My Lords, the Government are encouraging all local authorities to expand staying-put arrangements so that more young people can stay with their former foster carers until age 21, particularly when these young people are in further or higher education. My honourable friend Edward Timpson, the Children’s Minister, has recently written to all directors of children’s services, urging them to ensure that care leavers always live in safe, suitable accommodation, including staying-put arrangements.
I thank the Minister for his reply. Does he share my concern that these young people, in particular, need enduring and reliable relationships in their lives because of their poor start? Does he also share my concern at the recent findings from the deputy Children’s Commissioner about the sexual exploitation of young people leaving care? Does that not highlight the urgency with which the Government should pursue their current activity in encouraging local authorities to spread this practice as far, and as soon, as possible?
I agree with the noble Earl on both points. Any help that he and others can give in raising the salience of the issue with local authorities would be very welcome. As I said, my honourable friend has written to all of them, and he will be monitoring the situation. I am glad that in the past year the number of young people in staying-put arrangements has increased—admittedly from a low base—by more than a third, so there has been some progress. However, we all need to keep the spotlight on it.
Is the Minister aware of the bizarre anomaly that care leavers who are not in education, employment and training are eligible for a personal adviser only until they are 21 years old, while those who are in education, employment and training are eligible for support from a personal adviser until the age of 25? In light of this, will the Government consider extending the offer of personal advisers for NEET care leavers until they are 25?
My Lords, I think that I am right in saying that the extension to the age of 25 for those who are in education was a fairly recent extension from the age of 21. I will take up the noble Baroness’s second point with my honourable friend Mr Timpson.
My Lords, I am sure that none of us as parents would want to be forced to turn our son or daughter out of the house on the day of their 18th birthday but that is happening to thousands of young people in care. The Minister has effectively said, as the Government constantly say, that it is up to local authorities. However, this is a very special case because these young people are in the care of the state; the Government have ultimate responsibility for their well-being and cannot pass the buck to local authorities. Will the Government give young people in care the entitlement to stay in their placement after the age of 18, if it is in their interests to do so, and ensure that local authorities provide the support for that to happen? Will they further ensure that any planned changes to housing benefit and welfare reform being considered by the Government do not further disadvantage young people in care?
My Lords, it is not a question of the Government seeking to pass the buck to local authorities. As the noble Baroness will know much better than me, that is where the statutory responsibility lies and where we think that it should be. Given those statutory duties, I am sure she will have seen the recent Section 251 returns around the funding that local authorities are putting into looked-after children—it has shown a small increase over the past year, which reflects the priority that is being attached to it—and the statutory framework that is in place.
On the noble Baroness’s second point about whatever changes may be made to the benefits system and seeking to make sure that the interests particularly of this most disadvantaged group of care leavers are taken into account, she is right that we need to make sure that those concerns are properly considered. I know that my colleagues will be doing that as policy is developed.
The Welsh Government are responsible for their own arrangements but, in parallel, they are carrying out a consultation looking into precisely the same issues and whether it is appropriate to introduce their version of staying-put arrangements into Wales. That consultation is going on at the moment.
The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, has referred to the Children’s Commissioner’s report which came out today, in particular the dreadful findings about how many children in care have been sexually abused. Will the Minister tell the House the Government’s stance about that report, given that, apparently, people speaking on behalf of the Government to both the BBC Radio 4 “Today” programme and the Sun said that the report was overemotional and were trying to undermine its conclusions?
The Government’s stance is that the report from the deputy Children’s Commissioner is helpful for the Government to have. We will reflect on the findings that it makes in terms of its recommendations and its estimates about the extent of the problem. I think I am right in saying that the report recognises that making any precise estimate is by nature very difficult, but the more information we have the better. Even before this report, the Government have been seeking to improve the systems for getting accurate reporting from various local agencies and authorities to make sure that we have as accurate a picture as possible to make sure that we do not underestimate or overestimate the problem. Everyone is very aware of the salience of this issue and the important issues that that report gives rise to.