered. Infrastructure was sparse and the detention centre housed vulnerable children. The barbed wire looked less than comforting. It is practically impossible to monitor where a child is. Children travelling on their own are vulnerable at every stage, as we have heard repeatedly. The lack of safe routes once they have arrived in Europe is appalling and frightening—think of travelling up through Albania and the like. To protect a child, we need to know where they are.

I was struck by two things: the size of the problem and the inadequacy of the provision. Do not get me wrong; the Greek population are doing a staggeringly good job. They did not ask for their islands to be the front door to more than 856,000 refugees in 2015. Lesbos is the same size as one of our constituencies in population. Refugees do not have many choices of where to go, and the situation will not change any time soon, so we need to step up and assist. The island administration struggles to cope with the high volume. It has poor facilities and a lack of expertise. The hotspot we saw in January was a digger and a bloke. That is not much of a hotspot. The Greeks and other possible first points of arrival need practical help with expertise from a broad base of countries. The Greeks’ ability to cope is affected by the prefecture system of governance, a challenging economy and a lack of procedural competence, although all that is offset by the most enormous humanitarian response of basic decency and kindness by the people of the island and the country. Countries at the sharp end do not need fine words; we need to ask them how we can help. Vulnerable children need particular help.

I shared that experience with my hon. Friend, and I also saw the scale of the issue and the paucity of the response. There has been a rallying cry today around time, the right thing and the long term. My hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) spoke powerfully about the exploitation and destitution of unaccompanied minors in our midst, especially that experienced by those who have come by irregular ways and means. Does my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill) agree that the right thing to do is, as she has outlined, to find a new gear in the process of identifying children and young people in Calais and likewise in Lesbos so that they can be reunited swiftly with their family? We also need to extend our work with vulnerable unaccompanied children in the region so that they do not make this perilous journey and risk an uncertain future.

I could not agree more. We have to ensure that we are not a magnet. The trade is absolutely immoral. We need to ensure that handling procedures for all vulnerable people are speedy and timely. We need biometric machinery so that people are registered where they arrive. Vulnerable children have no one to ensure that they are looked after on this journey. An increasing concern is that money given to Frontex is not being spent correctly. Improved monitoring is a must.

Young single people are at particular risk on all parts of their journey. As my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) said, they continue to be vulnerable once they are here, and we have a duty from the time they set sail. Taking people from camps in north Africa and Syria helps to show that assistance is there. A friend whose family comes from Lesbos said:

“It is not like an earthquake over in minutes. This is never-ending, like living on a motorway with daily car crashes. Some of the islanders can’t sleep and see boats when they are not there.”

The Greek people are tired, but I worry about having debates on numbers when we do not know the extent of the issue, when processing is not being done properly and when facts are scarce. Those things are critical. The amendment this week talks of 3,000 children, but as a mother, I have to ask: what about the 3,001st? Understanding situations properly is the key to sorting them, and we must ensure that councils are helped to provide the right support. Processing people quickly and decently is imperative, which brings me to the “jungle”. As my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell) said, we need to do the same here. Keeping people in squalor is no deterrent; it merely dehumanises. The French authorities need to speed up decision making, ensuring that reunification of family members happens swiftly, if appropriate. To do the right thing should be possible in Europe.

It is being recognised that we in this country are making decisions more swiftly. That is to be welcomed, but I, like many other Members here, want to see more. In the coming days, I look forward to the Minister, who has met with us on many occasions, meeting Save the Children. It can provide up-to-date local information, but I want to know what more we can do in practice to assist the processing, both in technical and influential terms. I want to make sure that vulnerable people get the help they acutely require. We have heard fine words today; please let us see some action.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Vaz. I thank the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) for securing this important debate. Given the dramatic rise in the number of children travelling through Europe in recent years, it is impossible to remove emotion from the debate. Too often, too many children are left unaccounted for and unrecognised in a system that focuses on bureaucracy, timing and filling in forms, and fails to remember that these are children and they are our responsibility. As a result of the ongoing crisis in Syria—sadly, in no way unique or the first of its kind—too many children are facing perilous journeys. Last month, while I was in Calais, I spoke to volunteers from Help Refugees. Both Annie and Maddie spoke of the utterly horrifying fact that too many children aged as young as nine are climbing into trucks, trying to get to the border and being sent back. One child, Hasan, had taken 15 perilous journeys. He had attempted to cross the border and been sent back. However, today he will reach the UK and he will be reunited with his family. That is a good story, but that is only one good story in the face of so many stories of children who may or may not make it.

I spoke to a mother who had put her two young children aged two and seven on the back of a truck in the hope that they would make it to the UK. I do not know whether they did. She will never know where those children are. This is the emotion of the debate and the reality. We do not know where those children are and that is the reality that we must face.

Save the Children, living up to its name, has put pressure on the Government to resettle the 3,000 unaccompanied children already in Europe. That is a responsibility that we in the UK must take seriously, and we must step up to the plate. However, as the hon. Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill) said, in order to protect children we need to know where they are. That is vital. If I drive one point home in this debate, it is that there are too many children whose whereabouts we do not know; we do not know where they are going and we do not know where they will end up. That is not good enough.

The standard of care that we know they will receive when they get to the UK will be exceptional. It will be top class and delivered by some of the best local authorities across the UK in Scotland, England, Wales and elsewhere. Funding local government to deliver the services is absolutely vital. The stark reality is that three times more teenagers are deported than the Home Office previously admitted, which highlights that this bureaucratic process is still penalising people and creating an arbitrary line in the sand between what is a child and what is not a child. This is not good enough.

I will leave this point with the Government. I echo the sentiments of timeliness and the need to protect. The Government are failing children. We can always do more, so let us step up to the plate and do that.

Our ability to save the lives of children is immediate, doable and incumbent on us as members of the human race. In the past two months, I have visited Lesbos and Calais. Given the world’s attention on these unprecedented levels of migration, I was astounded to find a lack of coherent asylum processing and support for the most vulnerable refugees—children. In Lesbos, aid workers told of the promise of hotspots and resources to identify and process migrants, but we saw little more than organised chaos. Children identified as unaccompanied were held for their safety in a disused jail—welcome to Europe. So it was not altogether surprising that many sought to avoid that fate by ducking through the net of the authorities, but at least there was some kind of system. If I thought that was bad, nothing could have prepared me for what I saw—or did not see—in Calais. There was no asylum processing and no sign saying, “This way to safety.” Neither were there signs saying, “This way to avoid prostitution, trafficking and abuse.” The camp is eerily quiet until late morning because during the night, everyone, children included, is trying to board anything with wheels.

We met a young boy from Syria called Karim. He was desperate for human contact and hugged us and smiled sheepishly. He disappeared days after our visit. After the jungle was semi-demolished, a census carried out by self-appointed good British people, Help Refugees and Citizens UK, discovered that 129 children had gone missing. Karim did turn up a week or so later in Kent, thank God. However, he should not have had to make such a journey of danger and desperation.

In January, the Government said that they would work with the UNHCR to resettle unaccompanied children and with charities to assist and protect the children in transit across Europe. I do not doubt the herculean efforts of the Government in the region, but in Europe we must do more.

I have one final thought. I travelled home from Calais on a train with three young boys from Syria, the first to be resettled in the new reunification process. There should have been four, but there was no room in the car to the station for four children, so one was sent back to the “jungle” for one more month until the next car came along.

When the great British public are feeding and safeguarding the refugee children of Calais, I am filled with immense pride, but also embarrassment that they are having to do that work. If the British people are there, so should the Government be there. It is not France’s problem. Our compassion, Dunkirk spirit and geographical proximity have made it our problem, too, so I urge the Minister to do everything in his power to find those children before it is too late and bring them home for good.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) on securing this debate, on his commitment to the issue and on opening with an excellent speech. The debate has continued in that fashion, with a series of powerful, thought-provoking and wide-ranging speeches setting out the huge scale of the humanitarian challenge that the crisis poses and the action that is necessary to support unaccompanied children who have fled their home countries as a result.

What has underpinned the speeches is a belief that those children should be treated as children. We should provide for them as we would want and reasonably expect our own children to be provided for were they to be in the same situation, arriving alone in a strange new country. It is hardly a radical idea, yet in so many respects Governments across the EU have failed to take that approach. Looking from the outside, too often it seems it is not the best interests of the child that informs policy but perceived national interests in closed borders and fencing, and Government targets and party politics.

It would be impossible for me to cover in the short time available the full range of the debate in any detail, so I will make a few short, sharp points in a handful of different policy areas, echoing some of the arguments and concerns that Members have raised. The main focus of the debate has of course been on providing durable solutions. I agree with hon. Members who have said that it is time for the Government to think again about the nature of the leave that is provided to unaccompanied children, particularly in the form of UASC leave.

We could argue all day about how safe it is to return an 18-year-old lad to Afghanistan, for example. For the record, I agree absolutely with my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman) that such a practice is reprehensible. Even putting that to one side, what we say will happen to someone when they turn 18 has an immediate impact on a child facing up to that threat in the here and now. Dangling what amounts to a sword of Damocles over an unaccompanied child is plain cruel, creating uncertainty and anxiety and stoking fear. It is not in any child’s best interests and not what we would hope or expect for our own children. It is far short of the long-term plan of support that various Members highlighted.

Ultimately, those who are granted UASC leave are granted it on the basis that there are inadequate reception arrangements in their country of origin—in other words, they would face destitution, discrimination, homelessness and lack of access to medical treatment if returned home. Although that does not mean they will get protection under the refugee convention, it surely merits something of an equivalent nature. There is a strong case for saying that no child should have to leave immediately on reaching adulthood. Furthermore, there is a powerful argument that in many cases we should be prepared to say that these kids, whose rights under the conventions would be breached if they were immediately removed, should be offered permanent settlement immediately.

I ask the Government to think again about the effect of the Immigration Bill, which we will be considering again next Monday. They should think particularly about the proposals to remove the ability of local authority social work departments to provide support to unaccompanied kids up to the age of 21. The Bill would remove that support at the age of 18, a change that is opposed by a host of Members, the British Association of Social Workers and others.

I support Members’ calls for the roll-out of guardianship and advocate schemes throughout England and Wales. In Scotland, a successful pilot showed that guardianship schemes can be crucial in helping unaccompanied children and young people to be heard and to realise their individual potential. Northern Ireland and several other countries throughout Europe have similar schemes. I urge the Government to roll out the scheme to unaccompanied children in England and Wales.

I back what the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) said about family reunion. It is plain wrong that unaccompanied children cannot apply as sponsors for their parents or carers. Such a failure to provide for reunion is a clear breach of children’s best interests.

Members touched briefly on legal aid in their speeches. Will the Government revisit some of the previous Justice Secretary’s reforms so that more than 2,500 unaccompanied children will no longer have to try to act as their own solicitors? Legal aid should be available for non-asylum immigration and family reunion cases. Such matters are not straightforward. As a solicitor in Scotland I was able to assist with such applications, with recompense from the Scottish Legal Aid Board in the form of advice and assistance funding. I know that was welcome, and it was clearly justified.

I echo the comments that my hon. Friend the Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) made about Calais, where a significant number of unaccompanied children are living in what are essentially shanty towns. A significant number of those children have strong connections to the United Kingdom. Charities have estimated that there are more than 150 unaccompanied children at Calais who they believe would be able to come to the United Kingdom using take charge requests. As the right hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) said, the tribunal judgment was that the system in France is working at barely a snail’s pace.

As I understand it, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has made an offer to the Home Office to provide support, including through the distribution of an information leaflet; technical comments and suggestions on the implementation of the Dublin regulations; assisting persons of concern, particularly unaccompanied minors, with the identification of relatives in France; supporting the family links evidence gathering process; and a referral or signposting mechanism for individual cases. For the life of me I cannot understand why the Government would not accept that offer. I hope we hear from the Minister that they are going to do so.

We could have a whole separate debate on the situation across Europe, but I shall leave that for another day as time is running short. In all the policy areas I have mentioned, we need to rethink our approach as a country. I hope that the Government will listen to what Members have said.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Vaz. I thank the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) for securing such a timely and appropriate debate. I also thank him because whenever I hear him in Committees or the Chamber, he is always moderate and thoughtful and really has the best interests of the most vulnerable people in his heart.

Nobody who has heard today’s speeches can be in any doubt about the level of concern Members have about the growing number of unaccompanied children in Europe, or their frustration at the Government’s response. The debate is timely as it comes just a week before the House will have the chance to consider an amendment to the Immigration Bill that would require the Government to relocate and support 3,000 unaccompanied refugee children from across Europe. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) for pushing that issue for a long time.

The amendment is small but significant, with the potential to provide safety and stability to children for whom conflicts in their home countries are far beyond their comprehension, let alone their control. As Members will know, the amendment was tabled by my colleague Lord Dubs, himself a refugee who arrived in Britain in 1939 as one of almost 10,000 Jewish children saved by the Kindertransport. The quote from 1938 that the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) read out was therefore particularly pertinent.

Lord Dubs’ amendment passed in the Lords by more than 100 votes and has the support of a wide range of charities and campaign groups. It will have the support of Labour Members in the Commons next week, and I implore all Members of all parties to support it. I do not pretend that the amendment will solve the growing problem on its own. The number of unaccompanied children who are now making such treacherous journeys to Europe is an incredibly serious and complex issue. Indeed, as the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate said, two more children died making the journey last night.

In February this year, children accounted for more than a third of all refugees and migrants in Europe, compared with one in 10 in June 2015. Beyond the refugee crisis, 982 of the 3,266 people identified as potential victims of trafficking in the UK last year were children, who are vulnerable to unimaginable exploitation and violence. As with so many other challenges we face, our response to unaccompanied children in Europe, whether they are here as refugees or as the victims of traffickers, will require an EU-wide solution and EU countries working together to address a problem that cuts across borders.

I echo the points made by the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Heidi Allen). There needs to be an improved framework to support migrant children in Europe and reduce the risks of them falling into the hands of traffickers or suffering sexual exploitation and violence. Recent reports by UNICEF and the Children’s Society have emphasised the urgency of finding a more durable solution, and I hope that the Minister will reflect on that in his response.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and Save the Children estimate that there are currently 24,000 unaccompanied refugee children in Europe, so we believe that 3,000 would be a reasonable figure for the UK to take at this stage. That would be in addition to the number already being taken under the vulnerable persons relocation scheme, a scheme that we fully support but that does not allow the resettlement of vulnerable refugees who have already reached Europe. Given the sheer scale and immediacy of the problem of unaccompanied refugee children in Europe, we believe that the amendment is fair and realistic.

Now for some asks. The Minister has stated that he is sorting out the issues relating to the Dublin III resolution, but so far he has not told us about the facts. Will he do so today? Does he agree with the UNHCR, Save the Children and countless other bodies on that matter? If he does not, what alternative proposal do the Government have in mind? If the Minister can introduce some constructive proposals today, we would like to hear them, because of course we have a vote in a week. My right hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) was right to bring up the issues relating to the support given to local authorities. Will the Minister update us on the support that the Government are making available for local authorities that are resettling unaccompanied child refugees? For how long will such funding and support be continued?

I am sure the Minister will appreciate that it is not enough to simply allow children to find sanctuary in this country; we must afford them the security and safety that we would expect for our own children. Yet in April 2013, the Government implemented changes to the legal aid system that mean that separated or unaccompanied migrant children are no longer able to get free advice and representation for their immigration cases. However, just yesterday the Supreme Court ruled that the former Lord Chancellor acted ultra vires when he made changes to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 using secondary legislation.

The cases that were affected by the changes to the 2012 Act primarily involved children who have non-asylum immigration claims. Their claims are often about their right to a family and private life, and the children have often grown up in the UK in foster homes and have no lasting connections to their country of origin. Cases include those of lone children making citizenship applications; child trafficking victims; children involved in international adoption processes; and children who have been abandoned or estranged from their care-givers.

The restriction in legal aid means that some of the most vulnerable children are left without clarity as to their immigration status as they turn 18, which affects their access to housing, education and employment. I thank the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) for making that point more completely. Without legal aid, the children affected no longer have independent access to legal professionals who can help establish their immigration status and advise them on their options to find a permanent solution. They are at increased risk of removal to countries to which they have little, if any, connection. Worse still, children desperate to resolve their legal issues are faced with the intense risk of being exploited through unregulated labour, or of being sexually exploited or groomed by criminal networks, because of the need to raise the funds to pay for their legal fees. Can the Minister tell us that he will look into reinstating legal aid for all separated children for their immigration cases?

Although the debate is timely, it is also depressingly familiar. For a number of years Labour has been calling on the Government to do more to help vulnerable refugees fleeing violence, abuse and oppression, but at every stage they have been reluctant to do so. They must recognise and respond to public and parliamentary pressure and support unaccompanied children in Europe. Children are vulnerable to the most horrifying exploitation and abuse. I end where the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate began: the Government must offer these children not just a temporary safe haven but a lasting solution, and the opportunity to make the UK their safe and secure childhood home.

This debate has been marked by passionate and compassionate contributions. The Members who contributed did so with a genuine desire to inform the debate, based on their own experiences. Many of them have travelled out to areas affected by the migration crisis and to the refugee camps. This has therefore been a very well informed debate, and the Government will continue to reflect on the points made by hon. Members on both sides of the House, who always speak with a genuine desire to make a difference on these extraordinarily difficult issues. The Government must act appropriately to make the biggest difference that we can on the challenging issue of vulnerable children who have been affected by conflict and are fleeing persecution.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) not just on securing the debate but on his continued focus on these issues. I very much appreciate the conversations we have had over many months—indeed, over many years—on these themes. He focused principally on what happens in the UK, an issue that he feels keenly, although many contributors strayed more widely. We will continue to reflect on the points that he and others made this morning.

In the time available, I will struggle to do justice to this very good debate, but I will address a number of the points that have been made. I echo a comment made by my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer): it is right that we have a sense of compassion, but we have to act with head and heart to do the right thing in an extraordinarily difficult situation. It is worth reflecting on the fact that up to 90% of asylum seekers pay a criminal gang to reach Europe. We therefore have to be careful not to do anything to encourage vulnerable individuals to put their lives in the hands of criminals seeking to exploit migrants for profit. I know that things can get twisted in their presentation, but none of us wants more children being exploited or losing their lives after being pushed out to sea in the Mediterranean. We must prevent that appalling tragedy.

The UK has a long and proud history of offering sanctuary to those who genuinely need it, including children. The Government take our responsibility for the welfare of children seriously. The crisis in Syria and events in the middle east, north Africa and beyond have led to an unprecedented number of migrants and asylum seekers, including children and families, arriving in Europe. Some of those children have been separated from their families and, as we have heard, have gone on to reach the UK via northern France. It is absolutely right that Britain fulfils its moral duty to help refugees. The Government take our responsibility on asylum cases involving children very seriously.

As we have heard, last year there was a 56% increase in the number of unaccompanied children arriving in the UK, which placed significant pressure on some local authority children’s services. It is important to understand that nearly two thirds of those children are aged 16 or 17 upon arrival.

From the points that have been made, I know that Members are aware of the pressure faced by Kent County Council, which is currently caring for nearly 900 unaccompanied children, 300 of whom have had to be placed in other local authority areas. I have previously put on the record my gratitude for the way in which Kent and other local authorities such as Croydon responded to the pressures, but I have also been clear that a national response is needed to ensure that all unaccompanied asylum-seeking children get the support they need and are appropriately safeguarded. The current situation is not in the best interests of either the children or those councils. That is why a voluntary transfer scheme was put in place last summer, and additional funding has been made available to local authorities that take on the legal responsibility from Kent County Council for caring for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children.

However, it is clear that we need to go further to promote a fair and equitable distribution of cases across the country in a way that protects the best interests of those children. Government officials continue to work with the Local Government Association, the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, the devolved Administrations, local government organisations and a range of charities and non-governmental organisations to put in place a longer-term, more sustainable transfer scheme that will assist not only Kent but other local authorities caring for high numbers of unaccompanied children.

I believe that a regional approach to the transfer of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children is the best way to support local authorities, which are legally responsible for caring for those children, but that will work only if local authorities are funded appropriately. I know that that is a concern for many. The Home Office provides funding for the care of UASCs, and last week I confirmed that all existing rates, including the rate offered to local authorities willing to accept the transfer of unaccompanied children from Kent—as outlined in the joint letter from the Home Secretary, the Education Secretary and the Communities and Local Government Secretary last November—will continue until a new transfer scheme is introduced. I hope that local authorities will support the transfer scheme and that it will remain voluntary. However, we are keen to avoid a repeat of the situation in Kent last summer, which is why we included provisions in the new Immigration Bill to underpin the voluntary transfer scheme, and, if necessary, to enforce it.

Comments have been made about advocacy services. All unaccompanied asylum-seeking children are entitled to legal aid throughout their asylum application. It is right that they are supported throughout their application. I am aware that there have been some instances in which children have been unable to access advocacy services in a timely manner, which has been particularly problematic in areas with a high concentration of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. My officials continue to work with the Legal Aid Agency to ensure that such problems are resolved as quickly as possible to progress cases in a timely manner. It is imperative that unaccompanied asylum-seeking children have access to legal advice as soon as possible. Equally, I am working closely with my colleagues in the Department for Education on the issue of fostering.

On the issue of independent child trafficking advocates, the Government are committed to supporting trafficked children. When children are found to have been trafficked, their safety and welfare must be addressed as a priority. In January 2014, the Government announced proposals to trial specialist independent advocates for trafficked children. That trial formally ended on 8 September 2015, and the Government report on the child trafficking advocates scheme was published on 17 December 2015. We are continuing to engage with parliamentarians and stakeholders to determine how best to support trafficked children, and we are considering the use of independent child trafficking advocates. We will update Parliament in due course, but I recognise some of the benefits to supporting children that were highlighted.

It is not true that the Home Office does nothing in relation to asylum places before the age of 17 and a half. The Home Office works with the Refugee Council to ensure that children can access legal support, and each child is given a statement of evidence to help prepare their case. The Home Office decides straightforward cases within six months.

Hon. Members touched on a number of other issues, but I want to talk about the call for the Government to take more action on issue of resettlement. I intend to follow through on the statement that I made at the end of January, and I will make a clearer statement to Parliament in the coming days. I recognise the call for the Government to take more action. The UK has been working with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees on this issue, and we will do more. I acknowledge the call for more information. I am not able to give it this morning, but the Government intend to reflect carefully on the advice we received from the UNHCR, and we will come forward with more information in due course.

I am conscious that we are rapidly running out of time, and I apologise to my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate for the fact that I have not left him much for his right of reply, but I have sought to reflect on the issues raised. If I have further thoughts to give, I will write to him. I very much welcome today’s debate, which has helped to inform this very important issue.

I welcome the fact that 27 hon. Members have been involved in considering this motion about unaccompanied refugee children. Over the coming days, ahead of Monday, we look forward to the Minister’s response to show the length, depth and breadth of our compassion for the most vulnerable unaccompanied children.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).

M6 Toll Road

I beg to move,

That this House has considered usage of the M6 toll road.

It is a great pleasure to serve once again under your chairmanship, Ms Vaz.

On 4 February, a day that will live in infamy for west midlands motorists, the M6 motorway was paralysed for more than 24 hours. Drivers looked for alternative routes, which meant significant knock-on effects on nearby roads such as the M42. The only road that was not heavily congested was the M6 toll.

Our country’s only toll motorway was originally designed as the Birmingham relief road, but it brings no relief, so it does not serve the function for which it was originally intended. High prices have driven ordinary motorists from the road, creating a rich person’s motorway, which is underutilised even in normal, everyday conditions.

During times of crisis, when we need a relief road the most, the contingency plans in place might have been deliberately designed to never be used. To open the toll to general traffic costs £300,000, an astonishing sum that represents, at best, a generous estimate of the cost of a day’s toll take—although the toll waiver might not even be needed for a full day, but just for a few short hours. Worse, the final decision to implement the plan, dubbed Operation Freeway, rests with civil servants, who are not accountable to local residents and cannot be fairly expected to make snap decisions about such huge sums of taxpayers’ money.

If the M6 toll is to serve the best interests of the west midlands and our economy, as it was built to do, we must see fundamental reform of how it operates, especially during gridlock and crises. There are several options to consider. We could move towards a system in which the toll road is free to use during periods of gridlock, with an annual fee paid to the operator to secure that service and access, rather than having a one-off, never-generated fee. Midland Expressway Limited needs its compensation, but at the moment it is in the worst of all worlds: it never gets the money anyway, because it is never triggered. Alternatively, an annual fee could purchase an allotment of days of access—five days during the year, for example. Only last night, the M6 northbound, at junction 6, I think, was again entirely gridlocked due to a spillage of diesel. In such cases, such an option could be triggered for a few short hours to bring genuine relief to the people of Birmingham.

Either way, we must vest the final authority to implement such measures in people who are properly accountable to local residents. The new West Midlands combined authority, under the excellent leadership of Councillor Bob Sleigh from Solihull, is the ideal institution to make such a decision. The WMCA’s leadership would be able to take a broader view of the best interests of residents and of the region than a Highways Agency official can do. For example, February’s gridlock is estimated to have cost the west midlands economy an eye-watering £40 million in such things as lost days, products not reaching their intended destinations and people not being able to turn up to work.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for securing the debate. My constituency is very close to the M6 toll and, indeed, to the M6. Does he agree that any cost is not only financial? When the M6 is blocked, the ensuing gridlock impacts on local communities, on places such as Brownhills, which has the A5 running through it. They can be adversely affected by the extra traffic, so we need to look at ways in which to mitigate that.

My hon. Friend makes a good point, as a strong advocate for her community. As I said at the start of my speech, there is the damage to arterial routes and the heavy congestion in surrounding areas, but emergency services and their access to those areas are also affected. The West Midlands police and crime commissioner is deeply concerned about what happened on 4 February, and has happened on other days. The PCC would like to see action and a fairer means by which we can gain access to the M6 toll when necessary.

It is unfair, however, to expect specialist public servants to take such considerations into account, especially at short notice. That is precisely why they are not the right people to be making those decisions.

We should also consider lowering the day-to-day cost of the M6 toll. When it opened in 2003, the standard fare for cars was only £2, compared with £5.50 today. The charge for vans has also more than doubled, from £5 to £11. The result is a very quiet road, which is an absolute pleasure to drive on for the minority prepared to pay for the privilege, but it does not serve the wider community as it should. In effect, motorists are presented with a game of chicken as they approach the turning for the M6 toll: do they take the risk? Do they go through Birmingham and all those junctions, or do they pay the money to take the M6 toll? I genuinely believe that if we lower the cost, more motorists will make the decision to take the M6 toll, and that alone will help congestion.

A report on the M6 toll was done for Alistair Darling, then the Secretary of State for Transport, soon after the road was opened. It concluded that the road was bringing relief and helping to decrease traffic in the M6 area. According to later reports, however, since the escalation in toll prices, relief has not taken place; a lot of the good work that was done has now been undone by the very excessive charges.

International comparisons are certainly not flattering. Depending on the time of day, the M6 toll charges a car driver between 14p and 20p per mile, compared with averages of 9.6p per mile in France, 8p in Italy and Spain, and only 6p in the world’s largest economy, the United States. It is no coincidence that those countries have a broad network of toll roads, whereas Britain has never built a second. If the operator is interested in the long-term future of road charging in this country, it is in its interests to work with us to make the M6 toll more accessible and attractive to motorists. That could even have an immediate benefit—an increase in traffic—which would be good news for Roadchef’s Norton Canes service station, which has always seemed quiet on the few occasions when I have stopped there.

Renewing support for the project might also allow us, once again, to take an optimistic view of the future of the M6 toll—for example, it could be extended to connect with the M54, as originally intended. Opening up the toll to more traffic will also have considerable benefits for motorists and the wider west midlands region: journey times will be cut; emissions will be reduced as congestion on the free roads is eased by the better distribution of traffic across the system; and better road access will open up the local economy and better connect west midlands businesses to suppliers and customers around the UK. If a day’s gridlock costs the local economy £40 million, the benefits of year-round smooth operation must be considerable indeed.

The system is in clear need of reform, which offers the Government a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate the strength and benefits of the devolution agenda. The new combined authority provides the ideal means to put that vital piece of regional infrastructure under democratic, accountable local control, which would not only lead to better management of the road, but be a concrete demonstration to residents of the benefits of the new arrangements and of our decentralisation agenda. Too many voters see the WMCA as just another layer of bureaucracy; they do not yet appreciate the important role it can play in promoting regional growth. If they see action on the M6 toll to ease congestion in the area, they would see a real benefit of the WMCA.

Other measures should also be considered. I have proposed elsewhere that the WMCA be given control of air passenger duty. Birmingham airport is an important employer in my constituency, and we must be allowed to maintain a level playing field for it and its counterparts in Scotland, where the First Minister has announced plans to scrap APD entirely. Control of the toll would be a positive first step. The Government have placed the northern powerhouse at the centre of their agenda, focusing on delivering greater autonomy and improved infrastructure to our cities and regions. There is now an excellent opportunity to put those principles into action in the west midlands engine. Empowering local leaders to fix the problems created by bureaucratic control and unlock the potential of our existing road network will benefit local residents and businesses, stimulate the regional economy, and make a powerful case for devolution.

I do not suggest that what I have outlined is a silver bullet and will somehow solve all congestion. I know that a lot of the traffic that goes on to the M6 gets off between junctions 6 and 8, an area not covered by the toll. However, if people are sitting in gridlock and can see a sign that says “M6 toll clear” but cannot get to it, that is a failing. I believe that the rich person’s motorway is a sign of failings in the transport system in the west midlands, and that by bringing some relief to the situation we can help the devolution agenda, save money for the economy, and promote growth and jobs.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Vaz—for the first time, I think. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) on securing the debate.

The motion relates to the usage of the M6 toll road, so I shall begin by reflecting on how it is used. The toll road is open to all traffic, and is priced according to vehicle type. Average traffic levels have recently been rising, and have reached about 50,000 vehicles a day, which is catching up with the volume experienced before the recession.

The current figures I have are about 48,000 to 50,000; the Minister is correct. However, that is still below the 72,000 a day that was originally envisaged when the toll road was built.

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. He makes a good point, and he has made an important case today. He highlighted the cost to the west midlands economy of the terrible incident on 4 February, but what he said was also part of a wider case about how road investment opens up local economic development. My hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton) cited the social impact of the incident on 4 February. The two aspects of the matter are aligned. Our road network is not just an economic tool; it is how our society travels—how people reach schools, workplaces and hospital appointments, and go to see family and friends. If we have a failure in our road network we see that in all aspects of our lives.

What happened on 4 February was a terrible incident for the west midlands, and it is important to debate it. It may be helpful if I give a little information about it. On that day, the M6 between junctions 5 and 6 was closed for 24 hours following a serious traffic accident, which sadly involved a fatality. As my hon. Friend knows, the Secretary of State and I are keen to explore whether more can be done to prevent such a degree of impact on road users and business in future. The recent event highlighted our expectation that our road network should be reliable and resilient. The issue is not only what alternatives there are should parts of the network be unavailable, but how quickly and effectively key organisations are able to respond to the circumstances. I think that the incident on 4 February showed that we have to review that, and work to improve the situation.

I shall explain the incident in more detail. The M6 northbound between junctions 5 and 6 was closed from 1.50 am on Thursday 4 February 2016 until 1.45 am on Friday 5 February owing to a collision involving two heavy goods vehicles and a car. As I mentioned, very sadly that resulted in one fatality. Extensive incident investigation work was carried out by the central motorway police group before Highways England could fully assess the damage to the carriageway. Once Highways England had access to the road it became evident that all four lanes of the carriageway—a section about 200 metres in length—required resurfacing repair work as a result of the large volume of diesel that had spilt on to the carriageway causing widespread damage to the road surface. The closure of that section of road resulted in inevitable disruption for road users and communities. My hon. Friends the Members for Solihull and for Aldridge-Brownhills discussed the impact in their constituencies, and many other areas were affected. In fact I was caught up in the traffic jams myself, and so was the Secretary of State. There was a big impact across the west midlands.

As hon. Members would expect, Highways England has diversion routes agreed with relevant local authorities to mitigate the impact of incidents on the road network. As my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull is aware, there is an agreement in place with Midland Expressway Ltd to make use of the M6 toll road in cases where there is an extreme event over and above that associated with a serious road traffic collision. The agreement is known as Operation Freeway and it enables tolls to be suspended for an agreed period of time—24 hours. As the M6 toll road is a commercial operation, suspension brings with it a fee of £300,000 excluding VAT per day, which is a significant cost. The arrangement is a little clumsy—it has never been used, despite the fact that the agreement has been in place a long time.

Highways England has criteria for deciding whether to activate Operation Freeway. The deciding factor is whether the road is likely to have to be closed for a number of days, rather than hours. After the event on 4 February, Highways England took the decision not to suspend the toll because the incident did not meet the criteria for activation: it was not seen to be an extreme event impacting the carriageway over and above what is associated with a serious road traffic collision.

I know my hon. Friend has his own ideas about how the west midlands could make better use of the M6 toll road, not only when there has been an incident but at times of heavy congestion. We all know that there are many periods when the M6 and M5 suffer from heavy congestion. I also note my hon. Friend’s concerns about the most appropriate way in which to take the decision whether to implement Operation Freeway. He has made important suggestions today, and we are due to meet—I think our meeting is only a few weeks away—to discuss that very issue. Of course there are a whole range of issues which we need to consider, including cost, policy and value for money. I look forward to the meeting, and it is clearly appropriate to review everything, in the light of the serious incident that occurred.

It may be helpful if I now talk about how local areas can shape the decisions that are made about them. If there is desire locally for specific schemes or improvements through local authority groups such as the West Midlands Combined Authority, there is a process to put forward ideas as part of the development of the second road investment strategy. As my hon. Friend knows, the Government agreed a devolution deal with the WMCA in November, in anticipation of its transition to a formal combined authority. The deal sets out the terms of a proposed agreement between the West Midlands Combined Authority shadow board and the Government to move forward with a radical devolution of funding, powers and responsibilities. In particular, it sets out the expectation that the Government and the WMCA will work together through the development of the second road investment strategy to examine options for the most effective way to facilitate the movement of goods and people, and manage congestion in the region on the strategic road network.

At this year’s Budget we launched the process for the second road investment strategy. Over the next couple of years, we will seek input from stakeholders on what the Government should fund during the period 2020 to 2025. We are one year into the first road investment strategy, as my hon. Friend knows. It is on budget and on schedule and has proved to be a success so far. As we develop and build on that, we have a secure stream of funding through road hypothecation—the reforms to vehicle excise duty—so we have visibility for many years ahead on road investment budgets.

As we develop the content of RIS 2, I want to ensure that we are able to take input from a much broader range of people. The core work preparing that will be the route strategies prepared by Highways England; they will be the basis for that work. However, I want people to be able to contribute on a local basis—certainly colleagues here or local authorities, combined authorities or local enterprise partnerships.

We should view our road investment strategy as a key facilitator of our longer-term economic growth, so over the next couple of years I want to ensure that we receive input from as many stakeholders as possible on what that scheme will look like. Of course, we already have significant commitments to the strategic road network in the west midlands in the current road investment strategy, which runs until 2020 and is indeed an investment. It is a step change for our country: this is the first time we have had a statutory road investment strategy. It commits £15 billion of funding for strategic roads. That is on a national basis, but £3 billion of that spending is within the midlands. It includes key investments such as rolling out smart motorways—smart motorways have increased capacity by bringing in all-lane running, either full time or part time—and upgrading key junctions such as the M6 junction 10 and the M42 junction 6.

I apologise for my late arrival. I have just spoken to my local council leader about junction 6 of the M42, which needs to be redesigned. Would my hon. Friend the Minister ensure that Highways England takes account of the master plans of the local authority; the local plan, which is for a garden city at that location; the fact that the interchange station for High Speed 2 is to be built at that location; and the fact that the airport has its own separate master plan? We have concerns about the lack of joined-up thinking in the redesign of that junction, which is failing to take account of other planning proposals.

My right hon. Friend has clearly had a most timely meeting with her local council leader and makes a really important point. I am very happy to give a commitment and ensure that Highways England discusses the proposals with the bodies that she has just mentioned. I will raise that with Highways England personally, so that commitment is very easily provided.

I have met council leaders in the area. They came down to express their concerns about the incident on 4 February and to ask for my support in terms of what can be done to bring people together to find solutions. I have talked to them about how collaboration or communication on a local basis needs to improve, but they are building on some success, and the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull made on the importance of local decisions and local capacity for decision making is building are completely true. I have also met the police and crime commissioner about that incident.

We are at the beginning of a process. We recognise that there has been under-investment in the road network across our country for years. We are addressing that with the first road investment strategy. We are building on that work with the second road investment strategy. I want as much local input as possible so that we can provide schemes that make a difference on a local basis. The incident on 4 February was not just a personal tragedy for the family who lost a loved one; it also highlighted the lack of resilience and capacity in the network around Birmingham and the fact that we have to think about all elements of that capacity, including the M6 toll road, as we plan both for resilience and for extra growth. I am happy to have such conversations, which have already begun, but we need to build on them. I am happy to work with everyone locally to make that happen.

I conclude by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull on securing this debate. Ensuring that we are making the best use of our network is an important issue that is worthy of debate, and he has my support on proceeding with the local issue. The Department and Highways England are investigating whether improvements can be made to respond better to incidents such as the one on the M6 on 4 February.

There is a real appetite locally for the Minister to visit the area to see how the loaded M42 and M6 easily snarl and how that relates to other transport infrastructure. He is the roads Minister, but the midlands motorway crossroad combines with Birmingham airport, the west coast main line, the M6 and the A45. We would be grateful if he paid a visit so that we can show him the situation first hand.

That is another commitment that I am happy to give. I would be delighted to visit the area to see the situation for myself. Seeing an area first hand helps to bring the issue home. I am familiar with the area—having been caught up in a traffic jam for many hours on 4 and 5 February, I saw even more of it than I normally might. I am happy to make that commitment and to work with colleagues, both here and locally, to improve the situation.

This is an important issue for the west midlands, and the serious incident highlighted the lack of resilience and capacity. We need to work together, with continued dialogue, to improve the situation for the future.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.

Children’s Homes

[Mrs Cheryl Gillan in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered children’s homes.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Gillan. In October last year, the Prime Minister announced a review of children’s homes led by Sir Martin Narey. The final report is due this spring. The review

“will look at which children should be in residential care, how it can be improved and how government can achieve the very best for every single child in their care.”

It is a huge and complex task, and an important review. The area that interests me in the review is the commissioning of residential care homes and distant placements.

By way of context, Ofsted figures show that in 2015, 69% of children’s homes were in the private sector, 8% were in the voluntary sector and 23% were run by local authorities. The number of children’s homes run by local authorities has decreased and the number run by the private sector has increased. Seventy-one per cent of private providers own one to two homes. The largest private companies provide just over a quarter of all placements. Owners range from families to private equity and venture capital companies.

I first initiated a debate on children’s homes in March 1995, on the issue of the registration of children’s homes. At the time, homes providing care to fewer than four children did not have to register and were not inspected. Social workers were responsible for fire inspections—the situation was completely astonishing. Clearly, we have come a long way since then in regulation and inspection, but in that debate, I expressed concern about the most vulnerable children being placed hundreds of miles away from home. Twenty-one years later, I am still expressing the same concern, and we still have a long way to go.

It is staggering that despite successive Governments calling for a clampdown on distant placements, the latest figures show that the number of children being sent away has increased. The 2014 Department for Education data pack shows that in 2013, 31% of children in children’s homes were placed 20 miles or more from their local area—an increase of 2% from 2011. In fact, 35% of new placements in 2014 were distant placements. It is clear that one reason is the unequal distribution of children’s homes in England. Until we sort that out, we will never be able to solve the problem of vulnerable children being placed miles away from home, with all the horrendous problems and risks that can flow from that. The present situation in the continuing unequal distribution of children’s homes demonstrates a continuing catastrophic failure of the care market for some children. It seems to be working for the providers but not for the children themselves.

In 2012, a joint inquiry into children missing from care was conducted by the all-party group on runaway and missing children and adults, of which I am the chair, and the all-party group for looked-after children and care leavers. It was supported by the Children’s Society. One of the main conclusions was that the unequal geographical distribution of children’s homes meant that large numbers of vulnerable children were placed at a distance from their home area. We found that many placement decisions were last minute, driven by what was available at the time rather than by the needs of the child. This meant that the child was often not involved in planning. Children told the APPG inquiry that they felt dumped in children’s homes many miles away from home. That increased their propensity to go missing and to come to harm from, for example, sexual exploitation.

The recommendations of the APPG report, including a call for urgent action on reducing the number of out-of-borough placements, were accepted in full by the Government and changes were made to regulations. An expert group on the quality of children’s homes was set up and reported to the Department for Education in 2012. A key finding in the expert group’s report was that local authorities could not overcome the uneven pattern of supply of children’s homes across England through their commissioning arrangements. In other words, the locations of children’s homes were determined, and continue to be determined, by providers.

According to Ofsted, a third of all local authorities— 54 in total, when excluding short-break provision—run no children’s homes. With local authority and voluntary sector provision decreasing, this means greater dependency on the private sector for places in children’s homes. That makes it even more essential that we address urgently the underlying issues that result in the unequal distribution of private children’s homes and the resulting distant placements.

In 2012, the DFE data pack showed that homes were concentrated in the north-west, the west midlands and the south-east. As of March 2015, that situation is unchanged—Ofsted stats show that Lancashire, Kent and the west midlands have the highest number of places, and London the fewest. The local supply of children’s homes places does not reflect the needs of local looked-after children. The situation is most extreme in London, which has 17% of the children’s homes population but only 6% of children’s homes. The north-west has 15% of the children’s homes population but has 25% of the children’s homes. In Greater Manchester, 71% of the children living in children’s homes in Rochdale came from outside the borough, and in Stockport, the number was 63%. Some authorities in England have no children’s homes at all and all their children are placed outside the borough.

Why are distant placements a problem? Children placed in care homes face huge challenges compared with other children in care. They are typically older and more likely to have emotional and behavioural difficulties. They are more likely to have substance misuse issues, more likely to have engaged in criminal activity, and more likely to be excluded from school and achieve worse GCSE results. They are also more likely to go missing from their placement, and those who go missing are more likely to go missing multiple times. Again, however, that was not the fate of all children in children’s homes: stability of placement is a critical factor in improving outcomes, but distant placements can make it more difficult to secure that stability for a child.

Ofsted’s 2014 thematic review, “From a distance”, highlighted a number of serious continuing problems in this area. Its research showed that in far too many cases, the local authorities in its sample were failing to pay appropriate attention to the quality of care provided, leaving too many children without the support and help that they needed. It is not difficult to understand why: with pressure on social work time, it is easier to make time to visit a child in a near placement than a distant one. Last year, 520 London children were placed an average distance of 52 miles and an average journey time of 69 minutes from their home area. That makes it very difficult for children to keep in contact with their family.

It is not clear to what extent the situation has improved since Ofsted’s “From a distance” report. If we look at the single inspection framework reports published by Ofsted in the last year, we see that although in many authorities work with children in distant placements was generally good, in just under half the reports, the work with children living far from home did not come up to standard. The most common shortfall was that decisions to place children out of the area were driven by a shortage of placements close to home rather than by individual need.

The last Labour Government placed a duty on local authorities to secure sufficient accommodation for looked-after children in the local authority area, so far as is “reasonably practicable”. The intention was to ensure local provision for looked-after children so that they could be placed nearer home, with access to friends, family and support services. Local authorities are required to publish a local sufficiency plan detailing how they are meeting that duty. However, the numbers of children sent away from their home area remains stubbornly high, despite the existence of those plans.

Why are so many children still being placed in distant placements? A major reason, as the expert group said in 2012, may be that although individual local authorities can recruit foster carers to meet local needs, they are not able similarly to influence the supply of children’s home places in their areas. It is also not clear if and to what extent the experiences and choices of children are influencing care provision. In preparing the “Real Voices” report on child sexual exploitation in Greater Manchester, I talked to children who had been in children’s homes. What was important for them was being listened to; they thought decisions about where they lived should be made with them rather than imposed on them, so it is important that there is choice in placements, including local choice.

The reasons for the geographical distribution may be that property costs are lower in some areas, that health and education support services are better in some areas, that the planning process is easier in some local authorities, that there are existing good relationships or that having a cluster of homes is easier. However, even in those areas that have a sufficient supply of children’s home places to meet local demand in principle, it may not be possible for the local authority to guarantee placements to providers in advance, and providers will not hold places, meaning that in the event children may still be placed out of their home area although there is actually a sufficiency of local places.

That is the situation in Greater Manchester. In February 2014, Greater Manchester had 192 regulated children’s homes. In 2013, 390 children were placed in children’s homes by the 10 local authorities; 185 of those children were placed in another local authority area. Rochdale, which has a high number of children’s homes, placed 41% of its children inside the local authority area and 18% of children more than 20 miles away, while in the children’s homes in the borough, 71% of the places went to children from outside the area, and of those 45% were from outside Greater Manchester. By contrast, in Stockport, which also has a high number of homes, 88% of the children were placed within the local authority boundary, but again they accounted for only 36% of the local children’s home places; 64% were from other local authority areas and, of those, 28% came from outside the Greater Manchester Police area.

Private and independent providers dominate in both boroughs. In Rochdale, the majority of the private providers are homes containing just one or two placements, while in Stockport the homes are larger and there has been a long relationship with the Together Trust, a voluntary sector organisation. That may go some way towards explaining the different figures.

In terms of distance and familiarity with an area, a child from Bury placed in Stockport will feel a long way from home in a place that is unfamiliar, and they may well respond by going missing. Greater Manchester Police calculate that missing children in Greater Manchester cost the police up to £30.9 million a year, and there are additional difficulties in keeping children safe when information needs to be passed across police boundaries.

Given all that, it is ludicrous that we have an oversupply of children’s homes in some areas that do not guarantee a place for local children, while children from areas many miles away that have few children’s homes are placed in Greater Manchester. That chaotic situation sometimes has long-lasting consequences for the children concerned.

I am delighted that the hon. Lady has secured this very important debate. Will she join me in welcoming Sir Martin Narey’s review of residential children’s homes, and does she agree that sometimes children can have incredibly positive experiences in the residential care system?

I will of course agree with the hon. Lady: children’s homes are an important part of the care system. It is equally important that children’s homes offer the highest-quality care, and it is very important that children’s homes are where they need to be, which is the point I am making.

The situation is just as difficult where there is an undersupply of places. A local authority struggles to attract new providers when it cannot guarantee bed occupancy.

What is the answer? In 2014, the Select Committee on Education said:

“We can see the attraction of adopting a rule which prohibits the placement of children more than 20 miles from home unless there is a proven need to do so.”

That would work only if it were part of a wider strategy to tackle the unequal distribution of children’s homes. Local authorities could increase the number of homes that they run, especially in areas that have little or no private provision. They could do that by using available capital borrowing powers or, if they do not want to manage the homes directly, they could provide the capital and a provider could manage the home.

Alternatively, the answer might be the co-commissioning of private providers by a consortium of local authorities. At present, there are regional or sub-regional frameworks in place to purchase places from providers, but in practice those can amount to little more than “catalogues” giving information about homes. Co-commissioning is a challenge, but one that recent devolution facilitates. For the 10 local authorities in Greater Manchester, it offers not only an opportunity for all children’s services to look at how they can use their individual resources such as fostering services in a more co-operative way, but an opportunity to commission from the private sector the provision that will meet the needs of children in Greater Manchester. The DFE could helpfully publish a toolkit for consortiums of local authorities showing them how legally and financially they could structure regional and sub-regional commissioning of children’s home places to meet projected need, instead of merely relying on spot purchasing.

There is a large sum of unspent capital allocated for free schools. Perhaps providers could work with consortiums of local authorities to bid for that funding. Local authorities can currently access basic need funding from the DFE to provide sufficient school places, and capital funding for the childcare offer for two-year-olds. Why should that not be the case for residential placements for looked-after children?

Greater Manchester could provide the perfect test bed for any new approach, as could any other group of local authorities willing to work together, as the problems differ from area to area, depending on the number of children’s homes, local policies and the needs of the looked-after children.

Structural problems with the children’s homes market have no easy solutions. That said, if we mean what we say about seeking to

“achieve the very best for every single child in…care”,

we must overcome them. We cannot allow this situation to continue. I hope that Sir Martin Narey’s review will recognise that reducing distant placements should be at the heart of reforms to the children’s homes market and that therefore action must be taken by the Government, by local authorities and by providers to tackle the unequal geographical distribution of children’s homes.

I would like to express my delight at serving under your chairmanship, Mrs Gillan, and to extend my thanks to the hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) for securing this important debate. I come to the debate with a career of more than 20 years as an English teacher, and the subject of the debate is close to my heart. I have had the experience of teaching young people who have had the misfortune, the upset, of being caught up in adverse family circumstances and have become what we now call looked-after children and sometimes residents of children’s homes.

Putting a child in a children’s home must be a last resort, for reasons that I will go on to explain. It is no great surprise that children who find themselves in children’s homes are often very angry. Despite the best efforts of the well-meaning staff in homes, those young people become angry and disengaged from the world. That is because, regardless of how challenging the home circumstances might be, it is, as we can imagine, extremely traumatic for a young person to be removed from their loved ones and placed with strangers. However much attention, affection or concern is expressed by those people, they are strangers to the young person, and it is a very difficult transition for them to make, even if it is only on a temporary basis.

We know that some homes for children do an excellent job. I have examples from my constituency of North Ayrshire and Arran. But for the young person that is not necessarily the point. It is the strangeness, the unfamiliarity, the confusion and very often the social stigma in their peer group of being removed to a children’s home that cause so much distress, and it is very important to be mindful of that.

Of course, not every looked-after child ends up in a children’s home. There are other options. They may be looked after at home under a supervision requirement. They may be in foster care, a residential unit or school, a secure unit or a kinship placement.

In Scotland we have made some progress, with a 1% reduction in the number of looked-after children from 2014—the third consecutive year in which the numbers have decreased. The numbers leaving care each year are lower than the numbers entering care. The number of looked-after children in England is rising. If the situation were reversed and the numbers were rising in Scotland, I would be taking a great interest in what was happening in England to see what we could learn from that. I would be urging the Scottish Government, of whatever political make-up, to look at the work being done in England to see whether we could apply the same lessons in Scotland, because this is not a party political issue. We all seek the best outcomes for our children, wherever they come from in the United Kingdom. The beauty of devolution is that it allows component parts of the United Kingdom to seek the best solutions, which provides excellent opportunities for us to learn from each other and to look at the different experiences as those solutions are applied. Such opportunities should be seized with enthusiasm and curiosity.

I applaud kinship care. The number of looked-after children in Scotland benefiting from kinship care exceeds the number of children looked after at home. For all the good work undertaken in children’s homes, there is little doubt that kinship care is the most effective way of providing care for vulnerable young people. As a society, we all owe a debt of gratitude to those who assume kinship care roles. Kinship care is a challenging role that does not receive the recognition it deserves, and I am proud to say that the SNP Government in Scotland have provided kinship carers with additional support so that their care allowances are the same as those provided to foster carers.

There is no reason why children living with kinship carers should not be treated in the same way as children in foster care. Their stories are no less traumatic and no less distressing, and their vulnerability is no less real. Supporting families is vital, and it has been the entire approach in Scotland. Action is increasingly being taken earlier in children’s lives to address any concerns before they escalate, which has reduced the number of children on child protection registers by 4%. The way forward must be stable, secure placements either at home with their parents or in a different home environment where the child can benefit from the security and stability upon which child development thrives.

At the end of last year, I was involved in a Backbench Business Committee debate on the sexual exploitation of young people. The Chamber was urged by various speakers to consider examples from Finland, Iceland, Norway, Denmark and Sweden. Name any country in Europe, and good examples of best practice were being held up for the Chamber to consider. Although it is important to learn from other nations, I said that we had some excellent examples in Scotland, where a child in foster, kinship or residential care can continue their residency up to the age of 21 and where support can also be provided to care leavers up to the age of 26 if it is considered necessary and desirable. Although I held up such examples of good practice, I am afraid that my contribution was covered over by the chatter in the Chamber. Of course there are excellent examples in mainland Europe, but we must learn from each other in the United Kingdom because the whole point is to have the best outcomes for all the children of the United Kingdom, wherever they live.

We all agree that we need to ensure that all children who need extra support are able to access it. We need to learn from each other, and we need to keep on learning from each other, about the best way of ensuring that such support is in place. That is the least that our children deserve.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Gillan. I start by paying tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) for securing this important debate. She has done excellent work on such matters, for which she should be commended.

I also pay tribute to an outstanding constituent, Jonathan Rigg, whose company, Meadows Care, is responsible for the safe running of a number of children’s homes in Rochdale. I have witnessed the standard of service and the facilities that the company’s premises provide, and it is a credit to the childcare sector. The standard of the homes is second to none. The social care sector has faced a wave of pressures, but those homes have remained a stable and integral service to many vulnerable children. The private sector receives a lot of negative press on health and social care provision, but Jonathan and Meadows Care are evidence that individuals who are wholly passionate about the provision of care, whether public or private, can have a positive impact on the care industry. Indeed, I do not take the general view that seems to be in fashion in some places that all private is bad and all public is good; the situation is obviously much more complex.

My hon. Friend touched on the distance of children’s placements from their original home. Although it may be a concern that some children are moved many miles from their original area, I have spoken to a number of professionals in the sector, and many looked-after children require specialist care. Some have suffered severe mental or physical trauma and abuse, and they have sometimes missed many years of education. Such children are likely to require bespoke treatment, which is the important point. In such situations, geography is likely to fall way down the list of priorities. It sometimes is not appropriate to place children close to their family, or close to where they originally came from, if they have suffered abuse or trauma. We need a flexible approach to placing children in care homes that puts their needs and requirements first. We must not allow ourselves to substitute quality for locality.

The gap between referrals and placements is a growing concern, as discussed in the “State of the Market” report by the Independent Children’s Homes Association. The report states that the number of referrals received by homes is going up. Some 66% of providers report higher referral rates, but only 32% report growth in occupancy rates. What appears to be happening is that local authorities are just blanket emailing and bombarding providers with possible referrals. They are not checking whether the provider is appropriate for an individual child or sifting to find the most appropriate provider to make a referral to, which shows the disregard within local authorities of trying to get a bespoke service for each individual child. Just bombarding providers wastes their time and does not get the best deal for the young person—local authorities need to look at that.

Another concern in the “State of the Market” report is the lack of market confidence within the children’s homes sector. There is still significant uncertainty in the sector, with 60% remaining unsure, or worse, about their current outlook. Although that is down on the previous year’s figure of 78%, it is still worrying that the majority of respondents in the sector remain uncertain about how they will operate. There are a number of reasons for that. As I have outlined, there is the complexity of cases and the occupancy rates, but there is also the lack of funding for children’s homes. Unless we begin to address those problems, confidence and service delivery will begin to be negatively impacted. We must do more to relieve the pressures on the sector, which needs proper funding.

Those who run children’s homes provide a vital service to people who have fallen on the toughest of times. We should be doing everything we can to make life easier for such service providers and to allow them to provide the care that they want to provide. The points that they have raised are a warning sign that we cannot ignore. If we do, we will be failing some of the most vulnerable people in our society by not allowing them to grow and develop the opportunities that so many of us have been fortunate enough to enjoy.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship and to participate in this debate, Mrs Gillan. I also commend the hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) on securing this debate on an important topic. It has been interesting to listen to the contributions so far. A number of important points have been made.

So far—I am sure this will continue—there has been clear agreement that it is vital to ensure that care is provided in the most effective and appropriate way for all of our looked-after children. I appreciate that this debate has an English perspective, and I will focus to some extent on what I have heard today and on what differences there are between how things work here and how they work in Scotland. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) said, it is useful that we can all listen to one another, because it is vital that lessons are learned and that best practice is shared in all corners of the United Kingdom, and more widely, on such an important issue. Of course there are no easy answers, but we must appreciate that much can be done.

This topic should concern everyone. The hon. Members who have spoken, including the hon. Member for Stockport, have noted the vulnerability of many of the children who find themselves being looked after. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran pointed out, all those children are particularly vulnerable. They all deserve our care and concern, and we have a collective responsibility, particularly in this place, to be as aware as possible of the issues facing them in order to facilitate the best possible outcomes and safeguards, as the hon. Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) said, for these most vulnerable children.

Local authorities have a responsibility to provide support to our looked-after children and vulnerable young people. We know that a young person might be looked after for a number of reasons, including neglect, abuse, complex disability requiring specialist care or involvement in the youth justice system. Those are all challenging situations for young people and merit our support. I was heartened to hear my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran and the hon. Member for Rochdale refer to the positive intentions and hard work of many who work in and with the sector. It is vital.

Looked-after children have often had to deal with myriad challenges in their lives, so we should take seriously our obligation to minimise those challenges rather than add to them. Where possible, for instance, avenues other than children’s home accommodation might be more suitable to the needs of the children concerned. For instance, as we have heard, kinship care might be possible. Kinship care is not always fully understood and can be far more challenging than many people realise. For that reason, the SNP Scottish Government have provided additional support to kinship carers and were the first to introduce kinship care payments to ensure that children looked after by relatives, which I acknowledge is not always possible, are entitled, as they should be, to the same support as those placed with foster care families.

As my hon. Friend said, I am enthusiastic about the £10.1 million in support that the SNP Government provided to councils last year to increase kinship care allowances. Importantly, we have also extended support to eligible children on the edge of care, who are subject to what will be known from this month as a kinship care order. Because vulnerable children come in all varieties, we must consider their needs as a whole in deciding how best to deal with them.

As we have heard from a number of speakers, the circumstances leading to a child or young person being looked after or taken into the home of a relative can be heartbreaking, confusing and complex for the family as well as the child. If we can encourage a family relationship that provides some stability and support, we must do so, but like moving into care, such situations are significant and involve huge upheaval, and we need proper frameworks in place. The additional investment in Scotland recognises that we need to make practical provision for people who have had to struggle more than they should, in order to provide the stability that such children need and that some of the most vulnerable people in our society deserve.

Anne Swartz, chair of the Scottish Kinship Care Alliance, has applauded that way forward and rightly commended kinship carers’ tireless efforts to raise the bar. I applaud them as well as her for their efforts. It is important that such work continues. I look forward to hearing more about the work between the Scottish Kinship Care Alliance and the Scottish Government on that issue.

However, kinship care often might not be possible. Due to the variety of situations involved, some children might have to be looked after in children’s homes, and additional considerations need to be taken into account there. The hon. Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) rightly pointed out that in some cases, the experience of children looked after in children’s homes can be very positive, and I agree. It is absolutely true, and we must not lose sight of it, but we must also acknowledge and work on the genuine issues and decide the best way forward.

Any action that we can take to minimise additional complication in the lives of children in such situations and maximise stability and support is vital, especially if we do so at the earliest stage possible, as it can have a profound impact on children’s lives. On the basis that a significant number of children in Scotland and the UK are affected by this debate, we must consider the matter as a whole and where the issues might be, so that we can move forward.

In England, the number of children being looked after is rising, which is not what any of us want. In the year ending 31 March 2015, nearly 70,000 children were looked after by local authorities in England, and the absolute number of looked-after children has increased by 6% since 2011. That number has increased steadily over the past seven years, and is now higher than at any point since 1985.

I am always anxious to learn from Scotland’s experience, because I am a Scot, but I have been waiting to hear the hon. Lady share experiences of accommodating children in children’s homes in Scotland. What observations does she have about the children being placed in those homes, and how far those children’s homes are from their home authority? What are the Scottish Government overcoming, and how do they work with the private sector? That is the focus of the debate.

I will come to some of the points raised by the hon. Lady, particularly the issue of distance, which I know is a concern of hers.

Most looked-after children in England are between 10 and 15 years old. More boys than girls are looked after, and the gender distribution seems relatively unchanging. Although the majority of the looked-after population is white, children from black and minority ethnic backgrounds appear to be over-represented in the looked-after population. Those figures are concerning. Those are our children, and we must be conscious of the impact on their lives.

As the hon. Member for Stockport and my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran said, things in Scotland might be different—useful progress has been made in recent years—but we must all consider what needs to be done and can be done at any time, because there is always progress to be made. I am pleased that under the Scottish Government, the number of children in the care system has dropped for the third consecutive year. It means that there is a possibility that we are taking action earlier in children’s lives to address some concerns before they escalate.

Between August 2014 and July 2015, the number of looked-after children in Scotland decreased by 1%, and the number of children on the child protection register decreased by 4%. We recently introduced a successful programme to help find permanent homes for vulnerable youngsters, and the Centre for Excellence for Looked-After Children in Scotland will receive around £580,000 a year to support improvements in helping looked-after children find a permanent home, because we have seen the positive outcomes of doing so.

The permanence and care excellence programme aims to find permanent homes for children in care. It has been piloted by Aberdeen city and Renfrewshire councils, and importantly, it brings together multi-agency staff teams to build capacity so that we can continue to improve service and outcomes, which the hon. Member for Stockport was rightly concerned about, for some of our most vulnerable young people. I think we agree that it is vital that, wherever possible, children should be able to achieve a permanent home, including through family rehabilitation where appropriate, at the earliest opportunity.

Of course, there are still children and young people who spend too long being looked after or on the child protection register. Sometimes it is appropriate to consider children’s homes and how we might provide better support, and sometimes we must acknowledge that that support needs to extend beyond what it might have been traditionally. I echo my hon. Friend’s sentiments about the positive impact of extending the right to stay in foster, kinship or residential care settings up to the age of 21, and supporting care leavers up to the age of 26 to help them move to independent living. When children cannot live at home, we owe it to them to help them find a stable, loving environment where possible and move forward in their lives as they get older.

Perhaps one of the defining differences between England and Scotland is that in Scotland there has been far greater emphasis in the past five to 10 years than ever before on supporting families, using kinship care where appropriate or foster care, and moving away from children’s homes wherever another solution can be found.

I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. I agree with her. The hon. Member for Rochdale also emphasised that it is very important that the whole range of options for each child is fully considered. I acknowledge the great eloquence of the hon. Member for Stockport on the topic of authority placements. I sympathise with her concerns about the potential for increased difficulties for some children who may find themselves in such situations. I think she is correct that children accommodated far from home may be particularly vulnerable. I am concerned about some of the pull factors that may lead them into potentially damaging and dangerous situations. She made the point very well—she was passionate about this—that there is the potential for a significant impact on these children.

However, I acknowledge the point made by the hon. Member for Rochdale that on occasion there may be sound reasons for distant placements. The Education Committee was very thoughtful in its assessment of the situation, and I look forward to hearing more when the report that was referred to earlier comes out.

In contrast with England, I think there has been some progress in Scotland in recent years, which it is useful to look at. The number of children in the care system has dropped for the third consecutive year. However, in our aspirations, I think we are all of one mind here. I hope that our shared desire to see the best possible outcomes for all of our children can lead to further progress and lead us to listen carefully to one another. We must always remember that children who need to be looked after, in care or in the situations we have discussed today, face challenges that we, their peers, and wider society often struggle to understand. We need to make sure that our systems are in place to give them the best help possible at the earliest possible stage to lay the trust and foundation for a successful and happy life.

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Gillan. First, I want to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) for securing this important debate this afternoon. She is probably the most knowledgeable MP in the House on this issue. As she said, she spoke on this issue in the House more than 21 years ago, and it could be quite frustrating for her that 21 years later she is still raising some of those same issues. It shows her tenacity that she has not given up and, hopefully, we might see some movement this afternoon. We live in hope.

We have heard thoughtful contributions this afternoon from the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), from my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk), and from the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) who is a Front-Bench spokesperson for the Scottish National party. We have had very thoughtful contributions. Debates are sometimes disappointing. I was in the debate on brain tumours yesterday and there was standing room only. I would not like to think that this debate is any less important than one that needs to have large numbers of people contributing, but let us hope that in our contributions today the quality will outweigh the quantity. I also thank the hon. Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) for her interventions.

What comes across very clearly is that we are sending a message to Sir Martin Narey—the hon. Member for Telford mentioned him—before the publication of his review that we hope to see reforms that will support and improve the lives of looked-after children in residential care. This debate has been on the wider aspects of the Narey review, but there are two areas that I wish to touch on this afternoon: out-of-area placements, as described by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport, and the criminalisation of looked-after children.

Ever since the passing of the Children Act 1989, there has been a strong statutory duty on local authorities to place a child who enters the care system in the local authority area and ensure that their needs are met. However, guidance released by the Department last summer stated:

“There will be circumstances where a distant placement will be the most suitable for a child”.

Since then, there has been a clear trajectory in Government thinking that has raised the many concerns eloquently highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport. It is important that children receive the best care possible and, in certain circumstances, that may mean that an out-of-area placement is necessary to meet their needs. However, there is no conclusive evidence to support that strategy becoming wider practice. That is why the evidence that was used to come to the Government’s conclusion must be clarified.

Until out-of-area placements’ effectiveness is made clearer, it is important that they do not become the norm, yet when we see more and more children living more than 20 miles away from what they define as their home—their local area—it is not hard to believe that this is now becoming common practice. Recent Department for Education figures show that since 2010 we have seen an increase of over 20% in the number of children placed out of area, which now totals 17.9% of looked-after children. We need to unpick why that is happening, and I hope that the Minister will clarify what is going on in his response to this debate.

We know it is not the case that all local authorities have a children’s home within their boundaries. Many are based, as we have heard, in the west midlands, the south-east and north-west. This is an issue of infrastructure, and I hope that that will be addressed in Sir Martin Narey’s review.

One example of how care homes work, which I believe should be considered by the Government, is the Scandinavian and Germanic model of residential care, with smaller children’s homes with highly educated social pedagogues in charge. This idea of social pedagogy was backed by the “Care Matters” White Paper in 2007, which finally took it out of the confines of academic discourse and brought it into practical policy development. It included a recommendation to pilot a model in England to gather more evidence. A pilot was commissioned by the Social Education Trust and managed by the National Centre for Excellence in Residential Child Care, a specialist unit under the watchful eye of the National Children’s Bureau.

Reviews of the pilots found that residential care staff welcomed the holistic and child-centred approach that social pedagogy could have on real change to the lives of children in residential care. The idea was backed as a valuable way to work in our residential care homes by the then Department for Children, Schools and Families in its looked-after children report in 2009. However, we have unfortunately seen this important step forward put on the back burner since the Government came to office in 2010. I am therefore interested to hear what assessment the DFE has made of how much this would cost and whether it is feasible for the UK. It is clear that the model is working in other countries, and it was welcomed here during the pilots, so an assurance by the Minister to look into this further, as the previous Labour Government had done, would be welcome.

For some children, residential care is the best option to meet their needs, but what is best for children is being in an environment that they know. To rip them away from some of the only constants in their life, including their school place and links to positive support from family—let us remember that not all family members of a looked-after child are irresponsible—can be damaging. In addition, reduced access to social workers and other support services that they have grown accustomed to can be damaging.

It is also concerning when the private sector gets involved and fails to market the services correctly. In a recent case, a looked-after child was moved from Oxfordshire to an expensive placement in Wales, and sadly committed suicide shortly after arriving. The serious case review investigation identified the fact that the quality of the provision on offer was not what had been marketed at all.

Although removing a child from influences such as gang violence or sexual exploitation is honourable and necessary, there is a need to support a child to manage risks and build personal resilience in their home area, especially when many of them return there once they have left a children’s home. Can we blame them? It is the place they know best, where friends and family are, and we all have that homing instinct within us, after all. The Challenging Behaviour Foundation recently came out strongly against out-of-area placements, and it has lobbied for more investment in local communities and areas. That included making the case for renting a home in a child’s local area and supplying staff for children on a one-to-one basis, which is not dissimilar to the Scandinavian model that I mentioned earlier.

Many serious questions about out-of-area placements arise, including the involvement of private companies in the system, which must be addressed urgently by the Government. There is no better time, especially with the review pending, for the Government to take the bull by the horns and make significant strides in reforming the provision on offer to looked-after children. I hope that the Government anticipate that all the issues I have mentioned will be addressed in Sir Martin’s review. However, I hope that another area, which has recently been brought into the public debate, will be considered: the criminalisation of children in residential care.

Recently, the Howard League for Penal Reform released data that showed there had been more than 10,000 police call-outs to residential settings. That is more than two for every child in residential care, and many of the call-outs concerned the most minor of incidents. An excellent report from the Standing Committee for Youth Justice, by Claire Sands, entitled “Growing Up, Moving On”, deals with the long-term effect of even minor offences becoming a criminal record that is never wiped clean. The criminalising of children in residential care is deeply concerning for children who are negatively labelled in many ways before they reach adulthood. If we add “criminal” to that list, we are burdening them further with a label that will impede any life chances that may come their way as they move into adulthood. There are some pertinent examples in “Growing Up, Moving On”, which I encourage hon. Members and the Minister to refer to. I hope that the Government are considering that issue seriously and that they will provide strong guidance to residential care homes to prevent further damage to the lives of children and young people by the very system that is trying to help and care for them.

We all want children, no matter what their background, to have the best start in life. That belief should be central to any reforms that affect the lives of children, and I hope that the Government will not squander the opportunity presented by Sir Martin’s review to take significant steps towards achieving that. I look forward to reading the review when it is published, and will continue to press the Government to keep the improvement of looked-after children’s lives at the heart of everything they do, ensuring that they are protected and nurtured and live a happy childhood, just like their peers.

It is a pleasure to have you overseeing proceedings today, Mrs Gillan. I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) on securing this valuable debate. As she reminded us in her typically humble way she has pursued the issue with unstinting commitment and authority for many years. I know she shares my determination that we should do all we can to protect vulnerable children across England and beyond, whether they are in residential care or any other form of placement. Her commitment has been demonstrated in her work as chair of the all-party group on runaway and missing children and adults, and as a member of my Department’s quality expert group on children’s homes in 2012. She was an important contributor to that work.

Although we await the impending Narey review of residential care, the debate is a welcome opportunity to consider the action that has already been taken, and the further important work now under way to improve quality, transparency, oversight and decision making in children’s residential care. I acknowledge the speeches by the hon. Members for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk), for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) and for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson). I always accept an invitation from SNP Members to look at what they are doing north of the border, and it is one that I would extend in the opposite direction, particularly because of the work that we are doing to try to inject greater innovation into children’s services.

Although I want to keep my remarks to the discrete and important issue of residential care in England, there is one issue that I cannot allow to pass without challenge, and that is the care population in England. It is important not to oversimplify the reasons why a care population may fall or rise, and why there may be variations across the country. It is not always right to say that a rising care population is bad and a falling one is good. What matters is whether the right decisions are being made for each individual child. For example, in a high-performing practice-based social work area, staff can spot where children may be in a situation of neglect, and take them into care. If they are not performing well they may miss the opportunity, so that the child remains outside state care. That is not good for the child, but it would not necessarily be reflected in the statistics, if we look at them in a simplistic way.

Children’s homes are a vital part of the care landscape, particularly for older children and children for whom a family setting might not be the right placement. In England the law is very clear: where a child cannot live with their birth parents, the first port of call should be to look at the immediate family and see whether there is anyone who can support them, as an individual or as a group of relations or friends. That happens for many children in this country. Three quarters of young people in children’s homes are between 14 and 17 years old and two thirds are likely to have a significant mental health difficulty. There are some excellent examples of good practice in supporting them, with homes providing superb care. I know from personal experience, and from visiting children’s homes around the country, that that excellent care makes a real and lasting difference to children’s lives. Like other hon. Members, I pay tribute to the dedicated care staff who do all they can to help change lives for the better.

I am the first to acknowledge, however, that despite the concerted efforts of consecutive Governments not all children’s homes deliver as they should. As the hon. Member for Stockport set out, challenges remain. That is why, as we have heard, the Prime Minister and Secretary of State for Education asked Sir Martin Narey to undertake an independent review of children’s residential care. Sir Martin, as hon. Members know, worked in the Prison Service and was the chief executive of Barnardo’s. He is much respected in the field, and we look forward to receiving his report, whose purpose is to set out the role of residential care in the wider care system, and to make recommendations about how outcomes for children can be improved. It is a complex undertaking, but I expect the review to look at some key issues such as commissioning and the geographical distribution of children’s homes, which the hon. Member for Stockport rightly concentrated on in her speech.

The hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West raised the issue of criminalisation, and I have seen the report by the Howard League for Penal Reform. Sir Martin Narey has also seen it, and I hope that he will be able to address the issue in his review. We will wait to see what he has to say. The review’s call for evidence has received a strong response and Sir Martin will report later this spring. Understandably, I do not want to pre-empt the independent review’s findings, but I am determined to use it as a catalyst to help to drive further improvements in residential care and I hope that all, including hon. Members present for the debate, will continue to lend their support and expertise to the process.

It is right to acknowledge, as the hon. Member for Stockport does, that we have made significant progress in improving the quality and safety of residential care. We have introduced an enhanced legislative framework and a new set of quality standards for children’s homes. We brought those standards in to move away from the de minimis approach and to focus much more on outcomes and what is being achieved for those young people. The standards are backed up by rigorous Ofsted inspection and they challenge managers and staff to apply their skills and professional judgment—that, to me, is important —to ensure that there is properly tailored, high-quality care for each and every child in their home, and to make it possible for children to reach their potential in a safe and secure environment. There is a protection of children standard, which requires homes to have the skills to identify and take effective action on concerns about a child’s welfare.

A £500,000 programme of training and support has been made available to help homes to embed those new standards, and to make that crucial shift to a more aspirational and outcome-focused way of working. Although it is too early to assess the full impact of the changes through the quality standards, the independent small-scale research that has been carried out on implementing the standards indicates that they have resulted in a greater focus on evidencing outcomes for young people, which is exactly what we wanted to see, and on the need to consult young people about improvements, so that they feel that they are part of their journey through care, rather than feeling that it is being “done” to them.

To that end, it is positive that 12% of the children’s homes in England inspected between 1 April 2015 and 30 September 2015 were rated outstanding for their overall effectiveness, which is an increase of five percentage points from the same period in the previous year. In addition, because 62% of those in residential care have clinically significant mental health difficulties, which is something we should never overlook, I am pleased that the Department of Health has commissioned its own expert group to develop new care pathways, so that children living in children’s homes can better access mental healthcare.

The NHS England five-year forward view for mental health, which was recently published, and local transformation plans bring focus and resources to meet the mental health needs of children, including those in children’s homes. I also welcome the forthcoming publication of the quality standard from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence on attachment difficulties in children and young people who are looked after, adopted from care, in special guardianship, or on the edge of care. If professionals and others working with and caring for children in care, including in residential care, really understand how to address the presentation of attachment problems, significant progress can be made.

I will address the specific point made by the hon. Member for Stockport and other hon. Members about out-of-area placements. As the hon. Lady mentioned, in order to address that issue we have sought to strengthen protection for children placed out of area by ensuring that it is now the directors of children’s services who have oversight of all decisions to place a child in a distant placement, and local authorities should now consult the authority where they intend to place a child to ensure that the placement meets the child’s needs.

We should be clear that for some children a placement at distance may be right, due to risks associated with their own home area or, as the hon. Member for Rochdale pointed out, because of the need for a very specialised placement but, as has been highlighted, we should ensure that Ofsted and local authorities make sure the right placement is made for the right reason. Therefore, as the hon. Member for Stockport said, it is a concern that there are still instances where the supply of places distorts too many decisions.

That is why we have improved the transparency and quality of data regarding children missing from care, to ensure that Government and local authorities have much more reliable data when they try to tackle this issue. Local authorities are now required to tell us about all instances of children going missing from their placements, even those that last less than 24 hours, because those 24 hours could be crucial.

Turning specifically to children’s homes, in January 2014, we strengthened children’s home regulations regarding children going missing from a home. All children’s homes must have clear policies to prevent children from going missing and they must respond when children go missing. It is no good their simply acknowledging that fact on a piece of paper; there needs to be follow-up action. We have also beefed up arrangements for monthly independent monitoring visits to children’s homes, to make sure that such action happens. Those visits scrutinise standards of safeguarding and care, and reports on visits are now sent to Ofsted. Those reports are valuable to identify concerns, and also patterns, as Ofsted continues its inspection of every children’s home.

We have strengthened regulation to ensure that local agencies, including the police, are more aware of vulnerable children in their area and therefore are more able to protect them. Ofsted can now share information on the location of children’s homes with the police. That practice was established by the expert group and many of us were extremely surprised to find that it was not happening before. However, it is now in place. In addition, children’s homes must notify their local authority of all admissions and leavers.

In this debate, it is important to acknowledge that for a very small number of children a secure home is the best option to address the reasons why they go missing from care. That is why we are improving the availability of this specialised provision, in partnership with the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, the Local Government Association, the Youth Justice Board and the Secure Accommodation Network.

By the summer, we will have determined the best long-term commissioning arrangements for secure homes. In the interim, we have funded secure homes to raise their capacity and improve the skills of their staff. With Hampshire County Council we have established for the first time a central point of contact and source of support for all local authorities seeking secure placements. On top of that, a further £10 million-worth of funding, alongside action from NHS England, will strengthen the quality of the mental health support available to children in secure children’s homes. I know that is an area that the hon. Member for Stockport has a deep interest in, and I am happy to keep her informed of developments as they occur.

All of this work will help, but I share the hon. Lady’s interest in the uneven distribution of children’s homes. Local authorities remain responsible for ensuring a sufficient range of placements for looked-after children and for managing local markets, which includes managing children’s homes. However, as has been identified, in 2013-14, 60% of children’s homes were concentrated in just three regions, including what for many of us participating in this debate is the shared region of the north-west, which accounts for a quarter of all children’s homes.

I should add that before 2012 there was no comprehensive overview of the location, status, quality, ownership and track record of children’s homes in England. That is why, as the hon. Lady alluded to, we set about pulling together all that data for the first time ever in the children’s homes data pack, which is a hugely valuable resource that enables patterns, trends, gaps and the like to be more easily spotted and acted on. Those who are in the role of commissioning places should use that information to be much smarter and savvier about how they commission them, so that they are not always the ones who have to acquiesce; the providers should try to ensure that they shape their homes to meet the demand from every local authority.

In tackling the issue of uneven distribution, I agree very much with the hon. Lady about the value of joint work between local authorities in ensuring adequate provision of homes. Research commissioned by the Department for Education from the Institute of Public Care showed that in May 2015 most local authorities were taking part in a wide variety of commissioning consortia and partnership arrangements. For instance, there are 14 regional or sub-regional commissioning consortia for residential care, and typically authorities were able to achieve 4% to 5% in savings for placement costs as a result of those arrangements. However, I believe that they can go much further.

The Minister is quite right—in the north-west, Placements Northwest provides that information. The difficulty is getting local authorities into a more proactive commissioning role, so that their staff sit down together not only to exchange information but to say, “In five years’ time, we will need this number of children’s homes and this number of places.” Without support, it is very difficult for local authorities to work with each other to do that.

Before I call the Minister, just for the information of Members here in Westminster Hall I will point out that I have had a report that we may have a vote shortly in the main Chamber. I leave it to the Minister and Ann Coffey to decide how long they speak, but I thought that it would be helpful to bring that information to your attention. I call the Minister to speak.

That is extremely helpful, Mrs Gillan, and I will take heed of that information as I continue.

As ever, the hon. Member for Stockport is right, and that is why we need to establish a much more coherent way for every local authority to carry out forward planning, not only about their residential care population but about their whole care population, including where people need to be placed and in what type of arrangements. There has to be some flexibility in the system—no one can predict exactly what the system will look like—but we can certainly have a far better and more cohesive approach than the one that currently exists.

There are some models out there, including in the north-east, where regional arrangements are much more solidified, but there is a lot more that we need to do. Sir Martin Narey is looking very carefully at this issue as part of his independent review. That is because the research that I referred to showed that consortia are confident that working together brings non-cash savings, primarily through sharing commissioning costs, procurement costs and other elements of working with providers, such as monitoring.

The devolution deals, including in Greater Manchester, where children’s services form part of those new regional arrangements, provide a real opportunity to shift that relationship between the purchaser and the provider in a much smarter way when it comes to commissioning. As we look through every devolution deal, I am keeping a close eye to ensure that there is serious thinking on how the new children’s services can benefit from the new organisations. However, the new arrangements continue to develop, and we look forward to Sir Martin Narey’s recommendations on what more might be done.

Where there is good and innovative practice, I want to be able to share it more widely across the system. The way it is set up at the moment means that pockets of excellence are the preserve of those people. We need to open up the system so that those who are in a position to make good, strong decisions on behalf of vulnerable children are at the forefront not only of great practice, but of cleverer commissioning. Where there are ways of putting the purchaser in a stronger position, we should explore them carefully.

I listened with interest to the remarks that the hon. Member for Stockport made on the need for innovation and new models in residential care, and I absolutely agree with her. I am pleased to say that as part of the Government’s children’s social care innovation programme, which is £310 million over phases 1 and 2, we are testing two new models of residential care for children who are at risk or are victims of sexual exploitation. “Step Down”, based in the Aycliffe secure children’s home, targets the trauma experienced by victims of sexual exploitation and includes an extensive step-down service for children preparing to leave secure care. In addition, “Safe Steps”, a high-supervision children’s home model run by St Christopher’s Fellowship, is designed to protect girls at risk of sexual exploitation.

The learning that the innovation programme continues to give us and the many other associated projects will help generate further evidence of impact in the next six to 12 months that we can take forward. The innovation programme learning network will share those key findings through a series of publications and resources and through the new What Works Centre focusing on children’s social care. It will include a focus on residential care and will be launched at the end of the year.

The innovation programme provides a fantastic opportunity for front-line services and practitioners to show creativity and collaboration, and to explore new models of practice, including in residential care, as has been demonstrated. I would warmly welcome a range of high-quality bids focused on residential care for the current round of the programme, which was launched earlier this month. In that endeavour, I encourage the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West to look at where a bid based on the Scandinavian model that champions social pedagogy may add to the innovative practice we want to unleash.

The work I have outlined is only a small part of the work being undertaken in my Department. In January this year, we published “Children’s social care reform: a vision for change”, which outlined our ambitious programme of work in the key areas of people and leadership; practice and systems; and governance and accountability. The programme aims to achieve our vision of every child in the country, whatever their age, background, ethnicity or gender being able to fulfil their potential. The Narey review will sit alongside those wider reforms once it is published.

I am enormously grateful for the support that the hon. Member for Stockport has given to this issue yet again today. She has expressed some important, well-argued concerns, which I will consider carefully in light of this debate and the work of Sir Martin Narey. I hope that this debate reassures her that the Government echo many of the concerns she has expressed. The steps we have taken underline the importance of ensuring that residential care provides the high-quality care that vulnerable children deserve. We cannot be satisfied until we have achieved a system that consistently delivers excellent care. We should expect nothing less for our most vulnerable children than the care we would want for our own children.

I thank the Minister for his reply. He has demonstrated yet again his complete and continuing commitment to improving the lives of looked-after children. He is a very experienced Minister—I think he has been in the role for four years—and he reflects the value of having a Minister in place for that length of time. It is an idea that should be considered for other positions.

I thank all other Members for their contributions. My hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) has also taken a long interest in this area, and he is right to remind everyone that residential children’s homes offer a very good-quality and much-needed provision. They are not a last resort; for some children, they should be a first resort. I thank the SNP Members for their observations on the situation in Scotland, which are always welcome. I also thank the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson). She is also incredibly committed to this area, and has also been in post for quite a long time. It just shows the value of people being in post for a long time.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered children’s homes.

Port of Liverpool: Road and Rail Access

[Mr Christopher Chope in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered road and rail access to the Port of Liverpool.

It is a pleasure to participate in this debate under your stewardship, Mr Chope. The port of Liverpool, which is primarily situated in my constituency and falls within Bootle and Seaforth, has a long history of serving this country in times of peace and war. Many buildings around the port hinterland still bear the marks and shadows of the bombing of the port in the May blitz of 1941. As we approach the 75th anniversary of the bombing, I pay tribute to everyone who served on or near the port in those dark days and to the people who were killed or injured, of whom there were many.

The port became a lifeline to these islands during the war in general, and during the battle of the Atlantic in particular. Between 1 and 8 May 1941, over seven consecutive nights, German planes dropped 870 tonnes of high-explosive bombs and more than 112,000 incendiary bombs around the Bootle, Litherland and Seaforth environs. Lord Haw Haw addressed the people of Bootle with the words,

“the kisses on your windows won’t help you”,

referring to the tape supposed to prevent flying glass. Unbelievably, only 10% to 15% of the properties in the town were left unscathed.

Thankfully, those days are gone, and we have much better, friendlier and more peaceful relationships with our European neighbours. During the dim recessionary days of the 1980s and for most of the 1990s, our connection with the European Union was a lifeline when the Government turned their back on us and talked of the managed decline of the city. I am pleased that those days are over, and I look forward to devolution gaining pace, which will enable us to run many of our own affairs rather than be run from this place.

That sets the context for what I want to say about rail and road access to the port of Liverpool. I am afraid that the degree of synergy, co-operation and collaboration among the various agencies responsible for transport has been woeful. I believe that the devolution process will help to address that lacuna. While Highways England pushes on with its assessment of the road links—new constructions or reconstructions—Network Rail appears to be taking a “mañana” approach to the need for significant investment in the rail links to the port. It seems to have put the rail freight connection in the “too difficult to do” box. Highways England is talking of anything between £120 million for a new road and £300 million for a realigned road being needed. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Network Rail has decided that £10 million in total over three financial years will do the trick. That is the sum of investment in the port rail infrastructure. To use a phrase much used in Merseyside, are they having a laugh?

Highways England has not covered itself in glory. It has shown a pretty grim attitude over many years to the people who have to live along the Dunnings Bridge corridor. The local authority and my councillor colleagues have had to fight tooth and nail, through their contractors, to keep the Dunnings Bridge corridor cleaned, to get its street lights sorted out, to get its gullies unblocked, to have the grass cut and to enforce standards on lorry drivers who feel free to use the lay-bys as toilets, among other things.

Highways England seems incapable of providing soundproofing to just half a dozen semi-detached houses that have no acoustic protection from the thousands of cars and lorries that pass through night and day. It spent huge sums on glossy leaflets and several million pounds on decommissioning a traffic island on the route to the docks, but it seems incapable of sorting out triple glazing or some other acoustic amelioration. I am afraid that the Government’s recent response to me on that matter does not instil confidence that this long-standing issue will be sorted any time soon.

For those and other reasons, many people in my constituency and beyond have little confidence in Highways England’s ability to get the road link from the M57 and M58 right. Will it listen to calls for significant tunnelling along either route—in the Rimrose Valley country park or the Dunnings Bridge-Church Road corridor? What other more or less radical plans will it consider? Have the decisions already been made? The devil is in the detail. The agency’s history of dealing with local concerns sets the scene for local communities’ levels of confidence in future plans and proposals.

At the mention of the building or reconstruction of major highways, Highways England’s lethargy dissipates and its energy levels grow, because they are sexy, big projects. Why would it bother with the routine things that affect people’s daily lives when it can pore over road plans and spend hundreds of millions of pounds to boot?

Many people in the area surrounding the port—or the docks, as it is better known—are suspicious of the local benefits that the expansion will bring. That will not come as a big surprise to most people in the area. People understand the regional, national and even international benefits, but they ask themselves what the local benefits for jobs and growth will be. They are sceptical. I do not share that level of scepticism. I believe that the port expansion will bring benefits to our community.

I have discussed the issue with many of my local councillor colleagues, including Councillor Gordon Friel, who is a councillor in that area. However, it is difficult to break through the scepticism when people believe the vast majority of port-related traffic will simply move in and out of the port along one or other road, and when the rail option, which most believe to be the most appropriate, languishes on a shelf somewhere, if indeed it has even been produced. The rail line I refer to is the Bootle branch line. It is about 7 miles long and runs from the west coast main line to the port. I use word “runs” loosely, because it is in a dreadful state. I will not take up Members’ time by setting out how dreadful it actually is—suffice it to say that it is.

We can compare that with the activity of professional rail aficionados, civil servants and the Government on High Speed 2 or Crossrail 1 and 2. We can compare the £16 billion spent on Crossrail’s 73 miles of track and 26 miles of tunnels, and the £30 billion projected for Crossrail 2, with the £10 million over three years that is to be spent on the Bootle branch line, which serves a port that is one of the largest in the country and expanding. In the Budget, the Chancellor announced £80 million just to start the planning for Crossrail 2—a staggering eight times the amount that will be spent on the actual works on the Bootle branch line. Crossrail 1 cost £210 million per mile of track, so recent announcements of £340 million for rail services across my region equate to only 1.5 miles of Crossrail 1 track. The figure for Crossrail 2 will be double that for Crossrail 1.

Before anyone suggests that Liverpool city region should be grateful, don’t bother. The Government need to reprioritise capital spending, of which the south-east, and London, in particular get the lion’s share, to other areas—then we might be grateful. I agree with Mayor Joe Anderson of Liverpool and my colleague Councillor Ian Maher of Sefton Council that we now need transformational funding. I have a cunning plan: to rename the Bootle branch Crossrail 3. By that measure we would get money thrown at it, and the Minister would be falling over himself to accommodate us—but perhaps the plan is not cunning enough.

All stakeholders agree that a multi-modal solution is required. The requirement to improve rail access has been talked about for decades. The last study before the recent Highways England assessment was in 2011. It concluded that there was spare rail capacity, but that the port facilities were a major barrier. Five years later, that issue has still not been addressed. In 2011, it was estimated that a modal shift to rail could increase the amount of freight carried by rail from 2% to 11%. In the 2015 study, it was considered too “ambitious” to use a 15% rail share, due to funding constraints and the ability to persuade freight hauliers of the advantages of rail. The study concluded:

“It is clear that any increase in rail freight beyond 24 trains per day will most likely require a new rail line to be constructed to the port and there are expected to be a number of significant issues associated with this”.

By the way, Crossrail 1 will have 24 trains per hour each way. I accept that we are not comparing like with like, but the point is well made for illustrative purposes. So there is a surprise: evidence of a mentality that, as I suggested earlier, wants to put the issue in the “too difficult” box, because no one will care, and in any event it is not London.

Network Rail therefore has no such plans in its programme. If the Government were serious about rail freight, other than getting to grips with Network Rail, they would increase the investment in rail network in and out of the port of Liverpool to ensure the maximum modal shift to rail, and provide incentives for freight hauliers to shift to rail and so avoid overly congested roads.

The Government gave the port operators a significant regional growth fund grant to expand the port, even though a feasible strategy to ensure that goods could be moved in a variety of ways was not in place. I am afraid that the chaotic, unplanned, uncosted, piecemeal approach to the port’s transport needs is creating tension and irritation in local communities and uncertainty across the board, with a perception, at the very least, that Governments—not just this one—have not simply taken their eye off the ball but never had it on the ball in the first place.

I am sure the Minister can see that the Government have a responsibility to ensure that economic development and growth is seen as being just as important in the Liverpool city region as anywhere else. Given that, a crumbs-from-the-table approach to the infrastructure needs of the port of Liverpool is just not good enough. It is disrespectful to social, economic and business communities alike. I therefore exhort the Minister to take a fresh look at the plans, or rather the lack of plans, that Network Rail has for non-road port traffic ingress and egress. He should also ensure that Highways England stops acting like a robber baron and treats my community with the respect that it deserves.

If you detect an air of irritation in my voice, Mr Chope, you would be correct. The Luftwaffe could not push Bootle, Litherland or Seaforth around, so Highways England and Network Rail have little chance, and they would be well advised to take that into account in their deliberations.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Bootle (Peter Dowd) on securing this debate on road and rail access to the port of Liverpool. However, I am a little more optimistic and excited about the prospects for the city region. Recent times have seen an acceleration in the growth of the local economy and the creation of private sector jobs and business start-ups.

Liverpool is an historic maritime city and much of its growth came from its port, which is still a key economic asset for the city region, the north and our whole country. The local enterprise partnership’s Superport strategy is focused on growing the port, enabling the creation of a further 21,000 jobs by 2020. Peel Ports, the port’s owners, shares that vision and has invested significantly, including in Liverpool2, which is due to open later this year and has a new biomass handling facility. The port of Liverpool can handle vessels that carry between 3,000 and 4,000 20-foot-long containers. In order not to become marginalised on important trade routes, Liverpool needs to be able to handle larger vessels, and the new Liverpool2 facility at Seaforth will enable it to do so.

As hon. Members know, the Government do not directly invest in UK ports; the hundreds of millions of pounds invested by Peel Ports is private sector investment. That investment and the economic benefits that it brings will be stymied if it is difficult to move the goods around the UK after they have arrived in Liverpool. That is where the role of Government in ensuring that our road and rail networks meet the needs of people and businesses comes to the fore.

Improving multi-modal access to the port is a key priority for the Government and the Liverpool City Region combined authority. With the full support of the port, Highways England, Network Rail and my Department, the city region is leading on the delivery of a strategy to improve access to the port involving all modes of transport.

On roads, the A5036 is vital to the Liverpool city region, its businesses and, in particular, the port of Liverpool. The road is the principal link between the port and the motorway network. At current levels of port activity, the mix of local and port traffic is already causing difficulties, constraining the economic opportunities for the city region. As part of our £15 billion road investment strategy, therefore, we committed to a comprehensive upgrade to improve traffic conditions on that link.

Highways England is taking forward the development of the scheme. Consideration is currently being given to options, including an online one and an offline one, the latter being through the Rimrose valley. Both options present difficulties, which is why I recognise the local sensitivities, and that is why I welcome Highways England’s clear commitment to work with local stakeholders throughout the development and delivery of the scheme.

A recent programme of public information sessions has been held. I understand that they provided useful feedback for the project team. In addition, two newsletters have been produced, and local MPs have been kept informed and involved. The hon. Gentleman was highlighting how involved, and sceptical, the local community are. I make the commitment that public involvement in development of the plans will continue.

The next stage is for Highways England to move from option identification to option selection, with the aim of identifying those options that are to be taken forward to public consultation before the preferred route is announced. The current timetable has the public consultation happening this autumn, leading to a preferred route announcement in spring next year; the forecast for the start of works is spring 2020.

The A5036 scheme is only one element in a comprehensive access strategy being led locally by the combined authority. Measures to improve rail access have been considered. The Government recognise the importance of rail freight in delivering reduced congestion and lower carbon emissions. The investment that we are making through the strategic freight network fund includes a number of projects that improve access to the port of Liverpool, three of which are: the doubling of the single line link from the Bootle branch line into the port estate; increasing line speed on the Bootle branch; and improved signalling at the Earlestown West junction. All those schemes are scheduled to be completed by 2018-19 and will double the number of freight paths to the port to 48.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the biomass required to support more environmentally friendly power generation is already carried by rail from the port of Liverpool to its destination. The four trains per day that currently run are forecast to rise to 10, so rail is vital to the port’s current and future plans and we are investing to support its future growth. In addition, both Network Rail and Transport for the North have been studying the strategic requirements of freight movements across the north of England, and their work will inform future investment planning processes.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the investment going into HS2. The key reason why that project needs to be taken forward is that it will inject capacity into the rail network. The west coast main line, on which £9 billion has been spent in recent years, is nevertheless forecast to be full very soon. That means not that every train will be full but that we will not be able to put more train parts on to the track. The injection of capacity that HS2 will provide will free up capacity for freight.

There are of course other modes of transport. I want to highlight coastal shipping. Peel is investing in facilities on the Manchester ship canal so that more freight can be moved inland by water, and it is also promoting greater use of coastal shipping, which should help to reduce the growth in road traffic.

I should mention the wider investments we are making across the Liverpool city region. I understand why there is a degree of scepticism about transport investment in our country, because we have had a stop-start approach to rail and road investment for many years. Arguably, there has been more stop than start, but I do not think that that accusation can be levelled fairly at this Government. We are looking at a record level of rail investment—the highest since the Victorian era. Our first road investment strategy features £15 billion of investment, which is the highest in the road industry since the 1970s. All parts of the country are benefiting from that.

Between now and 2019, there will be £340 million to provide a bigger, better, more reliable railway for passengers. More than £179 million from the local growth fund has been provided to the local enterprise partnership and combined authority to deliver a number of transport schemes that are essential to local growth. There are provisions in the devolution deal to support Merseytravel to make progress with the locally funded procurement of new trains for the Merseyrail network. We have also supported the new Mersey Gateway crossing in Halton, one of the largest local transport schemes in the country, which is now under construction.

The north of England rail infrastructure upgrade programme has already delivered a significant benefit. The electrification of the routes from Liverpool to Manchester and Wigan has taken 15 minutes off the fastest journey between Liverpool and Manchester. On 1 April we saw the start of the Northern and TransPennine franchises, both of which will see significant investment—particularly in new rolling stock—that will benefit everybody in the area and provide an enormous boost for the rail sector.

Another important change that has not been mentioned is putting Transport for the North on a statutory basis. The Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2016, under which it was established, received Royal Assent only in January. It has brought together the 29 transport authorities throughout the north. I believe that we will plan transport like this much more in future. It is from the north, for the north. Transport for the North will be working alongside Highways England and Network Rail to plan investment in the area. Of course, it is already involved not only in planning but in the running of the rail franchises, which are being run jointly by the Department for Transport and Rail North. Again, that is run in the north, for the north. This is the first time that has happened.

We are seeing significant devolution in the world of transport that will bring benefits not only to the hon. Gentleman’s area but throughout the north. We are working with Transport for the North on northern powerhouse rail, which is sometimes called HS3. It will provide a fast link from Liverpool across to Hull, linking Manchester and Leeds, as well as Manchester airport and Sheffield. It is all about creating new fast links between northern cities and will, of course, release more capacity for freight. We agree that moving freight on to our railways is part of the answer to improving the freight sector’s environmental performance. As northern powerhouse rail develops, Liverpool’s aspiration for a direct connection to HS2—the mayor has personally told me about that—will be considered.

I hope that I have provided assurance to the hon. Gentleman that we fully recognise that it is most important that we improve access to the port—access to ports and airports has been underestimated in this country’s transport planning for too long—and that we are working constructively with local partners on implementing their multimodal strategy by investing in both road and rail schemes, through which we are playing our part in meeting the ambitions of the port, the city region and the north of England. What is happening at the port is a huge boost for the economies of all the affected areas, and it is therefore critical that we maximise the opportunities that this private investment brings by making corresponding public investment in connectivity to ensure that we capitalise on it for the benefit of everyone.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.

Teenage Pregnancy: Regional Variations

I beg to move,

That this House has considered regional variations in the rate of teenage pregnancy.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I am pleased to have been able to secure this afternoon’s debate; it is timely, because data published by the Office for National Statistics in March showed a steady decline in the average rates of teenage pregnancy in England and Wales. Those data have been widely celebrated, and rightly so. Teenage pregnancy is a huge barrier to opportunity; it creates lifelong and entrenched disadvantage. The causes and consequences so often overlap—deprivation, family breakdown, low aspiration, intergenerational worklessness, mental health difficulties, poor educational attainment and poor school attendance.

Despite the welcome fall in average rates, England and Wales still has the highest rate of teenage pregnancy in western Europe, so we must guard against complacency. An average is just an average and often masks extremes and regional variations. It is not really enough to say, “We are going in the right direction.”

Although high rates of teen pregnancy are closely correlated with deprivation, teen pregnancy should never be accepted as inevitable in any area, because that would fail the young people affected, many of whose lives are already profoundly insecure and who may see motherhood as a positive way out. Those are the young people most in need of help and support.

Hon. Members will share my commitment to improving the life chances of young people in our constituencies, so I would like briefly to talk about the situation in Telford. Back in 1998, Telford had a teen conception rate of 64 per thousand. It is no doubt good news that it has fallen to approximately 32 per thousand—it has halved, so the situation in Telford is much better than it was. However, in 1998 the rate of teen pregnancy in Telford was 36% higher than the national average, but today it is 42% higher, so rather than getting better, the gap between Telford’s teen pregnancy rates and the national average is getting worse.

I would argue that high rates of teen conception are not inevitable. My constituency lies in the heart of Shropshire. Although Telford is in the worst-performing decile of local authority areas, more affluent rural Shropshire, which surrounds Telford, is in the best-performing decile, with some of the lowest teen pregnancy rates in the country. Based on that fact alone, it would be too easy to argue that deprivation, poverty, health inequality and all that causes those difficulties cannot be improved. Naturally, many demographic and social factors play a part, and I fully accept that it is difficult to find a like-for-like comparison, which is why an average does not tell us that much. Equally, it is too often assumed in the most deprived areas that nothing much can be done. Good things get better and bad things get worse if they are not tackled actively.

There are some individual success stories in local authorities, which other local authority areas could learn from, and I will mention a couple. In 1998, Leicester had a teen pregnancy rate of 64 per thousand. That fell to 25 per thousand in 2014, which is close to the national average. Similarly, Caerphilly had a rate of 70 per thousand in 1998, which has also fallen to about the 25 per thousand mark. In Hammersmith and Fulham, a similar decline has been experienced, with the rate falling from 70 per thousand to 22 per thousand, which is just above the average.

There are plenty of examples of how high teenage pregnancy rates can be tackled over time, but I want specifically to draw attention to the model in the London borough of Wandsworth, which has been a success story that other local authorities would do well to look at closely. In 1998, the rate of teen pregnancy there was 71 per thousand. Wandsworth is now outperforming the national average, with a rate of 19 per thousand. That has been achieved through a true commitment to focusing on teen pregnancy. It was not just a statement in the joint strategic needs assessment. Teen pregnancy was treated as the No. 1 indicator of how the local authority was performing, and all partner agencies took that view. There was a clearly defined plan, with achievable goals, a teen pregnancy unit, outreach work and early intervention to identify the young people most at risk and provide support to address multiple causes and raise self-esteem. There was a genuine commitment and a belief in improving the life chances of those least able to help themselves. Young people’s aspirations were built up and their resilience was strengthened to help them to make informed decisions and fulfil their potential.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate, not least because Torbay, my constituency, has the highest rate of teenage pregnancy in the whole of the south-west region. Does she agree that the statistics show the importance of having leadership at local level, given the wide variation between local authorities, let alone regions? For example, the rate in my constituency is very similar to that in the north-east, yet only a few miles away West Devon has one of the lowest rates in the entire country.

My hon. Friend eloquently makes the point that I hope to have made by the end of my speech. Torbay does indeed stand out as a stark example of the significant regional variation across the country. He rightly says that one would not necessarily expect that, given the demographic and age profile of his constituency.

The way the success was achieved in Wandsworth was that resources were targeted at the young people aged 15 to 17 who were most likely to become pregnant, such as young people in care and care leavers, those with disrupted family relationships and the children of teen parents. We had a debate earlier about young people in care, and I want to highlight the fact that a quarter of young women leaving care are either pregnant or already mothers. Too often they are trying to fill the emotional gap from growing up without a family of their own, and sometimes in a chaotic succession of different placements. Yes, teenage pregnancy has fallen nationally and across Europe—that tells us a lot about a changing world, with young girls routinely aspiring to jobs and college and a better future—but we need to do everything that we can at local level, as my hon. Friend mentions, to help young women on that path.

A debate of this kind must touch on solutions to problems, and as the causes are so complex in this case, we have to accept that the solution is not straightforward either. More advice on contraception is helpful, but it will not tackle the issue if it is the only tool in the box—if only it were that easy. It has become fashionable to see universal sex and relationship education as a silver bullet and the panacea to high rates of teenage pregnancy, but I think we can all accept that teen pregnancy is a far more complex social and emotional issue than that, and more advice on contraception alone will not fix it. We have to address the specific needs of the young people most likely to be affected, so the focus and concentration has to be on the at-risk groups—those most in need—in order to improve the life chances of the most disadvantaged young people.

Building stronger families and early intervention support for struggling families is part of the solution. We need also to recognise that looked-after children have different health and education needs from others. We mentioned in the debate earlier today the mental health of children in care, and that is a determinant in this complex issue. Also, school is not always a fixed certainty in the lives of the young people in question, so sex and relationship education at school will not necessarily tackle the problem if school attendance is a problem in itself.

One aspect of the marked regional variation is that we can identify young people who will be affected. An example is a young person who has been in contact with the police, or who does not like school and has been excluded. Young people not in education, employment or training are another group who are among the most likely to be affected by teen pregnancy. We have also touched on the role of a disrupted childhood and difficult relationships within families.

I pay particular tribute to the Government for their life chances strategy. I want to see a continued focus on championing stronger families, and addressing teenage pregnancy in the areas and groups where the rates are highest should be the overriding priority in achieving that goal.

My heart swells to hear my hon. Friend speaking so warmly about the Government’s priorities. Placing families at the heart of policy and decision making is our stated aim, recognising that strong family relationships are fundamental to any and every outcome, be it prosperity or health outcomes. I think she would agree that it is not just the young girl, her extended family and the father of the child who are affected by teenage pregnancy; the child coming into that situation will suffer the same potential social inequalities. This is a generational issue that we must champion.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. The rates of teen pregnancy among children of teenage parents are extremely high, so we should take the opportunity to target the groups that we know are more likely to be affected. By any measure, teen pregnancy rates are a primary indicator of an unhealthy society, and it is right that local authorities are charged with addressing the issue. I say to all local authorities, “Please don’t take your eye off the ball.” Whatever challenges a particular area may face, let us not accept it as some sort of immutable fact that can never be turned around. Some local authority areas with the highest rates of teenage pregnancy have been successful in bringing the rate down to below the national average, whereas many other local authority areas have not. It is essential that local authorities look closely at what they are doing and whether it is good enough. It simply is not acceptable to say that teen pregnancy is an inevitable consequence of deprivation and that there is nothing more to be done.

There are local authorities that have brought about real change, and there are others where local politicians have sometimes parked this sensitive issue. I ask the Minister to do everything he can to encourage local authorities that are performing less well to learn from the outstanding examples that I have mentioned. Does he agree that some local authorities should explain publicly why they are not making better progress? The life chances of young people depend on how their local authority addresses the issue, and I urge all local authorities where teen pregnancy rates have not come down closer to the national average in recent years to reassess why they are not doing what they should be doing and how they could do things better. We all owe it to all our children to ensure that they have strong life chances and the potential for a better future. Addressing high rates of teenage pregnancy in places where they are at the extreme end of the spectrum is essential to achieving that.

I was expecting a few more hon. and right hon. Members to participate in this debate, which is important to me as the Member for Strangford and for a great number of Members who would probably wish to participate but for whom there are many other distractions in the House today, with votes and other commitments. I am sure that those who are not here wish that they were and will read Hansard tomorrow.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) on securing this debate. I have some comments on the Northern Ireland perspective, and it is disappointing that the research on regional variations in the rate of teenage pregnancy has nothing on Northern Ireland. Perhaps that will change when we have other debates on similar issues. Teenage pregnancy is a public health concern in both the developed and the developing world.

Hopefully most of us in the Chamber have had the joy of holding our own babies in our hands when they were first born. The birth of a new baby in the world is a joy. Today we have had the chance to see the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) with her new baby boy, and not a person passed by without a smile on their face and without congratulating her on the birth of her firstborn. Seeing a new life in the world, loved by their mother and by everyone, is a joy.

When we talk about teenage pregnancies, we must recognise that many of those who become pregnant have a strong, loving relationship to their babies, the new additions to their family. In my constituency office, I have the privilege as the Member for Strangford to engage with many of those young mothers, helping them get the housing benefits, care, nurseries and other support that they need. Those are some of the things that we do. This debate is not meant to be about judging teenage pregnancies in any way; it is about what we can do to help and assist. My contribution will be along those lines, and will focus on how we can assist those young ladies who are teenage mothers.

The United Kingdom has one of the highest teenage pregnancy rates in the whole of Europe. The most recent data show that teenage pregnancy rates in Northern Ireland continue to fall, including—I will qualify this later on—in my own constituency, where they have been relatively high in the past. Ours is still the third highest of all the constituencies in the Province, so my constituency still has a health issue to address. Health is devolved, so the Minister does not have responsibility for replying on that, but hopefully he can take note of my contribution.

Northern Ireland’s teenage pregnancy rates are now at a record low, according to the most recent figures released by the Department of Health in the Province, with a fall in teenage pregnancy rates of 37% in the last 10 years. That is a significant decrease, and I believe that it is caused by some of the policies that we have adopted. In December 2008, when I was in the old Northern Ireland Assembly and made some inside contribution to the relevant debates there, the regional sexual health promotion strategy and action plan was launched and set a target to reduce the rate of births to teenage mothers under 17 by 25% by 2013. We have exceeded that, and the target has been well beaten. The figures have gone the way that the NI Executive and Assembly desired, and the strategy undoubtedly played a large part in that.

I will mention a bit about that, if I can. Better sexual education and availability of contraception have helped drive down the rate of teenage pregnancy in the Province, and although the overall fertility rate in Northern Ireland has been falling, it is most welcome to see it falling more significantly where we want it to do so. Regional variations in teenage pregnancy rates are apparent, but within those, there are also key socioeconomic variations. The hon. Member for Telford referred to some of the reasons for teenage pregnancies, and I am sure that other Members who speak will comment on them.

As we have heard, there are many explanations for the variations in teenage pregnancy. As the rate falls nationwide, we need to take note of those indicators and of similar research to develop a strategy that can work nationally. I have always said that it is important to do so. I bring a Northern Ireland perspective to this debate, and the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) will bring a Scottish perspective. We bring our perspectives to add to the debate and show that where what we are doing can be replicated in other parts of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, we should do so. If we see something being done in England, Wales or Scotland that can help us, we in Northern Ireland will look towards that as well. That is why I am commenting about how we can work together.

The factors involved in teenage pregnancy can affect anyone, regardless of where they are in the country, so they should be at the core of identifying how to reduce teenage pregnancy rates further and support teenage mothers. We want to support them. We want them to have the support that we as Members of Parliament can give, and that the Government, society and families can give as well. The hon. Member for Telford mentioned the effect on families, and we need to look at that as well.

The hon. Gentleman is making some interesting points. He referred to the potential to learn from other areas and he gave examples of the progress that has been made on the strategy in Ulster. Can he give a couple of examples of specific actions that have made a difference?

I am coming to that if the hon. Gentleman will bear with me. He always makes a valuable contribution in his interventions. He and I seem to always attend these debates. Whatever they are, we are here together to make our contributions. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and I will come on to the issues.

Within the main council area that dominates my parliamentary constituency, teenage pregnancy rates are the third highest—unfortunately—in Northern Ireland. Although there has been a decrease of 37%, I represent the area with the third highest teenage pregnancy rates in Northern Ireland. It is important for me to learn from other Members—to learn from their experience and understand their knowledge can add to the research that I have done so that I can take that back to Northern Ireland and to my constituency of Strangford.

Progress has undoubtedly been made through personal education. Families and those who are close such as brothers and sisters—probably more sisters to sisters or mothers to daughters—is something that we perhaps should focus on more. Sometimes relationships break down between parents. Young girls can find themselves at a loose end and sometimes things happen. Things happen for many reasons. They can happen because of what has happened at home or because of what is happening in society. They can happen because of peer pressure as well. Those are issues that Government cannot legislate for, but which we as parents need to do something about. We need to encourage the people who have influence to do likewise. When it comes to some of the things that we have done, I can point to the education plan, setting a target for reduction, and the availability of contraception. We have to address those issues. Sometimes we have to be aware that young people will want to do their own thing, but sometimes we have to be aware of what we can do as a society.

I note the hon. Gentleman’s points on the availability of contraception and appropriate advice. We tend to assume that we are talking in the main about unplanned teenage pregnancies, and that is not always the case. Does the hon. Gentleman think that we should do more to show that the role of parenting is a hugely challenging one? It is very rewarding, but challenging and costly—emotionally, financially and socially. Do we do enough in that regard?

I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention and for her wise words. We in this Chamber will say yes, we have done our bit, but many of us here could perhaps do that wee bit more. People could be more conscious of where their children are at night; what they are doing; who they are with and what their peers are doing. I see this in my advice centre all the time; I see some of the issues. I am not here to criticise or to point the finger. That is not what this is about. This is about saying how we and Government can help and assist young people. We should aim to try and enable people to see how we can reduce teenage pregnancies, which we have done in Northern Ireland in significant numbers, but we need to do more. When it comes to whether people can do more, yes, they can. I have three boys—three young men. One is married and one is about to get engaged. If the third boy leaves it until the age of his dad, he has 10 years to go before he gets married, as I was married at 32.

We have to look at the issues individually. Society itself, but particularly the role of parents, is important. The hon. Lady is right. The role is critical and necessary. The Prime Minister has often said that families are at the core of society. I believe that as well, and that is where we need to start.

Although progress has undoubtedly been made, we cannot take our eye off the ball. With research ongoing, the Government need to keep on top of the issue of teenage pregnancies and work with the various bodies—private, voluntary and public sector—to continue the good work that has been done in Northern Ireland and elsewhere and to adapt to the ever-changing goals in the effort to address teenage pregnancies.

For me, the issue is knowing how we can do things better. The hon. Member for Telford referred to some of the reasons for teenage pregnancy. When we consider those reasons, we cannot ignore the variations and variables in the regions of the whole of the United Kingdom. The Department of Health has made clear what it has done to drive down the overall rate of teenage pregnancies and recognised socioeconomic variations. In June 2014, the Department amended the 2008 strategy to include the aim of reducing

“the gap in births to teenage mothers living in deprived areas.”

Identifying and targeting the population most at risk of an unplanned and possibly unwanted pregnancy is vital to both prevention and improving the accessibility and uptake of post-natal medical care. That is another issue that we have addressed. I hope that these comments are helpful and specific. Regardless of their background, all sexually active teenage girls are at risk of becoming pregnant. That fact cannot be denied. Teenage mothers are more likely to be in what are known as routine or semi-routine occupations—for example, sales and services operatives or low-grade administration. I am not doing those jobs down, but that is what the statistics say.

Research evidence from the Family Planning Association in Northern Ireland suggests that risk factors include low self-esteem; poverty; low educational attainment; declining educational achievement; alienation and non-attendance at school; children being looked after by health and social care trusts; children of teenage mothers; a history of sexual abuse; mental health problems; and a history of offending behaviour. Those are all explanations for the variations in the rate of teenage pregnancy. When we look at these issues as we did in Northern Ireland, we can come up with a strategy. The hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) asked what we did. That is what we did, and it has made a significant contribution to where we are.

I again thank the hon. Member for Telford for giving us the opportunity to participate in this debate. When the shadow Minister speaks and the Minister responds, I hope that we will hear how we can address teenage pregnancy to an even greater degree, because there are many ways we can do that.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I thank the hon. Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) for securing this debate and for her very interesting speech.

When we are discussing teenage pregnancy, it is critical that we do not seek to stigmatise or hurt young women. As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, every baby born should be celebrated and every mother supported. Having a baby at any age has its challenges, and we should always seek first to offer assistance rather than dole out judgment.

Since the SNP Scottish Government were elected in 2007, the rate of teenage pregnancies in Scotland has fallen every single year, and it has dropped by about 35% in six years. All the NHS board areas in Scotland have seen reductions in their rates of teenage pregnancies. In the under-20 age group, it has decreased by 34.7%; in the under-18 age group, it has decreased by 41.5%; and in the under-16 age group, it has decreased by 39.8%. All that has not happened by accident. The SNP seeks to give every young person in the country a good start in life, regardless of their circumstances. The Scottish Government and the Minister for Children and Young People, Aileen Campbell MSP, have been working to achieve the goal of making Scotland the best place in the world to grow up, and they are leading policy in early years intervention.

The hon. Member for Telford mentioned looked-after children in particular. I draw attention to the Centre for Excellence for Looked After Children in Scotland—CELCIS—which does great work. The Scottish Government have also worked in a number of different ways to support care leavers by giving them an entitlement to university and further training. There are lots of measures to build their self-esteem and make them feel like the valued part of society that they are.

At the weekend, the SNP pledged to give every newborn baby born in Scotland a Finnish-style baby box to ensure that families have all the things they need to start in life. That programme has been hugely successful in Finland in reducing infant mortality from one of the highest rates in the world to one of the lowest. Interestingly, infant mortality is 60% higher among babies born to teenage mothers, so the baby box has the potential to become an important intervention for this vulnerable group.

It takes time and effort to change the causes and history of teenage pregnancy, as the hon. Member for Strangford indicated. I recently visited the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children in Glasgow. It is doing interesting and worthwhile work to support young mums. It is piloting an intervention that was started by Yale University called “Minding the Baby”. A health visitor and a social worker work with teenage mums from around seven months into pregnancy until the child is two. That very intensive model has resulted in benefits in improved attachment and better parenting skills. It has raised the self-esteem of the young women involved and had a wider effect on their families. Some have younger brothers and sisters who have seen a benefit in their family after teenage mums went through the programme, so there is a wider benefit to society. I was also delighted to hear that through the programme, a number of young women have been supported to breastfeed. That demographic has a low uptake of breastfeeding, but the babies gain a huge and significant benefit.

There is an undeniable correlation between deprivation and teenage pregnancy. Dundee is often mentioned very negatively in that light, but there has been significant progress. Over the past decade, Dundee has seen a 58% drop in teenage conception rates. That is credited to the close working of schools and the local health board and the valuable work of family-nurse partnerships. It is also credited to education. Dundee has a young mums’ unit, which keeps young women in full-time education, meaning that they do not lose out on their education—that vital piece of the jigsaw in moving out of deprivation.

The hon. Members for Telford and for Strangford mentioned the impact of sexual health and relationships education. The House of Commons Library research mentions in relation to England that it is unclear what obligation there will be for schools in England to provide sexual health and relationships education should the Government’s full academisation plans go through. The SNP sees the value in that education and urges the Government to clarify whether new academies will have an obligation to provide sex education in schools. It would be utterly unacceptable for schools to offer no sex education whatever.

The hon. Member for Strangford mentioned prevention and young men, who have an important role. It is not just up to young women; young men have a serious role in teenage pregnancy.

A very significant role. If young men and young women together are not educated about sexual health and relationship more widely, we are missing an opportunity to impart important lessons about consent and respect. Leaving it to chance is hugely damaging, as we can see with the ongoing investigations in Parliament into harassment in schools and the higher education sector.

Sexual health and relationships education is very much part of the curriculum in Scotland. My son is five. His primary 1 class has just been learning about human bodies. We should not be daunted by these issues as parents or politicians, because serious issues such as consent can be taught at a young age. It can be as simple as stopping tickling a child when they say no. That is consent, and we need to think about these things more widely.

In Scotland, we updated our national guidance on relationships, sexual health and parenthood education in December 2014. That guidance puts into practice the commitment made in the Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014 that the Scottish Government would actively promote the rights and wellbeing of children and young people. Education in schools should equip children and young people with information to help them keep themselves safe. Giving children and young people the knowledge and understanding of healthy, respectful and loving relationships and the opportunity to explore issues in a safe environment protects them from harm and promotes tolerance. Young people have the right to comprehensive, accurate and evidence-based information to help them make positive, healthy and responsible choices in their relationships.

Dr Alasdair Allan, our Minister for Learning, Science and Scotland’s Languages, said at the end of 2014:

“The issues covered by RSHP can be seen as the building blocks to how pupils look after themselves and engage with people for the rest of their lives. These classes allow pupils to think about their development and the importance of healthy living surrounded by their peers who will have similar experiences to them…The guidance recognises the professionalism of teachers, the expertise they bring to making lessons age appropriate and an invaluable addition to discussions that parents are likely already having with their children at home.”

Finally, I come back to my point about poverty and deprivation and the correlation with teenage pregnancy. In its most recent statistics, which are from 2013, the Information Services Division notes:

“There is a strong correlation between deprivation and teenage pregnancy. In the under 20 age group, a teenage female living in the most deprived area is 4.8 times as likely to experience a pregnancy as someone living in the least deprived area and nearly 12 times as likely to deliver their baby.”

The UK Government’s welfare cuts and sanctions are increasing poverty—that is the context in which this debate exists—and will not help the teen pregnancy rate. In particular, I draw Members’ attention to how young people aged 18 to 21 will lose access to housing benefits from next year. Centrepoint and Shelter have expressed concerns about the impact that will have on young people. One exception to that policy is where people of that age are parents. When the Government begin to make policies that take age and particular things into account and certain groups lose out, that will have a consequence. My concern is that by excluding that group from housing benefit, the Government perhaps encourage young people in particularly desperate circumstances to make huge life decisions for the wrong reasons, and that would be a seriously retrograde step.

Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.

On resuming—

I would like to end my speech as I began. In our deliberations about teenage pregnancy we should not stigmatise, and in responding to the debate on behalf of the SNP I hope I have not done so. It has certainly not been my intention. We must do all we can to support young people, teenage mums and dads and their babies, and to invest in their future.

It is an honour, as ever, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I thank the hon. Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) for securing this debate, which allows us to acknowledge the achievements made in addressing teenage pregnancy rates and to recognise that there is still a lot more to do, as she did so eloquently in her speech. I also want to acknowledge the excellent contributions of the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), who brought important perspectives from Northern Ireland and Scotland respectively.

Research shows that 61% of children born to teenage mothers are at a higher risk of infant mortality and that, by the age of 30, teenage mothers are 22% more likely to be living in poverty than those who gave birth at the age of 24 or over. I know that that is not universal, but those are the statistics. The fact that 21% of women aged between 16 and 18 who are not in education, employment or training are teenage mothers shows that teenage pregnancy is not only a cause but a consequence of the educational and health inequalities in our society. That is why we cannot sit by and ignore this situation, especially given that we still lag behind western Europe on our teenage pregnancy rate. Although it was welcome news that England last month achieved the long-held target of a 50% reduction—it actually achieved 51%—in the under-18 conception rate between 1998 and 2014, this is no time to be complacent. We must ensure that the positive work that has been done does not go to waste and that the trends do not flatline or worsen.

Although the overall rate has gone down for England, there are still wide-ranging variations—not just between regions but within them. For example, my own local authority, Sunderland City Council, has seen a 45% drop in the conception rate. However, just down the road, Stockton-on-Tees, in the same region, has seen only a 29% decrease between 1998 and 2014. That trend is replicated in all regions, with varying gaps and differences in the conception rate. A lot of that can be put down to local variations and the way in which the 10-year strategy, which was introduced by the previous Labour Government in 1999, was implemented by local authorities.

The strategy was informed by international evidence. A 30-point plan was launched to halve the under-18 conception rate and to improve the life chances not only of the teenagers who fall pregnant but of their children. The plan laid solid foundations for reducing teenage pregnancy by ensuring effective multi-agency work. In 2005, the plan was reviewed when it became apparent that the initial measures were not being implemented across the board. Instead, more prescriptive guidance was introduced. That review of the strategy’s actions was best described by Alison Hadley in a recent article in the Journal of Family Health. She said that the review was an understanding

“that high rates were not inevitable—even in deprived areas—if the right actions were put in place.”

That is the crux of the way that we should and must approach the issue of teenage pregnancy. It is not an inevitability of modern society, but it can be down to the inaction of those with the levers of power and their failure to implement the right interventions.

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) on securing this debate. I do not know how many in the House have the experience that I had, but I was a mum at the age of 16. I come from a deprived background. Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the most important things we can do is to ensure that people have the opportunity to break that cycle and enable them to go back to education or to bring their child up? That is one of the things that I found really depressing when I watched the ITV programme “Long Lost Family”. It is one of the heartfelt things that made me burst into tears. My son is with me; I was able to raise him as a teenage mum because of the intervention and support that I got as a mum. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is vitally important that we do that?

I do, and I commend my hon. Friend for raising that matter. She talked about it in her maiden speech so movingly for those who were in the Chamber or who listened to it afterwards. It brings important insight into this House in debates such as this to hear someone speak from experience. She is right that we need to support teenage mums. This is not about stigmatising them. Obviously, sometimes it is about helping them to make different choices if they do not want to make a particular choice. We must support them and ensure that the statistics I just mentioned, which we are all aware of, do not become the reality for young mums and their children. My hon. Friend has obviously broken that cycle: she is here as a Member of Parliament. The cycle of deprivation does not have to be inevitable. As I said, it is not universal, but the statistics are not where we would like them to be. There are obviously exceptions that prove the rule.

In 2010, the Department for Education set out a bonfire of policies that saw specific budgets directed at local councils, such as for addressing teenage pregnancy, rolled into the early intervention grant, which has sadly been repeatedly cut year on year and is a shell of what it used to be. The Government have failed to build on the work set out by the last Labour Government, thereby threatening the success seen to date with their short-sighted strategy on early intervention.

Instead of the Government seeing local authorities as a problem, rather than a solution, we need a renewal of the thinking that we had between 1997 and 2010, which harnessed the co-operative relationship between local and central Government to address issues such as teenage pregnancy effectively. For instance, one of the key measures that followed through in both the initial strategy and the updated version, as the hon. Member for Telford discussed in her opening speech, was the necessity to improve sex and relationship education in our schools.

No one will be surprised to hear that I am a passionate advocate of age-appropriate sex and relationship education. I understand the real benefits that equipping children with the right knowledge and tools will have on their futures as they become adults. However, it is not just me who believes that; it is the young people themselves. As the Sex Education Forum found in a survey of more than 2,000 young people earlier this year on the sex and relationship education that they receive, one in five was reported as saying that it was bad or very bad, which is deeply concerning when young people still say that they are embarrassed to seek advice about sex or relationship issues and half of 15-year-olds do not know about the existence of local contraception and sexual health services in their area.

Many opponents of age-appropriate sex and relationship education say that it is the job of parents, not teachers, to teach their children about sex and relationships, which shows just how out of touch many people are with the lives of children and young people. The Sex Education Forum reports that 7% of 15-year-old boys and 9% of 15-year-old girls have no trusted adult in their life to whom they can go when they need advice on sex and relationships. Some of them are children in care, about whom hon. Members spoke in the earlier debate. It is for that very reason that I and other Labour Members support the introduction of age-appropriate SRE as part of statutory personal, social, health and economic education, and many Government Members are slowly coming round to that idea, too. The lack of sex and relationship education in our schools is a ticking time bomb that the Government must address, especially with their impending forced academisation of all schools, which will bring into question the survival of SRE in any form in our schools.

I am interested to hear some of the points that the hon. Lady has made so far. Does she agree that it is important that schools buy into any duties? It is important that we have SRE and that its delivery does not become like the requirement to hold an act of religious worship in the morning. It is nice that that is statutory, but it is far more honoured in its breach than in its observance.

That is a very good point, because where sex and relationship education is compulsory in maintained schools, unlike in academies and free schools, there tend to be two elements: the biology and HIV/AIDS awareness, and then the relationship side. That is exactly the hon. Gentleman’s point. It has to be good-quality sex and relationship education, rather than just ticking some boxes.

The ticking time bomb is paired with the increasing sexualisation of young people, with recent freedom of information requests to local police forces showing that reported incidents of children sexting has skyrocketed by more than 1,200% in the past two years due to increased access to social media such as Twitter and Facebook, and even to dating apps such as Tinder, which is why it is welcome that the Women and Equalities Committee has announced today an investigation into sexting as part of its inquiry on sexual harassment among pupils in schools. I look forward to seeing what comes out of that inquiry.

It is high time that the Government took action and issued an update of the sex and relationship education guidance, which was published before the smartphone generation was even born. I hope the Minister can update Members on the DFE’s plans. I will not hold my breath, however, as when the opportunity came for the Government to take bold steps in introducing statutory PSHE and age-appropriate SRE following the most recent report of the Select Committee on Education on this area, it was blocked by no less than the Prime Minister. That was despite it being reported that many women Cabinet Ministers, including the Education Secretary herself, were strongly in favour of introducing this measure and were dismayed at the Prime Minister’s inaction.

Not only disgruntled Cabinet Ministers but the Children’s Commissioner, the Chief Medical Officer, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, 88% of teachers, 90% of parents and 92% of young people themselves are in favour of introducing both subjects to the curriculum as statutory subjects. Yet again, the Prime Minister is putting himself on the wrong side of the issue when it comes to teaching our young people about life and the resilience to deal with what is thrown at them.

In conclusion, it is undeniable that we have made great strides forward on teenage pregnancy and those achievements must be celebrated, but there is still a long way to go. The Government must make clear their vision about how they will build on the important multi-agency, co-operative intervention work of the last Labour Government, and about how they will finally bring forward plans for PSHE and SRE that will make them effective tools in the young person’s arsenal and enable them to make informed choices in their lives.

As ever, Mr Chope, it is a delight to serve under your chairmanship.

I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) both on securing this debate and on her extremely well-judged contribution to it. Her contribution had at its heart something that I believe all Members could feel comfortable signing up to, which is the need to make sure that all children and young people, irrespective of their background, get a real and enduring chance to be the best that they can be, for themselves and—in the future—for their own families. I welcome the other contributions to the debate, by my hon. Friends the Members for Torbay (Kevin Foster) and for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell), and by the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon), for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner) and for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson).

To underline the genuine importance of this agenda, my hon. Friend the Member for Telford reminded us that it was the Prime Minister who set out in a significant and perceptive speech in January his intention for the Government to make improving the life chances of the most disadvantaged children and families in Britain a central tenet of our work over the next four years. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Telford, I welcome that commitment to cross-Government work to tackle some of the deep-rooted social problems that exist, and, in doing so, to help to transform children’s lives so that they can meet their full potential.

As my hon. Friend acknowledged, although teenagers might still have the highest rates of unplanned pregnancies, we have seen a steady and impressive decline in that rate, to the extent that there are now 50% fewer teenage pregnancies than in 1998. In fact, teenage pregnancies are at their lowest since records began in 1969. That is important progress, which has a significant impact on young people’s lives and improves their life chances, whether in Telford, Crewe or elsewhere in the United Kingdom. We heard about similar progress in Northern Ireland and Scotland.

However, although the rates are coming down, and doing so at a faster rate than elsewhere in Europe, they remain higher than in comparable western European countries. As the hon. Member for Strangford said, we simply cannot afford to take our eye off the ball, and as the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West said, there is certainly no room for us to be complacent. Reducing the level of teenage pregnancy must remain a high priority, not only at national but at local level. My colleagues in the Department of Health have recognised that by including teenage pregnancy rates as a key indicator in the public health outcomes framework.

How will that outcomes framework be supported to deliver what is required? As we know, since 2013 local authorities have had responsibility for commissioning sexual health services. To support local commissioners, Public Health England has a teenage pregnancy expert adviser, whose role is to provide support to national teams by integrating teenage pregnancy data, evidence and best practice into relevant work programmes. It is good to hear about areas such as Leicester, Caerphilly and Wandsworth—in particular, Wandsworth sounds hugely impressive—that are helping to add to that best practice. The expert adviser also provides Public Health England with a teenage pregnancy link to the Local Government Association and relevant Department of Health policy teams.

The Government also provide support by facilitating the sharing of information and learning with local areas about what works in reducing teenage pregnancy. We have heard contributions this afternoon that touched on exactly that point. Most recently, in March this year, Public Health England and the Local Government Association produced an updated briefing for councils—I have even come to this debate armed with a copy. It is entitled “Good progress but more to do”, which probably sums up the message that has come out of this debate. Having been around for only a few weeks, it has already been downloaded more than 5,000 times, which suggests both a high degree of interest in the subject and a welcome continued commitment at local level to actively do something about it rather than just look at figures on a page.

As I am a Minister in the Department for Education, it would be remiss of me not to set out what the Government are doing to improve education standards for all children. As we have heard, education has a key role to play in keeping children on a positive path in life. I know from having visited Holmer Lake Primary School in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Telford that she believes strongly in the power of education to change lives. She will be aware that we have published a White Paper setting out how we will seek to achieve educational excellence everywhere. As the Secretary of State set out in the White Paper, it is imperative that we extend opportunity to every child, whatever their background. That is why we are completely committed to ensuring that all pupils receive an excellent education.

Since 2010, 1.4 million more children have enjoyed an education in a good or outstanding school. To support that, we have taken a number of measures to drive up performance: matching failing schools with strong sponsors; driving up the numbers of national leaders of education to support other schools, from 250 in 2010 to more than 1,000 last year; and providing schools with significant extra funding to raise the attainment of disadvantaged pupils through the pupil premium, which is worth £2.5 billion this year. We have protected that funding at per-pupil rates for the duration of this Parliament.

We must of course build on that, so that all children and young people receive the same standards of education enjoyed by those in the best schools. We acknowledge that some parts of the country suffer from acute problems and will need additional support for all children to achieve their potential. The White Paper identified areas of the country where low school standards are exacerbated by low capacity to deliver improvement. To support improvement in those parts of the country, we will designate achieving excellence areas, where we will work with local leaders to diagnose the underlying problems and then target our national programmes to help them secure sufficient high-quality teachers, leaders, system leaders, sponsors and governors. We will trial that approach from September this year and roll it out more widely from September 2017, with the aim of delivering lasting improvement to standards in those areas.

I am sure my hon. Friend will agree that in order to ensure that all children can benefit, we must keep absences from school to an absolute minimum. Overall absence rates have followed a general downward trend from 6.5% in 2006-07 to 4.6% in 2014-15. Although we have made progress, with almost 200,000 fewer pupils regularly missing school than in 2010, we must keep our foot on the gas.

Why is that important in the context of this debate? With regard to educational underperformance and teenage pregnancy, my hon. Friend rightly pointed out that there is a correlation between teenage conception, deprivation and low educational attainment. In 2013, the Centre for Analysis of Youth Transitions, funded by the Department for Education, published a research report on teenage pregnancy in England. The report set out the evidence on the relationship between deprivation, low prior attainment and likelihood of teenage conception and maternity.

The research found that girls who are eligible for free school meals and girls who are persistently absent from school are more likely to become teenage mothers, both because they are more likely to conceive and because they are more likely to continue with their pregnancy. Researchers also found that girls who attend higher-performing schools are less likely to conceive, and that deterioration in academic performance between key stages 2 and 3 is associated with teenage pregnancy. Girls who make slower than expected progress during the early years of secondary school are significantly more likely to conceive, and to continue with the pregnancy after conception, than those who progress as expected.

Free school meals eligibility, persistent absenteeism and slower than expected academic progress during early secondary school can therefore be thought of as key individual risk factors associated with conceiving as a teenager and continuing with that pregnancy. That is exactly the sort of evidence-based research that we need to proliferate around the system so that those at local level can gain a much better understanding of what works.

As such research demonstrates, various risk factors are associated with increased teenage pregnancy rates, including educational underachievement. Schools can help all children to make better decisions in their personal life through high-quality teaching of personal, social, health and economic education. Unfortunately, time precludes me from rehearsing the many arguments of the past few weeks and months on the role of PSHE in equipping pupils with the knowledge and skills to make safe and informed decisions and in preparing them for adult life.

I think we can all agree that we want to equip young people and children with such skills. To achieve that, we need to ensure that PSHE is of the highest quality possible. That is why, with the support of the PSHE Association and after consultation with a wide variety of agencies and PSHE practitioners, we have produced a suggested programme of study, based on the needs of today’s pupils and schools. We have said that we will keep the issue under review, as we set out in our response to the report of the Select Committee on Education. We will do that in all seriousness, to ensure that as the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West rightly said, we provide children with the arsenal that they require to meet many of the harder challenges that life throws at them when compared with our own childhoods, and at a much younger age.

Much is going on in government, including the provision of support for children in care and care leavers so that they are ready and prepared for adult life. The number of mothers who were previously looked-after children has declined over the years between 2011 and 2015, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Telford reminded us, about 20% of female care leavers become teenage parents, so we need to do even more. That is why we have committed to deliver real reform of social care services. We have our £200 million social care funding programme, as well as the Pause programme, with funding from the innovation fund, which I urge hon. Members to look at carefully. Pause breaks the cycle for the many young mothers who have repeated pregnancies only to have the child removed from their care, which we need to stop in future.

Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).