My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.
When a child is lacking support from their own parents and is in care, there must be a first-class system of public care in place and the child’s experience of it should be, as far as possible, such as to compensate for the care that the great majority of children receive from a responsible parent or parents. That is why we are introducing this Bill.
There are 60,000 children in the care of the state at any one time, the majority of whom are in care because they have suffered abuse or neglect. They deserve the best possible support and nurturing, yet the statistics with which the House will be familiar from our earlier debates on this issue show that looked-after children are five times less likely to achieve five good GCSEs and eight times more likely to be excluded from school. Care leavers are overrepresented in our most vulnerable groups of adults, including young parents, prisoners and the homeless. A high proportion of looked-after children—28 per cent—have a statement of special educational needs, compared with the national average of 3 per cent, and 45 per cent of looked-after children, aged from five to 17, suffer from mental health problems; that is four times higher than the figure for other children. The most concerning statistic of all is that a quarter of adults in prison today have spent time in the care system.
Those poor outcomes have identifiable causes over and above the simple fact of being in care. For example, children in care are five times more likely to move schools in years 10 and 11 than other children, which has been shown substantially to damage their chances of succeeding in education. Some children see as many as 30 different social workers and go through nine or 10 care placements within a few years. We cannot expect young people to have confidence in, let alone plan, their future if they are living from one month to the next, reluctant to make ties—whether those ties relate to social workers, to their schools or indeed to their foster carers—lest they be broken.
The outcome of children in care has improved in recent years as a result of a number of reforms, including Quality Protects, which led to a renewed focus on the needs of these children and an emphasis on listening to their views. Through Every Child Matters, new multi-agency arrangements have improved support for vulnerable children and young people with better prevention and earlier intervention. This support is central to improving outcomes for children in care and, since the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000 came into force in 2002, the proportion known to be participating in education and employment or training at the age of 19 has increased by 8 per cent. There has also been a welcome increase in the number of care leavers who maintain contact with their local authority, whether through accessing a personal adviser or following an agreed pathway plan, with increases from 75 per cent to 89 per cent since 2000.
Those changes have gone hand in hand with significant extra investments. Between 2001 and 2004-05, total expenditure increased by around £230 million for children in residential care and by around £330 million for those in foster care. That represents real increases of 20 per cent and 44 per cent respectively, whereas the care population rose by only 3 per cent during that time. Yet, over the same period, the proportion of children in care getting five or more GCSEs rose by only three percentage points—hence this Children and Young Persons Bill to improve provision for these highly vulnerable children.
The Bill follows the Care Matters White Paper published in June, which set out our strategy to transform the life chances of children and young people in care. The White Paper was the culmination of an extensive, 18-month period of consultation with carers, practitioners and children and young people themselves. The principles behind the White Paper and the Bill are fourfold: first, to ensure good parenting from everyone involved in these children’s lives; secondly, to improve the stability of their experiences; thirdly, to give children a greater say over decisions that affect them; and, fourthly, to bring about a culture change where all those involved have greater ambitions for these children and believe that the children can achieve.
I will address each of those areas in turn and explain how these principles are enshrined in the Bill. First, the Bill seeks to embed good parenting from professionals in every part of the care system, whether a carer, a social worker, a director of children’s services or an elected lead member. Much has been said on the importance of effective and responsible corporate parenting from the state and on the need for us all to accept that we have not only a legal but also a moral responsibility to treat children in care as well as any good parent would treat their own children. Strong corporate parenting arrangements are essential to improving services for these children and this legislation supports local authorities in exercising their corporate parenting function more effectively.
Part 1 of the Bill will enable the piloting of social work practices, allowing local authorities to delegate some of their social services functions in relation to looked-after children and care leavers to more autonomous practices. The aim is to establish whether, by giving social workers more freedom and flexibility in their work, they can deliver a more personalised service and create more continuity for children in care. The piloting arrangements set out in Clause 6 will allow us to ascertain whether or not social work practices should be rolled out nationally. We have a responsibility to pilot constructive proposals that might help to improve the life chances of looked-after children, and this is one of them. We will be working closely with partners to take forward the pilots and will commission an independent organisation to conduct a comprehensive evaluation of the pilot stage. We look forward to working closely with local authorities on that. Clause 4 in Part 1 provides for the regulation of social work practices under the provisions of the Care Standards Acts 2000 following the pilot phase.
Crucial to good corporate parenting is ensuring that our residential children’s homes are of the highest possible quality. Thirteen per cent of the care population are in residential homes, 97 per cent of whom are aged over 10. Despite some excellent provision, however, compliance with the national minimum standards and underpinning regulations remains a major concern. Only a quarter of children’s homes meet 90 per cent or more of those standards.
Clauses 22 to 25 amend the Care Standards Act 2000 with the intention of making it clear that poor performance in children’s homes and other social care settings will not be tolerated. These measures ensure that Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Education, Children’s Services and Skills has a wider range of measures to deploy to ensure that swift and decisive action can be taken where standards are not being met. For example, Clause 22 gives the chief inspector the power to issue a compliance notice to providers who fail to meet the standards expected of them. The notice will set out the action needed to address the failings and the timescale within which this must happen. In addition, Clause 23 gives the chief inspector the power to restrict admissions to residential settings where this is deemed a necessary sanction. In addition to the provision in the Bill, we are currently undertaking a review of the national minimum standards to ensure that they are clearer and more focused on outcomes for children.
Part 3 contains provisions to ensure that right decisions are taken regarding foster care approvals. Clause 29 establishes an independent review mechanism for foster carers, similar to the current mechanism that enables prospective adopters to challenge decisions by adoption agencies on their suitability to adopt. Clause 30 ensures that the provisions for the two independent review mechanisms are aligned.
In their corporate parenting role, much of the effectiveness of social workers and local authorities relies on their relationship and communication with children and young people themselves. Clauses 13 to 16 will ensure that regular contact is maintained between the local authority and the children whom it looks after, including those in youth custody. In addition, a new requirement is introduced to ensure that children who are in long-term care away from home, such as those in residential special schools for the majority of the year, are visited by the local authority where the child normally lives.
The second objective of the Bill is improving stability. Provisions in Part 2 aim to create better stability in every aspect of a child’s care—for example, by the provision in Clause 8 to limit out-of-authority placements. A major policy concern in recent years has been out-of-authority placements. We know that children in out-of-authority placements often do less well than those placed closer to home. This is not solely due to distance. Placing children out of authority can exacerbate problems; for example, placing authorities often struggle to co-ordinate services for children whom they look after when they are placed in other areas. This is why we are seeking in the Bill to reduce unnecessary out-of-authority placements to ensure that local authorities commission, plan effectively and provide appropriate placements for a range of needs within their area to help to improve the continuity, stability and overall experiences of young people in care.
Clause 9 introduces a new provision to ensure that at all ages local authorities take greater account of the impact of their care placement decisions on the educational stability of children in their care. For a child in years 10 and 11—the run-up to GCSE—school moves that are the result of care placement decisions will be stopped unless the circumstances of the child’s case are exceptional.
The best way to improve stability is by doing more to prevent children from going into care in the first place. Children and young people have told us that, where they cannot remain with their birth families, they want to be cared for by people who are familiar to them, such as wider family and friends, wherever that is possible. Provisions in Parts 2 and 4 will help to ensure that, where appropriate, children are supported in their families outside the care system and that those caring for them are given greater support and better recognition for the vital role that they play. In particular, Clause 21 allows local authorities to exercise wider discretion over the circumstances in which they make cash payments to those caring for children in need. Clauses 32 and 34 remove some of the barriers for relative carers applying for residence and special guardianship orders. To provide enhanced security, Clause 33 provides that residence orders last until the child reaches the age of 18, rather than 16, as currently.
Thirdly, the Bill puts the voice of the child at the heart of every part of the care system. In Care Matters, we committed to ensuring that the care system is child-focused, to listening to what children want and to responding appropriately. We want to ensure that at every stage of their lives where important decisions that affect their future are made the individual views of children are taken into account. While that cannot be achieved solely by one activity or reform, we believe that by increasing the focus on the transparency and quality of care planning and, in particular, by strengthening the role of the independent reviewing officer, we will make significant progress. We believe that independent reviewing officers have a crucial role in ensuring that children and young people are able to contribute effectively to their care planning and in quality assuring how local authorities carry out their responsibilities in relation to the planning and arrangements for children in their care.
Clauses 11 and 12 lay the foundations for the changes required by extending the responsibilities of the independent reviewing officer to monitor the performance by the local authority of its functions in relation to a child’s case and by ensuring that the care-planning processing is effectively overseen so that it is fair and reasonable and gives proper weight to the child’s wishes and feelings. We expect that those measures and accompanying regulations and guidance will enable IROs to secure the required improvements and to fulfil their role with credibility and independence. A good example would be their role in helping to ensure that young people are not moved from a placement with a foster carer or appropriate children’s home to other less supported arrangements—for example, an independent flat or hostel—without their views being given full consideration, as described in Clause 10.
Fourthly, the Bill is intended to raise the aspirations of all those involved in the lives of children in care and young people proceeding from care. Without that, the reforms will have little effect. We want greatly to improve children's educational experiences and to give them a greater chance to achieve—for example, by making sure that schools understand the specific learning needs of children in care and have the capacity to help them to achieve their potential, whatever their starting points. Clause 17 therefore places the role of the designated teacher, responsible for promoting the achievement of looked-after children and offering them additional support at school, on a statutory footing, ensuring universal provision across England and Wales.
Clauses 19 and 20 extend the existing duty under the Children (Leaving Care) Act to appoint a personal adviser and to keep the pathway plan under regular review to care leavers who start or resume a programme of education after the age of 21 but under the age of 25. We want to ensure that every child has the support and guidance that they need to become a successful adult.
Currently, only 6 per cent of care leavers go on to study at university. Improving that must in part be achieved by improving the support that they receive at school. However, consultation with young people in care shows that they face significant barriers to entering higher education, including a belief that they will not be able to meet the additional costs. Evidence indicates that looked-after children finish higher education with an average of £2,000 more debt than their peers. Clause 18 will therefore make available a bursary of a minimum of £2,000 for children in care who go on to university.
Independent visitors are trained volunteers who befriend and support children and young people in care who have little or no contact with their families. Visiting and befriending children in care and providing advice to them is an important service. Clause 14 requires local authorities to make arrangements for an independent person to be appointed to visit any looked-after child, if it is in the interests of the child for that to be done.
In addition to the reforms that I have outlined so far, the Bill contains supplementary provisions that will enable us better to support vulnerable children. Clause 26 removes the 72-hour moratorium on court powers to hear an application to discharge an emergency protection order. That provision is made in response to a recent Northern Ireland High Court case and will ensure that the emergency protection order procedure is compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.
Clause 27 amends the procedures surrounding the reporting of child deaths to ensure routine notification of child deaths by registrars to local safeguarding children boards. That improved process will support local safeguarding children boards in carrying out their child death review function and help to identify the need for a serious case review or to highlight areas of concern affecting the safety and welfare of children.
Clause 31 extends by three years, until November 2011, the life of the Secretary of State’s power to make regulations concerning a registration scheme for private foster carers, thereby ensuring that we retain the ability to establish an additional mechanism to help to ensure the welfare of privately fostered children, should that be required.
The package of measures in the Bill will, we expect, help us better to support some of the most vulnerable people in our society, including those in the care of the state. I commend the Bill to the House.
Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Adonis.)
My Lords, in October last year, in response to the Statement on the Green Paper, Care Matters: Transforming the Lives of Children and Young People in Care, I said that the care of children in the guardianship of the state had been a shameful side of the welfare system for too long. Too many children have been overlooked, not looked after. Much of what we have been asking for for several years, and much of what was in our manifesto on children at the last general election, are covered in the Bill. We therefore extend a warm welcome, and thank the Minister for his clear introduction.
All of us taking part in the Bill have a keen interest in the welfare of children, and many of us will have first-hand experience of the many difficulties and heartbreaks that face looked-after children and their families. None of us, however, will have the Minister’s insight, so it will be a particular pleasure to work with him on the Bill. There is work to be done, and we are concerned that much of the Government’s commendable ambition will not be achieved without a motivated and rewarded workforce.
The Minister has given some depressing statistics, but it is worth reminding ourselves of the challenge that we face. The Centre for Social Justice working group tells us that children in care and care leavers are far more likely to end up in jail, on drugs, on the streets or to be teenage parents than their peers. Care leavers comprise 27 per cent of all prisoners and between a third and a half of all homeless people. The educational failure is also worrying, with only 8 per cent of looked-after children achieving five or more A*s to Cs at GSCE and only 6 per cent of care leavers going to university. More than a third of children in care are not even entered for a GCSE exam. The numbers are simply staggering.
Improving the plight of children in care goes some way to addressing more widespread social breakdown. Half of all prostitutes and 80 per cent of all Big Issue sellers have been in care. Twenty-two per cent of care leavers—three times more than of all school leavers—will be unemployed by the September after they leave school. The statistic that always troubles me the most, however, is the alarming fact that the children of children in care are 66 times more likely to be taken into care, thus creating a generational vicious cycle.
As the Minister said, we must do all we can to ensure that children do not enter the care system in the first place. Early intervention, respite care and kinship care are key to breaking the cycle. As the NCH says in its excellent briefing, intensive family support for families with children on the edge of care can, where appropriate, prevent the need for a child to be placed in care in the first place. The NCH runs a number of these preventive services, in partnership with local councils, and on average four out of every five referrals are deemed to be successful. The voluntary sector has much to offer in this area and should be encouraged wherever possible. It is, however, also an area in which social workers generally would love to do more.
Children’s social workers operate very much at the sharp end of children’s services, and their dedication and professionalism are crucial to the delivery of the Bill. To do this, however, they must be properly respected, trained, motivated and resourced. There are still too few dedicated children’s social workers, and vacancy rates in London and the West Midlands are currently running at 18 per cent, with turnover in London at some 15 per cent. This makes it hard to provide the much needed consistency of care and time for essential preventive work. This is a vital area, and one that we will pursue. It is also of keen interest to the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, who is at a degree-awarding ceremony today but who will take part in later stages of the Bill, where her considerable expertise will add greatly to our deliberations.
The Bill will enable local authorities to delegate local authority functions in relation to looked-after children to providers of social work services and, after the pilot stage of this scheme, it will enable there to be regulation of providers and requires them to be registered. We welcome the chance to test the idea of having groups of social workers undertaking work with children in care that is commissioned by, but independent from, the local authority. As the White Paper, Care Matters: Time for Change, shows, it is vital for children and young people to know who their social worker is and to have a real relationship that can evolve with trust and a sense of respect over time. I welcome the Government’s recognition that children need not merely care, but a continuity of care.
If this new model of social work practice can go some way to provide this, the result would be a significant improvement in a young person’s experience of care. It is important that these pilots take place in a diverse range of local authorities and that they are run for a sufficient length of time to allow for robust evaluation of effectiveness, as well as ample opportunity to understand what could be improved. A key issue will be the concept of accountability. Another will be to allow the social work practice the freedom to operate in its own way. Would the Minister be willing to give assurances that this will be the case?
We are pleased to see the prohibition of moving a child from a placement with a local authority foster parent or children’s home to other arrangements and the emphasis on local provision. We have long been critics of children suffering the dual horror of being taken away from home, and placed somewhere remote and unfamiliar. But it is important that in this we do not allow the welfare of the child to be affected by too much emphasis on what can sometimes be arbitrary geographical distinctions. There might be cases where a child or young person lives in one local authority, but has stronger connections with a neighbouring community, or circumstances in which the neighbouring local authority is closer.
We must also recognise that where a child has a severe disability or is in need of very specialised care, a restriction to the local area might mean that they do not get the appropriate care. Not every local authority has the resources to provide for children on the more extreme end of the scale. We want to ensure that the decision is driven by the welfare of the child and not cost, the problems of cumbersome bureaucracy or arbitrary procedures.
The Children’s Services Development Group related a story to me that captured some of the elements of the problem. A young girl with severe autism who was not in care was struggling in a mainstream educational environment. Her parents were devoted to battling her case and tried in vain to secure more specialist care through the placing authority. Her council did not have adequate resources and told her parents that it was unable to place their child out of the area. Her parents pressed for some time, arguing the legal duty to deliver care on the basis of need. They were finally told that the real reason was simply cost. This young girl was lucky to have parents who could argue her case again and again. What would have been her fate had she been in care or if her social worker did not know her well enough to understand her needs?
We also recognise that there are other circumstances where an out-of-authority placement may be in the child’s best interest; for instance, if a young person is involved in a local gang or has been the victim of sexual exploitation. Does the Minister share my concern that it is of the highest importance that care services are delivered on the basis on need? We have also been critics of children being passed from pillar to post. The “What Makes the Difference” first-class research shows some shocking figures on the number of placements, with wide variations between and within local authorities. Of the young people interviewed, 17 per cent had had more than 11 placements and 6 per cent had had more than 21. It is good that the Government are committed to ensuring placement stability in the two years before GCSEs, but that should be a desired outcome at all stages of a child’s life in care.
In the gracious Speech, I welcomed the Government’s commitment to ensuring that young people are not forced out of care before they are ready and to providing them with support and care for as long as they need it. The Fostering Network and BAAF highlight that children in care, despite their vulnerability, are leaving their care setting at a younger age than most young people leave home, which on average is at about the age of 24. Like us, they welcome the pilots, but they have concerns about how this will be interpreted and the consideration that will need to be given to the more complex issue of continuing to provide residential care for young people more than 18 years old. Not the least of their worries is whether foster carers will retain their status if they are not also fostering others below the age of 18, with all the implications that would have on their training and allowances and their annual review. We will be tabling amendments on this at the Committee stage. Further, how does the Minister envisage the transitions working where a young person is not living with foster carers, but is in a home or some form of accommodation?
Another important issue addressed in the Bill is the amendment of the duties of local authorities in relation to the appointment of independent reviewing officers, strengthening their role and making it genuinely independent. We welcome this, and the extension of the opportunity for more looked-after children to have independent visitors. That will go some way towards ensuring that the child’s voice is heard, but I wonder if there is scope to include provisions for professional independent child advocacy.
A number of other important areas are covered in the Bill, which I am sure that other noble Lords will speak about today, and no doubt we will cover them as we go through the Bill. They cover the state of our children’s homes, the status of disabled children in 52-week accommodation, the 3,300 unaccompanied asylum-seeker children now looked after in the UK, young people in custody and the health and mental well-being of children in care. I am sure that we will also debate in detail the status and support given to the many relatives, usually grandparents, who struggle to do what is right for their families. And I should like to mention briefly an interesting article in today’s Times about a five-year study from the Royal Wanstead Children’s Foundation on foster boarding, which merits closer attention.
There is a long way to go and much to be done, but excellent things are happening already. Learning from best practice is crucial, and the White Paper has given some first-class examples. I should like to mention the particular success of the Conservative-run council in Barnet whose education champion scheme partners a member of the council, from the director down to junior officials and all councillors, with a child in care. They never meet the child or young person they are partnered with, but are responsible for monitoring their progress and speaking with a social worker about their welfare. They take a personal interest. It is this system of personal responsibility that has led to 77 per cent of children receiving one A* to G pass at GCSE, up more than 30 per cent in three years, and 54 per cent achieving those marks in five subjects. Some 12 per cent of looked-after children from Barnet now go on to university, which compares with the national average of 6 per cent. This goes to show that progress can be made.
Finally, I would like to place on the record our thanks for all the briefing material we have been sent, and for the many meetings. We are so lucky to have organisations and people who show such dedication and determination. That greatly helps us in the job we have to do. Once again, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, for introducing the Bill and express my enthusiasm for working with him to make sure that the rightly ambitious intentions of this legislation are delivered in the most effective way possible for the sake of all the children and young people who, through no fault of their own, find themselves in the care of the state.
My Lords, I am delighted to have the opportunity to take part in a piece of legislation which so obviously has the objective we all share—improving the life chances of children and young people in public care. The legislation might better have been called the Listowel Bill because during all the years that I have been in this House, it is the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, who has kept the attention of the Government and noble Lords on the issue of children in care. No one in this House knows more than he does about such children, and I very much look forward to hearing his critique of the Bill later this afternoon. The Bill is a real step forward and will promote more stability in care placements, a bigger place for the voice of the child, more independent support for the child and, I hope, a better quality of care and more appropriate placements.
There are many good things in the Bill. For example, we welcome the higher education bursary for children in care, but feel it is important that they are given training in how to manage their own money, or they will not feel the full benefit of it. We also welcome the £500 education support grant, but we would like to see social workers having to consult the child and his foster parent about how to invest it. These are only two of the matters about which the voice of the child should be heard. It is vital that he also has the right to independent advocacy whenever any significant decision is being made about his future. Sadly, with all its virtues, the Bill stops short of that. Many of these children are extremely articulate, but they are still children and need the support of a friendly adult to help them to express their views.
The Bill, of course, is not the only change that will help children in care. The Care Matters implementation plan and the review of the national minimum standards for fostering services next year should also deliver major improvements. However, today we are considering the Bill and there are a number of areas where we hoped the Government would have gone further. I should like to mention some of the issues about which we will be calling on the Government to do more during the Bill’s course through your Lordships’ House.
First, on the subject of refugee children, we welcome the duty on local authorities to appoint an independent person to visit all looked-after children, including those in custody and long-term residential placements, but we would like to see this extended to young asylum seekers. I would like to see unaccompanied refugee children treated no differently from any other children in the care of the state. Can the Minister explain how the Home Office reforms fit in with the Care Matters agenda? Of all children, separated asylum-seeking and trafficked children need the most support. That is why many of the children’s charities, including Save the Children, are calling for an independent guardianship scheme. This seems like a very good idea and could easily be piloted and evaluated.
Most children in care these days are fostered rather than placed in children’s homes, as we have heard, so I should like to raise the matter of the proposals to restrict out-of-area placements. I share the concerns of the noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Bolton. Of course we agree that usually it is in the child’s best interests to be placed near to his family, friends and school. However, although we support in principle the desire for most placements to be local, restricting this to a particular local authority boundary can be a rather clumsy tool. We know it is usually cheaper but we do not want a local authority to find it easier, after the passage of this Bill into law, to move a child into its own area on financial considerations only. There are situations in which the special provision the child needs cannot be provided “in area”, or protection issues that make it desirable for the child to be placed away, so we want the child’s safety considered as well as other aspects of his welfare.
Some local authority boundaries are a little idiosyncratic, to say the least, and the nearest suitable provision could be over the border. We do not want this proposal as a lead weight around the ankles of local authorities. How will it work and how will children be protected from local authorities using this provision as an excuse to cut costs? How are the Government planning to ensure that all local authorities provide sufficient and diverse quality placements so that all children can be properly catered for locally?
Many young people in care will have experienced massive disruption in their lives and need extended support as they move into adult life. We welcome the provision that prevents 16 to 18 year-olds being pushed into independent living without their consent, which I gather currently sometimes happens, and it is important that they have independent support in making these decisions and making their views known. But the Care Matters White Paper expressed a desire to see 18 year-olds able to stay with their former foster carers until they are 21. That should happen whether or not they are in full-time education.
It should be noted that the average age at which young people leave home these days, as the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, said, is not 21 but 24. The young people we are talking about need more support, not less, than those who live with their families. So we welcome the pilot schemes but feel that every local authority should provide supported transitional living arrangements for young people leaving care and moving into independent living, and that the Secretary of State should take powers to regulate such arrangements. We also call on the Government to publish the results of the pilots before rolling out these arrangements.
Many young people in care have been placed since they were very young and have little knowledge about their background and birth family. In that way they are similar to adoptive children, yet the law about their right to information is very different. We will be exploring ways in which the law can be changed to give them similar rights to information about their family. My noble friend Lady Barker will be saying something about that later on.
I am very disappointed that the Government intend to postpone for another three years a compulsory registration scheme for private fostering. The enhanced notification provisions brought in by the Children Act 2004 are clearly not working well enough. Although the numbers registered have increased from 730 in 2005 to 1,250 in 2007, it is estimated that the real number is between 8,000 and 10,000. Just over one in 10 is not good enough. Are the Government planning to postpone the implementation of a registration scheme just because they do not have enough evidence of whether the current system is working, or because it is not being implemented energetically enough? I would have thought the figures showed that the current system was not working properly, so what are the Government doing to raise awareness of the need to notify private fostering arrangements?
I do not want to inhibit families from making their own arrangements, nor am I advocating a clumsy one-size-fits-all system. There is a wide range of perfectly safe arrangements agreed within families for short periods that would not benefit from the dead hand of bureaucracy. However, the fate of poor little Victoria Climbié reminds us that there are arrangements where the safety of the child is seriously at risk, and the Government must devise a system to track down such cases and protect the child.
Whenever we debate fostering in this House, we always pay tribute to the excellent and valuable work of foster carers throughout the country. Without them, thousands of children would never know what it is like to live in an ordinary home with an ordinary family. However, foster carers often deal with very disturbed children and sometimes allegations are made about them. Some may be true and should be dealt with accordingly, but some are false. It is therefore important that foster carers should be afforded every opportunity to clear their name and should not suffer financially while that is being done. I welcome Clause 29, which says that decisions about their approval or reapproval should be reviewed by an independent body. However, we will be exploring the meaning of “qualifying determination”, which we believe needs very clear guidance. We also believe that fees should continue to be paid while allegations are being resolved or we will risk losing good foster carers who will be forced, because of financial need, to come out of the service and take other jobs. We cannot afford to lose them.
Indeed, we call on the Government to work with the local authorities to make their published fee scales much more transparent, and to work towards having all foster carers properly paid in a way that reflects the value to the community of the work they do. Most foster carers are keen to constantly enhance their skills and become more professional in the way they support children, yet they are currently not able to register with a professional body. Are there any plans to allow foster carers who so wish to register with the General Social Care Council?
Of course, sometimes the best foster carer is a member of the child’s own family—what is known as kinship care. We welcome in Clause 7 the Government’s intention to introduce a new framework for care by family and friends, but are concerned that it offers no guaranteed levels of financial support and, crucially, no right to assessment for financial support. Whether grandparents get financial help or not is often a matter of chance; it can depend on whether they were asked to take the child at the weekend or on a Monday morning, when proper applications can be made. That needs sorting out and we will table amendments accordingly. Having a child raised within its own family is highly desirable and we welcome the increased flexibility to give support to families with children in need, to enable them to stay in the heart of their family. The intensive family support services provided by the NCH and others save many children going into care, which is highly desirable, but if they have to leave the immediate family and live with extended family, that family should not be financially penalised. The family should also be consulted if there is a strong possibility of the child having to go into care as a matter of best practice.
Most young people in care go to school. We welcome the Government’s decision to heed our blandishments and put the designated member of staff on a statutory footing, but we would like to ensure that this responsibility is not given automatically to hard-pressed SENCOs. We also welcome the provision that children should not be moved in years 10 and 11 except in exceptional circumstances. However, although some examples are given in the Explanatory Notes, perhaps the Minister will say something more about how the provision will affect the post-14 and post-16 opportunities available to these children.
Perhaps I should say something also about the proposals in Clauses 1 to 6, which allow private social work practices. My noble friend Lady Sharp will say more about this, but we will assess the proposals on their ability to provide more and better social services to the most vulnerable children and families. Anything that is in danger of providing better services in one area at the expense of another has to be viewed with scepticism. There is a danger of these services creaming off the best professional social workers and offering them better pay and conditions, while nearby local authority services suffer. The knock-on effects worry me. With recruitment and retention of social workers still in disarray, I am worried about shaking up the system in this way. We must have full information from the pilots, not just about their work but about their effect on all the services around them. We must have robust evaluation in a diverse set of authorities for an appropriately long time. If they raise the overall standard and reduce from 30 the number of social workers that some children see, as the Minister has just told us is the case, that is fine; if they do not, it is not a good idea.
Finally, I shall say a word about children with disabilities. There are 13,300 disabled children and young people who are placed away from home in England. They, too, should enjoy the statutory right to independent advocacy. Although guidance states that they should be doing so already, it is not happening everywhere, so perhaps it is time to introduce a statutory duty. There are many good things in this Bill for those regarded as looked-after children, but some disabled children are not given that status. We would like the Government to consider giving them that status because of the advantages that it will bring. Children who do not enjoy such status include all disabled children placed away from home in 52-week specialist residential provision. On the other hand, there are disabled children who receive short breaks but remain normally resident with their families who do not need looked-after status. These things need sorting out. We hope that the Government will clarify in guidance the difference between a regular programme of short breaks to support the family where parents retain parental responsibility and situations where the child really needs looked-after status.
I could talk about many other aspects of the Bill. I will leave it to my noble friend Lady Sharp and the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, to talk about provision for the physical and mental health of looked-after children. Suffice it to say that I look forward to our debates in Grand Committee and beyond, and hope that this promising Bill can be made even more so when the Government, as they always do, listen to your Lordships.
My Lords, I, too, express my warm support for the Children and Young Persons Bill. As the noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Bolton, said so eloquently, the prospects for the great majority of looked-after children are bleak. If this situation is going to change significantly, the Bill will need to achieve four ambitious objectives. First, it must prevent if at all possible a child becoming a looked-after child. Secondly, it must keep open the option of a return to the child’s family. Thirdly, it must provide the best possible and consistent support for every looked-after child while they are in care. The Bill is clearly focused more on that issue than on others. Fourthly, it must continue that support until the child is ready to go it alone in the adult world. As the Bill partially recognises, that may be well into their 20s. We talk about the age of 24, but these children may need a great deal longer than that.
I want to say a little about each of the four objectives. First, on preventing children becoming looked-after, the Government's Green Paper rightly refers to the importance of preventing the need for care. I want to talk about just one group of high-risk children who need the earliest possible intervention if they are to remain with their parents: babies born to a mother with a severe psychotic disorder. Noble Lords may see that as somewhat outwith the Bill, but it would be worth having something in the Bill about prevention. Because of the shortage of places in mother and baby units, these babies are often placed in care right from the start while their mother is admitted to hospital for treatment. From then on the system determines the long-term destiny of the child. This may well involve years in children’s homes or foster care.
In April, NICE produced clinical management and service guidance for antenatal and postnatal mental health, arguing that,
“specialist perinatal inpatient services should provide facilities designed specifically for mothers and infants”.
If we want to prevent these children becoming looked-after, it is essential that NICE guidance is implemented across the country. Approximately 14 to 16 additional units are needed. Will the Minister consider including in this Bill a clause placing a duty on primary care trusts to contribute to the cost of regional units to ensure sufficient places?
I turn to the second major objective—to keep open the option for a child to return to his family if appropriate. I know that the Bill goes some way towards this. Here the location of the child in care is crucial. We know that nearly half the children in children's homes and nearly one-third of those in foster care are living outside their own local authority area. Of course, some children benefit from being a good distance from their families, but if there is hope of the child returning home, proximity to the family may be essential to facilitate contact and family therapy, for example.
I refer to the case of a 14 year-old girl whom I heard about in east London, on a patch where I happen to chair a mental health trust. She became looked-after earlier this year; by the autumn she had moved through seven different placements in Kent and north London. That was just in a matter of months. We know of lots of other figures, too, but somehow this individual case came home very strongly to me. She had no schooling throughout this time, and she began to self harm and to behave in an increasingly risky way. She felt so hopeless and all she wanted was to be back near her family.
Every local authority needs to have short-term children’s home provision—not too short but shortish—linked to intensive outreach and family work in order to restore the child home as soon as possible in every possible case. Clause 8(2) enables regulations to be made to ensure that the placement of a child is driven by the needs of the child rather than administrative considerations. I hope that the Minister will consider putting these provisions into the Bill, as this issue is far too important to be left to regulations.
On the third objective, and the need for high-quality and consistent support for looked-after children, I warmly welcome most of the reforms which promise to improve the experience of looked-after children. However, I want to raise two issues. Children’s services should have a duty to provide or ensure access to specialist therapeutic services for looked-after children. If physically ill, these children will have access to medical care; if they need a school place and are settled in an area—this is a big point—they will be given priority. This is not the case for mental health services, yet Department of Health research published in 2002 showed that 75 per cent of looked-after children in residential care have a mental health disorder. The figure for all looked-after children is 45 per cent. Many of those children do not get to have mental health care in anything like the right time perspective.
My second quite different but equally serious concern relates to the proposed pilots of social work practices, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, has already referred. I realise that this is an attempt to overcome the endemic social work problems of high staff turnover, use of agency staff and complex team structures, all of which have led to a lack of consistency of support for children; but those problems have been generated substantially by the blame culture and the volumes of regulations and guidance requiring ever more bureaucracy that have followed each death of a looked-after child. As a result, money and responsibility have flowed away from front-line social workers up the line of command. That may protect the backs of Ministers and management, but the best protection for looked-after children is to have well paid, highly motivated and professional front-line social workers with manageable systems and procedures to operate, but which we do not have.
The reality is that contracting work out to social work practices would involve yet more systems and bureaucracy and would ultimately divert more resources away from front-line social work. Local authorities would be required to harness social work practices to all the regulations and guidance. They will continue to have ultimate responsibility: they cannot opt out of that responsibility. Although all the meetings and paper work would continue, they would simply happen away from where the social workers were based.
An improved service will be achieved only if the Government are willing to tackle the root causes of the problem. A good start would be to implement the Options for Excellence White Paper of 2006. I gather that little has been done on it yet. A working group with a remit to review and simplify all childcare regulations and guidance would be the greatest contribution to the well-being of looked-after children. Many things need to be done but it will be difficult to make improvements while the whole system is completely overwhelmed by bits of paper and the requirement to fill in forms.
The fourth objective is to continue support until the child is ready to face the world alone as an adult. Although the Bill addresses it—as it partly addresses the other objectives as well—I hope that the Government may be willing to go a little further in this area, too. The decision whether a young person is ready to leave care should of course be made in conjunction with the young person. However, such a key decision should have the benefit of an independent assessment of the young person's needs, on which the care plan would be based. Many young people, and I would suggest most, will not be ready to leave care at anything like 18.
If a young person wishes to leave care at 18 but is assessed as needing ongoing support—and surely that will include all of them—then a personal adviser should be made available to them, rather than limiting availability only to those intending to pursue education or training as indicated in Clause 19. Young people pursuing education are likely to be less damaged and less at risk than those who are outside the education system. If one of the Government's aims is to reduce the numbers of looked-after children who end up in young offender institutions or prison, and if we assume that a personal adviser will be an important anchor for these young people, then it cannot be sensible to exclude the majority of these young people from that service. I would be grateful if the Minister could give a little more thought to this issue—he has no doubt already considered it at great length—and advise the House of his response.
Visitors will be another valuable source of support for looked-after children. My concern is that visitor appointments will end when the young person ceases to be looked after by the local authority. If young people are to leave care at 18, for example, is it not likely that it will be a time of great turmoil and insecurity when a visitor may be of particular value? I hope that the Minister can comment on that issue.
We all agree that the Bill includes valuable reforms and, with some adjustments, could do much to improve the lot of these vulnerable children. I cannot promise that all the ideas suggested here will be cost-saving from day one but they will be in the longer term. I hope that the Minister will take my comments in the constructive spirit intended.
My Lords, it is good to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, a long-standing friend. As we have heard, she brings a great deal of useful experience to our deliberations on the Bill. Like all noble Lords who have spoken so far, I gladly welcome the thrust of the Bill and the tone of my noble friend’s helpful observations when introducing it. Stability is critically necessary.
When it comes to social provision and answering social need, a spirit of love and mutual service is vital. Deprivation among children, with all its resulting unfulfilled potential or anti-social consequences, is not limited to any one social quarter. Many children of highly successful players in our market-dominated system are short of little in material terms, but they are worryingly deprived of firm, unsentimental love, affection and emotional security. If we are serious in our commitment to children, we have to look hard at the prevailing values of society, or indeed the lack of them. No amount of social provision will ensure a decent and healthy society if it arises in a prevailing context of greed and insensitive egocentric materialism. The social provision for which we argue should be a reflection of our personal and general social ethos. Without that, inevitably, it will in reality too often be about treating symptoms rather than dealing with the roots of the social disease.
As has been said, we are fortunate in the UK to have a wide cross-section of voluntary non-governmental agencies as well as organisations representing many dedicated qualified professionals in the realm of social care, which between them have a huge amount of front-line experience of work with children. In addition to the relevant professional associations, we are fortunate to have bodies such as—I give them only as examples—the National Children’s Bureau, the Children’s Services Development Group, the Children’s Society, the Children’s Rights Alliance, the Refugee Children’s Consortium, the Save the Children Fund and others. The Government and the House would do well to listen carefully to them and respond to their concerns as deliberations on the legislation move forward. I have found their briefings very valuable and hope that I can do justice to the material provided. As the noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Bolton, put it so well in her very positive speech, well-motivated care and social workers are a key to success.
A lot is said in the Bill about local authorities. Is there not room to spell out a specific duty for them to secure sufficient and diverse accommodation to provide for the different needs of different looked-after children and young people? Could there not be specific reference to the importance, wherever appropriate, of keeping siblings together and ensuring access to siblings? Is it not vital that local authority visits to the looked-after should always be by a specialist children and families social worker? And is this not particularly important for children in custody? More generally on visiting, should not the importance of achieving the stability of an identifiable, named relationship and accountability for any individual child over a substantial period be more firmly recognised as indispensable? Would this not facilitate the development of specialisms covering, for example, the disabled? The Children's Rights Alliance believes that there is a fundamental flaw in the design of the proposed extended role for independent reviewing officers and that they should be required to be independent of the local authority concerned. What is the Government’s position on that observation?
Partnership clearly has a lot of potential. Does my noble friend agree that where pilots are to be organised, they should be across a wide cross-section of local authorities and should run for long enough to allow a convincing evaluation? In the light of the recent judicial ruling by the House of Lords on what is a public authority, is it not essential specifically to stipulate that in all individual contracts with partners, the requirements of human rights law are fully implemented by each of them? Do the new safeguards spelt out in the Bill not make it all the more important to consider the extension of looked-after status to disabled children who are away from home and most certainly to children in custody?
Is it not time to lay down the principle that children should never be in custody in prison or detention centres? As soon as sweet reasonableness suggests that use of the word “never” would be unwise, because there can always be special circumstances, the processes of institutionalised rationalisation will inevitably get to work on finding reasons why such special circumstances apply. Prison and detention centres are no place for children. They can accentuate trauma and do lasting damage. There is a need for specialist accommodation for them and for families. I know that the Government are working on it, but surely that needs most urgently to become the rule.
Is it not always essential that the youth justice and social care systems work closely together, especially for those in custody? Is that not vital for successful rehabilitation? Significantly, between 40 per cent and 49 per cent of children and young people in custody have at some time been in local authority care, and 18 per cent are still subject to care orders. I simply do not understand why local authorities cannot be made responsible for the quality of the education provided for those in custody.
On the wider question of education, although the idea that a designated member of staff in schools should be responsible for developing the educational achievement of looked-after children is interesting, surely the staff as a whole should feel a shared special responsibility. It is important, anyway, to carefully ensure that the way in which any such development is implemented does not stigmatise the children concerned.
As has been said, the physical and mental health problems of looked-after children are a major concern. It is estimated that 45 per cent of such children aged between five and 17 have at least one mental health disorder, compared with 10 per cent in the general population. There are disturbingly high levels of self harm, particularly in secure accommodation, and higher levels of drug misuse and smoking. Those realities are aggravated for those who encounter discrimination. Ethnic minorities and the disabled are examples. Should the Bill not more explicitly tackle guidance on healthcare provision to healthcare bodies?
In her characteristically well-informed and highly relevant remarks, the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, dealt with immigration. Some 3,000 children a year come to the UK to seek asylum. The trauma which they have already suffered and the continuing trauma of insecurity and uncertainty are hard to overestimate. The lasting damage to mental and physical health can be serious. The danger of alienation should be taken far more seriously than it is in our proper concerns about security and anxieties about extremism. In some people, a bad or humiliating experience in the formative years can light the fuse of grotesquely irrational behaviour later. In politics, irrespective of where we stand, should we not always remember that in all our vocabulary and actions? To say that we are concerned to win hearts and minds but to fail to follow that through in deeds, where it matters, is highly provocative.
Children are children and young people are young people, and whatever their status, circumstances or origins, they must be treated primarily as such. Their vulnerability is a constant challenge. Being a migrant does not eliminate childhood or reduce its significance; quite the reverse. If we are to be a decent society, we must always remember that, whatever the pressures, complexities or exasperations.
First and foremost, we must look to the interests of the child. It is no exaggeration to say that when the Joint Committee on Human Rights was looking at the administration of asylum—I was a member at the time—we were deeply troubled by what we saw happening to children. Too often, they were seen just as part of an immigration problem and not as children in need. The UK Borders Act places a duty on Border and Immigration Authority staff to safeguard children, but it fails to establish the more important duty required of other agencies under the Children Act 2004 to actively promote a child’s welfare. Does my noble friend not agree that this should urgently be addressed? Could the Bill not provide for a system of formal guardianship to help a child through the migration and asylum process?
The Government have indicated their intention to pilot projects allowing looked-after young people to remain with their foster carers up to the age of 21, but the Government have also argued that it might be more appropriate to place asylum-seeking children in more independent living arrangements at the age of 16. How come? Surely what makes the first proposition important applies at least as much to asylum-seeking children. Can my noble friend clarify that? Sadly, the second proposition appears to have more to do with preparing the child for removal than with meeting the young person’s needs as a young person. Similarly, Clause 9 is intended to ensure that the looked-after child has accommodation near school, yet the Government are also considering placing asylum-seeking children with specialist authorities. What if such an authority is not near the school in which the asylum seeker is already placed? Clarification on this would be helpful.
Let us take the welcome opportunity of this excellently intentioned Bill to demonstrate our inclusive commitment to children—not to some children, as the Prime Minister put it so powerfully in the summer, but to all children. All new policies and law covering children should apply with equal significance to those who seek refugee status or asylum as they do to any other children. I hope that my noble friend can reassure the House.
My Lords, the Bill aims to improve services for all children and young people in care, to ensure that all have the best possible experience within the care system, and that all have the best possible outcomes. As other Members have said, I am sure that the whole House will share these aspirations. I want to confine my remarks to one group of children in care—those with disabilities. I should declare an interest here as president of the Royal Mencap Society, which is one of the four partner organisations in Every Disabled Child Matters—a campaign for rights and justice for all disabled children and their families in the United Kingdom.
Most disabled children, of course, live with their families and do not fall within the scope of this Bill. The Government have already responded to the Every Disabled Child Matters campaign by promising in the Comprehensive Spending Review £340 million during the next three years for services for disabled children and their families, including £280 million to improve and increase short-break provision. I warmly welcome that as an important first that, if I may say, has been a long time coming. In 1996, I first introduced the Disabled Persons and Carers (Short-term Breaks) Bill, which unhappily failed to make progress in another place—having romped through your Lordships’ House.
The need for a right to short breaks has not gone away. Short breaks are extremely important because they enable families to go on caring for their disabled children. Looking after a severely disabled child can be an exhausting, 24 hours-a-day job. Parents and families want to do it, but they need a rest from time to time to give them space to recharge their batteries and to spend time with the rest of the family, as well as safeguarding their physical and mental health. Of course, children need a break from their parents from time to time, too. When I spoke on my Bill in 1996, I said that it was,
“about people with disabilities having an ordinary life”.—[Official Report, 17/4/96; col. 755.]
That is still all we are asking for.
Mencap’s Breaking Point survey last year found that eight out of 10 families caring for disabled children had reached or come close to breaking point because of a lack of short-break services. Short breaks matter for the very good reason that they help to stop disabled children being taken into care or moving into expensive out-of-authority residential placements. That is why the Every Disabled Child Matters campaign is calling, just as I did more than a decade ago, for a statutory right to regular and reliable planned short breaks for families who provide a substantial level of care on a regular basis. I hope that it might be possible to insert such an obligation into this Bill, for then we could be confident that the ring-fenced £280 million promised over the next three years would continue beyond that period and that money would be allocated to short breaks for disabled children and their families far into the future.
There is one way for the Government to demonstrate that a new right to short breaks is unnecessary. They could do so by confirming that this right already exists in English law. I understand that the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, is in receipt of an independent legal opinion on this issue, commissioned by the Every Disabled Child Matters campaign, from leading community-care lawyers Paul Bowen and Luke Clements. They conclude that it is more likely than not that local authorities are already under a specific duty to provide both residential and home-based short breaks to families with disabled children in certain situations. These specific duties would stem from sections within the Children Act 1989, read with the, sadly, often-ignored Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970.
The Minister therefore has the opportunity to issue statutory guidance under the Children Act 1989 to clarify for local authorities when families with disabled children are entitled by law to claim the short breaks that should be theirs by right. Perhaps he will tell us his view of this legal opinion because, if there is indeed already a statutory right to short breaks, local authorities really ought to be delivering it.
Most families want to care for their disabled children at home but some cannot. There are around 11,500 disabled children and young people in long-term residential placements, mostly in residential special schools. Of these, around 1,500 are in 52-week placements—that is, they are living away from their families permanently—and yet do not have the protection of looked-after-children status.
Looked-after-children status is an important safeguard. Children who are “looked after” are in the care of local authorities and have a designated social worker who ensures that their needs are being met. It is a bizarre fact that, while a disabled child on a short break of perhaps only one or two nights has looked-after status, a disabled child on a 52-week placement away from home may not, yet such children are often placed a long way from their families. Their families may not be able to visit them and, to pile Pelion on Ossa, these disabled children are known to be more likely to be abused than other children who are also living away from home.
As already touched on by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, it seems to me that disabled children in such placements should, without doubt, be accorded the protection of looked-after-children status. Indeed, disabled children placed away from home for long periods which amount to less than a year should be protected with looked-after status, and the Bill provides an ideal platform to do just that. Perhaps the Minister could explain why he thinks that a child away from home for just a couple of nights needs this protection but a child away from home every night of the year does not.
He may also wish to comment on the fact that many disabled children, particularly those with a learning disability, may have difficulty communicating and find it hard to express their wishes and preferences, yet the majority of such children in care do not have access to an independent advocate when it is quite clear that independent advocacy is a vital tool to ensure that the child’s views are taken into account.
That is why Mencap supports, and why I, too, am very happy to support, the Children’s Society’s demand that disabled children and young people placed away from home should have a statutory right to independent advocacy when significant decisions are made about their lives. The society recently concluded a survey of advocacy services across England, which found that only 877 disabled children were receiving such services, and that the most vulnerable were the least likely to be served. I hope that the Minister will agree that disabled children living away from home are a group with a particular need for advocacy, and that he will find a way of meeting that need.
This Bill presents an important opportunity to improve the life chances of all young people in care, especially those who are disabled and face huge obstacles throughout their young lives. Indeed, the Government, in their overview of the Bill, state that they,
“will play a critical role in their desire to protect the most vulnerable … ensuring children in care have the same opportunities as other young people”.
I am sure that all sides of your Lordships’ House support the Government’s most welcome initiative in following up their White Paper, Care Matters: Time for Change and are delighted to have this opportunity to improve the Bill where necessary before it proceeds to another place. I wish it well on its journey.
My Lords, it is with a certain sense of déjà vu that I rise to support the Bill, as well as anticipation of working with some old friends across the House on these issues.
There have been several Bills relating to children and education, including the one that become the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000, in the nine years since I joined your Lordships’ House. I say this not in a tone or spirit of criticism of the Government—perhaps slight weariness—but more as a recognition that we are all involved in a process of development and improvement. We discuss these issues and sometimes we legislate; after a time, we assess to see whether things are improving. The Government have listened—I think—in the intervening years.
For the children and young people whose problems this Bill seeks to remedy, these are complex, generational, often very tragic issues, to which there are rarely easy and quick answers. For example, during the passage of the Children (Leaving Care) Bill, some of us fought hard for a relatively modest but mandatory policy that children in care should have their educational costs paid post-16 and post-18—they should have a right to that financial support from local authorities. The Government agreed to our modest amendment and we have seen some improvement, but an improvement from 7 per cent to 12 per cent in children in care gaining at least five good GCSEs, as the figure was in 2006, is really not good enough. As we predicted then, and as the 2003 Social Exclusion Unit report makes clear, improvements for this cohort of children and young people are happening at far too slow a rate to reduce the gap in achievement and life outcomes between children in care and their peers.
I take this opportunity to thank all those organisations that sent briefings. I declare two interests. I am a newly appointed trustee of NCH, the children’s charity, which has already been mentioned today. It provides services to 160,000 of the UK’s most vulnerable children, young people and their families. I am also an adviser to Rathbone, the largest charity provider of education, training and support for those young people who have struggled to achieve in mainstream schools, many of whom find themselves NEET—not in education, employment or training.
NCH advocates—and I agree—that we need to pay attention to the educational aspects in this Bill. I shall be seeking clarification about the responsibility and greater support, financial and otherwise, for those leaving care to pursue apprenticeships and training. I also take this opportunity to say how much I agree with NCH that preventive systems, while not requiring legislation, are vital to keeping children out of care, as is support for those families who are struggling, as the noble Baronesses, Lady Morris and Lady Walmsley, have mentioned.
For too long, children in care have been let down by the state. This legislation, along with other measures set out in Care Matters, offers a real opportunity to deliver much needed changes to the care system. These reforms must improve the quality and experience of those who enter the care system. Both the legislation and the implementation plans must realise the radical reforms to the system set out in the Care Matters White Paper.
I have a few comments and detailed questions about the Bill. It is important that the proposals in Part 1 for independent social care practices—SCPs—stem from a desire to tackle many of the perceived weaknesses of the current social work system by placing the needs of children at the centre of all that it does. While there may be potential benefits of SCPs, we must acknowledge that change does not always bring better outcomes. I share some of the concerns expressed by the Local Government Association about the development of SCPs. For example, SCPs may restrict a local authority’s flexibility in allocating resources and introduce yet another layer of bureaucracy to the system. Furthermore, there is no evidence that SCPs will resolve the issues of recruiting and retaining social workers or for this model being better than empowering foster carers or key workers in children’s homes, who are already much closer to the children and young people. The solution, which is important—it has already been mentioned today, as well as in many of the briefings that we have received—seems to be for this idea to be closely tested, with the roles and relationships clearly defined in unambiguously outlined boundaries and goals.
Part 2 of the Bill addresses care plans and how they can best be implemented. We know that children and young people enter the care system from various backgrounds and circumstances. The majority of children in care—62 per cent—are there because they have suffered abuse or neglect, and 42 per cent of children in care return home within six months. Thus—and I am glad that the Bill acknowledges this—the care plan and its implementation are crucial to meeting the individual needs of each child.
Clause 8 imposes a new duty on local authorities to place children in accommodation that is within their own local authority area except where accommodation consistent with the child’s welfare cannot be provided. In placement decisions, the welfare of the child should of course come first; the reassurances given by the Government that this will be the case are welcome. However, it is important that there is not a disincentive for local authorities to keep a child within their own local authority area when their needs could be best met accessing provisions such as specialist education in another authority. In addition, new subsection (7C) inserted by Clause 8(2) states:
“Where a local authority provide within their area accommodation for a child whom they are looking after, they shall secure that (where the child is not accommodated in his home) the accommodation provided is near his home”.
I would like further clarification of what is meant by “near”.
Clause 9 builds on the requirements set out in the Children Act 2004, placing a duty on local authorities to give,
“particular attention to the educational implications of any decision about the welfare of”,
any child whom they are looking after. It expects that care placement decisions should not normally mean that a child has to change school unless it is for the child’s welfare and that any school change should normally come about due to educational needs. In addition, this clause places a new requirement for children in school years 10 and 11: the circumstances must be exceptional to justify a care placement that is not near the child’s school. I support the strengthening of the duty on local authorities on placement stability when looked-after children are studying for their GCSEs or equivalent qualifications. However, should not this duty also be extended to cover other critical periods of a child’s education? Those of us who are parents know that, in particular, transition from primary to secondary schools is a time of great stress and importance in a child’s education.
I welcome the extension of the group of looked-after children for whom the independent person must be appointed to visit, befriend and advise. I agree with NCH’s view on this. It runs a number of independent visitor programmes working with more than 20 local authorities and, in its experience, independent visitors are a good idea. It is keen to see them promoted and revitalised. However, it makes the important point that many young people do not want their independent visitor to be their advocate because they do not want them to know more information about them than they are prepared to share. In addition, many independent visitors work full time and the extra responsibility could be enough to dissuade them from volunteering, so the separation in the roles and functions must remain within these reforms.
Finally, I turn to education and training. Clause 17 requires the governing body of a school to designate a member of staff to have the responsibility of promoting the educational achievement of looked-after children who are registered pupils of the school. Having a designated member of staff in each school has the potential to ensure that children in care have access to the educational support that they need. I would like the Government to clarify that the designated member of staff will be a teacher. In addition, for this position to make a difference, the member of staff must have the ability to ensure that any recommendation is implemented by the school, so resources and training should be available to the designated member of staff to effectively discharge the responsibilities.
Clause 18 adds a duty on local authorities to pay a fixed sum to former relevant children who go on to pursue a course of higher education. Regulations will set out the amount, which will be exempt from income tax. This measure will make a difference to former relevant children who enter higher education. Such support should not be restricted to higher education and financial support should also be made available for further education provision. This is of particular importance because 30 per cent of care leavers aged 19 are not in education, employment or training. Indeed, I will be pressing the Government on why these resources are not going to be made available to young people in further education, apprenticeships and vocational training. I seek assurance that there will be a link and a read-across to the forthcoming Education and Skills Bill and its proposal to raise the age of participation in education or training from 16 to 18. What support will children in care need to achieve the new goals that the Government are setting? The Minister is almost certainly in the best possible position to ensure that this necessary joining-up takes place.
Clause 20 enables local authorities to appoint personal advisers for certain groups of young people up to the age of 25 and to give assistance with expenses incurred through education or training up to the age of 25. I welcome these proposals, but they will not necessarily guarantee that young care leavers get the level of support that they need. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, I would like to see statutory transition status for young care leavers entitling them to priority access to mainstream services and continued help from the local authority. When compared with their peers on almost any measure, people who have been in care come out severely disadvantaged. They continue to have educational outcomes way below their peers; they are disproportionately represented in the NEET group; they have a higher incidence of substance abuse and mental health issues; and they find themselves locked up in young offender institutions more frequently than their peers. They come into care as a most vulnerable group and they leave care to start their adult lives in an equally disadvantaged position.
Some progress has clearly been made since the implementation of the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000, but still too many young people are leaving care at too young an age with insufficient preparation. In 2006—four years after the Act came into force— 21 per cent of young people had left care by the age of 17 and only 1 per cent remained in care beyond their 18th birthday. Apart from anything else, what does that say about the experiences that they were having? The average age for leaving home in the UK has now risen to 23 or 24—those of us who are parents know that that age will probably rise—and most young people will continue to have the support of their family well beyond that age. Young people leaving care have the right to ongoing support from their corporate parent.
This is an opportunity to make improvements in the lives of these children and young people and to enhance their life chances. The generational aspects, the tragic costs to individual lives and the cost to society make not succeeding a price too high to pay. We have to get it right this time. I look forward to working on the Bill with noble Lords.
My Lords, by way of declaration of interest, I should say that my first job as a social worker after training was as a family case worker and my second was as a childcare officer in the London Borough of Lambeth children's department. Ever since, I have worked with children and families in one form or another, including in regulation, and now as deputy chair of CAFCASS. I have known children in care—some throughout their lives, others for brief episodes.
All that the Government are aspiring to do in the Bill is to be welcomed and is laudable. It may be my long experience or a bad cold that makes me bring to this debate a little less cosiness in my welcome. I ask myself why many of the things aspired to in the Bill have not already been achieved under the legislation that we have had since 1948—certainly since the preventive Act of 1963. Why have we not yet reached the Government’s aims of giving children and young people in trouble a better chance?
At the moment, I remain deeply pessimistic about outcomes being achieved by legislation. Of course, there has been much progress and, like the noble Baronesses opposite, I commend social workers who work in the field, especially those who work in residential care with many of those young people. When I was an assistant director of social services, I had 1,400 children in my care, so times have certainly changed and there is improvement. What could have been achieved by other things not needing legislation is the right practice, training, resources and focus. Perhaps the Minister is trying to bring focus through the Bill. What more is there in local authorities to ensure that all that comes together in future? We have spent a long time talking about partnerships and working together. Do we really need more bureaucracy and more legislation?
Take, for example, Part 1, enabling powers for social work practice pilots. The Government should not underestimate the complexities of managing private provider contracts—I speak from experience both as a provider of services struggling with local authorities to achieve decent contracts and as a user in CAFCASS, where we manage a large body of private social workers providing the services of court officers and guardians. Achieving contracts of enough length to enable the contractors to give quality while keeping costs at a proper level is a delicate balance. We know that CAFCASS was partly created because the costs in local authorities had become out of control. Local authorities need to ensure value for money, but often in the contracting culture that has led to short-termism and has seen costs driven down to a level where decent providers—often in the voluntary sector—have moved out of the market. How many voluntary childcare providers remain in the residential field?
Maybe those are the issues that the so-called pilots will consider, but we already have a mass of evidence in childcare and know what is needed now. My main concern about the pilots—this does not mean that I do not think that we should move ahead with them, but there are huge issues—is that they will divert local authorities generally from continuing the huge push that we need in every local authority for better social work care of every child in care. We know well that that can be achieved anyway. The noble Baroness talked about the NCH and the kind of social work provision that it has been able to provide through one of its projects.
Certainly, continuity is vital for children and young people. We know from the large body of research into child development, from listening to the youngsters themselves, and from the Children’s Commissioner, the Children’s Rights Director, the Children’s Society and many others how strongly young people feel about this. Work needs to be done on this in every local authority now, without the diversion of any further restructuring.
There are exciting glimpses in the Bill of the Government listening to children and reflecting this in the legislation. I am delighted that in Clause 14 a child has a clear say about who should be their independent visitor. Although many children and young people benefit from the emphasis of a placement with family and friends, I will look to the Minister to add the phrase, “taking into account the child’s wishes and feelings”. I deal with many families with whom children would rather not be placed, and they have a right to say so, just as they have a right to say whether they want to keep their kinship placement.
It would of course be easier if children in care had the right to an advocate to help them to voice their concerns, and I am sure that others will speak more on this. The charity Voice is looking at what this might cost, but the chief executive, John Kemmis, says that although it may be expensive, getting it wrong is costing an absolute fortune. We know that many of these children, who have not been able to voice their concerns, end up in extraordinarily expensive placements in another system—the criminal justice system.
Among my concerns about the Bill is my belief that it lacks the wider strategic vision of the wider Every Child Matters agenda. These children are not one similar set. There are huge variations, some of which have been outlined by other noble Lords this afternoon. Almost half of them will return home within six months, some only to be reaccommodated, so what counts is what goes on around rehabilitation and prevention. Social workers complain continually—this is due partly to the turnover—of having no time to work with families to prevent a care episode. Of course some children will need to go into care for their own protection, and for them the right placement is crucial. The suggested family payments are welcome, but where the child needs a foster carer, I ask the Minister to say what he thinks of the 17 local authorities in England that continue to pay below the national minimum standards. The Fostering Network reports that foster carers continue to dip into their own pockets to subsidise the state or let their foster child go without, which of course they seldom do. Do we really need a Bill to do something about that? How does this square with the extra revenue which the Minister mentioned in his introduction?
For many children and young people, there are complex social, educational and emotional needs, to which my noble friend Lord Rix referred. Here I declare a further interest as chair of the charity Grooms-Shaftesbury, which cares for people with complex needs. I have also been briefed by the Children’s Services Development Group, which provides specialist education and care services for users, so I shall not repeat the issue of children who have 52-week care but who do not get the kind of care that another child would get on a two-day visit. We should remember that 27 per cent of looked-after children have a statement of special educational needs, compared with 3 per cent in the general population. Sometimes I am really concerned about the target that we set for GCSEs. For many of these children—I met a number of them last week—learning is to eat, to say a basic sentence, and to achieve control. Getting anything like a GCSE is not a remote possibility, but they can achieve with different targets. As has already been said, Clauses 8 and 9 could pose a real threat to children who need a specialist package, and I shall look in Committee for reassurance that the Bill does not result in children and young people having restricted access to the specialist care service that they need. The noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Bolton, put it absolutely clearly when she said that the placement should meet the child’s needs, and that there should be no other considerations. We know only too well—I have been a director of social services and have been faced with this issue—how easy it is for cost to become the driver.
I have time for only one further point. The provisions around education and training are to be welcomed, especially further assistance to pursue education or training up to the age of 25. As has been said, these provisions will be for the more able young people—to whom, yes, we want to give every encouragement. But could we not extend the transition stage to others? For example, the transition stage for children in long-term care could be extended until well into their 20s. In particular, those who face greater difficulties, find employment a problem, have mental health issues and find new relationships hard need more support and independent living projects. These are the youngsters who we find in prisons and mental institutions when we have failed them.
I am struggling to get through my speech because of a few germs—perhaps they are making me feel so jaundiced about the Bill. Perhaps in Committee we will make it better. The most important thing about this Bill is that it must be a wake-up call for everyone responsible in some way for a child in care. Ultimately, it is not the legislation that will make the difference, but the implementation. This Bill may be considered a triumph of ideology over realism; we should work to make the ideology real for every child in care.
My Lords, I shall not detain your Lordships for long. Coming into bat at number nine, some good innings already have been played and, certainly, many of the best shots that I had in my armoury have been executed. I do not think that it serves anyone’s purposes for me simply to repeat what has been said. I must express delight at feeling part of a debate on an issue where in broad terms we are all in agreement. We all want to travel in the direction that this Bill sets, which seems to me to be a wonderful experience. In the short time I have been in your Lordships' House, I have experienced occasions when it has been somewhat different, much more adversarial and contentious.
I am not an expert in the making of policy, nor in the provision of services. I am a Methodist minister and for 40 years I have had the pastoral care of people with children in care, or have been alongside foster parents trying to deal with very difficult and problematical cases that have come their way and have needed all the support that they can get. My awareness of the problem comes from on-the-street experience that will be much more anecdotal than statistical or general.
It is a great need, and it is to be welcomed that we are moving towards finding a solution. It is perhaps appropriate to be said at Second Reading that the task before us is to stretch a good Bill—even a cold from which I am suffering cannot prevent me recognising that it is a good Bill—as far as possible to make it a better Bill and the best we can manage in the circumstances. The good will that has been expressed may have some positive outcomes. In the Minister we have someone whose ears are available for picking up the signals that we wish to give him.
Many statistics have been rehearsed and I do not want to go through them again. However, the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, said that 66 per cent of those who have been in care produce children who end up in care, which seems to institutionalise the need, and the cycle must be broken. That is why I simply want to make remarks about the two areas where special attention needs to be given. One falls outside the scope of the Bill, yet for all that it is terrifically important in the name of joined-up legislation and provision to make allusion to it. It is, of course, the question of prevention. It would be better to do all we can to see to it that the figure of 60,000 children in care was much reduced. Not only would it be less costly, but it would be more wholesome and, by breaking the cycle which simply repeats from one generation to another, the instance of children needing to be put in care would be lower and we would be doing ourselves a favour—prevention is the thing.
I find that many of us have the same briefing papers, and indeed some of the lines I have heard offered in the debate are ones that were going to be my purple patches. But I want to pluck from one paper some very simple statistics. When the NCH got involved with Plymouth Family Support Services, 94 per cent of the young people referred did not enter the care system. When in Tower Hamlets, which is much closer to my home, 33 families were offered similar intervention and support, 88 per cent of the young people remained with their families. Again, 15 families in Glamorgan had their cases recorded and not one child in a period of nine months ended up in care. Of course, some of those children might not have gone into care anyway—we understand that—but we have to admit the possibility that adequate intervention and good family support systems are likely to result in less of a problem to manage. That, alongside the provisions on care in this Bill, has to be within our purview at the same time.
The second area I want to allude to is that of education, and the Bill is very strong on it. Education empowers and gives people a sense of their own self-worth. We have to learn again how to deliver education—I could go on at some length about that; the demotivation of children who are not in care is very considerable in our educational system—and particularly how to create a system in which well motivated children are taught well and have the best brought out of them. People given a good education find that empowerment and self-worth are the inevitable consequences, and the child himself or herself finds the focused energy that takes them out of the vicious cycle I referred to earlier. That is why I wish that the special provision to provide stability in care during the GCSE years could be extended. I concede that those are crucial years, but would it not be good if it were possible to provide such stability throughout the secondary years, or indeed throughout a child’s educational career in toto? We must do our best in this area.
However, we envisage that children in care might go to university, and that we should do something to help them. The mere admission of that possibility is welcome, but why not also provide help for further education and apprenticeships? After all, some 30 per cent of care leavers at 19 are not in education, employment or training. Some extra help to get them out of the holes they are in would be very welcome.
A lot has been said about independent advocates for children, and about the fact that independent reviewing officers are not independent of the local authority. My noble friend Lord Judd never speaks without passion, especially about children in prison. Whether they are asylum seekers or not, their childhood is being denied them. I would certainly like to see how the Bill envisages offering similar support when Her Majesty’s Government are the custodian and carer. What special measures might be envisaged for children in custody or secure training centres?
All we can do is stir the waters. I have enjoyed the debate thus far and I look forward to a fruitful and positive debate that will make what is a good beginning into something that we can all live with and think, “This was the moment we did not miss”.
My Lords, I am delighted to follow the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, because I was rather depressed after having listened to my noble friend Lady Howarth of Breckland. Although she has a point, I certainly am among those who thoroughly welcome the Bill and see in it tremendous possibilities for the future, particularly for the wide range of children for whom we need to do more, including through the education system. The Government richly deserve our thanks for at last attempting to tackle a situation which, over the years, has become a national disgrace. It says it all that our most vulnerable and damaged young people, being so-called looked after by the state, should end up five times less likely than their contemporaries to achieve five good GCSEs, and that 30 per cent of care leavers at 19 years old are not in education, training or employment compared, as we have heard, with 13 per cent of all young people.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, has already said, there is one other person in your Lordships’ House who deserves special mention, and that is my noble friend Lord Listowel. He has relentlessly brought the inadequacies of provision for looked-after children to your Lordships’ attention, and at last his persistence has paid off. I congratulate him.
But, of course, inevitably now that the Bill is before us, we want to see even more achieved. The many voluntary children’s organisations that have championed children’s issues over the years—Barnardo’s, the Children’s Society, the BAAF, the NSPCC and others—all of whom have done so much, have been busy briefing noble Lords, so it is clear that we shall have lively Committee and Report stages exploring exact meanings and no doubt attempting to persuade the Government to add other responsibilities to the Bill.
Much of what the Bill aims to achieve has already been scrutinised in the debate, and indeed issues such as inadequate mental health provision, which my noble friend Lady Meacher so effectively brought to the forefront, are going to arise again as we go through the later stages. The pilots of social work practice are quite controversial and echo certain activities in other fields. I have put this down as an idea from the noble Lord, Lord Carter of Coles. It will be interesting to see what happens as we debate them. However, I hope that noble Lords will forgive a certain amount of repetition on one or two aspects of the Bill that I want to mention.
The first of these is the need on occasion for independent advocacy to be available for a child in care, and not least if Article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is to be complied with. I hope that the Minister will explain how the Government intend a child’s views on the plans for his or her future are to be taken into account in ways that are not in breach of the article if this service is not to be available. As the NSPCC points out, children in care are typically not consulted about key decisions affecting their lives. An independent advocate would ensure that they may have,
“a right to challenge decisions being taken on their behalf”.
Set out in Clause 11 is the important strengthening and expansion of independent reviewing officers. Certainly there is some question about how independent a particular local authority’s IRO should be, a point to which the noble Lord, Lord Judd, has already drawn attention. Contrary to the briefing from the Local Government Association, the Children’s Rights Alliance for England believes that such an IRO would be more effective if they were trained, experienced and independent of the local authority concerned. The officer would be able to give an objective view of the child’s position. I hope that in his summing up the Minister will say more about what steps will be taken to achieve the possibilities that this envisages. Certainly we will need to debate the matter further in Committee.
Almost everything that I have read, and certainly the Barnardo’s briefing, favours the emphasis that the Bill places on looked-after children being placed with family—grandparents, for example—or with friends, as evidence shows that these can often provide the best possible placements for individual children. It is surely self-evident, too, that siblings should be placed together wherever humanly possible.
It is important that there is an assurance of adequate support, both financial and practical, for these carers. It would be helpful if the Minister could give more details of how this is to be supported in practical ways. It should be adequately financed and not subjected to postcode lotteries, as has happened in the past. The Minister will understand that one is saying this at a time when we all know that funds are short. We therefore need particular reassurance here.
The importance of arranging and facilitating adequate visiting by family and siblings if a looked-after child is in a residential or foster home is also emphasised. No fewer than 83 per cent of those surveyed by A National Voice stressed that they wanted to see more of their siblings.
The emphasis of the Bill is also, rightly, on far greater stability within a looked-after child’s education. Some children’s needs or abilities may well mean that they have to be placed outside a local authority area, and I like the flexibility in the Bill which would allow for that to happen if it was the best answer. However, the absurd and totally counterproductive number of times the average looked-after child is moved from school to school should, as a result of all this, become a matter of history. The two particular milestones that I applaud are, first, that there should be no moves during GCSE years 10 and 11—the more stable it is across the whole time the better, but certainly during those two years—and, secondly, the statutory role of a designated teacher. I hope, too—indeed, I thought this already existed—that a school governor will, as a matter of routine, be encouraged to keep a discreet eye on progress.
A more sensible transition to independent living than has existed in the past will also be vital. Given that most young people today stay until their mid-20s in their parents’ home, as other noble Lords have said, the leaving-care process needs at least the flexibility and extended financial support that the Bill envisages. I would like even more than that. Clearly the ability to stay with foster or other carers between the ages of 18 and 21 is important. It also makes sense to have appropriate advice and mentoring available on what further education, training or employment needs to take place. Barnardo's would also like to explore a transitional status for care leavers up to the age of 25. This, again, has been mentioned and I could not support it more. It is an important suggestion.
This brings me to my final point. We must hope that these measures will go some way towards ensuring that looked-after children are helped, supported and guided into an adult life which is fulfilling for them as well as those who have helped to raise them, and productive for the UK economy. The worrying fact, as Barnardo's points out, is that children in care are overrepresented in the secure estate. No fewer than half of children in custody will have had some care experience. I again draw attention to the quite horrendous figure that 66 per cent of those who have been looked after in the past go on to have their own children taken into care. How great a failing is that as an indication of what we have not achieved?
It is disturbing that some of the recommendations outlined in the Care Matters Green Paper applying to children in care who are taken into custody have been watered down so that they only apparently have to be visited by a local authority. I find this worrying, as clearly do Barnardo’s and the Children’s Society, because the local authorities apparently behave as though their care placement is ended and that their case will no longer even be open to oversight by a child and family social worker. Frankly, anything more likely than this to lead to repeated offending behaviour is hard to envisage.
Looked-after children who end up in custody will need doubly extra support, certainly not withdrawal of the necessary plans the Government have included in the Bill to radically improve their life chances. It is not only that we want looked-after children to lead fulfilling, worthwhile and economically useful lives, important though that is; it is also the practical, hard-headed knowledge that if we fail with these children then the financial cost will be huge as they work their way through the penal system, reoffending regularly, at something like a basic financial cost of £50,000 a year—and that is a fairly superficial figure. If the fears of Barnardo’s are even remotely justified, can the Government please look urgently at this whole area again?
The most important foundation for future policy, in my view, is to understand that for those in care whom we have continued to fail and who end up in custody, even greater efforts must be made. We have to do our best to ensure that they, above all, do not return to the treadmill of repeated reoffending.
My Lords, in the context of the Bill I will say something about adoption and then look at fostering in rather more detail.
The previous Prime Minister had a sudden enthusiasm for adoption, but I do not think that changed things very much. Many suitable families wish to adopt but, because our procedures are so bureaucratic and so slow, some families are driven to seek foreign children to adopt. It would benefit our babies and adopting parents if approved adopters could do so from the moment of birth, as is possible in the United States, for example. This ensures continuity of care from the start and is likely to help with bonding. At present in this country adopters seldom receive an infant until it has reached the age of one or even more.
I hope that the Bill provides a way forward in Clause 2(2)(b), which I take to mean that local authorities will be able to devolve their adoption work to registered adoption societies, of which there are quite a few. If this is not the Government’s intention, or if it will not have the effect I seek, I urge the Minister to say so. If adoption can begin from birth, I suggest that it will increase the total number of adoptions and thereby slightly decrease the number of abortions.
I turn now to fostering. I have said before, and I do not hesitate to repeat it, that foster parents stand in the very front line of social care. The majority of children in the care of local authorities are fostered. Stable, lasting foster placements are worth their weight in gold. Of course some will be only short term until natural parents or family members can resume care; others, on the other hand, may last for years. At all times there has to be a sufficient pool of competent foster parents so that children do not have to be placed in institutional homes. Staff there usually have to work in shifts, they do not always have parenting experience and many may be poorly trained. Foster parents can, above all, provide continuity of affection and love. I therefore welcome all that the Minister said about stability.
In order to have the right kind of fosterers, and enough of them, it is essential to provide adequate remuneration. As your Lordships will know, remuneration comes in two parts: allowances and fees. The former should cover the full cost of keeping and maintaining the child while fees reward the work done and the skills and experience of the foster parents. Fees should continue to be paid while fosterers are on standby waiting for the next child to arrive. Remuneration in fact varies considerably between authorities, and between them and the agencies involved in fostering. That is why I welcome the recent national minimum standards for rewarding foster carers.
Good remuneration is obviously important but it is not everything. Foster parents may need initial training, plus in-service training and support. Practical support and respite help or care are especially necessary when the foster child or children are disturbed, educationally subnormal or suffering mental or physical disabilities. In all cases, including the most difficult ones, stable placements must be the goal. Placements that break down lead to the saddest consequences for the children involved.
We all know that children, especially those with troubled histories, can be terrible liars and deeply manipulative. That is why it is essential to have effective procedures for dealing with allegations against foster parents. Such allegations may often be malicious or ill-founded. Surveys have found that around one-third of foster carers will have to face an allegation while they are on the job. They therefore deserve just as good protection as that provided for teachers and social workers. There is evidence that allegations are not being resolved as rapidly as official guidance requires. Foster carers are losing money unnecessarily and are not receiving the independent support they need until the allegation is resolved. How do the Government and local authorities propose to improve these matters in accordance with the Working Together document?
I welcome the new provisions in Clauses 12 and 14 for independent reviewing officers and independent visitors for each child. However, how can the reviewing officers be truly independent if they are also officers of the local authority in question? How is the Secretary of State likely to exercise his proposed powers under Clause 12? I suggest that the first reviewers and visitors should start work on the classes of children who are most at risk: those who are privately fostered, and those who come into care as known or suspected subjects of trafficking. The latter group is at severe risk of disappearing. To these groups, one should add children who have previously run away from care.
I agree with what the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, was saying about notification of private foster placements under the 2004 Act. We need to raise public awareness of this issue, if only because it can be a cover-up for child trafficking and because it can land children in situations of domestic slavery without anyone knowing. For that reason, teachers, health visitors, doctors and others who know of private fostering should check that they have in fact been notified. Once again, the best interests of the child should prevail. How does the Minister expect the situation to be improved?
The history of children in care in this country is hardly an encouraging one. Their education results have been poor, as we have heard, and they provide a sadly high proportion of subsequent offenders and prisoners. If the Bill improves standards in both adoption and fostering, and if it means that best practice is followed everywhere, that will be real progress. It seems that the Minister and the Secretary of State have already convinced the Treasury to produce extra funds, but I urge them to go on arguing that investment in childcare will be repaid by savings in criminal justice and prisons.
My Lords, I apologise for being absent from the Chamber for so long earlier. As chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Children, I had to chair a meeting with Ed Balls, the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families. I am sorry that so many of your Lordships who would normally have been there could not make it due to your duties in your Lordships’ Chamber. I realise that I will have missed many interesting contributions, which I shall read carefully tomorrow.
I welcome the Bill as one of a number of initiatives to improve the lives of children. We have had several Bills and policies affecting children, and a children plan is imminent. All children deserve a good deal. The Prime Minister has shown consistent support for children, and it is gratifying to see in the Comprehensive Spending Review PSA targets on child poverty, educational achievement, health, well-being and achievement, all in line with the Every Child Matters agenda. I am delighted that the responsibility for young people in the youth justice system is now with the Department for Children, Schools and Families. I shall say more about that in a moment.
The Bill has been broadly welcomed by organisations that care deeply about children and I thank them for their informed briefings. However, there are still some principles and details to work out and I look forward to dialogues with interested colleagues, organisations and the Minister during the course of the Bill in your Lordships’ House. I think we can and will improve it.
While the Bill focuses on children in care, it gives scope to include children on the edge of care and other vulnerable children. Much of what the Minister said in his opening remarks should apply to all children; for example, a first-class system of public care, good parenting, legal and moral responsibilities, strong corporate parenting and listening to the voice of the child. In my contribution today I shall focus on children and young people in the youth justice system as well as on young carers and children who are looked after by grandparents. In a sense, all children are in care—the care of our society—and we sometimes fail them.
Services for all children should be based on certain precepts—for example, having regard to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child; the Children Act 2004; incorporating the five outcomes of Every Child Matters; providing a firm, loving base for all children; consulting children and young people; having well trained and committed professionals; assessing the needs of a young person if he or she comes into contact with public services; and initiating an appropriate path of care with a dedicated mentor. The young person should be at the centre of care, with systems and structures kept flexible and integrated. If we kept such principles to the fore, legislation, as well as services and children, would benefit. The Bill, linked with other Bills and policies, could improve on the working of systems to benefit children.
The issue of young carers was highlighted in the Sunday Times yesterday. This issue has been around for a long time. Many young carers do brilliantly in school and beyond; however, many others are severely stretched by the demands made on them. It is little wonder that they sometimes find doing homework on time difficult and sometimes miss school. Surely they, too, deserve special attention in school and society, such as if they had a designated teacher. Philippa Russell, known and respected for her work with children who have disabilities and now working with Ivan Lewis on a commission on carers, said in an interview recently that young carers should be given consideration. I hope they will be. They have specific needs, which should be part of any consideration of young people’s welfare and young people who deserve special care.
I shall expand on a topic that my noble friend Lord Griffiths and the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, and perhaps others, have referred to: young people in the youth justice system. As we know, many young people in the youth justice system have been in care. I maintain that they are still in care, in care of society, while in custody. Some may have done terrible things, and society must be protected, but they are damaged children. They often have chronic health and educational needs. Reoffending rates among young people stand at around 76 per cent, which is a diabolical figure. We are not rehabilitating them; we are increasing distress for them and society. An article on the health needs of children in prison, by two child health specialists, Gould and Payne, states:
“Since 1997, there has been a Health Promoting Prisons Award. Could any prison be considered to be a health promoting environment, while children are not protected from violence, can be held in solitary confinement, and can be restrained using the same methods as those used for adults?”
The article goes on to state that a period in detention is an opportunity to assess and treat problems. That is of course true, but so often it is not.
I was interested to read a recent speech made by Ed Balls to the Youth Justice Board’s annual conference. He clearly recognises the need to make more progress and identified means to do so. I quote one telling passage:
“I can announce today that we will now consult on whether and how local authorities should lead on education and training for young people in custody. This would mean that for the first time, young offenders will be given the right level of education and training consistent with the experiences of their peers outside the youth justice system”.
Would that that could happen.
Next spring, a health and social care strategy for children and young people in contact with the youth justice system will be published. Health and education are vital for children in care, including young offenders. Measures should be applied to young people, post-18, with a clear pathway of development supported by an individual mentor. Individual mentors have been mentioned several times; they are very important. We should incorporate some of those concerns in the Bill.
As the Minister said earlier, many children want to be looked after by relative carers. Some improvements in this area are suggested in the Bill, but we still need more clarification and strengthening. I turn to grandparents who look after their grandchildren because their own child is in prison, dead, or addicted to drugs or alcohol. An estimated 200,000 grandparents in the UK have their grandchildren living with them. I meet many such grandparents during the course of my work as chair of the National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse. Reports from the Department of Health and the Family Rights Group point out that financial sacrifices on the part of these grandparents are common, and that current arrangements for receiving support are unco-ordinated, complex and confusing. They get nothing like the support enjoyed by foster parents. One grandparent said:
“The various children's services need to link together. Our experience is that as carers the onus is on us to search out and even bring together those agencies which should collaborate and support our grandson”.
The report, Care Matters, talks about children on the edge of care. Supporting grandparents could mean that fewer children end up in care, and keeping children out of care will almost always have positive results. Grandparents as carers are mentioned in the Bill, but we need to tease out some of the problematic issues, such as differences between local authority support and the complexity of systems for cash payments, tax credit, residence orders and special guardianship orders.
I have briefly discussed three issues which could usefully be explored in the Bill. I have not attempted to dissect the Bill in any way; that will come later. As I have said, the issues are not for one Bill or policy alone, and obvious links and cross-references need to be made. I look forward to interesting times in Committee and to the Minister’s response today.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, for highlighting those important points about criminal justice and young people, and for her chairmanship of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Children, which is very much appreciated by other Members.
I was shocked recently to learn from a briefing that we incarcerate more children than do several of our neighbouring countries combined. When the noble Lord, Lord Warner, was chair of the Youth Justice Board, he always used to say, “We are trying to improve conditions for children in the secure estate, but it is as if one is chasing a bus: each time one moves a little forward, it pulls away further”. Professor Morgan, who was until recently the chair of the Youth Justice Board, had very much the same experience. We continue to have rising numbers of children in custody, as we have had for many years.
I am most grateful to the Minister for laying out the Bill with his customary clarity. He has been a champion for the education of looked-after children. I hope that we may hear news of his important work in increasing the use of boarding schools for children in these circumstances.
I shall now say something not for your Lordships’ sake, but for those who may be reading the record of this debate. We have been given helpful information on the statistics involved, but we need to bear in mind the fact that very few children who enter care have had any involvement with the criminal justice system beforehand. Sixty per cent of them have had experience of abuse and a significant further number have seen family breakdown. Many end up in the criminal justice system, but we must remember that by far the majority of young people leaving care do not go down that route.
I was grateful to my noble friend Lady Howe of Idlicote and the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, for their kind words. In this House, our praises are our wages, so I value what they said, although I wish their praise were better deserved. The noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, was sad not to be able to be present today, because of a long-standing engagement, but he will want to table amendments to the Bill that make supervision of those for whom a social worker is responsible a statutory duty throughout the period when a young person is in custody. That would include taking part in case conferences and making suitable arrangements for accommodation and release.
As vice-chair of the Associate Parliamentary Group for Children and Young People In and Leaving Care and a patron of the children’s advocacy service, Voice, I warmly welcome this Bill. It had a careful gestation and there is much in it of which the Government can justly be proud. However, there is also room for improvement and I trust that we may be permitted to assist in that. Furthermore, I regret to say that there is the significant omission of a promise made in the White Paper, which I considered to be its most important offer. We were promised a,
“statutory duty on local authorities to secure a sufficient and diverse provision of quality placements within the local authority area”.
It is clear from the Bill’s impact assessment that the resources that are to come with the Bill will not be sufficient to ensure a long-term, stable framework for children in public care. That might come only with the duty that was promised. I accept the caveat of my noble friend Lady Howarth of Breckland, that legislation often disappoints, but if a duty is put on local authorities to provide sufficient placements, that at least puts some obligation on the Government to fund them. If there are not enough placements, one young person will continue to be pushed out of care prematurely to make room for the next. This obligation is fundamental to the success of Clauses 8 and 9. Good-quality local placements will often be more expensive, because most of the children concerned will be from metropolitan areas. Cheaper distant placements in the country will be less of an option.
At Second Reading, it is right to speak of principles, which need to be understood by reference to the history of public care. The Minister is a historian. I hope that he will forgive my reductive and tentative narrative and correct me where I am wrong—if not now, perhaps later.
From 1979 there was a recognition that the state had promised what it could not deliver and should not be expected to deliver. For many people it had created a culture of dependency. There followed a rolling-back of the state, an essential liberalisation that revived the economy. However, at the high point, it came to seem as if sometimes there was no such thing as society. Critical responsibility for the elderly and for children and families passed more and more from central government to local authorities, which often had neither the resources nor the expert leadership to care for the most vulnerable. Their first priority, understandably, were their electorates, whose own first priorities were neither foster care nor social work. There was a wasting away of services or a failure to develop them adequately.
The most vulnerable in society above all need a personal, enduring commitment from their carers. The noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Bolton, called it a trusting relationship over time—correctly, in my view. Their carers, professional or otherwise, require an equal commitment from society. It has been likened to a set of Russian dolls: a child cradled in a foster carer, in a social worker, in a local authority, in education and health services, in the Government, and in the taxpayer and elector. That commitment broke down. A child in residential care was pinned down in punishment. A foster carer with no experience was given a child with a long history of neglect, very difficult to manage. A social worker was given a case load of 19 and a child died after months of torture. A child had 50 different placements. A young person had 15 different social workers. Regulation, inspection and bureaucracy ensued following these avoidable failures. These reactive measures incurred further costs and made caring more unattractive. The vacancy rate for social workers in London went up to 20 per cent.
The Government have made serious attempts to address these decades of neglect, but we must remember the history and the challenge that are faced in addressing this. The Bill provides the opportunity further to rebalance the equation that increasingly disfavoured children in need and at risk in the last decades of the last millennium. This Bill provides the opportunity for central government to move closer to taking their share of responsibility with local government.
There is a hole in the Bill: the impact assessment does not account for the cost of local authorities securing a range of suitable placements for children in public care, nor is there the promised provision in the Bill. Only if the Government place such an obligation on local authorities will there be the funding and only then can we be sure that children will not be edged out before they are 18 or 21. Without the required number of placements, we cannot be sure of children staying near their schools. Three years ago, the chief inspector of the Commission for Social Care Inspection said that 40 per cent of children were in inappropriate placements. BAAF identifies a shortage of 8,000 foster carers in England alone.
The Minister has spoken of resources and he may reply by saying that Her Majesty’s Government have increased annual spending on looked-after children from £1.3 billion to £1.9 billion per annum, with only small improvements in outcomes for those children. I remind him of the second joint chief inspectors’ report into provision for safeguarding children, which we debated two years ago. The chief inspectors found that lack of resources resulted in thresholds of intervention being set too high. Consequently, children taken into care in this country have often experienced such trauma that only costly interventions can remedy and we have underestimated that cost. This year, the Commission for Social Care Inspection highlighted that thresholds are still too high, denying many access to services.
My second response to this question of resources and their impact is that until the Government’s White Paper Options for Excellence, which the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, mentioned, we had no strategy for placing or using our investment effectively. It takes years to develop the committed people who can deliver the change that we all want to see. Of course, there are local authorities that do well even under financial constraints, but they often have to work against the grain.
On education, I particularly applaud placing designated teachers on a statutory footing. Many young people in care are worried about schools having information about their care status. At the same time, the school needs to partner the carers and support the child’s personal education plan, so it is vital that there is the expertise to manage this information sensitively. I hope that the concerns raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, can be responded to in Committee. The duty to provide local placements, except when this is against the welfare interest of the child, is welcome. It is right that children should be able to veto moving out of their placement before the age of 18 and, indeed, 21. Given the trauma that many of these young people have experienced, their support needs may well extend beyond 18 and 21. We should be able to accommodate that.
I am concerned at the proposed introduction of pilots for independent social work practices, as many other noble Lords have been. I read with interest Consistent Care Matters: Exploring the Potential of Social Work Practices, which was the product of a distinguished working group. One can see the attraction of a GP-style practice in keeping social workers close to their children. Professor Le Grand recognises that the proposal is controversial—one had the sense of strong doubts even from members of the working group—and that it is not a panacea. However, to be effective it is necessary to concentrate. Her Majesty’s Government already have a strategy for the social care workforce, Options for Excellence, and there is much to do in implementing that. If Her Majesty’s Government have money to spare for pilots, should they not rather invest it in reducing social work case loads? Should they not invest it in building capacity in local government? For instance, the Minister and his civil servants might consider ring-fencing some social work funding. They might seek to trial this with a sympathetic local authority—a controversial step, I know, but we saw how very effective the three-year ring-fenced funding was under the Quality Protects programme. We already offer our schools such ring-fencing.
The Government have made a good start in addressing the needs of the social care workforce and I know that they are renewing their efforts as we speak. Yet I am told that entry to a social work degree course can be gained with three Ds and that a student can complete the degree without one placement in a social services department. We still need to pay foster carers and social workers an amount reflecting the degree of their responsibility. Director of Barnet social services, Paul Fallon, originated the idea of allocating senior members of the local authority with a guardianship role, at a distance, of looked-after children. He reduced his social work vacancies from 33 per cent to 3 per cent in three years. He did this in part by asking himself daily, “What am I doing for my social workers?”. I am worried lest Her Majesty’s Government lose their focus on their main task. I hope that the Minister can reassure me.
A foster carer’s response to the proposal for these practices was that in his local authority there are so many vacancies that two social workers carry the case load of a team of eight. In such circumstances, of course they would leap to join such a practice, but who then would do their work? It seems ill advised to invest funds, the energies of our civil servants and all our attentions on a proposal that seems impractical from the outset. Will not such practices strip social workers from the services around them, creating centres of excellence and deserts in between?
In early years care, I have had voluntary providers tell me that, as soon as they train their staff, those staff leave for the statutory sector. Private prisons tend to recruit the best senior staff whom the statutory sector has developed and then neglect to develop their own front-line staff. In the past, some of the best social workers have left front-line practice, where we need them, for work as guardians in family law, where we also need them, because the working conditions have been so much better. Children’s homes lose their most qualified staff to field social work.
I can see why these practices appear attractive, championing their children against the local authority, but it may be better to ensure that local authorities are obliged to provide, and are resourced by the Government to do so, a sufficient range of appropriate local placements and to concentrate on implementing the established strategy for social care, including its recommendations on case loads, supervision and continual professional development.
I have spoken too long and should like to conclude. We shall have opportunity to look at these other issues in detail in Committee. I look to learn more from the Minister about social work practices. This Bill will do a great deal to improve the lives of children and young people in public care; it will raise their lives on the agenda of local authorities and I applaud the Government for bringing it forward. However, there should be an obligation on local authorities to provide a range of appropriate placements for these children, thereby obliging Her Majesty’s Government to fund such a provision. At the very least, we need a commitment from the Minister that he will press for such a duty in the next Comprehensive Spending Review in three years’ time. There needs to be enabling legislation in this Bill for later regulation. I hope that I am being fair to the Minister. I look forward to working with him on the Bill and hearing his response to this debate.
My Lords, I feel honoured to have been able to listen to the debate. There has been an inspiring unanimity of mind and spirit. It is even more of a pleasure to take part. My name was not on the original speakers list. That was not due to any fault of my own, I assure noble Lords. I telephoned the Whips Office last Monday and was told that my name would be so included, but today found to my surprise and chagrin that it was not, but that it was included in the list for another debate. I do not know whether electronic gremlinry or my Welsh accent was responsible for that, but I am happy to take part in this debate, although I must say that nearly everything that I would have stressed has already been said well and genuinely by many other people. The 13 speakers who preceded me have, in each case, made valuable points. I find myself almost totally in agreement with them and, particularly with my immediate predecessor, the noble Earl, Lord Listowel.
However, I will raise a Cassandra voice, not in any attempt to embarrass the Government, because I believe that they have toiled valiantly in relation to this problem, particularly the Minister, for whom I have immense regard and respect. But there is one reason why this Bill is before the House and that can be summed up in one word: failure. It is the failure of society to be able to narrow the gap between the fortunes of looked-after children and other normal, average children. The Secretary of State used the words “shameful” and “inexcusable” in his foreword to the Green Paper published in October last year. That speaks a great deal of his candour and integrity.
Of course, when one thinks of the background from which these damaged children come—nearly two-thirds of them the victims of abuse or gross neglect—one appreciates that one cannot wave any magic wand to convert their fortunes overnight. Things like that do not happen. On the other hand, we should remind ourselves that there has been a long statutory campaign to try to improve their lot. As a Minister in the Home Office in 1969, I had the privilege of taking the Children and Young Persons Bill through the other place. That dedication was greatly underscored by the Children Act 1989 and it continues. I pay high tribute to the Government for their efforts. However, bearing in mind the changes brought about by the Children Act, has any real narrowing of that gap taken place? I doubt it. It may even be that the gap is now wider. In those circumstances, we need to ask ourselves whether, even with the many progressive and forward-looking ideas in the Bill, the financial commitments, the systems for better training and better organisation, they will come anywhere near to achieving the narrowing of that dreadful gap. To put it another way, will they enable us to drag out of that valley of despair thousands of children who now have theirlives distinguished by being underrepresented in achievement and overrepresented in failure at almost every level?
We must use not only human and financial resources on a lavish and generous level; we must apply a great deal of imagination. The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, referred to the boarding school point. Many noble Lords will have read as I did the report in the Times today of the Royal Wanstead Children's Foundation experiment. A study that took many years found evidence of quite spectacular success in relation to mixing fostering with the boarding of children at school. If this success is anything other than chimerical—and it appears to be solid and substantial—the advantages are enormous. It means that some 2,000 placements in boarding schools are available and that many fosterers who would not otherwise be able to foster the year through will be able to foster through the holidays. It also means that, very often, a great deal of money can be saved—apparently something like half the cost of a placement in a residential children's home.
But far and above that, it shows that over a period of three years, children in that group—95 altogether; a sufficiently wide sample to give significant results—showed themselves to be able not only to equal the educational performance of other children but in many cases to improve on it. If that is the direction, I am sure that I do not need to urge the Minister to give it every possible consideration.
May I mention one or two matters that are absent from the Bill which might have been considered? One is what I call the green-baize-door problem. That was the term used by judges—I was a family judge for many years—to describe the frustration that the court feels when making a care order and knowing that there is practically nothing that the court can do to supervise what happens to the child from that point on. The child goes beyond the green baize door into the care of the local authority. Of course, there is a geometric logicality about all that. Once you have a system that Parliament has endorsed giving authority to certain bodies and you entrust those bodies with carrying out that statutory authority, there is a strong case for saying that you should not be allowed to interfere. That is exactly what this House said some five years ago in a case called Re S, where there was an attempt, as many Members will remember, to bring in a system of starred milestones whereby the court would be able to check now and then to see exactly what was happening. However, the House reached the only decision available in the circumstances and came to the inevitable conclusion that it could not allow it.
The powers of the independent reviewing officer, who is not all that independent if he comes from the local authority, have been strengthened and the officer is given duties in this Bill in addition to those in the 2002 Act. Although that is a valuable function, it does not come anywhere near a court having authority over that child in certain circumstances. It is not a case of not trusting the local authority, but it might be impossible to foresee exactly how sensitively the local authority would be able to act from time to time in relation to that particular child.
I would also have liked to see short-term care orders considered. Under Section 91 of the Children Act 1989, a care order lasts until age 18. In many cases, of course, care orders are operated for a period of only six to eight months. There is a case for the majority of orders to operate until 18. Indeed, there may be a case for them to go beyond that. Be that as it may, there will be many cases where a court is of the view that there are issues that may take a year, two years, perhaps three years at the very most, to resolve. It will say, “We are not going to make interim orders; that would be entirely wrong. That would be delay for delay’s sake, but it would be proper to experiment with a short-term order. That can always be repealed if wrong”.
Lastly, I mention a matter that does not concern care at all, but I suspect that we shall not be reviewing the Children Act 1989 for a very long time and I take this opportunity to mention it. Section 8 of the Act deals with many matters, including contact. We hear so much about contact being denied to parents and very vociferous campaigns in respect of fathers in many cases but we are not told about the hundreds of thousands of parents who have no desire to have contact with their children. I am not sure what exactly can be done, but I would like to see a very great deal of thought given to this matter bearing in mind that contact—as the Convention on the Rights of the Child says—is the human right of the child.
I appreciate that, whatever we do in this Bill, much more money may be needed. I believe that £300 million is earmarked over four years, whereas in 2005-06 the expenditure on children in care was £2.1 billion altogether, so percentage-wise we are not talking of a vast investment. But whatever we do with our very best efforts I have no doubt that there will still be that huge and, indeed, shameful gap between children in care and children who are not in care. It is up to us to use all our ingenuity and commitment in trying to bring about a more equitable situation for the children who are the subject of this legislation.
My Lords, I am indebted to the House for the opportunity to speak briefly on a particular matter. When one is number 15 on the list of speakers, it is always a relief when the main thrust of your speech has not been covered by others. That is why I make this short intervention.
Many noble Lords have talked about the effect which being in care has on the whole of a person’s life. For obvious reasons most noble Lords have focused their attention on 18 to 21 year-olds. I want to go further and talk about the lasting effects of care on former care adults. I am aware that I have previously raised this matter with your Lordships, and I am interested to see that both noble Lords who were Ministers when I did so are sitting on the Government Front Bench. Perhaps that is because access to personal information is not the best subject to raise with the Government at the moment. None the less, it is important.
Former care adults have very limited access to information and their care records. Their care records are governed by the Data Protection Act 1998. Unlike people who were adopted, they do not have a right to access information about themselves. That is because the key information which most former care adults want is the name of their parents and any siblings. Under the legislation and case law—the relevant case law is that of Guskin in the European Court of Human Rights—that information is treated as third-party information. So they are denied official access to the one essential piece of their family story that will enable them to piece together their history and identity. I say that because many of the charities which work in this field long ago recognised the importance of that information to the health and well-being of adults and now have policy whereby they tend to make all information freely available. Many local authorities continue to deny access to adults. That is partly in some cases because of a particular interpretation of the Data Protection Act but in others it is done for another reason that I shall come to in a moment.
Recognising, as we are, the lifetime effects of having been in care, I contend that it is time for the Government to adopt a new policy on this. When we have discussed this matter previously, the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, has fallen back on two arguments. The first is the one I have set out concerning the strict application of the Data Protection Act. The second is the fact that in many cases the information no longer exists because local authorities and social work departments are frequently reorganised. I suggest to the Minister that the fact that the information does not exist is irrelevant because former care adults understand that if they choose to approach an authority many years after they were in care it is entirely possible that their records have been destroyed. But former care adults require sensitivity regarding what has happened to them. While they can accept that the information may be gone and cannot be retrieved, how they are told that varies enormously. In some cases, there is extremely good practice where local authorities run a very full, supportive service for anybody who has been in care where they can access counselling and support. Others do not. It is not unheard of for people simply to receive a letter through the post either giving them very personal information or simply telling them that it no longer exists. That is a very inhumane way to treat people who are dealing with the consequences of actions that happened during their childhood for which they had no responsibility.
At later stages of the Bill, I shall want to challenge the Minister to extend the legal framework within which people have rights to access information about themselves and may wish to explore whether there is a necessity to do that via an intermediary body, as is done in adoption cases. I shall also want to challenge the Minister on the extent to which we require statutory bodies not only to hold information but to ensure the continued existence of that information long after they may have disappeared.
My Lords, I join others in thanking the Minister for his very full, comprehensive and thoughtful introduction to the Bill. As the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, mentioned, we have had a large number of substantive and thoughtful contributions. As the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, said, the Bill is one of careful gestation. It began more than a year ago with the Green Paper, Care Matters: Transforming the Lives of Children and Young People in Care. The Green Paper was issued with a consultation document, and consultation went on for four months until January 2007. In June the White Paper Care Matters: Time for Change was published, and we now have the Bill.
It is almost an exemplary period of gestation for a Bill, and very different from that of the then Further Education and Training Bill, the last education Bill that we dealt with in this House. There is a great deal in it that many of us have said we welcome. Yet, as the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, mentioned, we have been inundated with briefings from many of the children’s societies, all of them raising worthwhile issues that question bits of the Bill. Therefore, we are likely to move into perhaps more substantive discussions in Committee and on Report than some of us thought when we initially saw the size of the Bill. It may take us longer in Committee than the Government initially think.
From these Benches, there is a great deal in the Bill that we welcome, which was made clear by my noble friend Lady Walmsley. The issues where we have doubts have been echoed around the Chamber in the contributions that have come from all Benches. Perhaps I can pick out some of them and, at the same time, explain some of the reservations that have come up and why we agree with those reservations. I will consider them in the order in which they come in the Bill. Part 1 deals with social work practices. I was surprised that this was the first issue that confronted one in the Bill, because in the White Paper it has a relatively low profile. It was raised in the final section of the White Paper as something that might be a proposal in the section on the role of the practitioner, which was to set up pilots to test whether partnerships with external agencies might improve experience in childcare.
We have no objection in principle to developing contracting-out procedures, and we recognise that this accords very much with the Government’s vision of local authorities’ children’s services as commissioners of services and not providers of services. Again, this echoes the feelings that have been expressed throughout the Chamber; we strongly feel that this must be piloted first to see whether it is a viable model that is in the child’s interest. The key issue must be whether it improves the experience of children in care and can improve the experience of multi-agency working and getting the joined-up working together that we have all been looking for for such a long time. A number of questions are raised. The Barnardo’s briefing, for example, asks, if you are contracting out social care, who has the responsibility for being the corporate parent. The Association of School and College Leaders raises the issue of responsibility for the Every Child Matters agenda. Again, is it retained by the local authority, or by contracting it out does responsibility lie with the subcontractor?
We agree very much with those who have said, “Go ahead with pilots, but they must be carefully organised”. We must watch to make sure that they do not cream off the best of the social workers from the local authorities. That point was raised by my noble friend Lady Walmsley. We must not roll them out more generally until there has been a thorough evaluation of the experiment.
The noble Lord, Lord Judd, raised an issue that was also raised in the briefing from the Children’s Rights Alliance, on whether contracting-out provisions mean that the private contractors are exempt from local authority liabilities under human rights legislation. The Children’s Rights Alliance claims that Clause 3(2)(b) seems explicitly to be seeking to exclude private contractors from those obligations. We agree that, on the contrary, the Bill should make explicit provision that, even when local authorities’ functions are subcontracted out to private providers, those local authorities should remain liable to ensure that the human rights of the child are protected.
The second main issue that has had a lot of discussion is placements. There are provisions in Clauses 8 and 9 to ensure much greater stability of placement for young people. Again, one can but welcome that. We have heard stories of the incredible number of placements that some young people have over a very short period. We will seek clarification on what is meant by “near” when looking at schools, and what is meant by “exceptional circumstances” in Clause 9 in relation to moves proposed when a child is in key stage 4. That is important, and we are glad that in Clause 8 the child’s welfare is paramount.
There are cases where out-of-area placements will be required. This issue was raised by the noble Baronesses, Lady Morris and Lady Howarth, and my noble friend Lady Walmsley. Because of special circumstances, it may be necessary to go out of the area. There are cross-border issues, where it is easier to cross the boundaries of local authorities rather than to go across a county for specialist provision. Our biggest reservation on this is precisely that raised by the noble Earl, Lord Listowel—the availability and quality of placements. Every local authority in the country has difficulty finding good foster placements. It is all very well laying down rules about where placements should be, but that is relatively useless if you cannot find good foster placements. Again, the White Paper gave prominence to trying to improve the number and quality of available placements. Somehow or other it probably does not need legislation, and it gets lost in the Bill. One is looking in the Bill at the question of putting constraints on where placements should be.
In the second section of the White Paper, great stress was put on family and parenting support. The noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, mentioned the National Children’s Home and the impressive statistics of the work that it has done on intensive family support and the preventive strategies that are enormously important to save putting children into care. Probably because it does not need legislation, it does not get mentioned, but it means that when looking at the Bill you get a slightly biased view, and that too much emphasis is on constraints and not enough is on preventive care and how important it is, and we on these Benches in particular would welcome it.
The third issue is the independent reviewing officers and visitors. Here, we follow the line that most people in the Chamber have taken—that it is vital that the independent reviewing officers be independent. We do not agree with the Local Government Association, which argues that they should be local authority employees. The scrutiny function is important, and there should be an independent reviewer. We have nothing but support for the extension of visiting rights for these children and the extension of the role of the visitor. Two issues arise, both of which have been mentioned.
First, there is the importance of including disabled children among those who should have the rights of visiting and befriending, which was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Rix. Secondly, children in custody should be included. They frequently badly need ongoing contact with their social workers in particular, where current practice means that is often not the case. Indeed, there are occasions when some social workers have been positively discouraged from visiting their charges in young offender institutions. Therefore, we support the plea of the Children’s Society that all children sent into custody should be regarded and treated as looked-after children.
Finally, the point has been raised that visitors and befrienders are not the same as independent advocates and that there are occasions when independent advocates are required. Many professionals advocate that when children are part of their role, they are legally required also to promote and safeguard the children’s best interests, but are often bound by budgets and departmental priorities. They are, in effect, parti pris. Professional independent advocacy is totally different, because being independent of the system is its primary role—working exclusively with the child and ensuring that its views and rights are promoted. We shall put forward amendments to the effect that there should be an independent advocate, as well as rights to visiting.
On education, we totally endorse the idea of the designated teacher, but it is important that that person should not just be a special needs teacher. I am sorry not to see in the Bill the proposals in the White Paper that each local authority should have a children-in-care council, that one of the elected members should be a lead member for looked-after children, and that the director for children’s services and that lead member should provide leadership for the whole authority in relation to looked-after children.
We support the idea of higher education bursaries, but very much endorse those who have asked, “Well, what about further education?”. That is vital. Also, it is important that there should be proper information advice and guidance to these young people about choice of careers—particularly now that in secondary education, given the introduction of the new diplomas, it will become much more difficult to know which way you should go and which vocational diploma to choose. If these young people are not to drop out of school and become part of the NEET group, as many do, it is vital that they get proper advice. We very much endorse the idea of personal advisers and mentors for the 16 to 21 age group, through to the age of 25. Such young people need help with finding and planning their pathway to a career.
I finish with a final plea on a question which, again, does not appear in the Bill—National Health Service participation. There is a lot of talk of partnership, but is the NHS playing the role it should do for looked-after children, particularly given the high prevalence of mental health problems among them—45 per cent compared with 10 per cent in the population as a whole? To what extent are PCTs providing back-up in terms of counselling and therapies that we know can help and are badly needed? The White Paper made much of the importance of addressing these problems across the whole of children’s services, not just education and social services.
The LGA noted in its briefing that primary partner health trusts, PCTs, have to work to a set of objectives established by the NHS, within which the needs of children generally, and children in care specifically, are not usually given high priority. The LGA believes that this is a barrier to improving the outcomes of children in care. It points out that this is not due to any ill will by staff of the PCTs, but rather is a policy gap in the NHS. That point was raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher. Does not the Bill provide us with an opportunity to fill that gap? I suggest that it does and that we ought to be looking at it.
My Lords, I begin by thanking the Minister for introducing the Bill and all noble Lords who have contributed to the debate. Noble Lords with far greater experience than I possess have shared passionately heartfelt concerns and I look forward to the Minister’s response. I appreciate the signal being given that the Government have finally taken on board what we on these Benches have for so long been calling for and we very much welcome the legislation, though it is overdue.
The importance of providing for children cannot be overestimated. In terms of governing, caring for the most vulnerable children is an instance where any set of beliefs about equality or opportunity will come directly to bear. This is the point where a just state can begin—by being just. The problem is large and it is one with which your Lordships will not be unfamiliar. Although the information about what happens to children in care and after leaving care is shocking, it sadly does not come as a surprise. We on these Benches join in paying tribute to the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, for his outstanding dedication to championing the needs of the most vulnerable citizens in society, in particular children in care or custody. We have been calling for years for a way to combat the problems associated with children in care and we are thankful that those concerns have finally been heeded. However, I still feel that, as the debate has shown, this legislation needs greater clarity to ensure that we can deliver on the very good intentions that lie behind it. In particular we want to ensure that what drives reform is in the interests of the child. The ambition to try to provide looked-after children with the same opportunities possessed by those who are not is very welcome indeed.
The proposed changes intended to assist looked-after children in education are one step in the right direction. The Bill places a duty on maintained schools’ governing bodies to appoint a member of staff who will be responsible for promoting the educational achievement of looked-after pupils registered at the school. We strongly support the idea of fostering a personal relationship between the child and an adviser. Such relationships lead to success, as my noble friend Lady Morris pointed out in describing the success of Barnet Council’s education champion scheme. However, we still have a few questions about this specific provision.
For example, will the person appointed to be responsible for looked-after children in a school be filling a new role, or will the role be filled by an existing member of staff, perhaps by merging it with that of the special educational needs co-ordinator, as the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, mentioned? What consideration has been given to the increased burden that this will place on current co-ordinators, or on local councils if they are expected to appoint someone new? Moreover, has the Minister considered that some children in care might not want to be labelled as such in school? Is there any provision for discretion or mechanisms to maintain a child’s privacy?
Although many of the Bill’s proposals are sound, there seems to be a small degree of one-size-fits-all thinking. As my noble friend Lady Morris said, although it is good to provide mechanisms to keep children in local areas, there is no provision to allow children who may require more specialised care to be moved to appropriate facilities. Children with severe disabilities could be marginalised, and I am sure that the Minister will agree that clarification is needed to ensure that that does not happen. Likewise, what about children in custody who were previously in care? Almost half of children in custody were in care at some point in their lives. The noble Lord, Lord Judd, eloquently spoke about that. What will the Government do to improve educational achievement among this group?
This all feeds into the idea that we want a more holistic approach to the needs of the child—whether that means allowing for provision for out-of-council care or trying harder to combat the vacancy rates in the social care workforce. This also bears on the issue of education. Although we recognise the vast distance that must be travelled to improve the educational attainment of children in care, the statistics should not be driving the policy. Educational attainment is perhaps the only measurable standard by which we can see improvement or failure, but we must recognise that if we want the statistics to improve, we will have to endeavour to stop treating children as statistics. That is one of the reasons why we want to try to refocus on early intervention before the child goes into care. Can the Minister assure us that attention will be given to families before care becomes a necessity?
Another gap that we have noticed involves provisions for privately fostered children. According to the Office for National Statistics, at 31 March this year, 1,250 children were reported as being privately fostered, whereby parents make arrangements with someone outside their close family to look after their child for 28 days or longer. No one knows the number of children being looked after in this way but estimates from the British Association for Adoption & Fostering range from 7,000 to 10,000 children or more. What are the Government doing to raise the profile of these children and to extend to them the necessary protection?
Improving schemes for adoption and fostering goes some way to providing the stability and continuity of care that is so important to some of the most vulnerable young people. The British Association for Adoption & Fostering has expressed its fear that children are missing out on permanent new families because of public ignorance about modern adoption. What are the Government doing to improve people’s awareness of adoption and to encourage more people to adopt?
Our primary concern is that the voice of the child is listened to and that his welfare is placed above all other considerations. As has been mentioned, that ambition is most certainly the right one but it is difficult to achieve. We have welcomed the increased provisions for social work practices, and we agree very much with the concerns raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, about proper resourcing for social workers. I hope that social work practices are implemented effectively and in a way that will make wider application possible. We welcome the effort to keep children in stable, local care but hope that mechanisms are in place to allow for important exceptions. We welcome many of the increased powers for local authorities but hope that they have adequate means to deliver what is so seriously needed.
Essentially, this is much needed legislation but we still need greater clarity in the Bill to ensure that the appropriate and desperately needed changes come to fruition. In concluding, I thank the organisations that have provided me with excellent briefings. They have been very useful and have enabled me to take a much more informed look at the Bill. I look forward to hearing from the Minister.
My Lords, first, I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, on behalf of the management for the attempt to dragoon him into speaking in a different debate. He did not say what the subject was but I am sure that it would have benefited from his wisdom in any event. Perhaps he will be encouraged to speak twice in one day. My noble friend Lord Hunt is much looking forward to the noble Lord’s intervention.
I thank noble Lords on all sides of the House for their generally warm welcome for the Bill. I pay tribute to the noble Baronesses, Lady Morris, Lady Verma, Lady Walmsley and Lady Sharp, for their speeches and for the highly constructive approach that they have taken to the measures in the Bill. As they and other noble Lords rightly said, we shall want to return to a large number of issues in Committee and on Report. I can already see significant debates ahead of us and I much look forward to them. Of course, this is an area where noble Lords who sit on the Cross Benches make an especially important contribution to our proceedings. That has been amply demonstrated this evening by a series of extremely worthwhile speeches based on substantial personal knowledge and long engagement in various aspects—for example, the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, on fostering and the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, on looked-after children. I could mention all the noble Lords and noble Baronesses who have spoken in that respect. We greatly value their contributions and, as I said, look forward in Committee and on Report to engagement on the issues raised.
There has been a broad welcome for the measures in the Bill in respect of local placement, the voice of the child, the stability of placements, more independent support for children in care and promoting educational performance and opportunity for children in care. I should like to begin by taking forward the dialogue which always takes place between the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, and myself on these issues—an extremely friendly dialogue it is too. No one in the House speaks with greater experience of these issues than the noble Baroness. To be brutally frank, I took the essence of her remarks to be whether the Bill is beside the point.
In a sense, the rest of the debate demonstrated that the provisions of the Bill are not beside the point. All its provisions are focused on special improvements to the provision for children in care. The noble Baroness is profoundly right that the Bill on its own will not transform the lot of children in care, and she is also right to say that legislation is not required to put in place a substantial number of important changes that will improve the lot of such children. She rightly highlighted two of the most significant elements in improving the lot of children in care. One is a motivated workforce of social workers. There is nothing more important than that in the provision for children in care and no legislation on its own will make a difference there. The second element also relates to the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, on the subject of foster carers, who take responsibility for the majority of our children in care. We must see that they are motivated and prepared to come forward in large enough numbers to take on this work. Again, no legislation will meet that point. In a sense, I believe that we can have both parts of that equation. The provisions of the Bill are important, as are all the points raised by the noble Baroness, and it would not be right to say that we have not paid close attention to them.
On the issue of social workers, which the noble Baroness raised, I am the first to accept that a great deal more needs to be done. However, since 1995, there has been a 21 per cent increase in the number of whole-time social workers. In our Modernising Social Services strategy, which started in 2000, we set out an ambition to recruit 6,000 extra social workers to close the vacancy gap. In fact, we recruited more than 6,000 but the number of available posts also rose in the same period, meaning that the pressure to fill posts remained as great as it was before, despite the increase.
In terms of our investment, expenditure on children’s social care increased from £2.1 billion in 1996-97 to £5 billion in 2006-07—a real-terms increase of 88 per cent—so we have been taking forward the very important investment agenda, irrespective of legislation. For example, the huge increase in investment in children’s social care made it possible for the average pay of a newly qualified social worker in children’s social care to rise from £24,600 in 2001 to £29,900 in 2005, which is an increase across the four years of 21.7 per cent. Again, the noble Baroness is absolutely right that an improvement in the social work agenda is hugely important. I believe that we have been seeking to get to grips with it, although we recognise that there is more to do. Because we recognise that there is more to be done, we published the Options for Excellence review. The noble Baroness asked me what has happened to that since it was published in October 2006. In June, we published Care Matters, the White Paper that set out a number of proposals in respect of the social care workforce. We are taking those forward. My right honourable friend Beverley Hughes, the Minister for Children, has set up a working group with practitioners to look at a whole series of measures in respect of the social work profession, and we will be producing a children’s workforce strategy action plan early in the new year in conjunction with stakeholders in the sector.
The Care Matters White Paper sets out a number of complementary agendas for improving social work, including improving skills training and support for children and family social workers, increasing the capacity of social workers to support other staff, looking at social work qualifying degrees to ensure that they equip social workers with the necessary knowledge and skills to work in a modern children’s workforce, and reviewing the support and training for newly qualified social workers by, for example, developing a newly qualified social work status—an issue raised repeatedly in the House by the noble Earl, Lord Listowel—that would give a guarantee of support, training and induction. We are also looking at new recruitment incentives and campaigns, benefiting from the experience of the teacher recruitment campaigns run by the Training and Development Agency for Schools, which have been successful in recent years. Those will further boost the social work profession, as will the work that we are doing in remodelling the social care workforce, building on good practice in that area. We are also working with the Children’s Workforce Development Council to set up remodelling pilots based on social work teams in about 30 local areas. Therefore, I hope that I can demonstrate to the House that we are not neglecting the agenda that the noble Baroness set out.
In respect of social work practice pilots, I make it clear that this will be—certainly for the early stages of implementing the agenda that I have set out—only a very small part of the work that takes place out in the field. I would not want to exaggerate the important of the pilots but we believe it right to pilot this potentially beneficial reform. The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, asked me whether we would publish the results of the pilots. We certainly intend to do so, and I can state clearly that one of the factors on which we will judge their success is whether they bring more and better social workers into the profession for the benefit of children.
In respect of foster parents, the noble Lord, Lord, Hylton, asked me whether it is possible for approved adopters, if they so wish, to adopt from the moment of birth, and asked me to make our policy clear. It is possible for a child to be placed from near birth—a mother cannot give consent to the placement of adoption until the child is six weeks old. The reason for the six-week rule reflects the fact that mothers need to be given time to recover from pregnancy before they make irrevocable decisions, but from very close to birth it is possible for that step to be taken. The reality is that very few babies are relinquished by their mothers for adoption at that early stage, but the noble Lord asked for our statement of policy.
In respect of the great majority of children who go on to be fostered, the most significant issue, as the noble Lord said, is that we have sufficient, well motivated foster carers. That is partly an issue of training; it is also an issue of remuneration in its widest sense. I gave the figures in my opening speech about the increase in funding of about £230 million for children in residential care and £330 million for those in foster care between 2000 and 2004-05, which reflects the reality that significantly larger payments are being made by local authorities than was the case before.
As noble Lords rightly observed, the payments to foster carers come in two elements: the allowance and the fees. The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, welcomed the fact that we brought in the minimum allowances. The noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, asked me what we would do about authorities paying less than the allowances. I can tell her that we are committed to looking with Ofsted at monitoring allowances paid by all foster providers. In the light of our monitoring of the allowances, we will consider whether further action is necessary at national level to ensure compliance. We have the statutory power to do that if necessary, so I hope that that reassures the noble Baroness.
In respect of the fees that are paid over and above the allowances, the fee levels of course vary widely but, significantly, funding has been continuously made available to local authorities to strengthen and expand their own fostering services. We believe that the right policy is to ensure full transparency in the payment of fees and the publication of fee rates, which is what we are seeking to do. We do not want to overregulate the actual fees paid, not least because that may discourage some authorities from paying higher fees, which in their own individual circumstances may be necessary to attract foster carers.
The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, also raised the issue of allegations against foster carers. I do not minimise the importance of that issue and the need for effective procedures for dealing with allegations. That is why we have already funded the publication of a range of information and training materials relating to improving the way in which allegations against foster carers are handled, and to support foster carers through the process. However, in addition the review of the implementation of the guidance on handling allegations is currently under way. That guidance relates to anyone working with children and young people, including foster carers. Fostering organisations are among the stakeholders participating in the review, and I can tell the noble Lord that there will be a report to Ministers before Christmas and that the outcome of the review will be published in the new year in time for our debates in Committee and on Report.
The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, raised the related issues of private fostering and the registration scheme. As she knows, the Children Act 2004 strengthened the notification scheme and notification responsibilities in respect of private fostering. There have been only two years of this new regime so far. While we have not ruled out a registration scheme, we believe that the evidence base is not yet sufficient to decide on the merits of such a step and we believe it right to take the necessary time to collect and evaluate information on the current arrangements before we decide whether to proceed with a national registration scheme.
Several noble Lords raised the issue of out-of-authority placements and no arbitrary restrictions. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, for saying that she thought that we had appropriate flexibility in this regard. We believe that that is the case. Under existing legislation the local authority has a responsibility to give consideration to placing a child near to home. The Bill builds on that and introduces an obligation on local authorities to place a child in their area, except in circumstances when the use of such a placement would not be consistent with the child’s welfare. I emphasise that last element in the Bill. Clause 8 is very clear that all placements in respect of children in care must be
“consistent with the child’s welfare”.
If it is not so consistent with the child’s welfare to be placed in area, it is absolutely permissible for local authorities to make such placements out of area.
Why have we introduced that provision? Again, it is because of the startling fact that at the moment, more than a quarter of children subject to placements are placed outside their local authority area, and the statistics on the achievements of such children show that they do notably worse than those placed inside their local authority areas. As to the definition of a local authority area, in some cases it may be close to a border, or if in a municipal authority, have a large number of local authorities. Local authorities will have to be absolutely reasonable in how that duty is interpreted but we believe that the new provisions will give much greater emphasis to local authorities to see that they make appropriate placements in their locality, which will benefit the children in care.
The noble Lord, Lord Rix, raised a number of issues relating to disabled children, of whom he is a champion in this House, and has been for many years. As he rightly said, it usually takes the Government a few decades to catch up with his proposals. He is right to say that what we are doing in respect of short breaks is something for which he has campaigned for some time. All I can say in mitigation is that producing a national short-break service, which in effect is what we are doing in the Aiming High for Disabled Children strategy, which we published two months ago, is an expensive business. We are spending £330 million over the next three years on implementing that strategy, and £280 million of that will go into providing short-break services. We are in discussions with local authorities on how to define what the core offer should be in order to ensure that this additional funding is wholly additional to existing funding and does not simply substitute for existing funding. I chair a working group that is looking into the detail of all these issues so that we can deliver on the commitments that the noble Lord is so keen for us to meet.
Our view is that the improvement in the quality of services is vital. That is what we are concentrating on at the moment. We are not persuaded that new legislative requirements will be a means to bringing about those ends. I hope the noble Lord will accept that that additional funding shows that we are very serious about improving those services. The noble Lord also asked about looked-after children status in 52-week placements. The point to stress is that the basis on which accommodation is provided, and the length of time provided within each year, varies enormously between children and different categories of children. The issue of looked-after status depends crucially on the assessment of the particular needs of each child and the nature of their disability, not simply on a mathematical read-across of the number of weeks that their placement occupies in a year.
We believe that the Bill goes some way to meeting the noble Lord’s concerns because of the new duty in the Bill for children who are in long-term placements to be visited by the local authority—the Clause 16 duties. The new duties strike the right balance between safeguarding children’s welfare without unnecessarily interfering in family life as might be the case if there were a simple blanket extension of looked-after children status to those in whole-year placements.
My noble friend Lord Judd raised the Clause 13 duty on local authorities to ensure that visits to looked-after children are conducted by social workers and asked why we did not specifically put that it should be social workers in the Bill. This was to allow local authorities the flexibility to appoint a member of their staff who is most appropriate to undertake the functions that will be set out in regulations. However, statutory guidance will make it clear that, in most cases, the visitor should be a social worker. It may be the case, however, that others are able to undertake the function under appropriate supervision; the statutory guidance will make that clear.
Similarly, I was asked whether the designated member of staff in Clause 17, responsible for the educational welfare of looked-after children, will be a teacher. That designated member of staff will be a teacher, and that will be set out in regulations. Of course, it is important that schools ensure that there is no stigmatising of looked-after children. The fact that there is a designated teacher does not mean that there will be any revelation—of the names of looked-after children in a school, for example—in any stigmatising way.
My Lords, I absolutely agree with my noble friend; that will be a prime responsibility of the designated member of staff who will be a teacher. However, it will not mean that names of looked-after children will therefore need to be revealed, or anything of that kind which would be stigmatising within the school.
The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, asked why the Bill does not itself include the duty for local authorities to secure sufficient and diverse provision of quality of placements within their local area, the White Paper having made this commitment. We remain committed to the White Paper proposal, and the effect of the Bill and its provisions will be to ensure that local authorities make sufficient diverse provision to meet the needs of children when they are looked after. When read with existing legislation, there will in effect be a requirement on local authorities to provide a range and level of services appropriate to the needs of children in their area and to facilitate the provision of services, including accommodation, by others.
The noble Baroness, Lady Howe, asked whether Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child ought to have led us to introduce independent advocates. Article 12 does not impose any duty or expectation that any child should have an independent advocate. Instead, it imposes a requirement that children should be consulted and their views respected when decisions that affect them, whether administrative or judicial, are taken. The United Kingdom Government comply fully with this requirement. There are express statutory duties to consult, and local authorities already have access to a range of trained adults capable of consulting and listening to children. For court proceedings, there is also the children’s guardian.
The noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Bolton, stressed the importance of support for children on the threshold of care and their families. I strongly endorse everything she said on that: it is vital that we do all that we can to help parents and families in that situation. I agree with the noble Baroness that there are good projects on this in the voluntary sector. We are taking forward a number of pilots; for example, there is currently an ongoing pilot to provide more support for families of adults with drug and alcohol difficulties so that parents get the help they need to care for their children. There is also a pilot on intensive intervention for families with complex needs to keep adolescents in their families where possible. This is being successfully developed in the United States; we are piloting it in 10 local authorities here. I can send the noble Baroness more details on those two pilots as examples of work we are doing on this.
However, when children need to be placed, my noble friend Lady Thornton asked whether there was proper consultation with them beforehand. All local authority powers under which kinship placements can be made include an express statutory duty for the child’s view to be ascertained and taken into consideration before such steps are taken.
My Lords, I have a further question. I am a little confused about independent advocacy. I should have thought that the point of having a completely independent advocate was that they could point out both to the child and, from an independent perspective, to the local authority that that child had a right in certain circumstances not only to disagree but to have the plan for wherever he or she was next to be directed changed.
My Lords, I can set this out for the noble Baroness in correspondence, but that the voice of the child is adequately supported is enshrined in a whole series of other measures, including the independent reviewing officers which I was just about to come to. Taking all of those measures together, there is sufficient support for the voice of the child without having the specific figure of the independent advocate which has been raised by the noble Baroness and others in the debate, but I am happy to set that out more fully.
We would not be calling these figures independent reviewing officers if we did not expect them to operate independently. Under Clause 12, we have taken powers to establish a national service to manage the independent reviewing officers if we are not satisfied that the new responsibilities imposed on them by Clause 11 do not lead to their representing children’s views with the independence we expect. One of the independent reviewing officers’ functions under the new Section 25B in Clause 11 is to,
“ensure that any ascertained wishes and feelings of the child concerning the case are given due consideration by the local authority”.
They are expected to represent not the view of the local authority, but that of the child.
The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, asked when we will exercise our judgment on whether we need to proceed further in the direction of a national service which divorces the IROs and local authorities with whom we will consult. We would wish to give detailed consideration to evidence from inspections by the chief inspector and information arising from the new annual ministerial stock-take on looked-after children. In addition, the department would undertake further consultation with local government, the IROs themselves, looked-after children, their parents and carers, CAFCASS, the Children’s Commissioner, the children’s rights director and court services, all of whom can give us views on how the system is working in practice.
I have many other points to reply to, and I will have to commit to doing most of that in correspondence. I acknowledge the importance of mental health and therapeutic services raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher. I understand the force of the point she made on the specific issue of mental health assessments for looked-after children. However, I stress that all children who enter care must have a health assessment covering their physical, emotional and mental health. Healthcare professionals who carry out these assessments should be trained in the early identification of mental health problems and have links with CAMHS. This process should ensure that looked-after children have access to specialist assessment and mental health provision. We are alive to the concerns that the noble Baroness raised. However, we do not currently believe that a separate statutory mental health assessment would be a sensible next step.
My Lords, I am certainly prepared to look at this further, and I would welcome particular instances being drawn to my attention so that I can grapple with the reality on the ground before we debate this.
I hope that I have dealt with many of the points that have been raised in the debate, and I shall reply to the others in writing. I shall end with a remark made by the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth. She said that we should regard this Bill as a wake-up call for everyone responsible for children in care and that ultimately everything depends on implementation. I agree wholeheartedly, and I hope that highlighting the plight of children in care and how serious is the way in which we provide for them in education and in care placements will lead to improvements that go well beyond the scope of the provisions in the Bill.
On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Grand Committee.