My Lords, it is my great privilege to open the Second Reading debate of the Children and Families Bill. When I came into this job, I swore that I would do what I had successfully done over the previous 30 years: keep control of my diary. I gave that idea up at lunchtime on my first day. A visit that I had asked to make some time ago appeared serendipitously in my diary yesterday—I say serendipitously because it had been fixed a long time before we knew that the Second Reading of the Bill would be today. This visit was to the Avenue School, a special school in Reading run by Dame Sue Bourne, and was a very moving experience. They do wonderful work at this school with children with severe SEN, many of whom are severely disabled. It was a privilege to see the wonderful ways in which they are improving the lives of those children—substantially, to judge by the smiles on many of their faces. As I left, Sue gave me the dragonfly pin that I am wearing, which is in memory of all the children who have been at the school and who have died, so I said that I would wear it today. The memory of that visit will stay with me throughout this debate.
The Government are determined to make sure that we put the needs of children at the heart of everything we do so that, regardless of background, every child has the chance to fulfil their potential and succeed. Too often we hear stories of services failing children and families who need their help the most, trying to get them to fit in with the system rather than the other way around. It is crucial that we get the legislative framework right, so that services transform the way in which they work for children and families, focused keenly on their needs. That is what the Bill seeks to do.
The measures in the Bill will have a direct and significant impact on the lives of children and families across the country, so it is right that it is subjected to the most thorough scrutiny and debate. In the other place, the debate has been constructive and comprehensive. Every part of the Bill has been scrutinised thoroughly by a standing committee and has been passed with the blessing of the whole House. This is in part due to extensive pre-legislative scrutiny of the majority of the Bill. This process, as I am sure noble Lords would agree, clearly improved the legislation. I offer my gratitude to Members in this House for their scrutiny of Parts 1 and 5 of the Bill as part of their work on the Joint Committee on Human Rights and the House of Lords Select Committee on Adoption Legislation. I also thank members of the JCHR for their more recent report across the Bill, which I am sure will inform scrutiny in your Lordships’ House.
Perhaps the most significant improvement that the Bill has seen to date is the amendment brought forward by the Government to introduce a duty on health bodies to provide what is set out in an education, health and care plan. This amendment to Part 3 of the Bill was widely welcomed and will make a real difference to the lives of children and young people with special educational needs and their families. It is my ambition that the scrutiny in this House builds on that progress in an open and constructive way.
I turn to the provisions of the Bill in more detail. Delays in the current adoption system mean that it currently takes on average 21 months to place a child, and a child’s chances of adoption reduce by almost 20% for every year of delay. This is clearly indefensible and needs to change. The Government’s adoption reforms will sweep away barriers that have stood in the way of finding children stable, loving homes earlier. The Bill contributes to this by requiring local authorities to consider a fostering for adoption placement as soon as they are considering adoption for a child; by removing the explicit requirement to have regard to a child’s religious persuasion, racial origin and cultural and linguistic background when matching a child and prospective adopters; and by enabling the Secretary of State to require some or all local authorities to outsource their adopter recruitment and assessment function.
The Bill would also better support approved adopters by piloting greater access to the adoption register, by improving the information on offer about adoption support services and by introducing personal budgets to give adopters more choice and control over the help that they receive.
In addition, the Bill puts the role of the virtual school head for looked-after children on a statutory footing. This is just one important step that we are taking to ensure that every local authority redoubles its efforts to drive up the educational attainment of children in their care.
Children also face unnecessary delays in the family courts, something that the family justice review recognised as part of its work to consider radical reform of the current systems for family law. A child waits over 42 weeks on average for their care or supervision case to be resolved. This is not acceptable and we agree with the review’s recommendations that more needs to be done to address delays and ensure that a stable placement for a child is found as quickly as possible. To that end, the Bill includes measures to introduce a maximum 26-week time limit for completing care and supervision proceedings, to ensure that expert evidence is used in children’s cases only when necessary and to remove bureaucracy and focus a court’s consideration of a care plan primarily on those issues that are essential to its decisions.
Part 2 also includes proposals to ensure that the needs of children remain firmly at the centre of the private family law system. The Bill, through the parental involvement clause, will make it absolutely clear that both parents should be involved in their child’s life after separation, where it is safe for the child. I wish to be clear that this change does not affect the existing principle that the welfare of the child must be the court’s paramount consideration in all cases. In addition, we hope that mediation, information and assessment meetings will encourage more parents to agree arrangements for their children outside court. The introduction of the child arrangements order will help ensure that arrangements are focused on the child’s needs.
The reforms to special educational needs in Part 3 are ambitious and present us with a once-in-a-generation opportunity to transform the lives of children and young people with SEN. The reforms put children, young people and their parents at the heart of the system, strive for higher aspirations for children and young people, and have a stronger focus on improving their prospects in life. The new system will provide, for the first time, one system from birth to age 25 by promoting earlier identification of needs and extending comparable rights and protections to all young people over 16; require local authorities and local health bodies to work together to plan and commission services for children and young people with SEN, bringing a real commitment to working together across agencies; and introduce a local offer so that parents can find, in one place, clear and accessible information about the local support that is available to them.
At the end of the new, more streamlined and co-ordinated assessment process for those with the most complex needs, the Bill introduces education, health and care plans from birth to age 25. These plans will have a new and important focus on outcomes, including employment and independent living, with joined-up support from education, health and social care.
The Government are committed to reforming childcare and supporting working families by boosting quality, increasing the affordability of provision and removing obstacles for providers where this does not impact on quality and safety. Part 4 plays a part in achieving this. It introduces childminder agencies, allows childcare providers to request a paid-for re-inspection by Ofsted and seeks to remove current bureaucratic requirements on local authorities and governing bodies. On Report in the Commons, the Government also brought forward a new clause to introduce tax-free childcare paving legislation, as was included in Her Majesty’s gracious Speech.
Part 5 covers the Office of the Children’s Commissioner. It will clarify the power and remit of the Children’s Commissioner, empowering the commissioner to stand up for the rights and interests of all children, particularly those who are vulnerable. For example, it will give the commissioner a statutory remit to promote and protect children’s rights, and will introduce changes to make the commissioner more clearly independent from government.
Parts 6, 7 and 8, which are led by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, introduce greater choice for employees, ensuring that employment law meets the needs and wishes of modern families. The Bill will give working parents more choice and flexibility in how they share leave and pay in the early months of their child’s life. This is a radical new system of leave that will support fathers in getting more involved in their child’s life and enable working parents to take leave together and better manage their caring responsibilities and work commitments. The last section of the Bill supports family life by providing a right for all employees to request flexible working.
Before I conclude, I draw noble Lords’ attention to some commitments made by my honourable friend the Minister for Children and Families on Report in the Commons. Most notably, with regard to adoption, we wish to clarify that local authorities must consider placing the child with a relative or friend before they consider a fostering for adoption placement. Also, to provide further reassurance on this measure, we will introduce new safeguards through regulations to make sure that a local authority notifies the child’s birth parents when considering a fostering for adoption placement.
In Part 3 of the Bill, the Minister has listened closely to the debate to date on the support available to young offenders with SEN. On Report, the Minister undertook to identify further improvements to the support that this vulnerable group of young people receive while in custody to complement the trans- formational reform of education in custody being undertaken by the Ministry of Justice.
A number of noble Lords, while welcoming the intentions of the Care Bill which is currently before this House have raised concerns about the situation for young carers. The Government have heard these concerns. As my honourable friend the Minister also indicated, we intend to look at this issue in detail with noble Lords during the passage of the Bill.
I know that Members of this House have views, and considerable expertise, on how we should be addressing the issues that I have mentioned and others. I look forward greatly to discussing them over the coming months. The Bill demonstrates this Government’s commitment to making a real and enduring difference to the lives of all children and families, an ambition that I am sure is shared by all here today. I commend it the House and I beg to move.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his introduction to this important Children and Families Bill and welcome him to the Dispatch Box for his first major task as a Minister—steering the Bill through your Lordships’ House. I look forward to debating with him during our proceedings.
It is good finally to have a Bill on aspects of children’s well-being from a Secretary of State who so far has shown little interest in children’s lives outside the classroom. Indeed, he has presided over the decimation of many children’s services, all much needed by vulnerable children. I am sure, too, that Members on this side, at least, will be commenting on the disastrous impact on vulnerable children and young people of the Government’s wider policies on welfare, employment and cuts, with falling incomes and higher prices stretching family budgets to the limit. These will cause real hardship for ordinary families that will see child poverty rise again by 2015. There is nothing, sadly, in the Bill that will alleviate those hardships.
I, too, followed the debate on this Bill in the other place with great interest. I agree there was much agreement on all sides on many welcome measures in the Bill. I am sure we will conduct the debate in your Lordships’ House in a similar vein. However, it was noticeable that, apart from two very welcome government amendments, the Ministers there resisted any of the sensible proposals put forward, including many from Mr Robert Buckland, the Conservative chair of the All-Party Group on Autism. I give the Minister notice that we will return to the amendments we think are essential to address shortcomings in the Bill. I am sure he will be more prepared to work with colleagues across the House as we seek to improve it.
The Minister has outlined the key measures and I will begin with those we can broadly support. The provisions in Parts 6, 7 and 8 for shared parental leave, time off work for antenatal appointments and flexible working all build on the progressive record of the previous Labour Government and we welcome these next steps. However, we would like to widen access to leave for parents—especially, as the Minister himself said, for fathers—because these measures may turn out to be highly restrictive, with only 2% of eligible fathers expected to be able take up the new changes. Coupled with recent data from the TUC which show that less than 1% of fathers have taken up the additional paternity leave that was established in 2011, we clearly need something of a step change for fathers.
Part 5 strengthens the role of the Children’s Commissioner, also established by the Labour Government, and we welcome these proposals, too. However, the existing functions of the Children’s Rights Director, which are to be incorporated into the commissioner’s remit, include the power to take up individual complaints from children, and we want to discuss how we can ensure that this safeguard is not lost.
Although we have no problem in principle with the proposals in Part 4 for new childminder agencies, they will need careful examination. There are two obvious concerns here. First, childminders in agencies will no longer be inspected directly at all by Ofsted. Instead, the agency will be inspected on its quality assurance processes. We know what happened in Haringey when Ofsted undertook these arm’s-length desktop inspections —it gave Haringey a satisfactory rating shortly before baby Peter Connelly died.
Secondly, the Childcare Minister said in a meeting last week that the agencies would be responsible for the training and development of their childminders but that there would be no new money. She envisaged that the cost would be passed to parents, but we know that the high cost of childcare is currently very difficult for parents to meet. Also, while the vexed issue of childcare ratios is not in the Bill, we will want to ensure that in future no Government can attempt to change these important ratios without recourse to Parliament. We also believe that local authorities have an essential economic, as well as social, role in assessing the sufficiency of childcare in their areas, and we do not want to see this repealed as the Government propose.
We welcome measures in Part 2 of the Bill to improve and streamline family justice. However, while we very strongly support the continued involvement of both parents, the child’s interests must remain paramount. I welcome the Minister’s assurance today that plans in Clause 11 for shared parenting will not dilute this paramountcy principle. We will want to probe the practical implications of that, as we would not want to see any apportionment of children’s time to satisfy shared parenting.
We agree that the 26-week time limit is an important benchmark to make sure that court proceedings are carried out as quickly as possible. However, we want to see safeguards to ensure that complex issues are not overlooked and particularly that siblings are not needlessly separated.
I come now to the parts of the Bill about which we have more substantial concerns. Part 1 builds on the reforms introduced by the Labour Government to improve the adoption system. It is unacceptable that on average it still takes almost two years for a child in the care system to be placed for adoption. We agree that that has to change and we welcome attempts to reduce unnecessary delay in adoptions. However, the best interests of the child must come above all other considerations. We are concerned that the Minister in the other place envisages that a child can be placed in a new fostering for adoption placement as soon as he or she enters care. That seems possibly counter to careful assessment and good-quality decision-making.
We also feel that the Government are not right to imply that adoption is the only, or possibly always the best, solution for every child. Many children are not adopted and there is little in the Bill to improve outcomes for them. Fostering gets very little mention, and there is disappointingly little on improving the lot of children in the care system, although we welcome putting virtual school heads on a statutory basis. The majority of children return home, often with no continuing support, and we would like to raise that during the passage of the Bill.
We would also like to see more emphasis on the importance of contact between adopted children and their birth families. I very much welcome the Minister’s statement today that local authorities will have to consider the possibility of kinship care as the first option in every case and give priority to contact between sisters and brothers. That is something that we were going to pursue.
Finally, there are concerns across your Lordships’ House about the changes to consideration of ethnicity. We agree with the Lords Select Committee on Adoption Legislation that these should, appropriately, not be abandoned but be part of the welfare checklist.
We come to the reform of the special educational needs system in Part 3 with the establishment of integrated health and care assessments and plans and the publication of a local offer of services in every area. The aspirations of the Green Paper to improve the system across the board for all disabled children were widely commended. However, we fear that the Bill as drafted cannot hope to meet those aspirations. This is also the conclusion of the Special Education Consortium, the Every Disabled Child Matters alliance and, indeed, all the children’s organisations with which we have had contact.
I will outline why we share this conclusion. First, the measures in the Bill do not apply to all disabled children. Those who do not have a special educational need or who are detained in youth custody will be excluded. I would be very interested to discuss with the Minister his reference to some new ideas for how those in youth custody might be embraced by these or similar provisions. However, how can the exclusion of children with disabilities be justified? Children with a major physical disability—for example, a visual impairment or a complex health problem such as cancer or diabetes—have just as much need for services integrated across education, health and social care as children with special educational needs. The barriers to their educational progress can be just as serious.
Secondly, while the education, health and care plans assessment will be a step forward, albeit for a minority of children, and we welcome the Government’s change of heart in making health as well as education enforceable in the plans, there clearly needs to be a parallel duty on the third element in those plans, the local authority social care services, so we will want to raise that again.
The rights of children and parents to request an assessment is a positive change, as is the continuation of plans through further education and apprenticeships. However, parents need a single route of appeal on all three elements of the plan. As the plan is drafted, parents may have to go down three separate appeal routes simultaneously, and clearly that is not acceptable. The draft code of practice makes clear that this new system, welcome as it may be, will apply to only a tiny minority even of the population of children with special educational needs, compared with the 13% of SEN children statemented currently. Other SEN children —some 1.4 million—together with all those disabled and seriously ill children who do not have special educational needs will have to depend on the local offer to get support. For these children and their families, there will be no practitioner to forge the integration of health, education and care, despite the fact that many will need this. Parents will have to do it themselves, and yet this is one of the major problems with the current system that the Green Paper promised to address. The local offer gives no guarantee of services, only a list of what might be available and which is not enforceable. The Government do not want to specify what should be in a local offer, so parents face the same postcode lottery as they do now. Those are the headline issues. There are others, particularly the abolition of school action and school action plus, without any clarity as to what will replace them. This is a major change because it will erode many current entitlements for the majority of children who will not be eligible for an education, health and care plan.
Finally, as the Minister has acknowledged, there is widespread support across both Houses for young carers and for the parents of disabled children to be given the same entitlements included in the Care Bill for adult carers of disabled adults. The Minister in the other place agreed to look at it, and the Minister said that this has been done. I had hoped that we might get a progress statement today but, if not, I am happy that they are on the case and I hope that we may get further details during our debate.
The issues in the Bill are of the greatest importance to some of the most vulnerable children and families. The Bill is a tremendous opportunity for us to improve substantially their experiences, life chances and outcomes. I know that, right across the House, Members will want to secure the best outcomes for these children. We look forward to working with colleagues and with the Minister to make this Bill the best that it can possibly be.
My Lords, I welcome this much needed Bill. It brings together important proposals, making a big advancement for families and, above all, our children. For the first time in a generation the Government are tackling some of the major barriers that children and families face. We on these Benches are fully committed to giving disadvantaged children the best possible start in life. Reforms to special educational needs provision will help families to secure access to the support they deserve, new virtual heads will support the educational achievements of looked-after children and the proposals for shared parental leave and flexible working are a real step forward. The Bill also makes strides in reforming the family justice system, aiming to cut delay and encourage greater mediation.
I shall be so bold as to congratulate the Government on bringing the Bill forward. In so doing, I pay tribute to the previous Minister of State for Children and Families, Sarah Teather, who dedicated a significant amount of her time to ensuring that it reaches the statute book. It will stand as a testament to her hard work and perseverance. I also thank Ministers from both Houses for being prepared to listen and for having an approach that is both open-door and open-minded.
Like many Members, I have been amazed by the number of briefings I have received concerning the Bill. This not only illustrates how important it is to a myriad of different groups but also shows how much people care. That should not come as a surprise; after all, as we have heard, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to change children’s lives for the better. I am sure that as the Bill passes through your Lordships’ House in the autumn many issues will be raised and, where appropriate, amended.
I wish to concentrate on several areas that I hope the Minister will reflect upon later today. I welcome the new education, health and care plans, which replace statements and learning difficulty assessments, but, regretfully, they do not currently apply to young people in custody. We know that a third of young offenders have a SEN statement, compared to only 3% of the general population. Young offenders are among the most vulnerable members of our society and need all the support that we can offer them. Given that children in custody are particularly disadvantaged in this respect, it is illogical that they are being left out. I suggest that we extend the new plans to young offenders, otherwise we will miss a unique opportunity.
We learnt on Report in another place that, although the Government are committed to supporting young offenders in this way, the stumbling block to providing such support is conflict with the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Act 2009. The Government acknowledge that the current situation is not working and I suggest that we use this opportunity to make provision for young offenders with SEN. I hope that the Minister will examine this area so that we do not miss this important opportunity.
A child’s health condition does not stop at the school gates. Parents need to know that schools are places of learning that can cater for the needs of all young people; places where children with health conditions are both understood and cared for. Whether a child is diabetic, epileptic or severely allergic to something, schools must be able to support their needs. Take the example of a child with, say, a nut allergy. Unless appropriate care is taken, the child is at risk of a life-threatening anaphylactic reaction. Simple approaches can be taken by the school—ensuring that staff are EpiPen trained; ensuring that EpiPens are easily accessible and signposted; and displaying photographs of children with food allergies in the school kitchen and staffroom. Of course many or most schools do such things as standard, but many do not.
I have offered one example but the same may be said of children with diabetes, epilepsy, asthma, migraine, chronic fatigue and congenital heart defects. Indeed, in my own city of Liverpool, a young primary lad died of a sudden cardiac arrest. That school and family established the Oliver King Foundation and, with the support of the local media, are now putting facilities in every school in the city.
A child’s condition should have no impact on their ability to study. Though different from SEN, if medical needs are not managed properly they will surely impede a child’s education in much the same way. Too many schools fail to follow guidance in this area. Moreover, existing legislation is poorly designed for such purposes. Considering that there are no specific requirements to provide the necessary support for all children with health conditions, an amendment that places a clear duty on all schools seems to me to be eminently sensible. Indeed, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State recently indicated that practices in schools need improving. In Committee he said that guidance on managing medicines will be published this year, thus clarifying schools’ responsibilities. Does the Minister think that this is sufficient?
I turn now to the issue of young carers. Despite the good intentions in the Care Bill, there is now a yawning gap that leaves young carers in an unjust position. Young carers are children and young people who provide ongoing and regular care to family members while they themselves are in education. The 2001 census identified 175,000 young carers in the UK, 13,000 of whom care for more than 50 hours per week. The 2011 census identified a similar number, up to 178,000. However, there was an 83% increase in the number of young carers aged five to seven. These young carers often undertake inappropriate and burdensome responsibilities, and all too often they do not receive the support that they need. This of course results in poor educational outcomes. The Bill offers significant scope to improve the long-term life chances of young carers by enabling a whole-family approach, but I suggest that the rights and responsibilities need to be made clearer for young carers and practitioners alike. I know that Ministers are sympathetic to young carers’ needs, and I therefore look to amendments coming forward to provide this much needed support.
As I referred to earlier, this Bill is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to provide children and their families with real support for special educational needs. Education, health and care plans are at the centre of that support system. For the first time, SEN will be coupled with health and social care provision in a single global agreement. I am pleased that the Government have taken note in this area, and specifically that they have guaranteed that health requirements will become part of the plan. However, should I fear the same fate that has befallen our so-called “national curriculum”? The plans must do what they say on the label. They must entitle the holder to expect all the provisions that they detail: education, health and care. Will the Minister confirm this, so that we may give parents and young people greater confidence in the system?
In order to make the system truly joined-up, surely we should go that extra mile and realise the equal importance of there being one easily identifiable route of redress for families, should things go wrong. A single, accessible and understandable point of appeal is necessary. We must not create a system that forces families to navigate a vast and complex complaints system across three agencies. I look forward to hearing what the Minister intends to do in this regard.
I was delighted to receive a Written Answer from my noble friend the Minister, detailing how essential it is that teachers’ training prepares them to teach children with a broad range of special educational needs. I suggest that all teachers must be equipped with the skills to identify and support children with special educational needs, which should include specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia. It really is not good enough that we have a teaching profession that is not universally trained to understand the issues. There should be teachers in each school or each group of schools who are qualified to test for and identify dyslexia. Although I praise the work of SENCOs in schools, there is an urgent need for all initial teacher training programmes to include a mandatory module on dyslexia and other hidden disabilities. I hope that the Minister will reflect upon this point, and I know that my noble friend Lord Addington will press this important issue further.
When a young person enters higher or further education, their plan will not be “passported” with them. Although I welcome the extension of legal protections for young people with SEN up to the age of 25, as currently drafted, higher education institutions are excluded from the new framework. As I have been assured that the Government’s intention is to create a single system which supports the highest aspirations, surely this goes against the spirit of the Bill? It has the potential to cause delay, and will no doubt create unnecessary bureaucracy. I hope that the Minister will carefully consider that the plan should follow a young person, whichever setting they move to.
Finally, I followed with great interest the childcare ping-pong—or, as the Mayor of London would no doubt call it, the “whiff-whaff”—regarding reforms to childcare ratios. I now presume that it is game, set and match to the Lord President of the Council in this regard. Equally important is the need to give careful reconsideration to the introduction of a childminder agency system. The introduction of such an arrangement would mean that experienced childminders could be lost. Indeed, 71% of childminders have “outstanding” grades. They have built their own businesses and are now on a level footing with daycare centres. Currently, childminders are inspected every three years by Ofsted, but only every four years if they achieve “outstanding” status. However, as we have heard, under these proposals the agencies as organisations will be inspected while only a cross-section of their registered childminders will be inspected. There is a danger that childminders with less satisfactory standards will be afforded a higher status by virtue of their membership of a highly rated agency. When a parent chooses a registered childminder, they should be confident that the grade of the childminder reflects their talents. Can the Minister confirm that all childminders will be inspected by Ofsted, and not merely a cross-section of those who work for a particular agency?
As I said at the outset, the Bill is progressive in its aims and potentially life-changing for children and families in this country. By the way, when I was talking about the Oliver King Foundation, the word I could not bring to mind was “defibrillators”, so I was referring to defibrillators in every school. I hope that the Minister will reassure the House that the Government intend to revisit our areas of concern and, in so doing, ensure that the very promising provisions contained within the Bill will truly give families the support that they need when they need it most.
My Lords, I welcome the Children and Families Bill and the potential that it presents to provide a real choice of educational opportunities for disabled children, young people and their parents. The Government stated in their Green Paper, Support and Aspiration: A New Approach to Special Educational Needs and Disability, that they wanted a greater choice of education provision than what is currently available. However, the reality is that choice of education provision remains something of a myth. In 2013, disabled students are still the only group that can be prevented from choosing to be educated in mainstream education. Disabled children and young people can be placed on the roll of a special school against their wishes and against the wishes of their parents, even when those parents have clearly expressed a preference for mainstream education.
The lack of choice for disabled children with SEN and their families is as real now as it was eight years ago when the Disability Rights Commission investigation took place in 2005. The charity, Working Families, which represents the parents of disabled children who were involved in the investigation, said:
“Parents of disabled children may be faced with a very limited choice of schooling locally. They may encounter difficulties in ensuring their disabled child is educated alongside their siblings if there is no appropriate provision”.
When parents opt for a special school place for their disabled child, there is no evidence that this indicates a preference for special schooling. In 2009, the Centre for Studies on Inclusive Education submitted written evidence in the form of a memorandum to the Joint Committee on Human Rights when it was looking at children’s rights. It stated that:
“The idea that parents do have a choice, under the present system, is in any case a myth. Children in segregated schools are often there because they have been rejected by their local mainstream school (if indeed they ever got as far as the door). Many parents who ‘choose’ a special school placement do so because they believe, or have been told by professionals, that mainstream provision is not possible for their child. In other words, that mainstream provision is currently structured in a way that it cannot respond to the diversity of learners. This means that many parents do not have the ‘choice’ of mainstream at all, rendering a special school placement an unwelcome inevitability. To say that they have chosen this is misleading and, potentially, insulting”.
Parents placing children in special schools do not see this as equality of choice; on the contrary, it is rather the outcome of discrimination that surely goes against both the spirit and the wording of the Equality Act public sector equality duty. This duty makes it very clear that statutory bodies, including the Government, local authorities, schools and colleges, are under a proactive duty to promote equality between disabled and non-disabled pupils in terms of both accessing and participating in mainstream education. An Alliance for Inclusive Education member who is a parent said:
“Unfortunately and against all my beliefs we have had to opt for a special school … If you segregate with disability then you are saying that these children should not have the same opportunity as so called normal children which in my view is discrimination”.
Local authorities are key in making choice in education, since they have the power to place children and young people with SEN on the roll of special schools. The reduction of funding available to local authorities and the increasing number of special schools being funded by the Department for Education through the academies and free schools programme will lead to greater numbers of disabled children and young people with SEN being placed in special schools. A disabled child on the roll of a mainstream school is likely to require the local authority to pay for additional SEN support directly from the local authority’s education budget. However, the cost to the local authority of a DfE-funded special academy school placement is nil, as spending comes directly from the department. The choice will therefore be driven by the need to balance the books, rather than by duties under the Equality Act. If the Government want real choice, there is a need to remove the local authority’s power to name a special school against the expressed wish of a family. This change needs to be reflected during the new education, health and care assessment and planning process, which will replace existing statementing.
The Children and Families Bill covers only the placing of children and young people with SEN in a mainstream school or college building. It does not cover what children and young people with SEN will learn while attending. Since the Academies Act, increasing numbers of children and young people have lost their entitlement to a national curriculum as academies are no longer required to offer it. The result is that children are denied access to a broad and balanced curriculum and are increasingly being placed on special courses. Effectively, instead of increasing choice, there is already a restriction of choice cascading down from post-16.
The Learning and Skills Council report in 2008 found that disabled people with learning disabilities were four times more likely to be enrolled on a segregated course rather than a mainstream accredited course, whether at college or sixth form. Since the report was published, little has changed. The Down’s Syndrome Association has expressed concerns that children with Down’s syndrome have been placed into discrete courses for students with learning disabilities and difficulties, without the opportunity even to consider mainstream accredited courses. If the Government want to promote greater educational choice, they must include a choice of courses.
As a vehicle for providing more choice, the personal budgets that will be made available for young people with SEN and their parents is welcomed. For the first time, children and young people with SEN will be able to use a direct payment instead of depending on the SEN provision to be arranged by the school, college or local authority. This will have an impact particularly on further education, as it should mean that young people will be able to purchase the support that they need while attending a course of their choice. However, for students in schools or post-16 there is still a snag, because they will need consent from the institution before they can make use of the personal budget, as required under the Special Educational Needs (Direct Payments) (Pilot Scheme) Order 2011. The unfortunate reality is that in today’s financial climate it is very unlikely that colleges and schools will provide consent for a personal budget request made by young people or their parents, as this will mean a reduction in their own budget. If the Government want to promote choice, then the parents and young person requesting a personal budget should be given one, as is the case currently with social care personal budgets. Only when young people have a personal budget will their choice increase—a real choice over which mainstream courses they want to attend.
For the Government to promote a genuine choice of educational opportunities, they need to remove and not increase the barriers that prevent children and young people from participating in mainstream education. If the Minister believes in choice of education provision, he should first consider the local authority’s power to frustrate children, young people and parents from exercising their choice of mainstream education provision. Secondly, the Minister should reconsider the options for schools and colleges to refuse families and young people with SEN the option of seeking a personal budget in lieu of support provided by the institution.
The reason why I am so passionate about this is because more than 30 years ago my parents fought for the same things that many parents fight for today. It is really challenging for young people who are trying to balance so many different options and for parents trying to make the right choices. It is vital that we allow parents to have real choice.
My Lords, as other noble Lords have said, there is much to welcome in this Bill, especially the important changes for looked-after and adopted children. I add the support from this Bench too for the broad ambition of the Bill to extend a greater level of choice, participation and long-term support for young people with special educational needs and their families. I declare an interest as a former chair of the Children’s Society and I am delighted that my successor, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Truro, will take part in this debate.
I want to touch briefly on three particular areas: care leavers, young carers and children with special educational needs. First, I am concerned that we may have missed an important opportunity during the passage of the Bill to make a much-needed change for care leavers. These are young people who are in need of special attention and ongoing support as they transition into adulthood. One particular category of care leavers who are seriously disadvantaged is those who are subject to immigration control. Many of those young people are here on their own with no parent or legal carer looking out for them and have come here from places such as Afghanistan, Somalia, Iran, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Eritrea to seek sanctuary. They have often lost their loved ones. They have experienced unimaginable violence and abuse. Some may have been recruited as child soldiers or have been exploited in multiple ways. However, when they come to the United Kingdom for safety, too often they are denied the protection they need due to the decision-making process within government departments. They can be left in a limbo where they are not recognised as refugees, but cannot return home because it is too dangerous for them to do so. As they turn 18, they get caught by immigration restrictions which put them at risk of being made homeless and going hungry.
A report by the Children’s Society entitled I Don’t Feel Human was published in 2012 and highlighted this issue by showing how young people who had come to this country on their own as unaccompanied children were ending up destitute and homeless. This was because they were being cut off from the local authority support as they turned 18 due to their uncertain immigration status.
Many of those young people are destitute and resort to self-harming and attempt suicide out of sheer desperation about their situation. We need to do what we can to ensure that those vulnerable young people continue to get the support they need as long as they are here. Would the Minister be open to exploring making an amendment to Schedule 3 to the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 to ensure that it does not apply to lone children and care leavers?
I want to say a brief word about young carers. The recent census from 2011 stated that there were approximately 166,000 young carers in the United Kingdom, but there is reason to believe that that is just the tip of the iceberg, as many young carers remain hidden from the view of the professionals. I know from my experience how many of them live lives that are profoundly restricted, demanding and exhausting, bearing responsibilities well beyond what is reasonable for their years. When the Children's Society looked into the long-term outcomes for young carers in its recent report, Hidden from View, it found no strong evidence that young carers are more likely than their peers to come into contact with support agencies, despite government recognition that that needs to happen. That research also found that young carers are 1.5 times more likely than their peers to have a special educational need or a disability. Young carers are more likely than the national average to be not in education, employment or training between the ages of 16 and 19.
That is why I welcome what the Children’s Minister in the other place said when he made a clear commitment to consider how legislation might be changed so that rights and responsibilities are clearer to young carers and practitioners alike in this important area. I also welcome his commitment to a “whole family” approach to the assessment of care needs. It is therefore important and encouraging that the Children’s Minister and the Minister for Care Services have come together to ensure that both the adults’ legislation in the form of the Care Bill and the children's legislation which we are discussing today can work together to allow for whole-family approaches.
Can the Minister update us on when we might see any proposed changes to legislation to support that approach? I would also welcome any update from the Minister about the work that his department is doing to support the linking of assessments across adult and children's services.
Finally, I would like to say a word about children with special educational needs. I welcome much that is here, but share the disappointment of the consortium of national specialist colleges that many of the amendments tabled in Committee in the other place proved to be unsuccessful. In particular, can the Minister provide greater clarity on the composition and functioning of the Section 41 list of providers that young people will be able to request for inclusion on their education, health and care plan? Can the Minister ensure that there is positive affirmation in the Bill that young people will be entitled to an education, health and care plan up to the age of 25 and ensure that local authorities will not end these plans too early?
On these Benches we warmly welcome the fact that the Government have chosen to give legislative priority to a number of very important issues that affect children and young people. We look forward to making our contribution to shaping this Bill in its passage through this House.
My Lords, my comments today are concerned only with those aspects of the Bill, mainly in Part 3, that deal with children and young people with special educational needs.
Some 35 years ago the report of the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, whom I am delighted to see in her seat today, paved the way for wide-ranging changes in the way that the state education system deals with children with special needs and disabilities. It is more than 30 years since the Education Act 1981 put in place many of the tenets of the current legislation and the system of statements of special needs. It is some six years since the publication of the second report of my Commission on Special Needs in Education, which I was asked to chair by the then leader of the Opposition, who is now the Prime Minister.
In the course of that commission, we noted that the extraordinary advances in medicine since the Warnock report and the 1981 Act mean that many more children, often with the most serious, multiple disabilities, now not only survive birth but can find much contentment in much longer lives with the proper attention, therapy, medication and—very importantly—education. During the commission we also heard from a large number of dedicated professionals and devoted parents, whose work on behalf of children with special needs is both heartening and humbling. Virtually every submission noted, and almost every witness from whom we took evidence believed, that radical revision of the provision for special education needs was long overdue. It is for this reason that I welcome the aim to create through this Bill a new legislative framework that better reflects the different circumstances that the decades since 1981 have brought.
In particular, I commend the Bill’s focus on extending the coverage of legislation from birth to 25 years of age, unlike the current system that applies only to the end of school-based education, at which point, to quote a parent giving evidence to us, the child will,
“fall off an educational cliff”.
It is particularly important that those in this older age group with profound and complex needs are eligible for the continuation of their plans, for there are few clear-cut educational opportunities for them and they are the ones most likely to benefit from the continued protection of their plans.
I very much welcome the Bill’s new provisions, mentioned by the Minister, to place a legal duty on health services to make the healthcare provisions specified in the proposed education, health and care plan. I believe—but I stand to be corrected—that in Scotland social care is also included.
I firmly support the provision for personal budgets and direct payments. I note with concern, however, that last month’s evaluation of the pathfinder local authorities carrying out this work at the moment reported that,
“many areas had found it difficult to develop personal budgets”,
and referred to the “limited take-up” of direct payments. In light of these assessments, I am sure that Ministers will be able to reassure your Lordships that they will redouble their efforts to address these concerns.
In his Written Statement to mark the launch of the Green Paper that preceded this Bill, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education set out his aspiration for,
“a radically different system to support better life outcomes for young people; give parents confidence by giving them more control; and transfer power to professionals on the front line and to local communities”.—[Official Report, Commons, 9/3/11; col. 64WS.]
The expectations from the new legislation will therefore be very high among families and professionals working in this area, and among all those who seek to ensure that some of our most vulnerable young citizens are adequately supported. If they are not to be disappointed, we must satisfy ourselves that the legislation before us and the regulations and guidance that will follow it will allow these laudable aims for change fully to be met.
It is with this in mind that I want to highlight one of the main challenges I believe the Government will face in moving from what are commitments to actually implementing the legislation. I referred a moment ago to the recent evaluation report of the pathfinder local authorities. It is encouraging to note in it the efforts made by pathfinders to test the new processes provided for in the Bill, and to read that they,
“appear to recognise the advantages of working differently, and are positive about the impact of … changes”.
However, it is clear that pathfinder authorities have had to devote considerable time and resources to developing these new processes and that while there have been some encouraging findings from them, the pathfinders themselves encompass only a small minority of authorities—fewer than a quarter of those in England. As a result, even where pathfinders are able to make progress in putting in place elements of the proposed system, there is still a huge task ahead for these lessons to be communicated, understood and implemented across the vast majority of local authorities and, just as importantly, for these lessons to inform the regulations and guidance that will follow this Bill. I do not need to spell out the consequences of this being done inadequately. Experience suggests, I fear, that in many areas these reforms will be very slow indeed to take effect.
My final point today is that we must absolutely ensure, as we seek to put in place this radically different new system to which the legislation aspires, that we do not remove the current rights for parents and children under existing legislation. This is a point to which I will wish to return, as I suspect others of your Lordships will, as the Bill progresses through your Lordships’ House.
My Lords, the social reformer Gertrude Tuckwell, writing in 1894, said:
“Among the social questions with which the nation has to deal, there is none, it seems to me, so important as … children”.
I agree, and I am pleased to be speaking in this Second Reading of a Bill which seeks to make life better for children. I know that is something which we across this House have always sought to do. However, the Bill has challenges to its implementation and I share the concerns of my noble friend Lady Hughes and those of the noble Lord, Lord Lingfield. We are experiencing severe cuts to services for families. Child poverty, by whatever measure we use, is increasing and is likely to increase further. Voluntary sector organisations point out risks to the Bill in relation to the potential fragmentation of local services, which may add to the onus placed on them, for example in relation to adoption and how the voice of the child and advocacy for children will be regarded. It will be important to assess these risks associated with delivery of the Bill; it will be equally important to monitor and evaluate progress.
There is much expertise in this House on all aspects of the Bill. I shall focus on four issues: young carers, kinship care, the Office of the Children’s Commissioner for England and the importance of supporting children to develop personal, social and health skills. Young carers have already been discussed eloquently by the right reverend Prelate. I simply repeat what he said by asking when proposals on young carers will come forward, given the positive response we had in another place.
Kinship care has been a long-running saga in both Houses and seems to stall regularly. Between 200,000 and 300,000 children are being raised by family members or friends, because their parents may be dead, suffering from addictions, in prison, or otherwise incapable. I have heard anecdotes from kinship carers when I was in a previous role concerned with drug addiction. Many carers who spoke to me were devoted and committed grandparents; some of them had given up work to care and in some cases their health and family life had suffered due to their becoming a carer in a crisis. Research has shown that children who live with kinship carers have better educational, social and emotional outcomes than those who go into other forms of care.
Grandparents Plus is concerned that Clause 1 removes the duty on the local authority to give preference to keeping children with their families. It also contravenes the right to family life and is not in the best interest of the child. The Minister indicated in the Commons at Report stage that the Government will bring forward their own amendments to Clause 1 to address these concerns. I know that the Kinship Care Alliance is keen to work with the Government on resolving this and I look forward to hearing of any progress. Other issues of kinship care include adjustment leave for grandparents and family carers, paid leave as equivalent of adoption leave, and parental leave for grandparents to support a family in emergency. We shall no doubt wish to return to such concerns at a later stage.
The Office of the Children’s Commissioner is a welcome addition, if somewhat late for England and not particularly well funded, but here we are. It is surely essential that the Children’s Commissioner has the power and independence to promote child rights and welfare, including for those children who have been trafficked or are in custody, and for those seeking asylum.
I am concerned about the independence of the Office of the Children’s Commissioner, in appointments and the powers to function. I have to say that I do not trust the Government to encourage independence in appointments. Some Members of your Lordships’ House have suffered from being in or tending toward the wrong political party, or being seen to be awkward, or criticising government actions. I include myself in that. For example, it surely cannot be right in a public appointment to exclude a notable sportswoman from appointment to a sports body because she criticised proposed policy in a welfare Bill. This is ludicrous. It is even more ludicrous when in one such set of appointments no women or people from ethnic minority backgrounds were appointed to an advisory board. This is not just about individuals. It is about fair principles of appointment to public bodies. I am concerned that such an important appointment as the Children’s Commissioner may be hijacked by these concerns about independence. We need to be vigilant.
Let me move on briefly to the importance of personal, social and health education in schools. We have discussed this many times. As I, the Minister, most of this House, parents and children and the industry know, PSHE is not just about sex education, even though the media would have us think that it is. PSHE is about helping young people to develop respect for self and others, communication skills and the self-confidence to learn. It includes developing a positive school ethos, and social policies such as anti-bullying, healthy eating, and positive relationships inside and outside school. The noble Lord, Lord Storey, spoke about the importance of policies on health issues such as long-term conditions for children, and I fully agree with him. Young people do not come separated between health and education.
PSHE provides information on encouraging skills and helping young people think for themselves about the kind of people that they want to be. The debate on citizenship introduced last Thursday by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, highlighted the importance of community cohesion and the dangers of anti-social behaviour, and of drug and alcohol misuse. These are all relevant to PSHE.
PSHE should be required provision in schools. Pupils must surely be encouraged to have a framework other than media or friends and family to explore their spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development, and to respect themselves and others. I shall seek support for an amendment to require schools to make provision for PSHE. It will be a simple amendment to paragraph 2.1 of the national curriculum framework, and I shall detail it at a later stage.
I look forward to our deliberations during the passage of the Bill. By the time it has completed its passage through this House much wisdom will have been shared, and I hope that agreements will have been reached. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, in what my noble friend Lord Storey called a “progressive and promising Bill”, I will largely confine myself—today, at any rate—to Part 1. I should declare an interest because I was a board member of and legal adviser to Parents for Children, an adoption agency, many years ago and am a patron—one of several who are speaking today—of PAC, which deals with pre and post-adoption support.
Under the invigorating chairmanship of the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, I was a member of the Select Committee that played a sort of legislative leapfrog with the Government as they launched proposals into the public domain, so we undertook both pre and post-legislative scrutiny. What most impressed me during our work was the importance of early permanence and the increasing understanding of that and of the importance of identity: the need to know one’s identity and the need for parents to know and understand a child’s identity. It became clear to the Select Committee that many current concerns are more around practice than legislation. The logic of that should perhaps be fewer amendments, which will be a relief to the Minister. We shall see.
We heard that reforms already made to tackle delay in adoption need time to bed in, although they seem to be making a real difference. That went hand in hand with a warning that disruption caused by wholesale changes to the role of local authorities could significantly destabilise their implementation. I am far from convinced that removing local authorities from the adoption approval process is appropriate. Governments like to talk about a light touch; what is in the Bill is potentially very heavy-handed. Like others, I believe that joint working by local authorities with one another and voluntary agencies should be the focus, as well as dealing with what might seem marginal but are obviously quite significant difficulties, such as employment law, single Ofsted inspections and a number of other details.
It is unacceptable that prospective adopters should be deterred because an authority is small or is not willing to share, but better networking and collaboration across the sector must be the answer. I am entirely with the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, which talks about the shortfall not just in absolute numbers but in identifying suitable adopters and the benefit to be gained from local authorities going even further in their collaborative efforts on this. I believe that goes, in part, to pre-adoption support, which I will mention later. We also need to sort out any financial disincentives arising from the operation of fees.
I am very uneasy that the provision in Clause 3, which gives the Secretary of State a power of direction with regard to local authorities without spelling out the criteria for the exercise of that power, could mean that powers are removed from local authorities without certainty that the voluntary sector can cope. I do not think this is a matter for the market.
Going back to the beginning of the Bill and to something that several noble Lords have mentioned, the Bill states that when the local authority is “considering” adoption for a child, it must before doing so consider fostering for adoption. I, too, look forward to hearing what the Minister will say on this. The more I think about it, the less clear I am about what “considering” means. It is not a technical term. The Government’s own guidance says that the point at which it is appropriate to plan for adoption varies from case to case.
I am also worried about the presumption later in the Bill that the involvement of a parent in the life of a child will further the child’s welfare. If the child’s welfare is a paramount consideration, as it is, must be and must remain, how can there be a presumption?
I will continue to sing the Select Committee’s song with regard to ethnicity. The existing framework does not prioritise ethnicity. I do not believe in legislation being used to give messages, but I think that sometimes if you repeal legislation, it does give a message. I agreed with the committee that retaining ethnicity as a factor, listing it as part of the welfare checklist, is important. It is about understanding identity. We heard from the chief executive of PAC in the following terms:
“It should not just be that there has been an attempt to find the right racial family for this child, it has not been possible, and so any family will do. It has to be a family that understands and has committed themselves to that journey”.
That is one of a wide range of issues on which both the adoptive person and the adoptive parent may need support—something that I cannot stress too strongly. I look forward to looking at how the proposed personal budgets will work, given that the availability of sources of support is at least as important. I noted that the amount of the budget comes higher in the list of matters for regulation than description of the services.
During the course of the Bill, I intend to raise the matter of access to information by the descendants of adopted persons, which I know also interests the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss. I do not have time to go into it this afternoon, but I understand that the Ministry of Justice is concerned about the scale of the issue. I also know the commitment of my noble friend Lord McNally to freedom of and access to information.
I end with the issue of contact. I was very interested in a report that many noble Lords will have received recently from the University of Oxford and the University of Sussex about what is important in contact. I picked up a lot about the child’s voice being heard. I have pretty much unbounded admiration for people who foster or adopt; it is almost beyond my imagining. I also have a lot of admiration for the social workers involved and for the children who cope and contribute to their own success. It was salutary to hear the point from children during our work on the Select Committee, some of whom said, “They don’t listen to me, because I’m a looked-after child and they are professionals”. Another child said, “People listen only to what they want to hear”. In our scrutiny of this Bill, we need to listen to children very carefully.
My Lords, last Wednesday the Minister discussed the Children and Families Bill at the weekly meeting of the Cross-Bench Peers. I was particularly interested in Part 3 and the provisions affecting children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities. I asked how the local authorities who were trialling the provisions for this group—pathfinders, as they are known—were progressing, but no one seemed to have a clear idea of the present position, unlike the noble Lord, Lord Lingfield, who obviously has studied the situation. I, too, have looked into this matter and believe that noble Lords might like to hear my findings.
The evaluation of the pathfinder programme’s Process and Implementation Research Report, published last month, shows that 18 months into 29 pathfinder projects, one pathfinder had still only partially developed a project plan while two pathfinders had only partially agreed a clear set of objectives and partially sorted out a project board and governance structure. Similarly, six had not fully established commitment to share education, seven to share social care and 14 to share health resources. The report highlights plenty of good practice and plenty of good will, but it also highlights slow responses in creating the kind of change that it is expected in the Children and Families Bill will happen very quickly.
Furthermore, the pathfinder group of local authorities was given additional resources and support, and volunteered to make changes. However, this current legislation is not going to provide additional resources for the remaining 297 local authorities. It is being introduced at a time when the authorities are restructuring their health and education provision to meet entirely different government priorities. It is being introduced by local authority staff, many of whom are having their services outsourced and having to establish new consultancy and contractual agreements across a whole raft of provision, and all of whom are having to deal with profound levels of financial cutback. What will their priority be? Will it be in delivering this new service, in meeting the demands of this legislation? It is extremely likely that, in many cases, local authorities will not consider this a priority and, as such, numerous children and young people, their families and the professionals with whom they work will pay a very high price.
Education, health and care plans will replace statements of special educational needs. As currently drafted, the special educational provision set out in a plan must be secured by the local authority. The Government have amended the Bill to place health commissioners under a duty to arrange any health provision set out in a plan. However, as has been mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Hughes, this leaves social care as a poor relative. It remains the only part of the plan that is not enforceable.
As president of Mencap, this is of great concern to me and others, as the majority of children and young people with a learning disability need some form of care and would benefit immensely from placing the social care part of the plan on an equal footing, thus leading to the longed-for joined-up support. Without this, parents will continue to find themselves battling to secure the appropriate support for their child against a cash-strapped local authority and with the most complex demands to meet before they can obtain such support.
Clause 37, among other things, sets out what education, health and care plans might specify. Explicitly, there is mention of the future outcomes to which a child or young person might aspire. However, there is no mention of work-related outcomes. The transition from education and training into work is a difficult one for people with a learning disability and simply does not happen for the vast majority. Indeed, fewer than 7% of people with a learning disability known to social services are in any form of employment, despite the National Audit Office declaring that,
“supporting one person with learning disabilities into employment could, in addition to improving their independence and self-esteem, reduce lifetime cost to the public purse by around £170,000”—
that is per person—
“at today's prices … and increase their income by between 55 and 95 per cent”.
The Government have affirmed their commitment to continuing support to those on education, health and care plans who are undertaking an apprenticeship. However, that needs to go further. Many people with a learning disability are unable to access apprenticeships because of difficulties in achieving the English and maths elements of the framework. Supported employment is a personalised approach to working with people with significant disabilities. This support enables them to access and retain open employment, focusing on learning in the workplace and shaped around the individual’s particular support needs. It is a widely recognised and well evidenced approach, and one that the Government support as best practice. I hope that the Minister can comment on why currently this is not mentioned in either the Bill or the accompanying Explanatory Notes.
It goes without saying that I support many of the points raised by my noble friend Lord Low and other noble Lords on other areas, such as strengthening the local offer, introducing a single point of redress and protecting current rights and entitlements. The aspirations of the Bill are bold and should be welcomed. However, if they are to be realised, substantial improvements are needed and appropriate resources must be provided to support the relevant agencies. In addition, social care must be put on an equal footing together with education and health. I hope that the final version of the Bill does just that and that the Government do not shy away from the real improvements that children, young people, families, professionals and so many of us here wish to see.
My Lords, this Bill is large and comprehensive and, as such, it is a bit like the curate’s egg. It is good and bad in parts. One very good thing is that it provides us with a chance to debate reforms to current laws and, one hopes, reach cross-party consensus on many new issues. There are a number of parts of the Bill that I welcome and believe will improve on our current legislation. For example, there is the strengthening of the office of the Children’s Commissioner for England with the remit to promote and protect children’s rights. Any strengthening in this area is surely to be welcomed. In particular, it is to be hoped that the commissioner will have sufficient funds to carry out his or her duties and that as few constraints as are reasonably possible are placed on his or her activities and priorities. I hope that a key part of the commissioner’s role will be to raise public awareness of children’s rights, publish an annual report on the work of the commission and recommend action to improve the position of children in England wherever this is needed.
I also welcome the right for workers to request flexible working time, particularly the new timing requirement on employers to respond within three months to such a request. The proposed code of practice must not water down the guarantees and provisions that cover employees. For example, it must include a proper conciliatory meeting, the right to be accompanied at such a meeting and the right of appeal. These are fundamental rights for workers that must continue.
However, like all new legislation, this Bill has omissions, and changes will be needed as we debate. I will start by looking at the area of adoption, where I welcome the removal from local authorities of explicit duties to consider a child’s religion, racial origins and cultural and linguistic background when placing children for adoption. I also welcome proposals to cut the length of time that it takes to adopt a child. As we have heard, it takes around two years for a child in the care system to be placed for adoption. That is far too long. It goes without saying that the best interests of the child must be paramount, and speed should not come before considered decisions of the adoption of individual children. However, unnecessary delays in adoption are not in the best interests of the child, who needs a stable, loving and caring environment.
I am the grandmother of two adopted siblings, a boy and a girl, who have brought unlimited pride and pleasure to our family. Rightly, my daughter and her husband were interviewed and examined thoroughly before my grandson was adopted. But having already proved their suitability as parents for him, the same unwieldy process was carried out again when they applied to adopt his sister four years later, so she was not able to join our family until she was nearly a year old. This seemed to be a really unnecessary delay. If the adoption of one child proves successful, surely the suitability of the parents to adopt again is evident. I would therefore back any government action to reduce unnecessary delay in adoption.
I turn now to special educational needs and related issues. I am a little bemused and have some queries about the proposals relating to SEN. The first questions relate to the local offer to be made by local authorities regarding support for children and young people with SEN. How exactly would the children, young people and parents be involved with the offer and the personal budget? What will happen when the personal budget is spent? Who turns to whom? Would there not need to be a professional input into preparation of the budget? Finally, how can it be ensured that a postcode lottery does not develop regarding this budget?
I turn now to a clause proposed but not carried in the other place, relating to a requirement for schools to draw up specific provision for children with medical conditions such as asthma, diabetes or cancer, as has been mentioned by other speakers. Such children need there to be staff at school who know how to meet their medical needs. They may or may not need educational support but they certainly need medically aware staff. This can be a life-or-death issue.
About a month ago, my grandson, who has had asthma since he was very small but appeared to be growing out of it—he is now 14—had a bad attack while at school. The procedure that had been agreed between my daughter, who is his mother, and the school was not followed. The result was that my grandson had to text his mother to say that he did not feel well enough to travel home by bus, his usual way of travel. When my daughter arrived at the school by car, she found him alone in the playground, gasping for breath. She tried to drive to the doctor’s surgery where she knew that the necessary steroids were kept, but his oxygen level decreased rapidly. Instead, she drove further to the hospital, where eventually he stabilised. The teachers on duty that day had not recognised his needs. He could have died.
A clause such as that proposed in the other place is not only necessary but essential. It is also essential that specified teacher and support staff receive medical training for such emergencies. Economically speaking, this is sound and would save hospitalisation and reduce demand on already-stretched resources. Socially speaking, it is vital to ensure that all our children are as safe as possible in the school environment. I hope that we can reconsider such a clause.
My Lords, I wish to speak about Part 3, which is mainly concerned with the reform of special educational needs and disability.
I commend the Government for recognising that the system with which families have to contend to secure the right services for their children is adversarial and in need of improvement. The many, many charities and organisations—such as Together for Short Lives; CLIC Sargent, a charity that deals with children with cancer; Scope; the National Deaf Children’s Society; charities related to children with autism; and many others—have highlighted through the evidence that they have gathered that the disjointed system of care presents many challenges for the families of children with life-limiting conditions.
There are nearly 39,000 children and young people with life-limiting and life-threatening conditions. Up to 1,600 children aged up to 15 and 2,000 aged between 16 and 24 are diagnosed with cancer each year. Nine out of 10 of these children feel that their diagnosis and treatment make a difference to their school lives. Many others have other serious and life-threatening conditions. Children who have different needs and require complex, individualised health interventions also need additional social care and educational support. The families of these children routinely deal with more than 30 professionals, from education, social care, health and other services. Communication between agencies is generally inadequate, adding further stress to families and children. While this is stressful for families of children with disabilities and long-term conditions, for families whose children’s lives are likely to be short it is particularly distressing. One parent said:
“It’s a minefield and you get frightened going through it. Services don’t join up and people don’t explain things to you. They don’t tell you what all the services actually do. By the time I had made it all fit together my child had passed away—that makes me sad that he could have had so much more out of life”.
Evidence shows that for these children the best outcome is achieved when there is an effective partnership between parents and services and care is co-ordinated around the needs of the child. I felt the Government had got it right when they proposed integrated health, education and social care assessment plans, improving joint commissioning between local agencies. Alas, the Bill was changed and I concur with the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Hughes of Stretford. The Government have withdrawn to a position in the Bill whereby only children who have special educational needs will be able to benefit from these reforms. Why did the Government change their mind?
Many children with complex health conditions, including cancer, cystic fibrosis and many other diseases mentioned by other noble Lords would benefit from a single education, health and care plan—the so-called EHC plan—but would not meet the requirements for a SEN statement. It cannot have been the Government’s intention to exclude these children. It also flies against the recommendation made by the Education Select Committee in the other place and the Government’s stated aim to remove the graduated approach to SEN. Up to a quarter of disabled children do not have a SEN statement. What plans do the Government have to integrate assessment and services for this group of children?
Clause 30 requires a local authority to produce information on education, health and care services “it expects” to be available locally, known as the “local offer”. This has the potential to speed up access to services and to increase confidence in the system. The added provision to assist children transitioning from childhood to adulthood is to be welcomed. However, Clause 30, which deals with this, is not strong enough to ensure that the benefits of the new local offer will be realised, as other noble Lords have commented. First, a local authority will have to set out only the provision “it expects” to be available in the local offer. That wording is not strong enough to provide redress for parents or young people if those services are not available. Secondly, there is too much scope for variation between local areas in services that will be specified. Clause 30 would be strengthened by a legal duty to provide what is set out in the local offer, which would enable parents and young people to challenge local authorities. I hope the Minister is sympathetic to that, as the feeling is quite strong that such a duty should be in the Bill.
Also required in the Bill is a common framework to inform the development of each local offer. I am concerned, too, that the Bill’s focus on education means that a once-in-a-generation opportunity to join up services for all disabled children and young people, particularly around the transition from children’s to adult services, is being lost. Young people between the ages of 18 and 25 who may move in and out of education or leave education altogether will not have access to a single EHC plan and will lose access to support. This will include many young people who need palliative care who, owing to the complexity of their conditions, do not continue in education. This Bill, in addition to the Care Bill, which we continue to debate in Committee, will bring about two different systems for young disabled people who transit from children’s to adult services in England, depending on their educational status.
The Bill provides an opportunity to ensure that young people with complex conditions, or diseases such as cancer, up to the age of 25 continue to have access to an EHC plan, regardless of their educational circumstances. I hope that the Government feel sympathetic to this and that they take this opportunity to ensure that it happens. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, in this debate many noble Lords have already put forward serious issues for the Minister to consider and they have suggested additions that they would wish to see. I know that the Minister will reply to their questions with his usual care and courtesy, and I myself have certainly listened to them with great sympathy. However, the Minister may have nothing to say to me, as I simply want to give a very warm welcome to the Bill. Indeed, there are some provisions in it that give me more pleasure than anything I have seen in the past 20 or so years.
I should like to mention just three provisions which are especially relevant to women, because I believe that the women of this country should celebrate them. In certain areas, they represent a huge step forward, for which we have been fighting for over a generation.
Like many women, I wrestled for many years to balance the responsibilities of a demanding job and the needs of, in my case, four young children. I owed a duty to my employer to give as much time as the job demanded, and I both owed a duty and cherished a wish to be with my family, enjoying their company, as much as I possibly could. I used to say that I lived with a permanent sense of guilt: if I was with the family, I felt guilty about the job, and if I was in the job, I felt guilty about my family. In those days, there was no flexibility in work at all. The hours were fixed, and the expectations of my bosses were for many more hours than the contract strictly required. The very idea that one might plead, for example, an important speech day at one’s child’s school as a reason to leave work a little early was just unthinkable.
Over the years, many employers have become more enlightened, and slow, welcome progress has been made for many lucky workers. Now, there is a wonderful provision in the Bill that gives everyone—men and women—the right to flexible working hours. Work at home on occasions when there is something important to get done quietly without losing time in travel or interruptions from colleagues? Yes. Start late to be there for the children as they go off to school? Yes. Or start early and leave early to be there when they get home? Yes.
How many women have worked through their lunch break to complete a task so as to leave in time to pick up children from school? An American friend of mine who is a very senior banker told me that her bank had recently conducted a study into the work patterns of its employees. She told me, “We found that the first 10 or so people out of the door at close of business were all mothers of young families, and we were very concerned about that. But then we found that those women actually put in more hours in a week than most of their older or male colleagues because they worked straight through their lunch hour”. Now, there will be no need for such stress. While of course these are welcome provisions for both men and women, we know from many studies that in a majority of families women still bear the principal responsibility for childcare, so this is indeed a policy for women to welcome, and I welcome flexible working.
The second area which is good news for women, although it is one where, again, both men and women benefit, is the provision for shared maternity leave. In the past, and for many still today, coming home from hospital with a newborn means at best only a few days with a partner’s help to cope with sleep deprivation and physical weariness. After those few days, the young mother is on her own, often reaching exhaustion at the unremitting responsibility of meeting the demands of a baby.
How wonderful for the new mother now, thanks to the provisions in the Bill, to have several weeks to share the burdens, as well as the joys. How right it is for the child to be able to bond with both parents in those precious early days. The Bill gives infinite possibilities in sharing the 12-month entitlement: time together at the start, and the remaining time perhaps split so that each parent can spend time at home with the baby while the other works. What a welcome and wonderful offering this is.
I do not share the negative doubts of the noble Baroness, Lady Hughes. I am sure that many fathers will welcome this provision. Many men regret the lost opportunities to spend time with a much loved small child. This Bill gives fathers the opportunity of a proper shared role in bringing up a small child. In so doing, it may even provide one more valuable shift in the balance of the roles of men and women in families, helping more young parents to stay together as their children grow up.
The third area where I believe this Bill will be welcomed by many women who care about the emotional and social welfare of children is the presumption of equal access for both parents after separation and divorce. All too often in recent years, the assumption has been not only that the welfare of the child implies that they live with their mother but that the wishes of the mother are paramount in determining what access is granted to the father. Denying a child adequate contact and time with both their parents is not in that child's best interest. The sense of self-worth and confidence in any child comes primarily from one's parents, and continued contact with two parents can strengthen a child's confidence, even after the trauma of divorce. I was interested to read in the Sunday Times the words of Penelope Leach, a guru of childcare in the 1980s and 1990, who said—rather surprisingly, coming from her—that even bad fathers should, with proper supervision and safeguards, be allowed time with their children, because that contact is so important for the child. Although some angry divorced mothers may—understandably, perhaps, in some cases—resent this provision, it is contrary to all we know about the interests of a child to allow any mother to use her children as a weapon in her anger against their father. I am confident that the overwhelming majority of mothers, who see how much their children both love and need their fathers, will welcome this measure. I am proud that the coalition Government whom I support have brought forward what I believe is an excellent Bill for women and for families.
My Lords, I will address Part 3 principally in this debate on Second Reading. However, I acknowledge that many of the other parts of the Bill offer a great deal and I look forward to discussing them in Committee, particularly after the comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady Perry. I often find myself following her in these debates, and I think that this is the first time that I have agreed with almost everything she said, so perhaps this is a very different sort of Bill than we normally discuss.
I welcome this Bill and its intentions. I think that there are many good things in it. We make a lot of speeches about two things: raising educational standards and closing the gap. It is closing the gap that we have always found very difficult, and at the bottom of that gap are very many of the groups of children and young people whom we are trying to assist in the Bill. They are children who need to be looked after, children who have a disability, children who have a special educational need and children who have had difficulty in early family life. If we can get that right, we as a nation will do a great deal to achieve our larger educational aims of raising standards across the board. I therefore welcome this Bill.
A look at special educational needs and the statementing process is somewhat overdue, so I very much welcome this provision and, indeed, some of the details. I do not quite buy into this idea that it is a revolution or that it is a chance in a generation. I do not see it that way because, when you look at what is in the new education, health and care plans, they essentially are trying to do the same thing as statementing did but in a different way. That is happening because statementing did not work as well as we would have liked it to work. The players are still the same—the health authority, the schools, the education services, the care authorities and the parents. There is no new player in this mix. The plan comes at it in a different way to try to make it work.
What annoys me most about this is that it is about some very fundamental things in education: identifying a child’s strengths and weaknesses; setting objectives as to how they might improve and how their needs might be met; reviewing progress; and working with the family to do the best we can for the child. That is done every day in every school for children who do not have special educational needs. It is the nature of good teaching and the nature of a good school. What we fail to do, right across the parties and right across society, is to try to make that system work for children who have extra needs. For them, the co-ordination does not work, and they need it far more than many children without SEN. I see this as another step along the road in the journey to try to get better at delivering this. Nevertheless, we are far better than we used to be 20 or 30 years ago, so it is not always a bad story. If we do that, we can then perhaps get on to debating the things that we debate for children who do not have SEN, such as pedagogy, curriculum, and all those things that will raise standards.
If we are to get this right, we have to understand why integrated working has never happened before. Let us be clear: it has been open to the authorities and the powers that be to deliver what is in this Bill before this Bill arrived. If health, social care and education legislators had wanted to deliver a seamless service for children with special educational needs, they would have done it; and it is a shame that they have not done it. We are trying, all together as politicians, to find a legal structure to make it happen. I think what we can best hope for is a change of culture so that people actually say that it is a priority, that they want to make it happen and that they will roll up their sleeves and do it.
I think that, in the past, three things have gone wrong—or, rather, have been less than perfect. If this Bill helps those, it is a success; if not, it is not. One is the relationship between the different services as to whether they work. Too often in the past, education has had to beg the other services to take note. That is because the priorities have not been aligned and the budgets have not been aligned. Quite honestly, health and care professionals go to work without often thinking that SEN children are at the top of their priority list. A group of education officers go to work knowing that they are at the top of their priority list, and they have had a hell of a difficulty trying to get others to pay attention.
The second area that has not been right is responsibility and accountability. If you are not accountable for what you are meant to do, the chances are that you will not do it. The third thing has been resources. Quite honestly, we have raised expectations for children with special needs and their families that we would give them a tailor-made plan and deliver it, and it has not always happened. So, as we go through the Bill, my test for its success will be as follows. Does it make the relationships work more effectively? Does it put responsibility and accountability in the right place? Will the resources be there to make sure that we deliver?
There is a lot to welcome, particularly taking the plan to age 25 and the efforts to make the voice of the child stronger within this whole process. However, I will concentrate on some things that I want to look at as we go through the Bill that I think deserve further consideration. I either do not quite understand them or am against them—I have not quite made up my mind. Some have already been mentioned, such as the groups of children left out of the Bill, children with SEN, children with a disability but without a special educational need, and minimum standards for care plans—I will not say too much about that because it has been mentioned.
I will pick out two points that have not yet been mentioned. One is the qualification for SENCOs. I welcome that very much. I find it strange, given that we have just dropped the mandatory qualification for headship, that we are now putting in law a mandatory qualification for SENCOs. Nevertheless, I welcome it. It looks, to me, as though teachers teaching children with special educational needs will still be able to have no qualified teacher status at all. I do not understand, if we are making it a requirement for SENCOs to have two qualifications, why those who are teaching the very same children they are organising would be allowed to do so without QTS. Perhaps the Minister could comment on this.
My second point is about pre-school learning. This is the second time that this Government have dropped the requirement for a group of education providers to be inspected by Ofsted. I am a great admirer of Ofsted; I think it plays a good part. The first time this was done was with schools which had got outstanding Ofsted inspections. I did not agree with it but I could see the rationale behind it. I cannot see the rationale for some childminders not to be subject to Ofsted when we cannot guarantee their quality. Nevertheless, I welcome the broad thrust of this Bill and very much look forward to the debate that I suspect we will have in Committee.
My Lords, I, too, welcome the broad thrust of this Bill. It is a wide-ranging Bill with much in it to welcome. As always, the devil is in the detail. As the Minister made clear, it is a Bill that, unusually, comes to us having had considerable scrutiny in the other place, partly as a result of the work done in this House by the Select Committee on Adoption Legislation, and the adoption clauses have taken much that it recommended. Parts 6, 7 and 8, on paternal leave with flexibility and so forth, mentioned by my noble friend Lady Perry, owe a great deal to my honourable friend Jo Swinson in the other place.
As is the case with many noble Lords, my interest in the Bill centres on Part 3 and special educational needs. This is because I have been for some time a governor of a primary school in Guildford with responsibility for special educational needs. As such, I shared the frustration of my honourable friend Sarah Teather when she was the Minister responsible for special educational needs at the Department for Education and published the Green Paper, Support and Aspiration, which preceded this Bill. She said that the aim is to stop the agonising battle that parents face in going from pillar to post to get the support they need.
Now we have these education, health and care plans which are to replace statements and aim to provide the joined-up thinking and action that have so often been absent in the present policies. These plans are now, where appropriate, to apply to all children from pre-school through to 25, an extension which I welcome particularly because we all know that early intervention, if possible, can be the most effective action. Many of us have seen cases of young people leaving school or college at 16 or 18 who have sorely needed extra support and help and have not had it.
I am concerned, however, about the group of children who are currently classed as having special educational needs but do not merit a statement—those who are under school action or school action plus, as it is called. They are in the majority because of the 1.4 million children in this country classified as having special educational needs, 85% are under school action or school action plus and will not get statements. Can the Minister clarify the situation? My understanding is that, as now, the school will be responsible for providing services for these people and, in particular, it will be for the SENCOs mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, to make sure that these young people receive the services they need.
Many primary schools, such as my own, concentrate now on individual learning plans and some very good, school-based plans are put into action. However, this puts a great deal of emphasis on the training of the SENCOs and teachers in schools to be much more knowledgeable about special educational needs, a point mentioned by my noble friend Lord Storey. We need to be aware that these young people will still have needs that need to be addressed by the school and that the school will not necessarily receive the support from the local authority that it has had in the past. I understand that schools will be able to use the local offer outlined in Clause 30 but that local authorities do not have any longer a responsibility for providing specialist services to the schools which have backed up the SENCOs. I wonder whether this will cause some gaps in services that we ought to be aware of and consider.
Like others, I welcome the idea of joined-up thinking and the bringing together of health, social care and educational needs. In the past, in my experience, there have been many letdowns on the health side. We have not had the speech therapy or educational psychology support that we have wanted from the National Health Service. I am delighted that it now has a duty. I echo those who have suggested that there ought also to be a duty to provide on the social care front and I would like to see that.
I am worried about the local offer under which the local authority has to set out information about the education, health and social care services it expects to be available locally. However, there is no requirement on local agencies to provide these specific services and I share the doubts expressed by many of those who have been briefing us as to whether, given the financial pressures on local authorities and the general running down of their education departments, local authorities will be in a position to offer a comprehensive spread of services. The Select Committee in the other place called for minimum standards to be put in place for this local offer and I wonder whether the Minister can tell us whether the department is minded to heed this recommendation.
I am particularly concerned about the position of further education, where there seems to be a number of barriers in the way of creating the seamless transition to which we all aspire. One such barrier is finance. The new funding system which came into play this year is proving exceptionally difficult and complicated to deal with. Many colleges are finding it extremely time consuming. They often have to negotiate funding on an almost student-by-student basis. This is very awkward, especially when they are dealing with a number of local authorities. Can the Minister give any assurance that these funding issues will be resolved before the new education, health and care plans come into operation next year?
There is also a question as to why the words “must have regard to the young person’s age” are used several times in the Bill in clauses relating to financial decisions about support for those over 18. The danger with such words is that they provide, as some have put it, a get-out clause for local authorities in denying a young person the particular support services that they need—for example, special support on transport or something of that kind.
I wish to say a brief word about specialist colleges—the group of colleges, residential and non-residential, which provides specialist services for people with specific disabilities, such as the deaf and the blind. They are often centres of excellence in dealing with disabilities which require high levels of support. They are pleased to see Clause 41, which places responsibility on the Secretary of State to draw up a list of accredited independent and specialist providers that young people and their parents can choose to access. Can the Minister provide any details about when this list will be drawn up; what criteria will be used in selecting who is on it; and whether there will be any appeal procedures for those institutions that do not appear on the list but feel that they should?
Finally, I am not clear why higher education has been excluded from these proposals. If the education, health and care plans are to apply to all those studying in further education up to the age of 25, why do they not apply to students in higher education? There would be many benefits if these plans continued through university, including avoiding the need for further reassessment and assuring everyone that co-ordinated support continues for young people even when they move away from home. It is entirely logical for universities to be included within the same framework.
My Lords, I say to the noble Lord, Lord Storey, that I hope that this is not the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to debate the progress of childcare issues for the future. I have been in the House for 13 years and have lived through a series of different Bills. Each Bill has brought progress and movement forward, just as this Bill will. However, it leaves huge gaps which, I hope, will be looked at in the future. Rather like the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, I think it is great but it is not Utopia.
The Bill has a very good heart that has three major heartbeats. Placing decision-making for children at the centre of policy is something that the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Children has asked Ministers to do for a long time. We shall continue to press Ministers to do that. Listening to children is also central. However, it is only for some children because there are circumstances outlined in the Bill under which young children, if they are particularly disabled, are excluded from being heard in relation to some of the wishes they may have about services. I know from working with children that you can hear quite clearly what they have to say from a very young age. The most important heartbeat is about working together. It was very heartening to see the logos of three different departments at the top of a letter from Ministers. I only hope that that indication of working together will continue throughout what we are trying to do here, because there is so much to be done.
I begin by asking the Minister about the strategic thinking for the whole context of children’s planning. I have a dreadful cold, so if I suddenly stop it is because my voice has gone. I am very concerned about the issues facing those who are in the front line, working with troubled families. By troubled families I do not mean the technicality that people seem to mean, but all families with troubles. This work requires real maturity, knowledge and skill. It requires an understanding of child development and family dynamics, and how they interact with culture as a whole and with a child’s environment. For social workers, independent reviewing officers, under-fives workers and many others, including teachers who are engaged in this work, there is a very high personal cost. There is sometimes a very high cost indeed in terms of the possibility of career difficulties.
We all know that local authorities are coping well in tough times. They have exciting new methods of delivery, but it is clear for all to see that with the next round of cuts, authorities will be on the verge of not coping. I wonder what the Government will do to ensure that children’s services are protected. It takes only one mistake to end a child’s life or a worker’s career. As someone who has lived through three childcare inquiries—which I am sure is not a confession I should make too easily—I know the impact this can have on an individual. I heard about high case loads when I sat on the Select Committee on Adoption Legislation, which was chaired by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss. I know about people with workloads that led to mistakes and then to their being blamed. As a community, at some point we must do something to ensure that those services are safe.
The noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, mentioned the splitting of funding for the 16-25 age group between education and social care. I declare an interest as a trustee of Livability, a charity which among other services provides colleges for severely disabled young people. The split in funding between education and social care, which occurred a couple of years ago, is already having a real and perverse effect. When those funding packages were joined together they made sure of provision for young people who are severely disabled. These are not the kind of children whom the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, talked about, those with the capacity to integrate into schools, but those who need personal care and nursing care as well as education.
That split means that any organisation working in this field must now go through extraordinary negotiations regarding both education and care. For many charities delivery is now becoming far too complex and expensive, with a significant loss in placements. Even if the Government try to develop a plan that integrates healthcare and education for this group of young people, I fear that the services will no longer be there. I know that there are charities other than my own which are thinking of closing these establishments, because it is just too difficult to continue the planning.
I do not want to spend too much of my time discussing links between healthcare and education, because the noble Lord, Lord Storey, and the noble Baroness, Lady Gibson, already mentioned the amendment put forward by the Health Conditions in Schools Alliance. The alliance represents the needs of a million children with special conditions. The noble Baroness, Lady Gibson, very eloquently described her own experiences in that area. I am a trustee of Little Hearts Matter, a charity which looks after children who have half a heart. I know from personal experience how very difficult it often is for parents to have their children’s needs heard when they are in school.
The Bill includes a duty for local authorities to appoint an officer who will promote the,
“educational achievement of children looked after by local authorities”.
Why can we not somehow add some requirement that they also care for children with special needs? We must ensure that they are not overburdened, but a little lateral thinking is not beyond the bounds of possibility.
I am not going to spend a lot of time on Part 1 of the Bill, although I shall take part of it in detail. As I mentioned, I sat on the Select Committee on Adoption Legislation, and I want quickly to make one point about this. The political emphasis on adoption has led to a missed opportunity to provide services across the care system, as adoption will not be suitable for a variety of children. Guardianship and long-term fostering have been shown to provide equally successful outcomes. As we said in our report,
“all routes to permanence merit equal attention and investment.”
That is also true when a child has a good enough family of their own, which simply needs support.
Time has run out, so in conclusion I want to say a word about parental involvement. The Government have specifically said that ensuring the involvement of both parents in the upbringing of their children does not mean 50:50 splits. The reference to shared parenting in the Bill has been removed, for which I personally am grateful. When considering certain private law applications the court is required to presume that the child’s welfare will be furthered by the involvement of both parents in the child’s life, unless it can be demonstrated otherwise. The devil is in the detail of that sentence,
“unless it can be demonstrated otherwise”.
I have spent eight years as chair and deputy chair of CAFCASS, and I know what dangerous parents look like. They are not always easily identifiable. We must have great care about anything that undermines the paramount importance of the welfare of the child.
My Lords, with some improvements, which I am sure will be proposed in Committee in your Lordships’ House, the Bill has the potential to be a landmark piece of legislation. I begin by welcoming the Government’s stated intention of improving the special educational needs system for children, young people and parents. I declare my interest as a vice-president of the National Autistic Society. I know from its work that the current system is letting down too many children, with devastating results. Just one in four young people with autism accesses any form of education or training after school. Only 15% of adults with autism are in full-time employment, and 26% of graduates with autism are unemployed. That is the highest rate for any disability group.
Given these figures, it is no surprise that the Bill is eagerly anticipated. The sentiments in the 2011 Support and Aspiration Green Paper were encouraging. I pay tribute to the then Children’s Minister Sarah Teather, who promised that parents would no longer have to fight for the services their children need. Her successor Edward Timpson has said that the Government would,
“be maintaining and, in some cases, extending key protections and entitlements that matter to young people and their families”.
Therefore, expectations are very high indeed. Some progress has been made since the Bill was introduced.
I ask the Minister to confirm one of the commitments made in the other place. May we have a guarantee that independent special schools and specialist colleges can be named by parents on education, health and care plans? The indicative draft regulations are somewhat lacking in detail on this point. Perhaps the Minister could indicate when we will see the final draft of the regulations. I have seen for myself that independent schools, such as those run by the National Autistic Society and Ambitious about Autism, often cater for children with some of the most complex needs. They offer innovative new approaches to providing specialist support, while maintaining links with mainstream schools and helping children stay anchored to their local communities. That is very important.
The new system as set out in the Bill promises to be person-centred and to take a holistic, joined-up approach to children and young people by taking into account their education, health and care needs. This is an excellent aspiration, but can the noble Lord confirm that the Bill will make this a reality? I want briefly to raise some key areas of concern which I believe must be addressed if the Bill is to deliver on its promises.
First, the Bill must protect and enhance existing rights for parents and young people. Crucially, under the current system, parents rely on their right to appeal statements at tribunal. Under the new system, only provision that is deemed to be “wholly or mainly” for the purpose of education can be appealed in this way. This effectively represents raising the bar and could restrict the ability of parents to uphold their rights and support the needs of their children. I believe that the words “wholly or mainly” should be removed from Clause 21.
Secondly, I am sure that many in this House will agree that one of the most positive things in the Bill is that education, health and care plans can be maintained up to the age of 25, as opposed to the age of 19 in the current system. Transition, as we know, can be very challenging for disabled young people, and it is important that legislation should reflect the fact that young disabled people may benefit from longer periods in further education. However, like the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp of Guildford, I am concerned that reference is made in Clauses 36, 37, 44 and 45 to the fact that a local authority “must have regard” to a young person’s age. I fear that, in these difficult economic times, this will lead local councils to refuse education to young people over the age of 19. Here, I seek an assurance from the Minister that he will act to further refine these provisions to ensure that this is not the case.
I turn now to a related matter, that of the promise of a joined-up system. I would like some clarification as to why the Special Educational Needs and Disability Tribunal cannot provide a single point of appeal for any issues concerning education, health and care plans. When a child with autism is receiving services such as speech and language therapy to help with communication or cognitive behavioural treatment to help with anxiety, how do we define whether those are educational or health needs? It is extremely difficult. It may be essential for a child to attend a school, but doing so is also likely to improve the child’s general health and well-being. Similarly, social care support such as intensive help at home for those with very complex needs or short breaks for their families are much needed and help in all kinds of ways. Parents and children certainly spend too long waiting and battling the system before they get the help they need. The local ombudsman and the myriad complaints procedures in the health service do not deliver real redress, so extending the role of the tribunal to cover health and social care in education, health and care plans would simplify the system. It would deliver real accountability for parents and help make sure that children with special educational needs receive all the services they need to realise their potential and to thrive in later life. It would also help the Government to realise their ambition of a joined-up system.
Fourthly, we must make sure that the system works for all children and young people with special educational needs, not just those with education, health and care plans. For many children with autism, specialist support is provided within a mainstream setting and without any statutory rights. At a time of squeezed local council budgets, we must make sure that there is real accountability for families as well. Councils must be under an obligation to ensure that there is sufficient provision to meet the needs of all residents with special educational needs. The local offer must not simply be an information tool, it must have real teeth. Failure to do this will result in parents increasingly seeking education, health and care plans as the only means of enforcing their right to the support that their child needs.
Finally, the Care Bill, which is being considered in Committee, contains a number of helpful provisions around care plans and how they can be transported when a person moves into a new council area. I am pleased that the Government have recognised this and have tabled an amendment on portability in the other place. However, this amendment simply creates regulation-making powers. Can the Minister inform us of when we might see these regulations and reassure us as to whether, as is the case with the Care Bill, they will make explicit reference to the continuity of provision that children and young people can expect when they move?
I return to the point about delivering the Government’s promise. This new regime must make the system easier and more accessible for all families, not just those I would call the “sharp elbow brigade”, who are educated, articulate and have the means to work the system. If it is to be effective, we have to ensure that all disabled children and young people and those with special educational needs benefit from the Bill, not just some.
My Lords, this is one of those debates in which you discover that you agree with most if not all of what has been said but that even the one point you have that you thought was going to be unique has already been touched on by someone. In this case, the noble Lord, Lord Rix, has jumped in front of me on apprenticeships.
We have been waiting for this Bill for a long time. It is one of those things that has been coming along for a while. When I looked at its framework, I thought about what is required to make the education system work. I should say that I am going to talk only about Part 3. You start to look for what is not there, and one of the things that is not there is a specific comment about teacher training for dealing with special educational needs. We have to square up to the fact that many teachers get very little support in their initial training on special educational needs. Indeed, I am told that in some cases it is two hours.
Let us look at the conditions that those teachers are dealing with by considering the “dyses” first—dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia—along with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. I pointed these out to a friend of mine who is not dyslexic but who said, “It would take me two hours to learn how to spell them all accurately”. Two hours of teaching is not enough. If you do not know what you are dealing with, how in hell are you supposed to give the correct support? I do not know; you are supposed to be a good teacher, so you will pick it up.
The noble Lord, Lord Touhig, has talked about the “sharp elbow brigade”. We dealt with this before when a previous Government were thinking about getting rid of statementing. It was clear that the average informed parent with sharp elbows knows a lot more about these individual conditions than the average teacher does. They might not have perfect knowledge and it might not be rigorously tested, but they have knowledge while initially the teacher will have none. They will acquire it via the bumps and bangs of being knocked around while going through the appeals system. Unless we deal with this properly, we are not going to make the progress we should. However, I am not talking about turning every teacher into an expert on a category of disability.
I must declare my interests, which arise from the world of dyslexia, which is reckoned to affect around 10% of the population. That would make dyslexics the biggest disability group, but the condition feeds into other groups such as those related to the development of speech and language, which can be contributing factors. Having sharp-elbowed parents is a factor in the personal cocktail. If you have mild dyslexia and you come from a middle-class background with wealthy parents who can afford interventions, you ain’t got that many problems in this world. If you come from a council estate with offending in the family and no one expects you ever to pass an exam, quite often you end up in the prison system. This has recently been recognised by the Government. I had the honour with Chris Grayling of launching the Cascade Foundation, which is considering the prevalence of dyslexia in prison.
The noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, is in his place across the Chamber from me. If you want to find any kind of disability group, look in the prisons first, because you will find a good study sample. It is reckoned that some 70% of the prison population cannot read properly, while many studies have shown that 50% of prisoners are within the dyslexia spectrum. Asperger’s syndrome is over-represented among prisoners as well. I ask this of my noble friends on the Front Bench: can we have an undertaking to describe what will be done for those who are incarcerated in the prison system? We need to find out exactly what is to happen because it will affect the rest of it.
If we are to make sure that the people who teach are trained, we must look at those who are supposed to be supporting them, because no matter what you do you have to support people so they can identify problems, understand what is said to them, and transfer it to the classroom. I say again that not everybody can be an expert—it will just not happen. What about SENCOs? This has been mentioned before. Will they have superior training and back-up to be able to support that person? If this is done and someone is competent, the need for any type of special label will be reduced. We do not know by how much, but it will be reduced, so how this works is very important.
In the few minutes left to me, I will draw the House’s attention to the ongoing saga of apprenticeships. I first discovered a problem with apprenticeships when the then head of the British Dyslexia Association told me during the passage of the apprenticeships Bill, when the party opposite was in power, that people needed to pass a compulsory English language test. During the course of the Bill I was assured, “Do not worry, we are not going to make life more difficult”. However, the wording was not changed and people regularly fail that test because they are dyslexic. Other groups suffer too, but I shall talk exclusively about dyslexics.
This was first brought home to me by a lad called David, who had passed every component of his test to become a carpenter, apart from the English test. He could build a replacement for the table that stands in front of us, but nobody would know it because he did not have that piece of paper that says he can do it. That is what a qualification is for. It does not give you the skill, but it says that you have it. It identifies the skill, and you can take the qualification with you and improve your employment prospects. The system fails because of that. Why can David not take the test?
At first we were told that this was in the legislation. However, I met the right honourable John Hayes when he was the Minister in charge and I told him about it. He shouted at an official—bizarrely, over a speakerphone, if I remember correctly—and told him, “Sort it out, sort it out”. Then as the meetings went on, I was told, “It is terribly difficult, you cannot do this”. Then I was told, “We can do this, but it is difficult. It has to be online and we have not formatted it”. The colleges now respond by saying that they cannot put people forward for a test that they will fail because it is not formatted.
We need some peripheral vision here. For nearly two decades we have been assisting people in the higher education sector by giving them voice-operated and other technological assistance on computers to allow them to prepare written work. In this society, how many times is anybody required to pick up a pen to provide written communication outside a classroom? Noble Lords should take that on board. It is ridiculous. I have a list here of other people who have failed. I would read it out, but I do not like reading things out—I am dyslexic.
Here are a couple of examples involving girls. One was a visual merchandising apprentice—I think that means a window dresser—but, hey, advertising sells and is necessary. Once again, she was refused entrance when it was realised that she could not get through the English assessment and the college did not have the support structure in place. Another girl doing retail failed again and was refused being put forward. An engineer passed the assessment on the third attempt by the skin of his teeth. If he had had a bad day and failed again, eventually he would not have been allowed to carry on taking it; colleges will not carry on putting you forward.
I will read out the best example. This involved somebody doing agriculture and animal husbandry. This is his final comment: “I am fed up with everyone reminding me what I cannot do. I am good at my job. My boss tells me that all the time. I even won an award from a professional body that recognised my skills, so why am I bothering with English and maths? I can count sheep and cows. Isn’t that enough?”. You have to sympathise with him. With a few lines in the Bill, the Government have the technical ability to make sure that something happens very quickly, and that person will at least stand a chance of passing those tests. I suggest that this is an opportunity that is way overdue.
My Lords, I too shall concentrate on Part 3 of the Bill. When the DfE published its Support and Aspiration Green Paper in 2011, there were high hopes among parents that there would be a genuine transformation in the support available to disabled children and children with special educational needs. The Green Paper held the promise of a single, accessible system of joined-up support, delivered through an education, health and care plan. We were promised that parents’ endless battles with bureaucracy would be consigned to the history books and instead a system characterised by simplicity and transparency would be ushered in.
In 2011, the SEN and disability sector broadly welcomed the ambitions of the Green Paper, with its proposals to create a more coherent, joined-up approach to meeting the needs of children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities. Overall, however, while the Bill obviously moves in the right direction in a number of ways—notably with the introduction of education, health and care plans—the sector does not feel that the Bill delivers on the original objectives of the Green Paper or that, as drafted, it fulfils the Government’s ambition to create a better co-ordinated and less adversarial system. The sector feels that the Bill is too focused on education-related services and does not provide an adequate framework to draw health and social care services into the system of support for children with special educational needs.
Unless this is addressed, the Bill will simply replicate and reinforce the fragmentation in the current system. The charity Scope goes so far as to say that the Bill as it stands will fail the vast majority of children with SEN—notably the 87%, or 1.4 million—who will not be eligible for the new plans; nor in some areas does it protect the existing rights of children, young people and their families. During debates in the Commons, the Minister undertook to consider a number of issues, but the Every Disabled Child Matters campaign and the Special Educational Consortium believe that the Bill still requires major improvement if it is to deliver the Government’s stated aim of better outcomes for children and young people with SEN.
As currently drafted, there is a risk that the Bill will make things worse. I have to tell the Minister that there is a real sense of frustration and disappointment out there at the Government’s lack of serious engagement with the many reasonable points put to it—notably, as has been mentioned, by Robert Buckland MP—so I very much hope that we will be able to do a good deal better now that the Bill has reached your Lordships’ House.
I have about half the time that I was banking on for my speech, so I will skip over the things I wanted to welcome. Like the noble Lord, Lord Storey, I was deluged over the weekend by briefs calling for literally dozens of amendments to the Bill. I shall mention five areas by way of putting down markers for where I shall wish to see amendments in Committee. It is beginning to get repetitive by this point, so I will touch on them only briefly, but it reveals a consensus that is developing across the House about the changes that need to be made. Before I do that, as vice-president of RNIB, in which I declare my interest, I shall flag up the need to mirror in this Bill the requirement on local authorities in the Care Bill to maintain registers of visually impaired people.
Now for the changes. First, the Bill undermines current entitlements. I will give just three examples. As the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, said, Clause 21(5) raises the bar for accessing therapies that are vital for some children if they are to be able to access education. Secondly, Clause 34(9) means that special academies will be able to admit children or young people without having their SEN statutorily assessed or an EHC plan put in place. This creates a risk that children and young people will be inappropriately placed in special schools and undermines the principle that mainstream settings must be inclusive for all children and young people.
Thirdly, local authorities will no longer have to comply with all the current requirements in relation to statutory assessments, including time limits and consulting relevant professionals.
On the second change, like the noble Baroness, Lady Hughes, I am concerned that despite calls from the Education Select Committee, the Bill fails to bring disabled children and young people who would currently be covered by special education legislation within its scope. Research has estimated that in the region of 25% of disabled children may not have SEN, but it is just as vital that they have access to support for their health and social care needs. A good example of where the Bill is deficient in this respect is the way in which Clause 30 provides that the local offer has to include only information on services for children and young people with SEN, not services that disabled children and young people might need to use.
Thirdly, still following in the footsteps of the noble Baroness, Lady Hughes, although the noble Lord, Lord Rix, was prophetic in his anticipation of what I was going to say, the EHC plan is not yet a single plan across all three areas. Under the Bill, it remains essentially an education plan. It is not the radical reform that the Government promised and that parents were expecting. To achieve that, it needs to be amended in two ways. First, it needs to establish a duty on local authorities not just to deliver the educational provision set out in the EHC plan but to assess the social care needs of a child or young person and deliver the support identified as necessary. Secondly, it needs to provide a single route of appeal for parents, children and young people to challenge decisions about the content of EHC plans.
Fourthly, provisions relating to the local offer are too weak. Clause 30 requires local authorities to produce information on the education, health and care services that it expects to be available locally. That is known as the local offer. As such, it is purely descriptive of the services that the local authority currently has on offer. Local authorities need to be under more of an obligation to identify the needs that exist in their area and ensure that they have the services in place to meet those needs. The Bill needs to be strengthened to ensure that children and young people and their families can hold local agencies to account for the delivery of those services.
Fifthly, and finally, there is the collapsing of the present two tiers of school support, school action and school action plus, into a single category of additional SEN support. The Government are yet to produce any evidence that that will lead to any improvement in educational outcomes on the present system based on early intervention and a graduated approach. Indeed, there is a risk that it will lead to a degradation of the present system of support. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hughes, said, that concerns the majority of children with SEN—84%—who receive additional support from the school’s own budget, so we need to be sure of what we are doing here.
The pathfinder pilots were set up in September 2011 to provide the evidence on which to base the development of the new system. To date, the evidence is very thin. We do not even have basic data such as the types of needs that children have and the type of education that they are receiving. How can authorities be expected to plan with any degree of confidence in those circumstances? We must remember that the 31 local authorities involved in the pathfinder pilots were motivated to put themselves forward to test the new system and are receiving additional resources to do so. What hope will there be for the local authorities that do not have those advantages?
This is the nub of the matter. The pathfinders will not finalise their report until September 2014. That is the date when the new system is supposed to come into force. It seems essential that there is a delay in implementation if we are to get this right. As other people have said, what happens now will affect the lives of children, young people and their families for a generation, not just the term of a Government.
My Lords, I want to add my voice to the growing volume of Members of this House who are giving a general welcome to the Bill. I declare an interest that noble Lords will have heard of earlier: I am chairman of the Children’s Society. Your Lordships will have heard my colleague the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester say that I have the privilege of taking over from him in that capacity. I suspect that in these times of financial stringency, the real reason why I became chairman of the Children’s Society is because I share a first name with my colleague and the marketing people are delighted that they do not have to change too much paperwork.
I warmly welcome the emphasis in the Bill on listening to the voice of children. In the Children’s Society, I have the pleasure—I think that that is the right word—when I chair board meetings of always having some young people sitting with us and contributing fully to our meetings. I much commend that as a practice.
The two points that I want to make have of course already been made, so I will not go on at length. The first is something that I mentioned in my maiden speech: the importance of young carers. As others have said and as I was encouraged to hear the Minister say in introducing the Bill, I think we are moving forward to see how this Bill and the Care Bill can be joined up. Young carers are children and young people under 18 who provide regular and ongoing care and emotional support to a family member who is physically or mentally ill, is disabled or misuses substances.
Young carers often do not receive the support that they need. A failure to identify and support young carers and their families can also lead to crisis and avoidable child protection issues. The recent report published by the Children’s Society, entitled Hidden from View, revealed the following things: one in 12 young carers is caring for more than 15 hours per week; about one in 20 miss school because of their caring responsibilities; and young carers have significantly lower educational attainment at GCSE level—the equivalent of nine grades lower, overall, than their peers.
I pay tribute to all the young carers out there who do so much to support their families, who also deserve our support. I thank the National Young Carers Coalition, which has been working together to improve rights for young carers. As I said, this Bill and the Care Bill represent together a once-in-a-generation opportunity to improve the long-term outcomes for young carers. Young carers and the organisations that support them have been calling for the same rights for young carers as for adult carers.
It is also important that there is better identification and assessment of young carers so that they and their family get the support that they need. That is why I welcome the statement by the Children’s Minister on Report of this Bill in the other place. He said:
“I have asked officials to look at how the legislation for young carers might be changed so that rights and responsibilities are clearer to young carers and practitioners alike. We will also look at how we can ensure that children’s legislation works with adults’ legislation to support the linking of assessments, as set out in the Care Bill, to enable ‘whole family’ approaches”.—[Official Report, Commons, 11/6/13; col. 267.]
I believe that that is a particularly important announcement and I welcome what I think I heard in the Minister’s introduction to the Bill: that that is our direction of travel.
Inappropriate caring roles performed by young people are not being prevented or reduced because the needs of the person for whom the child is caring are not fully met and the needs of the whole family for support are not taken into account. The separation of adults’ and children’s services is a significant structural barrier to improving support for young carers. Stronger legislation will make a difference because it will help to create the right culture to support the whole family.
It would be helpful to hear from the Minister today more about what is being done by the Department for Education and the Department of Health to ensure that changes made to the Children and Families Bill work with adults’ legislation—primarily, of course, the Care Bill—support the linking of assessments and enable the “whole family” approach to carers. I reiterate my thanks to the Government for listening and responding on that important issue.
My second brief point relates to the Office of the Children’s Commissioner, which is also covered in the Bill. I warmly welcome the reforms to the role of the Office of the Children’s Commissioner for England introduced in the Bill, and the legislation’s close adherence to the recommendations in the Dunford review. The UK is of course a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, and England needs a commissioner with adequate powers in order to meet its obligations under the convention.
The commissioner performs a vital role in promoting the views and best interests of children and young people in England. Under the Bill, the role of the Children’s Rights Director will now fall under the remit of the Children’s Commissioner. In taking on this role, the Children’s Commissioner will be able to provide advice and assistance to specific groups of vulnerable children. That is something that the Children’s Rights Director currently does. The groups specified include children in care, care leavers, children in boarding schools and children receiving social care services. I believe that this is an opportunity to ensure that other vulnerable children who are living away from home or their families—such as, as have been mentioned already, those living in custody, separated children who are seeking asylum or children who have been trafficked—can also receive that advice and assistance.
I understand that the Government would like simply to incorporate the current role of the Children’s Rights Director very neatly into the role of the commissioner. However, this would miss an opportunity to extend the powers to cover children in other circumstances who are also deprived of contact with their families. These vulnerable children need support. Enshrining in legislation the ability to provide support for children living in custody, separated children who are seeking asylum or children who have been trafficked would be an important power for the commissioner. More importantly, it could ensure that a wider group of vulnerable children can receive advice and assistance from this very important role.
I hope that the Minister will consider this carefully during the Lords stages.
My Lords, I wish to focus my comments on friends and kinship care. As my noble friend Lady Massey noted, up to 300,000 children are growing up in friendship and kinship care. For most of these children, family members step in to avoid children having to be taken into care, while in other instances children are placed with wider family members following care proceedings. Kinship care is by far the most common way of providing permanence and stability for children who can no longer live with their parents.
I fear, however, as do some other noble Lords, that there is a danger that the Bill overlooks the vital role that kinship carers play. While recognising the laudable desire to reduce delays in placing children for adoption, the current drafting of the Bill risks making it harder in future for the wider family to step in, particularly as it removes the duty on local authorities to give preference to keeping children with their families. It is important that the right balance is struck between accelerating the process of approving adoptive placements and ensuring that alternative permanent placements for children with grandparents and other relatives are not overlooked.
On Report in the other place, the Minister, Edward Timpson, showed sympathy for these concerns and said that he was thinking of amending the Bill to make it clear that local authorities must first consider placements with family or friends before they consider fostering for adoption placements. However, we do not yet have visibility of such an amendment. I hope that we see it soon. I know that there are many who will wish to stay with that issue and see that amendment coming forward.
Friendship and kinship carers can be caught between two different public policy priorities—getting and keeping people in work, especially women and older workers, and local authorities protecting the interests of vulnerable and traumatised children by requiring carers to give up work to look after them. This tension was raised during the passage of the Welfare Reform Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Freud, gave the matter his detailed consideration and subsequently provided for the Universal Credit Regulations to exempt kinship carers from work conditionality, looking for work for the first 12 months after taking on the care of the child. An issue flagged up at the time was the increased likelihood of friends and kinship carers losing their jobs because the taking on of such children often occurs at short notice when they have no employment leave entitlements.
The Bill presents the opportunity to extend parental leave entitlements to kinship carers to give them parity with adoptive parents. Kinship care is the most common permanency option for children who cannot live with their birth parents, yet there is a stark imbalance in employment leave entitlements for kinship carers compared with entitlements for adoptive parents. The same arguments apply to the extension of parental leave to kinship carers as were advanced for the introduction of adoption leave: the need for time for children to settle and bond with carers and the advantage of enabling carers to remain in the labour market. There should be access to an entitlement to both paid leave and a period of unpaid leave, the latter to deal with the initial uncertainties when the children first arrive and long-term arrangements may not yet be settled.
Grandparents Plus research shows that almost half of kinship carers who were previously in work leave their jobs when children move in. A Family Rights Group survey revealed that nearly 40% of family and friend carers have left their job, lost their job or taken early retirement when they have taken on the care of children. It is often more difficult for both young and older kinship carers subsequently to get back into the labour market. There are many reasons for this, including the high needs of the children, but a lack of legal entitlement to any time off undoubtedly contributes.
Extending the right to request flexible working to all is welcome. A later retirement age means that an increasing proportion of grandparents of younger children are likely to be in employment. The option of working flexibly will become increasingly important to enabling grandparents to combine work with care.
Emergency leave provisions to deal with family emergencies are available to parents, and an employer must enable them to take a few days’ unpaid leave. In Committee in the other place, the Minister, Jo Swinson, said that this entitlement was available for grandparents relied upon for childcare. The regulations are unclear, though, and there is evidence to show that most employers and grandparents believe that they are not entitled to take such leave in these circumstances. The Bill should remove this ambiguity and enable a grandparent to take a reasonable amount of time off to provide help to deal with an unexpected event. Currently one in four working families depends on grandparents to provide childcare. With increased longevity, and with people remaining longer in employment, it will become increasingly important that grandparents are able to combine work and caring responsibilities in order to maintain not only their own but mothers’ employment.
The Government should also consider the possibility for unused periods of parental leave to be transferred to a grandparent if neither parent is able to use it. The principle of transferability of leave from mothers to fathers has been agreed. Would it be such a radical step to extend it to grandparents? I know that one of the drivers for transferable parental leave between mother and father was to break the stereotype that childcare is a female responsibility. Weighed against that, though, it is important to recognise who is providing the care, and in many instances it is the grandparents.
I conclude with a quote from the noble Lord, Lord Freud, in his DWP press release of 22 June 2012:
“Kinship carers make major sacrifices for their family and friends and help children in difficult situations to remain in a family environment instead of in the care system. I am determined that the benefits system recognises this important contribution”.
I hope that this Bill will also recognise that contribution.
My Lords, I shall confine my remarks to Part 3. I have a personal interest in this. Out of my nine grandsons, three have special needs—one is severely dyslexic, and two are autistic, both in the same family. My daughter is currently involved in a tribunal with her local authority to try to secure a place that would meet my grandsons’ profound needs. I welcome this Bill. I think that it has the potential to provide for my grandchildren and many others and may be very beneficial in their progress towards independent and productive adulthood.
There are many things in the Bill that I believe are very good. I greatly welcome the holistic approach to education, health and social care needs, recognising that they are interdependent. I hope that this will provide an opportunity not to cease some of the therapies that are so important in special needs, such as speech and language and occupational therapy, but instead to recognise that they are essential—not add-ons to the care that is provided.
There are some phrases in the Bill that I think are very important. I like the reference to children’s well-being and I am very taken by the reference to the contribution that children and young people make to society. This does not just work in one direction. The extension of funded education and care to 25 is of course extremely important, as is the duty of local authorities to keep their provisions under review.
I appreciate the fact that, under local offer, although I have some questions about it, the publication of information and advice will relate to life beyond formal schooling and include,
“finding employment … obtaining accommodation … participation in society”.
I welcome the fact that the local authority has an obligation to publish the comments that children and young people make about its services. I welcome that,
“the best possible educational and other outcomes”,
must be looked for, although these are not specified.
Like many others, I have one or two particular concerns. There is little in the Bill that relates to the provision beyond age 18 other than that it will be supported if the education, health and care plan is still in place. The aspiration is fine but there is little about how provision of special education after 18 will prepare disabled young people for responsible and independent adulthood, and how that is to be achieved given the challenges that they face.
There are a number of issues around the discontinuance of a plan. There seems to be an expectation that it will be looked at carefully rather than that it will be continued if at all possible. A number of clauses, as other noble Lords have mentioned, say that a local authority,
“must have regard to his or her age”.
I think that that needs to be looked at again. Proper recognition needs to be given to the fact that young people with special needs may take longer than others to learn life skills. Some will need to have prolonged absences from school or to try different environments in which to learn as they make their transition into adulthood. I want an assurance that chronological age will not be given too much weight in making decisions about maintaining the education, health and care plan and that no one will be discouraged from continuing in education or have that questioned severely on the grounds only of cost. The thrust should be towards encouragement rather than discouragement. I noted, as others have, that young people with autism benefit greatly from further education but that only one in four access it.
Also on the discontinuance of a plan, I would like some clarification of a phrase in Clause 45(3), which says that a local authority,
“must have regard to whether the educational outcomes specified in the plan have been achieved”.
I do not really understand what that means. Does it mean that if the educational outcomes have been achieved, there is no further need for any care? Does it mean that if they have not been achieved, no further care will be given? Is it positive or negative? That part of the Bill perhaps needs to be questioned. I would also question, when we come to it, why Clause 47 says that the local authority “may make provision” to transfer a plan “to another … authority”. There is no obligation on a local authority to continue to support someone whose needs are best met in another educational authority.
I return briefly to the local offer. As has been said, the only obligation is to provide advice and information. No duty is imposed to provide the services, only to review and revise the information. The Bill seems to provide a good opportunity for the enforced provision of inclusive and accessible services for all disabled children, and to offer them the right to participate. Is there an intention to provide this? The Bill is a really good start but I hope that it can be strengthened as it goes through the House.
My Lords, I begin by recording my admiration and appreciation for the work done by Dr Maggie Atkinson, the Children’s Commissioner for England, and her predecessor Professor Aynsley-Green, and all those who work in that office. Extremely valuable has been the contribution which the commissioner has made to the public discourse on issues affecting children since the office was established under the Children Act 2004. I wholeheartedly support the intention through Part 5 of the Bill to extend and clarify the commissioner’s role in promoting and advancing the rights, needs and voices of children.
I welcome the Bill’s aim to see that children are placed with suitable adoptive families much more swiftly. The fostering for adoption scheme introduced by the Bill could provide greater stability for children by placing them with their prospective long-term carers at an earlier stage. It goes without saying, however, that great care must be taken to ensure that all the necessary checks are undertaken to prevent unnecessary disruption to the child at a later stage.
Sadly, the needs and voices of one group of especially vulnerable children are not represented in this Bill. I speak of children who are victims of human trafficking. Your Lordships will be well aware of the research commissioned by the Home Office into the practical care arrangements for trafficked children following my introduction of a cross-party amendment—Amendment 57A—to the Protection of Freedoms Bill. This amendment was supported by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, and the noble Lord, Lord Carlile. The amendment was to provide legal advocates or guardians for trafficked children as required by Article 14 of the EU anti-trafficking directive.
In introducing the amendment we examined the three current provisions in the Children Act 1989 which the Government believed had the effect of guardianship under the directive, namely Section 26 advocates, independent visitors and independent reviewing officers. We concluded, however, that none of them had the required effect. Section 26 advocates act only on the child’s behalf in relation to local authority case reviews and are not appointed from the moment that a child is identified as a victim of trafficking. They become involved only if the child chooses to take advantage of the service. Independent visitors provide a befriending or visiting role and do not have the right to advocate on the child’s behalf. Independent reviewing officers have a specific function in relation to reviews of the child’s care and are not required to have regular contact with the child between reviews.
During the debate on the Protection of Freedoms Bill, we agreed to withdraw our amendment on condition that the Minister promised an independent review of the care provided to trafficked children. This has since been carried out by the Children’s Society and the Refugee Council. The report is due to be published next week and will, I am sure, give a valuable insight into the experience of trafficked children in this country and the care that they receive. It will be interesting to see whether the report suggests that the experience of trafficked children vindicates the notion that the current legal framework is fit for purpose.
However, even in advance of the publication of this report, we know that there are many challenges faced by trafficked children which our current laws and care provision are inadequate to meet. In fact, nothing has changed since that debate in February 2012, except that the case for the provision of guardians has grown stronger. The Anti-Trafficking Monitoring Group of expert NGOs published a report in June which highlighted how children who are being used as domestic slaves are not being identified as trafficked because social workers are not investigating thoroughly the families with whom they are living.
The recent Court of Appeal judgment in the case of L and Others demonstrated that our criminal justice system is still failing to recognise children trafficked to this country and forced to cultivate cannabis. Instead of kindly treating them as victims, our criminal justice system prosecutes them as criminals. Then there is the scandal of the number of children who go missing from local authority care. The very system that should be providing safety and reassurance is unable to protect confused and exploited children from the threats of their traffickers. The figures may have improved slightly since 2010, when over the preceding five years 301 of the 942 trafficked children who were rescued went missing from care. However, the Centre for Social Justice reported in March that many children are still going missing, with 25 trafficked children going missing from just one local authority over a five-month period in 2011.
Last month, the Joint Committee on Human Rights published its report into the situation of unaccompanied migrant children. Many such children are victims of trafficking, often being identified as migrants before they are identified as having been trafficked. In particular, the committee expressed concern about the evidence of trafficked children being prosecuted for criminal offences that they have been forced to commit by their traffickers. It also drew attention to the lack of secure accommodation that could prevent children absconding from local authority care and protect them from returning to the hands of their traffickers. The committee also recognised the value of a system of guardianship for unaccompanied migrant children, including victims of trafficking, and noted how successful the pilot project had been in Scotland.
The Government have also been encouraged to take action to improve the provision of care for trafficked children by the recently published US Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report and by the group of experts that monitors the Council of Europe anti-trafficking convention, which published its first report last September. That report recommended that Her Majesty’s Government ensure that all unaccompanied minors who are potential victims of trafficking are assigned a legal guardian.
This problem is not going to go away. The number of trafficked children being identified each year is rising, and as the evidence in the Centre for Social Justice report shows, children are still going missing. The case for introducing specialist guardians or advocates for these children is growing, with recommendations from expert charities, the wider international community and our own parliamentary Human Rights Committee. Given the importance of these issues, it is a shame that the Children and Families Bill does not do more to address the challenges facing trafficked children. I would be grateful if the Minister could explain how he sees this Bill engaging with this key challenge affecting children in the 21st century.
My Lords, I shall speak to Parts 6 to 8 of the Bill, which we broadly welcome. These changes will help improve gender equality at work and at home, and give some families greater choice about how they share their childcare responsibilities. This would be greatly enhanced if, as my noble friend Lady Drake has argued, more support can be given to grandparents. However, I also wonder whether the Bill misses an opportunity to improve independent rights of access to leave and support for fathers, and to initiate a culture change in favour of truly flexible leave and pay.
From what has already been said in this debate and particularly by my noble friend Lady Hughes, I am sure that there will be support across your Lordships’ House for a Bill that foregrounded children’s rights and benefits and, starting from that position, promoted the opportunities for fathers to care for their children, and especially to share their childcare responsibilities with mothers in the crucial early years. After all, the issue of fathers sharing care is first and foremost about what is good for children and the whole family too. It gives children more time with their fathers, which is a very good thing for both, enables women to keep a foothold in the world of work, which is better for their future work prospects than taking time out, and it is good for the couple relationship.
The new system of shared parental leave and pay will replace the additional paternity leave and pay system with a more flexible, transferable one. Mothers may continue to take maternity leave and pay as they do now, unless they choose to transfer some of this to their partner. Along with many groups and commentators, we welcome this increased flexibility. This will also help challenge many employers’ default assumptions about who will care for a new baby and in turn this may help address the regrettably high incidence of maternity discrimination in the workplace.
When the Minister responds I would be grateful if he could comment on the following issues which were raised during the consultation process, but which have not made it into the Bill.
The Consultation on Modern Workplaces says that there is strong evidence of the benefits of shared parenting and, in particular, that fathers who are engaged in caring for their children early on are more likely to stay involved. So why are no changes proposed to ordinary paternity leave and pay? The only entitlement for fathers in their own right remains at two weeks’ leave at the flat rate, assuming that they qualify for paternity leave at all. Will this not result in some fathers continuing to be unable to take any paid leave at the time of their child’s birth? Is it really satisfactory for fathers to have to rely on short- term, unpaid time off for dependants to accompany their partners at the birth?
International evidence shows that fathers’ take-up of leave is influenced by whether it is earmarked for them and whether it is adequately paid. The modern workplaces consultation proposed a father quota to encourage more fathers to take leave, but this has not been included in the Bill. The Government have decided not to introduce this until the economy has properly recovered and flexible parental leave has fully embedded. When he responds, can the Minister explain what criteria will be used to determine when the economy has properly recovered and can he explain at the same time what time or volume indicators he will be using to assess whether flexible parental leave has fully embedded?
The Bill proposes that mothers and fathers may transfer leave and pay between them in blocks of a minimum of a week at a time. The consultation proposed that parents might take the new form of leave in smaller chunks or on a part-time basis if their employer agreed. This was warmly welcomed by family organisations and some employers. Part-time leave and part-time pay can have significant benefits for families, particularly those on low incomes who would like to extend the time that they can spend at home, but who cannot afford to have no income. Allowing part-time leave, topped up by wages, might allow low-income parents to transition gradually back to work. Many good employers already allow employees to come back to work after maternity leave on a gradual basis, which helps with handover periods from locum cover. Children may also benefit if they can be settled into new childcare arrangements on a gradual basis. Can the Minister explain why this “smaller chunks” provision was not included?
Shared parental leave will be available to couples only where both parents are economically active, and meet service and earnings requirements. In 2010 there were approximately 782,000 maternities in Britain, but the maximum number of fathers who may be eligible for shared parental leave will be 285,000 at most, according to the BIS impact assessment, which is 36% of all maternities. Does the Minister believe that 36% represents a satisfactory level of engagement by fathers? Currently, statutory pay rates are well below the national minimum wage and will only be uprated in line with other benefits by 1% until 2016. Does the Minister agree that this sends a poor message about how society values time spent at home with a new baby, with parents being paid less than they would receive in a minimum-wage job?
Clause 99 introduces a right for fathers and partners, including intended partners in surrogacy situations, to take two unpaid half days of leave to attend antenatal appointments. This new right is welcome, but does the Minister agree that the Bill is perhaps unnecessarily complex and prescriptive on this new right? It sets out in primary legislation that the right may be exercised on only two occasions and for a maximum of six and a half hours on each occasion. Would it not be better to provide fathers with a right to reasonable time off for these purposes and for any limits to be set out in regulations?
Finally, can the Minister comment on the proposal made by the Commons Business, Innovation and Skills Committee on women in the workplace that employees should be entitled to ask for flexible working from the outset, and not only after they have been in a job for six months? Does he not agree that the Bill misses an opportunity to encourage employers, including perhaps the Civil Service, to advertise jobs on a flexible or part-time basis, without which many talented people could be forced out of the labour market?
The Working Families recent survey of 1,000 parents of disabled children found that 27% of respondents were not in paid work, and more than 80% of those had given up work to care for their disabled child. Once out of work it is very hard to get back in. More than half the parents surveyed had been out of work for at least six years. Their talents and skills are lost to their employers. Their families are left poorer and the economy loses. That has led to suggestions for adjustment leave to support parents and carers through a crisis so that they can stay in work and out of poverty. I would be grateful if the Minister could comment on that idea.
My Lords, we all agree that the Children and Families Bill is an important and welcome piece of legislation. As I always say, childhood lasts a lifetime, so I congratulate the Government on looking after the needs and well-being of children to give them a solid foundation and a stable future. However, even good Bills can be improved, and there are a number of extra commitments that the Government could make that would extend the Bill’s reach even more.
I have been working closely with the NSPCC and Barnardo’s and declare an interest as a vice-president of the latter. They are both convinced that the Government should use this Bill as an opportunity to provide even more support for young people, including children suffering from sickle-cell disorder, young carers and those leaving the care system, who are among the most vulnerable in our society.
The NSPCC and Barnardo’s have also raised some key points which have caused them grave concerns on adoption and family justice. They do not support the removal of due consideration of a child’s religious persuasion, racial origin and cultural background when placing children for adoption. Adoption between races adds another dimension to the adoption experience which cannot be ignored. Existing evidence points towards ethnic background being a significant factor because if a child experiences racism, they may feel isolated and unable to share it with anyone. A child being visibly different from family members may also result in them having a sense of not belonging or feeling unable to identify with their family. I believe we would be in dangerous territory should we remove consideration of this factor altogether from legislation because do we really understand the impact of these changes and the message they send out? I believe it must be considered by a court or an adoption agency when they are coming to a decision relating to the adoption of a child. Parents need to be able to understand the identity of the child they are adopting, so this should be included in the child’s welfare checklist along with religion, culture and language, as recommended by the House of Lords Select Committee on adoption. We need to encourage more people from culturally diverse backgrounds to adopt.
Much of Clause 3 is perfectly reasonable. It allows the Secretary of State to take action against local authorities which are failing in their duties to recruit adopters by removing these powers from them, but this must be done in a fair way. After all, there is an adoption crisis in the country. Children’s charities and the Local Government Association have concerns about the fact that the Bill allows the Secretary of State to remove responsibility for adopter recruitment from all local authorities. This could lead to a catastrophe in the adoption system because there is no guarantee that external providers would be able or willing to take on these services immediately, and any delays across the system would severely damage the chances of some of the country’s most vulnerable children being adopted. It will not solve the problem but will make matters worse.
Moving on to family justice, there are huge concerns that the 26-week time limit could make evidence-based interventions that take longer than the specified time limit more difficult, so we must ensure that there is sufficient time for the appropriate assessments to take place. Programmes such as the NSPCC’s infant and family team inform professionals, help court decisions on whether maltreated children can be reunited with their birth family or should be placed for adoption with their foster family as well as assist parents in addressing problems, but all this requires 12 to 15 months before a final recommendation is made. Although the Bill provides for eight-week extensions, continually adding them causes uncertainly for all, so we must ensure that this policy does not bring any unintended consequences that impact negatively upon the best outcome for children.
Finally I ask the Government to give serious consideration to the addition of a new clause to cover the children’s performance licensing regulations, which are seriously outdated and bear no reflection on the modern day. This was discussed during the Report stage of this Bill in the Commons, and I hope it will be taken up enthusiastically by this House as it addresses children’s well-being.
At the meeting last month of the APPG for children, media and the arts, which I chair, there was a presentation by Pact, which represents independent film and television producers. I declare an interest as an independent producer, and I speak from personal experience on this issue. Pact raised the concerns of those in the broadcasting industry, including the BBC, Channel 4 and ITV, which were present at the meeting. They strongly believe that the current legislation, which dates back to the 1960s when there were only three television channels, needs to be reformed and that there is great urgency to modernise the child performance regime. There is huge uncertainty on the rules for child performers on popular shows such as “Britain’s Got Talent” and for observational documentaries where child licences are not needed and the well-being of children is left up to production companies which in turn are unsure about the full extent of their responsibilities.
The current system places greater emphasis on bureaucracy and form-filling than on the needs, rights and welfare of the child, so the rules need to be enhanced and updated in order fully to protect children in today’s media environment, including online production, and to put adequate protections in place to ensure their health and well-being at all times. Local education authorities retain a significant amount of discretion on whether to license a child performance, leading to a postcode lottery across the UK. This needs to be addressed. There needs to be consistency. Oddly, there are greater restrictions around children participating in film and television production than in theatre. Although there are Ofcom guidelines for broadcasters, legislation for everyone involved in the employment of children in all fields of entertainment is being proposed to avoid widespread confusion.
Child physiologists have called for legislation ensuring children are protected from all aspects of a rapidly changing media world, which many children and young people want to be part of as they find it enthralling and alluring. The National Network for Children in Employment and Entertainment—the NNCEE—the majority of members of which are local authority officers, has stated that it would like to see a simple, future-proofed framework that offers equal opportunity to all children while ensuring they are properly safeguarded and, most importantly, have trained and qualified chaperones. Sarah Thane’s report and the Government’s consultation last year were warmly welcomed by the broadcasting and production industry, and those in the media industry are extremely disappointed that the Government have decided not to take forward these proposals for reform, having mainly taken the local authorities’ opinion into consideration on this issue. It is imperative that this decision is reversed, so I hope that the Government heed the warnings from this wide range of organisations—the BBC, Channel 4, ITV, Pact and NNCEE—as well as schools and child physiologists and give this proposal full consideration to show they truly value children’s welfare and long-term well-being and therefore add a new clause to this important Bill. Let us not end up regretting missing a once-in-a-generation opportunity.
My Lords, I too thank the Minister for introducing this Bill and welcome much of what it has to offer. I was particularly pleased to hear him say in his opening remarks that families and children should not be adapting themselves to the system, but rather that the system should be adjusting itself to the needs of children and families. I hope we can apply that principle to this Bill.
I would like to report on the important progress that the Government are making to safeguard children in children’s homes, following the grooming of girls as young as 12 by gangs of men. I will touch briefly on youth policy and then I will come to the Bill and look at children in care, care leavers and childcare briefly.
First, I pay tribute to the coalition Government for their commitment to continue funding international development to the tune of 0.7% of annual national income. At 0.7%, we are the most generous nation in the world. This sets a fine example for others to follow and makes a huge difference to children and families across the developing world.
There is concern that the Government’s welcome attention to adoption has been at the expense of attention to other placements. The noble Baroness, Lady Drake, gave a very eloquent speech about the importance of kinship care. I earnestly look forward to the Government extending their attention to these other areas. However, I would like to put on record my gratitude for their giving attention to the very important area of residential childcare.
Your Lordships may recall that the vast majority of children enter care because of abuse or family breakdown. Residential care has been an option of last resort, so children may have experienced 20 or 30 placements before arriving at a children’s placement and may even have had one or two adoption breakdowns. The vulnerability of these children and our failure to recognise their needs have been highlighted by the cases of gangs sexually exploiting children in Rochdale, Oxford and elsewhere.
The media, particularly the Times newspaper, have done an excellent job at drawing our attention to our failure in these matters. The honourable Anne Coffey MP galvanised the parliamentary response and her report on children missing from care was greeted by the honourable Tim Loughton MP, the then Minister, who set up three working groups to address the concerns expressed. Just last week, the honourable Edward Timpson MP, the new Minister of State for Children, launched three consultations that addressed changes to regulations on out-of-authority placements, data sharing and missing children. I draw the attention of the noble Lord, Lord McColl, to this particular regulation change.
Encouraging work is being undertaken on improving the consistency and quality of staff in children’s homes, and the Local Government Association is undertaking work on improved commissioning of residential care. There is a great deal further to go but the Government have made a good start.
On a further point outwith the Bill: last month’s report from the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Children, chaired by the noble Baroness, Lady Massey of Darwen, recommended that there should be a cross-departmental strategy for youth in this country. I commend the report’s recommendation to the Minister and your Lordships. We must do all that we can at this very difficult time to support our young people.
Turning to the Bill and looking at care leavers, which the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester referred to, I very much hope that we can seize the possibility to improve the life prospects of young people leaving care. These young people are hugely overrepresented in the secure estate, one-quarter of the adult population have care experience in prison, some research has put teenage pregnancy rates of care-leaving girls as high as 50% and they are overrepresented in many areas, including rough sleeping.
The Association of Directors of Children’s Services highlighted the importance of continuity of relationships in their recent report. Continuity of relationships is important above all else for these young people. Young people have always said that and we need to find ways of achieving it. Most importantly, most obviously and most imperatively, we need to allow young people passing the age of 18 to remain with their foster carer under supported lodging arrangements where they so wish. Young people leave the family home on average at the age of 24 in this country. The corporate parent should offer no less a support for young people in our care.
A couple of pilots have looked at the impact of allowing young people to remain with their foster carers to the age of 21. They found improvements in retention in employment, training and education. I think there was a doubling in the number of young people staying on in higher education. While the average retention past 18 is now about 8% in local authorities, in the staying-put pilots in Northern Ireland they were getting up to 25%. A study from the University of Chicago found that, even in the short term, local authorities made savings by caring better in this way for their young people.
I would welcome advice from the Minister and noble Lords on an amendment to enable all those young people in foster care in this country to remain with their foster carers to the age of 21 should they choose. This is a very modest proposal. While there has historically been a shortage of foster carers, recruitment is currently going well and many of those who might provide such supported lodging will in any event be retiring from fostering. The cost to roll this out would be about £2.7 million initially and local authorities would soon recoup that expenditure from savings in social care interventions. Society would benefit in the longer term with fewer children entering care, from their parents who are wanting care themselves, and with fewer care leavers in custody, on benefit or needing support from the health service. A couple of weeks ago we heard from a young man at the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Children and Young People in Care and Leaving Care. He said: “I have eight days left to go to my 18th birthday. I’m not ready to leave. What am I going to do?”.
Moving to childcare, I commend the proposals of the honourable Andrea Leadsom MP to the Minister encouraging local authorities to have registrars go into Sure Start children’s centres once a week to register births. This has been shown to be best practice in encouraging fathers and mothers to make contact with the home. Very often they will then go back to make use of the services in the homes. It is a very good method of reaching out to the hardest-to-reach families and getting fathers early on in the child’s life engaged fully in the care of that child. There were concerns from local authorities about the removal of the childcare sufficiency duty, and I look forward to discussing that with the Committee in due course.
I think that my time is up. I reiterate my thanks to the coalition Government for their support and leadership for families and children in the developing world. I thank the Minister and his colleagues for their work on residential care. There is a lot more to do but a good start has been made. I hope that your Lordships will feel able to offer some support in moving towards the possibility of young people leaving care having the option to stay with their foster parents when they choose to do so.
My Lords, the Bill has a number of very important measures, many of which are positive. However, like other noble Lords, I have a number of concerns, particularly around the issues of fostering and adoption, such as the removal of explicit duties to consider the ethnic origins of a child when placing for an adoption and the proposed 26-week time limit for care and supervision proceedings especially for complex cases—issues that I would like to return to in Committee .
However, in the time available today I want to focus my contribution on Part 3 of the Bill and seek some assurances from the Minister, whom I welcome to the Dispatch Box with his first major Bill. My concerns are around the impact of SEN provision for young people with complex needs aged between 19 and 25, particularly those supported in independent schools and the non-maintained special school sector. I have sought advice and information from the National Association of Independent Schools and Non-Maintained Special Schools, which, as noble Lords may be aware, is a membership organisation that provides information, support and training to its members in order to benefit and advance the education of children and young people with special educational needs. The association has more than 215 members spread over the whole of England and Wales, and through their non-maintained and independent special schools they cater for around 13,000 of the most vulnerable children in the country with a very wide range of complex needs.
Like other noble Lords, I welcome the proposals in the Bill that extend parent choice and give help to some of the most vulnerable children and young people, many of whom have very complex needs. I particularly support the Bill’s proposal to replace SEN statements with plans from birth to 25. I hope that, alongside the Care Bill, this will result in a stronger focus on preparing young people for adulthood.
In recent years I have noted an increasing number of independent special schools developing services for young people with complex needs. This support is sometimes delivered through independent specialist college provision, but many non-maintained and independent special schools deliver adult social care plus a variety of health, social enterprise and employment services. Often, this provision has no formally recognised education component and is funded through adult social services or continuing care support.
While the Bill is positive with regard to this proposal, I, like my noble friend Lord Touhig, would like clarification from the Minister that those people aged 19 to 25 with complex needs would be eligible for the continuation of their plans. Young people with complex needs such as profound and multiple learning difficulties, aged between 19 and 25, who are supported in the non-maintained and independent special schools sector, need to keep learning past the age of 19, especially as they learn much more slowly than their mainstream peers. Many of these young adults will require a period of time after their formal schooling in a transition service, as they may not be able to navigate these transition years as other young adults can.
The years between 19 and 25 are socially accepted as a time of experimentation and of finding limits and boundaries. We do not expect non-disabled young adults at the age of 19 to settle down into an adult life or go into an adult home environment where they stay for the rest of their lives and, as the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, has just said, it is difficult for children in foster placements to leave at the age of 18. Young adults with complex needs therefore particularly need support to make sense of the transition years and to develop a sense of themselves as adults and what it means to be an adult.
For example, some of these young adults may have limited life experiences and might need to continue to experience such things as going to the supermarket, how to go shopping, choosing which film to watch at the cinema and how to go to local restaurants. The period of time that they spend in such a service will mark the transition from childhood to adulthood and be a type of, I suppose, social apprenticeship—a period of their life that helps them to develop as an adult and prepare for a more independent life.
Creating the right environment to achieve an understanding of adult life is an important part of supporting development, and young people with complex needs would clearly benefit from the continued protection of the plan. I will give noble Lords an example from my own part of the country, West Yorkshire. Young people with complex needs are fortunate to have the services of the Hollybank Trust in an area called Mirfield. In the past five years, all its school students have made the transition into adult services with the support of the trust. This has enabled them to focus on crucial areas of development such as communication and independent living skills.
However, young people attending schools in other areas have not always been so fortunate. The Chailey Heritage Foundation in East Sussex has just launched an innovative new life skills service for young people aged 19 and over. Young people can use their personal social care budgets to pick and choose the elements of service that they wish to access, such as life skills development and well-being and leisure opportunities. The reasons for this service being developed are interesting. It has been developed in response to the difficulties faced by young people with complex physical and learning difficulties on leaving school. The reports that I have looked at from adult social services in the area reveal cases where school leavers moving to adult care homes had had their communication aids removed from them and stored in the office, and had had their motorised wheelchairs turned off as they were causing wear and tear to furniture and walls. These were young people at great risk of losing the skills developed across their schooling and which would have enabled them to lead more independent and happier adult lives.
I was encouraged by the Government’s amendment to the Bill in Committee in the other place that will result in a duty being placed on clinical commissioning groups to secure the provision of health services as agreed under the EHC plans. However, I would be grateful if the Minister could clarify that those young adults with complex needs will continue to receive the support that they require in order to help them make the transition to adulthood. Clause 45 outlines the conditions for when a local authority may cease to maintain an EHC plan for a child or young person. I draw the Minister’s attention to subsection (3), which says:
“When determining whether a child or young person no longer requires the special educational provision specified in his or her EHC plan, a local authority must have regard to whether the educational outcomes specified in the plan have been achieved”.
I would like to see subsection (3) amended so that plans will not be cut off when “educational outcomes are achieved”. The fact that young people with complex needs often have different educational outcomes needs to be recognised in the legislation.
Similarly, Clause 45(4) says:
“In determining whether it is no longer necessary for an EHC plan to be maintained for a young person aged over 18, a local authority must have regard to his or her age”.
I am concerned that subsection (4) and a number of other clauses—Clauses 36 to 41—will result in some young people with complex needs losing a plan once they turn 18. I suggest that Clause 45 should be amended so that instead of starting with,
“A local authority may cease to maintain an EHC plan for a child or young person only if”—
paragraphs (a) and (b) are met, it should read, “A local authority must maintain an EHC plan for a child or young person until their 25th birthday”, unless paragraphs (a) or (b) apply. This strengthening of Clause 45 will provide some confidence that young adults with complex needs will continue to get the support that they need.
In conclusion, children with complex needs have an entitlement to education, and this should not stop at this crucial stage in their lives. This entitlement must be extended to them when they become young adults. Moreover, considerable time, effort and investment has been put into their education as children and, in order to ensure that the social and financial investment that has been made during these school years is protected, the Government must guarantee that young people with complex needs will have continued support past the age of 19. I hope that the Minister will look again at these important issues.
My Lords, I welcome the Minister on his legislative debut, and say how much those of us who hope to make a contribution to this important Bill appreciate that, in line with his predecessor, the noble Lord, Lord Hill of Oareford, whose performance was so widely admired on all sides of the House, he has already made himself so readily available to us. I also say how much I admire the way that the Minister for Children and Families, Mr Edward Timpson, took the Bill through the other place, and appreciate that he also makes himself readily available. In supporting the general thrust of the Bill, I am glad that Part 3 in particular received such intense scrutiny in the other place.
I declare two interests and one advantage, plus my experience as Chief Inspector of Prisons. First, I chair the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Speech and Language Difficulties, which earlier this year published a report on the link between social disadvantage and speech, language and communication needs. Secondly, I chair the Criminal Justice and Acquired Brain Injury Interest Group, the founder of which, Professor Huw Williams of Exeter University, has published much valuable research on the number of sufferers who are in the hands of the criminal justice system. My advantage is that I have the pleasure and privilege of sharing an office with my noble friend Lord Rix, who fights so tenaciously for the best interests of those with learning disabilities. Exploiting his vast experience, we often discuss the absence of difference in the process of assessing and treating those with learning disabilities and difficulties. That leads me to the first of my three pleas to the Minister, namely that the birth-to- 25 pathways mentioned in the Bill should not be confined to those with SEN but should be developed as a universal tool to be used with and for every child in the country, to ensure that no possible impediment to learning is missed.
I say that because I believe very strongly that SEN is too narrow a qualification for the continuous programme of assessment and treatment that makes up both the Healthy Child programme, one part of which is speech and language, and the proposed pathways. There is growing evidence that language competence is critical scaffolding for a readiness to learn, and that well developed communication and word skills are fundamental to a good start in the early years at school. In researching for our report, we learnt of some excellent work being done now in different parts of the country to enable every child to engage with appropriate stages of education, an intention that appears to be clearly at the heart of Part 3. I therefore welcome the flexibility inherent in pathways that consist of assessment followed by local offers of individual education, health and care plans, because that is a framework that can accommodate those with speech, language and communication needs as well as SEN, should they be added, as I hope that they will, as a result of amendments to be tabled in Committee.
My second plea, included in our report, goes way beyond the Minister’s pay grade. How do the Government expect a junior Minister in the Department for Education, even one as able as Edward Timpson, to co-ordinate the essential contributions of the Department of Health, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department for Communities and Local Government, the Ministry of Justice and of course the Treasury to his department’s Bill? Because the Bill affects every child in the country, I would have thought it sensible to consider co-ordination responsibility being held by a Cabinet Office Minister.
I turn to those who enter custody, either, as now, with unidentified special educational or special learning and communications needs or, in future, following assessment and with an existing education, health and care plan. During my inspections of young offender institutions, as the noble Lord, Lord Addington, said, I learnt that more than 60% of detained children and young people had what are described as neuro-disabilities in an excellent report just published by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health and the Youth Justice Board, entitled Healthcare Standards for Children and Young People in Secure Settings. In other words, they have traumatic brain injury, special speech, language and communication needs, ADHD, learning disabilities and educational needs and the autistic spectrum disorder. Yet Clause 70 of the Bill is headed, quite starkly, “Part does not apply to detained children and young people”. It goes on to say:
“Nothing in or made under this Part applies to a child or young person who is detained in pursuance of … an order made by a court, or … an order of recall made by the Secretary of State”.
I am sure that noble Lords will agree that this means that Part 3 of the Bill does not apply to young people in custody. Unable to believe that the Department for Education could knowingly publish legislation that ran counter to the recently announced intent of the Ministry of Justice to put education at the heart of custodial provision, I immediately wrote to the Minister for Prisons, presuming that he would be seeking to have the clause removed from the Bill. I received a courteous but thoroughly unconvincing explanation from the Minister for Children, saying that the clause is intended to prevent conflict with Sections 18 and 562 of the Education Act 1996, which put the duty to deliver education and support in custody on to local authorities, inserted by the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Act 2009, by ensuring that local authorities are not put in the impossible position of having to implement rights and protections for those in custody that may not be appropriate to their circumstances. I would have thought that the issue was far better covered by Clause 25(1)(b)(i) and (ii) of the Bill, which says:
“A local authority in England must exercise its functions under this Part … where it thinks that this would … improve the quality of special educational provision … made in its area for children or young people who have special educational needs, or … made outside its area for children or young people for whom it is responsible who have special educational needs”.
Bearing in mind that the Ministry of Justice consultation was set in train because local authority provision was not working, I hope that the Minister will withdraw the clause before Committee, otherwise I give notice that I shall table an amendment that it does not stand part of the Bill.
Those are my three pleas, and I look forward to pursuing them in Committee. I am of course interested in Part 5 and the role of the Children’s Commissioner but, because it affects every child and therefore the future of our great country, I hope to contribute particularly to Part 3.
My Lords, we have a lot of legislation and I am sure that much that is in the Bill is welcome, but I worry about disengagement—that is to say, the number of people who vote in general elections and other elections. When I look at a Bill, I look for reasons to continue to be worried. The first reason would be if something unexpected came in a Bill, which you would not expect the Government of the day to put forward. The second worry is when a Bill includes aspirations that may be unfulfilled for very good and practical reasons. This disengagement is partly welcome to the public, I regret to say; they are quite interested in becoming disengaged from the political process, which they see as rather inward-looking.
I have one of each of these worries about this Bill. First, on the unexpected element, new Section 3A, in Clause 3, headed “Recruitment, assessment and approval of prospective adopters”—and here I am alongside my noble friend Lady Hamwee—is an authoritarian provision. It gives the Secretary of State power to take certain functions away from local authorities by directions, if the Secretary of State so determines. However, there is no parliamentary procedure for directions, so it is highly draconian. The public knows that local authorities vary widely and will have different opinions about adoption—this is in Part 1 of the Bill—and will come to different conclusions about the best way in which to handle their approach to adoption. I would have thought that it was part of the democratic process that they should be allowed to have different approaches. That, however, is surely in conflict with this Government’s approach to, for example, localism. It is an unexpected clause; I do not welcome it, and it is another reason for disengagement.
Part 5 is my second example. In 2004, in nine sections and one schedule, with a budget that peaked at £3 million, the Children’s Commissioner was created, partly as a response to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, a child being defined as anybody up to the age of 18. The convention took 10 years to create, from 1979 to 1989, and we ratified it in 1991. It is a convention with very high aspirations; the list of rights is long and, of course, familiar when we think about detriments, abuse and discrimination—all very familiar things. But signatory states should also take,
“all available measures to make sure that children’s rights are respected, protected and fulfilled”,
and that children “reach their potential”. That is a very demanding and large assignment. To date, the Children’s Commissioner has not attempted to tackle the major political issue of that—the joined-up government issue—and could not have done, having never had the budget. So it has been low-key and has looked at rather small but nevertheless significant detriments. A good example would be the exclusions from school affecting about 6,000 children a year. That seems to have been an excellent thing for the Children’s Commissioner to have done, and there has been other excellent and detailed work on detriments.
However, a big report was done at the request of the Secretary of State, the Dunford report, which identified a certain disappointment with the Children’s Commissioner and a gap between what you might have hoped the commissioner had been assigned to do and what the commissioner was actually doing. Now we have a Bill that strengthens the role of the commissioner, and I shall give two examples. In the 2004 Act, the commissioner had a general function,
“of promoting awareness of the views and interests of children in England”.
In the Bill before us, it has become a primary rather than a general function. The Bill states:
“The Children’s Commissioner’s primary function is promoting and protecting the rights of children in England”.
That has been a response, at least in part, to the Joint Committee on Human Rights and is clearly a much more significant function. In the same list of functions, the Children’s Commissioner is now to,
“monitor the implementation in England of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child”—
that is, to monitor but not report on progress. It is a big task to monitor progress against that convention because a great many provisions in that convention involve not only the righting of wrongs but the promoting of positive outcomes.
As a matter of fact, will the Children’s Commissioner be able to do more and, if so, how? Unless Her Majesty’s Government are clear about the accountability that they expect of the Children’s Commissioner and how that accountability will be discharged, we may be raising expectations about what the commissioner can do, and we shall again be disappointed because there will not be the resources to do what the Bill is asking the commissioner to achieve. That will lead to more disengagement by a perhaps small but significant section of the public who have come to think that expectations have been aroused that cannot be fulfilled. That is a dangerous tendency in the way that we approach the details of legislation.
My Lords, I welcome the Government’s intention to reform the special educational needs system in England. However, I share the disability sector’s concerns, echoed by many noble Lords, that the Bill still requires major improvement if it is to deliver better outcomes for children and young people with special educational needs or disabilities. Worryingly, in some areas the Bill does not protect existing rights and risks making matters worse. I will not repeat the points made by many other noble Lords. I will concentrate on the further action needed to address the challenges and difficulties faced by children with sensory impairments.
We sometimes talk about children with special educational needs as if they were a single entity to which we can apply single, catch-all solutions. That is clearly not the case, as is demonstrated by children with sensory impairments. Sensory impairment is a low-incidence need. Most mainstream professionals are unlikely to have regular contact with such children with which to build up expertise on how to meet their needs. Instead, this expertise is likely to be centred in relatively small, specialist support services and teachers.
It is not clear to me that the department’s proposals on SEN reform fully recognise the importance of specialist SEN support services. Further action is badly needed to ensure that these services are able to do their job—ensuring that every child with a sensory impairment is able to fulfil their potential. We first need to look at the funding of these vital services. The National Deaf Children’s Society has established that in this year alone 29% of local authorities are making cuts to specialist education services for deaf children. RNIB and Sense believe that similar cuts are taking place in other sensory impairment services. These cuts are having a devastating impact. Distressed parents who have fought so hard for their child to get the support they need are now seeing support being taken away. They talk of their children’s futures being stolen.
Last year, just 37% of deaf children achieved five good GCSEs, compared to 61% of children with no identified special educational need. That is a massive attainment gap. It is painfully unnecessary when you consider that deafness is not a learning disability and that deaf children should be doing as well as other children. Deaf children and other children with sensory impairments need more support, not less. When this was raised during the passage of the Bill in the other place, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children and Families indicated that his department would not intervene and that it was for local communities to challenge any such cuts. This is shamefully complacent. The department has made a commitment that funding for these services will be protected and yet seems unperturbed that 29% of local authorities are not doing so in relation to deaf children.
What assurances can the Minister give on the success of the Bill, knowing that there is a clear risk that in many areas funding cuts will fatally undermine its ambitions and result in children getting less support? Where are the specialist teachers to advise on a child’s education, health and care plan going to come from unless there is action to protect these services? Who will provide early intervention services? What will families buy with their personal budgets? Without adequate funding to provide these services and staff, it is extremely difficult to see how SEN reform can be made a success. Parents of children with sensory impairments deserve better than this complacency when it comes to their futures. They need the department to take action, not pass the buck to local authorities and communities.
That brings us to accountability. Many of these measures place the burden of holding local authorities to account almost entirely on the shoulders of parents. Not all parents will be able to, or necessarily want to, take this role. The vast majority were not knowledgeable about the world of special educational needs and disability, and are desperately feeling their way, trying to discover what will best help their child. They are busy being parents to all their children, and the parents of children with special educational needs have plenty to do already.
I am surprised to learn how little information is available to parents or professionals on the quality of SEN support services in their area and how little the Bill does to address this. There is no specific requirement to publish information about local authority SEN support services, despite the importance of these services to children with sensory impairments. It does not appear that local authorities would have to publish information by type of need, and they might therefore simply publish generic information about SEN. Nor does it appear that the Government will require the local offer to follow a set format—most importantly with clear expectations for minimum provision—which will make it harder for parents to compare provision in different areas. I understand that the department has been considering representations that Ofsted should inspect specialist SEN support services. I hope that the Minister will be able to update us on the department’s considerations on these concerns and that progress can be made before we further discuss this Bill.
Crucially, will the Minister ensure that the department does much more to ensure that children with sensory impairments get the help that they need from specialist SEN support services? These are the issues that he must address if he wishes us to have confidence that the Bill will make a positive difference to all children, including those with sensory impairments.
My Lords, I would like to add my strong support for the Bill. This legislation represents a real opportunity to improve the lives of millions of children and families in this country. I declare an interest as president of the National Children’s Bureau and as chair of CAFCASS.
There is much to welcome in the Bill and I should like briefly to draw attention to several of its key provisions before moving on to the main points on which I wish to focus. First, in terms of promoting family-friendly employment policies that reflect the needs of modern families, I warmly welcome Part 6, which introduces a system of shared parental leave, which will enable families to decide for themselves, given their own circumstances, how best to care for their child for the first year, thereby encouraging both parents to be involved in this critical phase in their child’s life.
Part 7 helpfully complements Part 6 by allowing prospective parents to take paid time off work to attend antenatal appointments. Extending the right to request flexible working to all employees is also part of a much-needed modernisation of working patterns that should lead to greater harmony in the workplace with everyone feeling they are being treated fairly in terms of their work/life balance.
This leads me to the importance of childcare and, in particular, measures to make it easier to offer wraparound care. I will return to this as the Bill proceeds, especially the need for childcare hubs to be able to offer a one-stop-shop facility for parents to access the additional hours needed for wraparound care through a network of linked and quality-assured childminders, However, I am concerned that the proposed removal of the duty on local authorities to publish a formal assessment of the sufficiency of childcare in their areas may result in some local authorities no longer actively working with providers to ensure there are sufficient quality childcare places available locally.
I turn now to four specific areas of the Bill: the family justice reforms, young carers, the local offer and independent advocacy for children in care. First, I give my strong backing to this Bill’s efforts to improve the family justice system and help deliver better outcomes for children and families who go to court after family separation or where children may be taken into care. By tackling delays and introducing a statutory time limit of 26 weeks for care and supervision proceedings and focusing timetabling decisions for care proceedings on the child’s welfare, the child’s interests and well-being are rightly placed at the centre of proceedings and decisions, rather than being left in limbo. Every day matters for a vulnerable child and every day in limbo can feel like a lifetime.
It is worth recalling that the proposed 26-week statutory limit initially attracted a degree of incredulity because the last time an average case took 26 weeks to complete was in 1995. However, over the past year, the average time a case takes to go through court has reduced by some 15 weeks, making this already one of the most radical reforms to care proceedings in a generation, and that was before the legislation commenced. I am also aware that 26 weeks is a maximum. Many new cases this year are being completed in 20 weeks or less. A culture of delay is being replaced by one of urgency. However, there will always be a small number of particularly complicated cases where this is not possible or, indeed, in the best interests of the child. Judges, through effective case management, must feel able and must be able to approve extensions where necessary.
In the run-up to this legislation, there was much heated debate as to what was then being called the presumption of shared parenting and what that would lead to. Following the consultation, it became clear that no one thought that strict 50:50 shared parenting—as some were choosing to interpret the presumption—was sensible, workable or desirable. I am very pleased as well that the language has now changed. The most important thing is that the child and their needs are put first. As other noble Lords have said today, the paramountcy principle is indeed paramount. This is clearly the intention in the child arrangement orders, which should assist in focusing parents on effective co-parenting and making parenting time arrangements in the interests of the child. The initial focus on parents’ rights in this area has moved, quite rightly, to one of joint parental involvement with a focus on the child’s rights and the parents’ responsibilities.
Secondly, at the Second Reading of the Care Bill, I drew attention to the treatment of young carers, which many noble Lords have spoken about today. We have already heard the statistics about the number of children and young people affected, so I will not repeat them. There can be little doubt about the heroic work performed by such children and young people and the importance of the contribution they make to their families. However, the existing legislation simply does not give young carers the protection and support they deserve. All too often, the demands of caring responsibilities at home interfere with a child or young person’s education, as well as shortening their childhood and all the experiences that should entail.
Like many noble Lords today, I was very encouraged by the recent comments made by the Children’s Minister, Edward Timpson, when he said that the time had now come to address this issue. I would therefore welcome an explanation from the Minister of exactly how this commitment is being taken forward and how and when it will be incorporated into the Bill. Young carers sit at the intersection of the Care Bill and this Bill and it is critical that these two pieces of legislation are properly joined up. I strongly believe that, with both Bills before the House, this is an unprecedented opportunity to clear away the current inconsistent and complex law surrounding young carers and to ensure that they are given the same rights and protection that the landmark Care Bill is introducing for adult carers.
Thirdly, I will talk very briefly about Part 3 of the Bill. As time is moving on, I will simply add my voice to that of other noble Lords who have mentioned their concerns about the local offer. It has many good points in making known the services available but I share the concerns about the lack of a duty on local authorities to make some vital services universally available or to deliver the services that families with disabled children need. This aspect of the Bill will need close scrutiny.
Finally, I want to mention briefly the importance of independent advocacy for children in the care system, which was highlighted by my noble friend Lady Hamwee. The Government should be congratulated on introducing legislation improving services and support for children who are looked after and adopted, and for placing young people at the centre of decision-making. However, the Bill can be further strengthened by ensuring that children and young people are given access to independent advocacy at key stages, such as care planning reviews and child protection conferences, to help them express their views, wishes and feelings. Is there scope in Part 1 of the Bill to amend the existing legislation to include a presumption that access to such independent advocacy will be provided?
My Lords, I shall confine myself to Part 3 of the Bill and certainly shall not cover everything. I welcome the Government’s attempt to substitute something better for the discredited system of statements, which has long produced more problems than solutions and has been the cause of great antagonism between parents and local authorities. There will still be appeals against decisions in this area, but the aim is that there should be fewer and that parents should be involved in the assessments at an earlier stage and more realistically. It is also very welcome that the assessments will be independent and that the recommendations can continue up to the age of 25, not only because this will cover the transition from school to college and beyond but because the age of 19 is for many children with special needs a time of quick improvement, so they need help at that stage. I share the astonishment of the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, that the continuation to age 25 does not cover students at university. I can think of no reason why it should not as they very often need the kind of support that will be offered to people at college.
The new plans are intended to enforce the collaboration between different providers of services, which the original report in 1978, the committee of inquiry, so conspicuously failed to bring about, although it thought about it a great deal. However, there are still certain areas of confusion which I shall be very pleased if the Minister could help to sort out. There is a good deal of vagueness in the Bill and uncertainty about how things are going to work in practice, such as personal budgets.
However, the Bill might be an opportunity to clear up an underlying confusion that has been around for a number of years—in fact, ever since an attempt was made to bring the Education Acts into line with the Disability Discrimination Act. I refer to the difficulty that we have in distinguishing between a disability and a special educational need. Of course, the two often overlap but, as my noble friend Lord Low pointed out, not all disabled people have special educational needs. As the noble Baroness, Lady Wilkins, pointed out, most helpfully I thought, the use of the term SEN is liable to be very misleading because people use it as though all people designated as having an SEN have the same sort of need. I was extremely moved by her appeal to separate off those who have a sensory deprivation of one kind or another and who very often, if their needs are addressed, do not have any other special educational needs. This seemed to me the kind of confusion that the Bill might help to clear up.
In general, I confess to deep scepticism about whether it will be possible for local authorities to fulfil their duties in the face of more financial cuts. In particular, I should like to ask the Minister how local authorities are supposed to fund the training of SENCOs, the cost of which is approximately £3,000 for each trainee. At present, that is paid for centrally, but from April 2014 the cost is to fall on local authorities. Without properly trained SENCOs in each school, the whole new system will collapse. Under the proposed new arrangements, SENCOs will have to make decisions about the needs of children with an SEN but with no education, health and care plan—probably almost 90% of the group of children with SEN—without the help of the school action and school action plus framework. I have not found anything that helps me to understand the rationale for abolishing this distinction, and I should be very grateful to hear the Minister’s justification of it.
It is hard not to suspect that a large group of children—probably 18% of children in any given school, and more in some schools—are going to find themselves at the mercy of very variable and inadequate levels of educational support. I am referring to pupils who have SEN but do not have plans. The supply will be dictated, as usual, by financial considerations rather than considerations of need. I do not complain about that because that is the world that we live in, but the SENCO will have to be both a powerful advocate and very well educated in all different disabilities if he or she is to be able to make that kind of decision.
In particular, I should very much like to be confident—I am not—that the new structure will not lead to an increase in the employment by schools of ill trained and often totally inadequate generalist classroom assistants. Such assistants may do more harm than good to the pupils they are supposed to serve, because their aim is that the child they are looking after should appear more or less to keep up with the rest of the class. They tend to do the work for the child, rather than take time to make sure that the child properly understands what is going on. In the case of dyslexia, I believe that they often do more harm than good. As the noble Lord, Lord Addington, well knows, teaching a dyslexic child involves skill. Such children can be taught and they can be marvellously helped and supported, but an untrained classroom assistant is not the best person to do that.
I regard this Bill as an opportunity rather than anything else, and unless it is suitably amended I think we will have wasted a chance. I refer particularly to Clause 57, which is concerned with special educational provision other than in schools. This has particular, although not exclusive, application to children who have been excluded from mainstream schools. We know that children with special educational needs are many times more likely to be excluded than children without. Pupil referral units—they are mainly pupil referral units but there are other kinds of provision as well—are mostly inhabited by children with special educational needs. There are some very good PRUs. I know quite a lot about one in particular in Tower Hamlets, which does extremely good work. It puts students through GCSEs and A-levels. The work that it does is good, but in particular the teachers are most remarkable people.
Teachers who choose to teach in PRUs are not regarded by the profession or by the department as proper teachers. They are not allowed, for example, to assess school-assessed work at GCSE or A-level because they are only teachers in PRUs. PRUs are not recognised as places where trainee teachers can train because they are only PRUs and not proper schools. This seems to be grossly unfair on those teachers, but there is also a lack of use of what could be a marvellous resource. After all, they are teaching the most difficult children whom other schools have failed to teach, and they are a last resort for extremely vulnerable children. If this last resort is not supported and used, and if the skills on display there are not disseminated through other schools, the children in these units will be undervalued and the resource that they are using will be conspicuously undervalued.
My final point is that I entirely agree with my noble friend Lord Ramsbotham when he says that Clause 70 should be taken out of the Bill. PRUs are places from which children in secure accommodation could most benefit, not only through the skill of the teachers but through the use that the best of these places make of interactive distance learning, which is the most useful kind of teaching that these disaffected children can have. If these children are disaffected at school, they are likely to become yet more disaffected from society as a whole and they will end up in prison.
My Lords, in the context of a debate such as this, it is as challenging and as important as ever to hear the thoughts and insights of the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock.
Some of us have had the opportunity to visit a young offender institution or to visit a court in which young people stand before the magistrates. I am sure that all of us have had the opportunity to look at street corners in our own community and the young people gathered there. If we had then gone on to talk to those young people, it would have been clear that it would be a miracle if those young people were not in trouble.
Of course, it is important to reflect on our responsibility as a society. The Government set great store by the concept of the big society but we cannot have it both ways. If we are talking about a big society, we are talking about the responsibility of society as a whole. When we see failure and delinquency, it is a failure of society, not just of the youngsters or their immediate families. We all need to remember that.
How far are the matters that we are considering this evening related to the whole value system of our society? Are mutual support and caring, as distinct from succeeding and achieving, given sufficient weight in the values of our society? How far does our educational system reflect that? What is clear is that if there is any work to be done by young people at risk, long-term, lasting relationships in the different areas in which that work is carried out are terribly important. Just to be pushed from one person to another in the system compounds the damage.
I often reflect on the fact that, in the interesting life that I have been able to live, I have never seen any structure or any legislation achieve anything. Good structures and good legislation underpin what should be happening with the reinforcing of the law. What matters are the values, personalities and skills of the people within the system and, indeed, their motivation. I have sometimes seen quite antiquated structures where very exciting things are happening because the people are highly motivated. I have seen perfected structures where nothing is happening because the whole thing is dead in terms of real commitment and inspiration.
A point that has been made well by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, is that we are dealing with a matrix situation. We cannot possibly expect the Department for Education and our schools to handle these issues on our behalf successfully alone. As the all-party parliamentary group has pointed out so well, it is important that all departments work together—the Department for Education, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the Department for Communities and Local Government, the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department of Health, the National Health Service and Public Health England, the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office, and the UK Border Agency—about which the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester made some very important points. Furthermore, there must be flexibility, because from time to time other departments of government will become highly relevant, including the Ministry of Defence—for example, what happens to young recruits to the armed services? There has to be an effective operational matrix in matters of this kind.
If this is to succeed, it is terribly important that civil society is involved. Civil society must be involved all along the line. We all received extremely well drafted, very powerful briefings from a range of organisations, not simply the ones that are best known—the National Children’s Bureau, the NSPCC, Barnardo’s, UNICEF UK, the Children’s Society and so on—but all sorts of other specialist groups. What characterises them is the dedication, the commitment and, usually, the calibre of the people working in these organisations and what they have to share.
I am not baiting the Government but merely encouraging them, within the context of their own commitments, to think through the implications of their commitments. If we are talking about the big society, I would like to be reassured that these real players out there in the front line are being properly and consistently consulted about the evolution of policy. I know that quite a number of them still have big concerns and anxieties about the Bill. I will make a specific recommendation to the Minister. Between now and the autumn, when we carry this Bill forward, all those organisations—and if he is not sure which they are, I am very happy to respond to any inquiry from his officials about what names I have in mind—should be consulted about their specific anxieties as things still stand. The Government have an opportunity not just to adjust in the face of opposition, in the formal political sense, but to amend legislation if necessary in the light of the crucial importance of the insight of the front-line players in civil society.
We know, in the mean time, that there are key issues arising, including health provision in schools; arrangements for the disabled and for those with different degrees of dyslexia; transition for the physically disabled and psychologically vulnerable from school to university; education for life—personal, social, health and economic—and, I would argue, citizenship, because of the importance of the young being able to see the distinction between citizenship and passive consumerism; and the ability to ask the questions that should be answered and not simply to tick boxes.
The UK played a significant part in the development of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and we gained tremendous international esteem from the role that we played. The world therefore watches us and our performance, and we have to be on our guard. Again, I specifically suggest to the Minister—and the all-party parliamentary group comes to the same conclusion in its excellent report—that it is high time that, in making decisions affecting children, the rights of individual children, whoever they are, from wherever they come, should always be paramount. As the right reverend Prelate reminded us, this applies every bit as much to immigration and refugees as it does to any longer-term established residents in this country.
My Lords, I was interested to hear how moved the Minister was by his visit yesterday. I now invite him on another visit, this time to a family who have just experienced a major struggle to get adequate support in school for their son who has type 1 diabetes. I declare an interest as the chief executive of Diabetes UK. However, I am speaking not only on behalf of children and families with diabetes but on behalf of the one million children in this country who have long-term health conditions, such as asthma, heart disease, migraine and epilepsy, who require and often do not get extra support at school.
Several noble Lords have already highlighted the absence of provision in the Bill for this important group. The Health Conditions in Schools Alliance, an alliance of 36 national charities across a wide range of health conditions, has collected evidence from children and parents. We hear about children being excluded from school activities and made to feel isolated and different at a time when they need to feel that they are fitting in. Their academic attainment suffers and, in some cases, their very health or survival is put at risk with crises in their condition being unsupported. In many cases, parents have to give up work or work reduced hours, with serious financial implications for their families and, indeed, for the economy.
Let me give examples. There are 29,000 children in this country with type 1 diabetes. In 70% of cases where a child is unable to inject insulin on their own behalf or where an insulin pump needs simple checks, parents are required to go into schools to provide this simple care. Some 59% of schools do not have a policy of advising staff on how to give medication. There are 63,000 children and young people with epilepsy but less than 40% of schools have an epilepsy policy. Indeed, recently the Children’s Commissioner has criticised ad hoc exclusion of children from schools as the result of long-term medical conditions. Often when schools think that they cannot cope, they simply send the child home.
I should not be critical of all schools because many schools provide excellent support to these children but, distressingly, others do not. It is intriguing that very often that involves neighbouring schools in the same local educational area. So it is not an issue of money, staff or skills—it is a failure of commitment. It is often left to the interest or motivation of a head or a particular teacher. This kind of postcode lottery is unacceptable.
During the debate on the Bill in the other place, the Government spokesman agreed that in some schools support for children with health conditions is below the level we should be seeing and that every effort needs to be made to improve practice on the ground. However, wishing things to be better will not make them happen. We now have a long and deep experience that shows that for those schools which do not voluntarily do the right thing by these children, a statutory requirement is now needed.
I am sure the Minister will have been briefed that the Children Act 1989, the Education Act 2002 and the Equality Act 2010 provide sufficient legislative framework. I simply say that they have not so far. Too many schools have failed to follow the existing guidance given on supporting children with health conditions. I could introduce the Minister, were he in visit mode, to some of the families who have had to fight to get rights through using this legislation. However, for every family that has the tenacity, intelligence and resource to fight that case, there are tens or hundreds who do not.
I would like the Minister to meet some of these families but, more importantly, I invite him also to adopt the amendments tabled on this issue in the other place and lay a statutory duty on schools to have a plan for the support for such children. It is not too much to ask for a million vulnerable children. It will help the Government to meet their ambition of ensuring that all children and young people can succeed whatever their background.
Perhaps I may briefly raise the issue of another omission from the Bill. It may look a bit off the wall, but here goes. The Minister will be acutely aware that the Government failed to include in the Queen’s Speech a provision for the introduction of plain packaging for cigarettes and tobacco products, despite the considerable weight of evidence. We are still waiting. Standard packs are designed to protect children and young people from taking up smoking. This Bill is an opportunity to correct that omission. Why not, Minister?
My Lords, as other noble Lords have observed, there is much to welcome in this Bill, even if it has to be read in the context of children and families, particularly those on low incomes, carrying the main burden of austerity and economic and social policies. This is clearly demonstrated by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner’s child rights impact assessment of Budget decisions, which warns that the best interests of children are not being treated as the primary consideration in the design of fiscal measures relating to welfare benefits, tax credits and taxes.
As a member of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, I shall focus on three of the issues raised in our report on the Bill. First, on the reforms to the Office of the Children’s Commissioner, the committee has welcomed them as significant human rights enhancing measures. However, despite the changes made in response to our pre-legislative scrutiny, some concerns remain. The committee recommended that the commissioner’s primary function of promoting and protecting the rights of children should be explicitly defined with reference to the rights set out in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, rather than the commissioner simply having to have regard to these rights. This stronger formulation would be in line with the recommendation of the Dunford review, mentioned by the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles.
The committee also underlined the importance of the commissioner’s independence. The recent UNICEF global study of independent human rights institutions for children stresses:
“Independence is the defining feature of human rights institutions for children”.
The degree of independence is pivotal in determining their success or failure. At the same time, independence is also their most fragile quality. UNICEF identifies sufficient and sustainable financial resources as key to independence.
While the Bill enhances the commissioner’s independence, there are very real concerns that it will not have sufficient resources to fulfil its enhanced duties in a way that ensures its compliance with the Paris principles, which govern international human rights bodies. In a digital age it is crucial that an organisation’s independence is signalled by its website. At present that is not the case, despite protracted negotiations. The JCHR has urged the Government to resolve this issue swiftly, and I would welcome the Minister’s assurance that it will do so.
There are also other important ways in which the office of the Children’s Commissioner must be strengthened. These were raised by the Alliance for Reform of the Children’s Commissioner, and no doubt we will explore them in Committee. For example, there is a case for extending the definition of vulnerable children for whom the commissioner is required to have particular regard to include separated children who are seeking asylum, children who have been trafficked and children in custody.
Turning to Part 1 of the Bill, the Joint Committee recommended that Clause 1 be amended to make more explicit the Government’s intention that a fostering for adoption placement does not take priority over a placement with family and friends, where that is the most appropriate placement available. I hope this is what the Minister had in mind when making the welcome assurance in his speech. I hope he can reassure us on that.
The Joint Committee also questioned the evidence base for removing any requirement to give due regard to a child’s ethnic, religious, cultural and linguistic background in making decisions about adoption. The danger is that without any such reference, due regard might not be paid to these factors, which would be incompatible with Article 20(3) of the UNCRC. The committee therefore recommended that these considerations be added to the checklist to which local authorities are required to have regard. This was also recommended by the Select Committee on Adoption Legislation.
Finally, I wish to speak about the shared parental leave provisions. At Third Reading in the Commons the Minister commented that these provisions have,
“not had the same prominence or debate”,
as other parts of the Bill. She suggested that this is,
“perhaps a mark of the remarkable consensus on them in general”.—[Official Report, 11 June 2013; col. 293.]
I am sorry to break that consensus. I agree that there is a consensus around the goal of encouraging and enabling fathers to play a greater caring role in the first year, and of achieving the necessary culture change for this to happen. However, having willed the end the Government have proved too timid to will the means, through a period of leave reserved for the father on a “use it or lose it” basis. As the Government pointed out in their original consultation on modern workplaces:
“International evidence suggests that fathers’ usage of parental leave is higher under schemes that offer them targeted or reserved leave as opposed to just making shared leave available to the father”.
This is somehow forgotten in the otherwise very thorough impact assessment. As it is, the impact assessment anticipates a take-up rate by fathers of shared parental leave of a mere 2% to 8%. This is hardly enough to achieve a culture change or a real shift in the division of caring responsibilities between fathers and mothers, which I believe to be essential if we are to achieve true gender equality. The evidence cited in the impact assessment suggests that this would have a positive long-term effect on children and young people. The Fatherhood Institute has dismissed what is proposed as,
“a re-naming of the existing parasitic Additional Paternity Leave (i.e. transferable Maternity Leave) with a few ‘tweaks’”.
This may strike noble Lords as a tad harsh, but it makes an important point. A father's right to parental leave will be dependent upon and mediated by the mother. That is not a genuine independent right.
The Joint Committee welcomes the provisions as representing progress towards the implementation of the obligation set out in Article 18(1) of the UNCRC to take steps to ensure recognition of the principle of the “common responsibility to parenting”, but it also expresses disappointment that the Bill does not make the more ambitious provision for shared parental leave that was foreshadowed in the modern workplaces consultation. I know that the Government have said that they will keep this matter under review and that there are powers in the legislation to extend paternity leave and for it to be taken in non-consecutive periods. Can the Minister clarify whether this means that it could be taken at any point during the period covered by shared parental leave? Despite these powers, I still believe that this is a step backwards from the enlightened proposals in the original consultation document. Another step backwards is the absence of any provision for part-time leave, even though this was proposed in the original consultation. As the charity Working Families points out, part-time leave and part-time pay may have significant benefits for families, particularly those on low incomes who would like to extend the time they can spend at home, but cannot afford to have no income.
I hope that we will be able to give these and related matters rather fuller consideration than in the Commons, and that we will be able to rectify at least some of the Bill’s weaknesses as we come to scrutinise this important piece of legislation.
My Lords, as the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, said, I think we are all agreed that this is a very important Bill, interacting as it does with so many pieces of legislation that have only recently been through your Lordships’ scrutiny. Thankfully, we have the summer vacation to study the many reports that are the result of the pre-legislative scrutiny that has already been undertaken, so when we reach Committee in October, we shall be better equipped. There are many areas of the Bill that one is interested in. It is my belief that strengthening the role of the Children’s Commissioner for England is crucial, as indeed is the voice of the child on every single issue, but I shall leave those two matters to one side.
Like other noble Lords, I will concentrate my remarks on the area of special needs. I warmly congratulate the Government on making these reforms the key priority in order to improve the lives of children and families in the UK. It is estimated that one in eight families in England has a child with special educational needs, which equates to 1.7 million children. Given these significant numbers and, one must stress, a likely growth in them as the years go on, it is of the utmost importance that we get these reforms right. We have heard about the problems faced by those with special needs in the health area. It is clear that the current legislation—the Equality Act, education legislation and so on—is not sufficient. There must be a duty on schools to take the necessary action. I am sure that we will come back to this point.
At the heart of the issue is something that Members in the other place argued for vigorously: the need to reduce the battles that families face in getting the support that they need. Indeed, I am pleased that the Government have stated that the explicit aim of the Bill is to end the unacceptable situation where “thousands of families” are forced to go from “pillar to post” and face,
“agonising delays and bureaucracy to get the support, therapy and equipment that they need”.
The success of this Bill will be measured on the extent to which these battles are removed.
The Keep Us Close campaign of the disability charity Scope, whose report was published last year, found that too many families with disabled children and special educational needs were being pushed to crisis point. Almost two-thirds of families said that they were not able to access the services that they and their child needed in their local area. If they have the energy and tenacity to do so, parents are being forced to fight for every last bit of support, be it in schooling, childcare, therapy or leisure services. The impact that this lack of support has on families’ quality of life should not be underestimated; 80% of those families said that that caused them stress and anxiety, and half said that they struggled to hold down full-time jobs as a result of a lack of support in their local area.
The key way in which the Government aim to resolve that is through the introduction of the local offer—the services on which the vast majority of children with SEN, the 87% who do not have a statement, will be reliant. The local offer will require local authorities to publish information on the support available for families with disabled children and children with SEN in their local area, thereby injecting some much-needed transparency into the SEN system. Improving access to information is of course a vital tool in enabling families to find the support and help that they need. I am delighted that the Government are committed to introducing that. However, although the Government’s intention with regard to the local offer is welcome, I fear that in practice it will not bring about the transformation in support for families that has been promised.
The right access to information is vital, but not a panacea. In order to ensure that services are truly responsive to needs on the ground, there must be strong accountability. I seem to recognise that word “accountability” from my noble friend, who I think is sitting behind me, because he requires it on everything to do with children in custody, but it is also relevant in plenty of other areas.
Currently, parents too often feel that nobody is listening to them and that the only way they can get the right support for their child is to go through the formal process of getting a statement, or even going to a tribunal. That is an extremely arduous and complex process and is only for those who have the knowledge and know-how to do so. Moreover, can that really be the most efficient use of time and resources for local authorities that are suffering large cuts to their budgets? As the Green Paper on SEN, published in 2011, states:
“Resources that could be spent on support and teaching are diverted into bureaucracy”.
All that does is create a climate where local authorities and parents are constantly at loggerheads, resulting in damaging delays to children getting the support that they need.
I also echo the comments of the chairman of the Education Select Committee on Report in the other place when he said that he hoped that there would be fewer people having the new education, health and care plans, which replace statements,
“because local offers meet so many of the needs of parents and young people that there is not a requirement for the bureaucratic involvement”.—[Official Report, 11/6/13; col. 205.]
At least one way to do that is to bring about a cultural change whereby parents are seen as partners in the commissioning process, not adversaries.
The Government are committed to ensuring that local authorities publish comments from parents on the local offer. However, I would like to see a duty on the authorities so that when reviewing a local offer, parents and children are not just consulted but their views properly are taken into account. There is another problem, though, pointed out by Keystone Consulting. Around 100,000 children cannot access mainstream education due to sickness, disability, exclusion or being moved around as looked-after children, or because they are in custody. By no means do all the excluded not want to learn; a BIS research paper in January found that more than nine out of 10 NEET young people were motivated to learn but felt that there were barriers.
As Keystone Consulting points out, education provision can be supplied by individual organisations that have created innovative ways to help those who are currently excluded. However, the snag is that the money assigned per student while inside the mainstream system does not follow a young person once they are no longer on the school roll, meaning that it is financially difficult for students to pay for the alternative education that would help them. Online and blended education mixes visual with auditory, verbal and kinaesthetic modes of teaching and ensures that children can focus on learning without being bogged down by external influences that they might struggle to deal with.
My time is more than up so I will not go on further. I simply stress that having small pockets of good practice is not good enough. We must be able to transform support for all disabled children. There must be a legal duty to ensure that local authorities and health agencies consider disability at every stage, be it planning, designing, commissioning, funding, delivering or evaluating local services.
I emphasise the importance of these reforms in meeting the needs of all children with SEN, not just those with the most complex needs. We must seize this opportunity and ensure that the Bill truly transforms support for all SEN children. This is a message that is coming from many other people too. A strong, relevant local offer is an excellent way to do this. Parents all over the country are watching this debate and we must not let them down.
My Lords, this is a good Bill. It addresses important failings in our current child support system. However, it will be very expensive to implement. With the present state of the nation’s finances, there must be a question mark over how local authorities will be able to afford to implement it.
The underlying problems that the Bill attempts to address relate mainly to the problems of those children whose parents are unable or unwilling to give them, or to procure for them, the love, care, support and education that they need if they are to develop into happy and useful adults and to be able to be good parents and good citizens in their turn. It is important that these problems be solved not only for the future of our society but in the context of the human rights of every child and of social mobility within our society. Too many of this nation’s parents today have not been adequately prepared for their role as parents. Might it not be a more effective—and, perhaps, less expensive—way of achieving the Government’s objectives to concentrate more on prevention? Should we not be thinking about what steps we could take to reduce in the future the number of families that will fail to give their children the start in life that they need?
This leads on to two practical questions. First, should we not define more clearly what responsibilities towards their child we as a society expect a parent to accept and shoulder? Secondly, should we not be doing more in school to motivate, empower and prepare our young people, the nation’s future parents, for the responsibilities of adult life and parenthood?
The majority of mothers and fathers want to give their children the start in life that they need, but there are many obstacles in the way. More than 3 million children in this country are growing up in lone-parent households. Some 30% of women and 17% of men have been victims of domestic violence at least once since the age of 16. Some 22% of children live with a parent who drinks hazardously. These statistics, and many others that are available, give some indication of the problems that prospective parents face in our society today: unemployment, family breakdown, unstable and chaotic families, domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse, mental illness, fathers in prison and many more. We will never entirely wipe out these problems, which devastate the lives of some of our children, but their number and severity could surely be reduced. I believe and hope that such a process might be set in train by the Bill.
There are things that we could and should be doing. I will mention just two. First, we could use the Bill to clarify in simple language the respective responsibilities of parents and the state in the complex task of raising the nation’s children. The complexity of the law today means that too many parents, and especially too many young men, are choosing to ignore their parental responsibilities. Section 2 of the Children Act 1989 refers to “parental responsibility” but does not define it. I should like to see this Bill define a parent’s responsibilities to their child unambiguously and in simple language so that every prospective parent, even teenage fathers, could understand that they have responsibilities towards any child they bring into the world. I would also like them, if possible, to have some understanding of what those responsibilities are. Today, the law on this subject depends on case law. This is fine for lawyers but is not helpful for teachers and others when trying to explain to young people why they should take seriously their responsibilities to their future child. Scottish law has an excellent short definition of parental responsibility, on which I intend to base an amendment.
My second suggestion for action relates to the fact that recent research shows that there are two windows of opportunity in a child’s life when it is possible to influence their social and personal development. The first is in the first three years of a child’s life. This window of opportunity has already been recognised by this Government and has led to their early years programme, so ably led by Graham Allen. The second window of opportunity is during key stage 3, between the ages of 11 and 14. At this age, most young people are eager to find out more about the opportunities, challenges and responsibilities that they will meet in adult life. This is a time when good schools have the opportunity to help, teach and guide pupils on these issues, perhaps through the PSHE programme.
However, the sad thing is that, as Ofsted reports show, few secondary schools today are giving any priority whatever to PSHE. Most do not regard personal and social education as an important subject and in the majority of cases the subject is being taught, if it is taught at all, by teachers with no specialist training or experience in it. I call on the Government to encourage all secondary schools to employ at least one teacher with specialist training in this important subject and to take steps to ensure that enough specialist teacher training is available to make this possible. Today, not one single teacher-training university in this country offers such a course.
My Lords, I declare my interests as a vice-president of the Local Government Association and as an elected member of Bradford Metropolitan District Council. I speak today as the Bill has significant implications for local government. As someone who has worked in local government for many years, I welcome the Government’s commitment to improving the lives of children and young people. It goes without saying that protecting children and helping to provide for their future is one of the most important things that councils do, and councils take those responsibilities very seriously. The measures in the Bill will have a significant impact on councils’ children’s services, because local authorities will have a central role in implementing them.
I know we all want to make sure that the Bill helps secure the best possible outcomes for our children and young people. While I welcome many of the provisions in the Bill and there is much in it to be commended, I have a number of concerns about measures in the legislation, particularly the proposed changes to the adoption system and, as with many others, special educational needs reform.
I served on the House of Lords Select Committee on adoption legislation and had the pleasure of working on this with many noble friends who are here today. I would like to be clear, as the committee was, that adoption is not the only form of permanence available for children. For some, permanence through special guardianships or long-term foster care might be more appropriate. The central consideration must always be what is in the best interests of the individual child.
Some provisions in these clauses are to be commended. For example, councils already make use of fostering for adoption. This increases stability for children. However, it remains essential to progress measures to reduce the significant delay in the courts and uncertainty for the child and those who are not being fostered for adoption. The committee welcomed this clause, and I am pleased that the Government have extended its scope, as we argued that they should, and that there is now a duty to consider a fostering for adoption placement for all children for whom adoption is being considered.
The committee did not agree with the Government’s proposals to remove the requirement to consider ethnicity when matching children with families. We were not convinced, and I am still not convinced, that this process causes significant delay. I believe that it should be not the only consideration but one factor along with others. That said, there needs to be a change to the adoption system, and we welcome many of the reforms that have been introduced. The acute shortage of adopters remains a significant challenge, but the provisions included in Clause 3, which will allow the Secretary of State to remove all councils from the recruitment and assessment of adopters, is not the solution. In fact it risks making things worse for children and adopters.
Voluntary adoption agencies provide only 20% of adopter recruitment. Removing the other 80% runs serious risks of creating more harm than good. Councils will also remain responsible for placing children for adoption and matching them with families. Clause 3 could fragment the system as a result. Adoptive families say that they like the consistency of support from a social worker throughout the process. There are also wider disincentives in the system, which deter councils from recruiting more adopters than they need in their local area. I know that the Local Government Association is already working with the sector on plans to overcome these systemic barriers and to improve performance where necessary.
I am also concerned that this clause does not include criteria for use. There has been room for improvement, but local government has been taking action and we are seeing the impact of this. Recent research from the Association of Directors of Children’s Services has found that the number of children placed for adoption in England has nearly doubled over the past year. We need time for other adoption reforms, such as the adoption gateway and changes to the assessment process, to bed in. I am concerned that the sweeping provision in Clause 3 would undermine this positive progress.
Clause 9 introduces a duty for local authorities to appoint at least one person to promote the educational achievement of looked-after children, the so-called virtual school head. It is important to point out that every local authority in England already has arrangements in place to deliver the function of virtual school heads, because they recognise the importance of helping children to overcome the trauma experienced before they came into the care system and the need to support them in achieving good educational outcomes.
On special needs reform, I know that many of us want to see changes to the system to deliver the best outcomes for children and young people. Many noble Lords have spoken eloquently on this subject. The reforms are ambitious. They aim to ensure that in future children, young people and their parents are at the heart of the system. We therefore need to make sure that the Bill helps to deliver the best outcomes for children and young people with special educational needs. That is why it is important to get the detail right. I am concerned that the Bill will not deliver effective accountability and redress for young people with SEN and their parents. Although one of the key aims of the new system is to bring together education, health and social care, as the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, mentioned, there will be different ways of challenging the education, health and social care aspects of provision through different tribunals, procedures and processes, which risks leaving parents and young people with a confusing system that is time-consuming, difficult to navigate and emotionally draining.
As we have already heard, Clauses 31 and 32 place a duty on local authorities to provide information on the services they expect to be available for children and young people. I am very supportive of the local offer, but I want to make sure that the Bill’s provisions allow local areas the freedom to include the full range of services that help children and young people. The local offer should be developed with local families so that services are designed for them and are not prescribed by Whitehall. The Bill will give councils a range of new duties, and we do not need an extra layer of requirements or we will turn a good idea to provide local people with information into something unworkable.
I also want to see sufficient duties placed on other organisations, such as health bodies, schools and colleges, to ensure that all partners responsible for delivering health, education and care packages provide the services a child or young person requires. For example, provisions in Clause 27 place a duty on local authorities to keep education and care provision under review. Such duties are not placed on health bodies.
My time is up. I am sure that we all commend this Bill. The role of this Chamber is to improve this legislation in a spirit of consensual debate to ensure the best outcomes for children and young people. I am sure that across the House we can improve the Bill in the way that we need to.
My Lords, we are in the local government part of this debate, and like the noble Baroness, Lady Eaton, I must declare my interests. I am leader of Wigan Council, a vice-president of the LGA and chairman of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority. It will be no surprise that I will take a local authority perspective on this.
As the noble Baroness said, one of the most important roles of local councils is as corporate parents. As corporate parents, they have responsibility for the protection of children, making sure they are brought up well and preparing them for the future. As local councils, we try to ensure that that happens. We are not always successful. We have to admit that. We know that outcomes for children in care are still not good enough, and I am sure we want to use this Bill to strengthen that.
Although I did not realise it at the time, the poet Lemn Sissay was a looked-after child in my authority. Noble Lords may well want to ask how a child of African parents got into Wigan. He has done an interesting study called “A Child of the State”. I recommend that all noble Lords look at the video available on the internet. He talks about his experiences—I know they were a few years ago now—in local authority care. It is an eye-opener. It was an eye-opener for me, and I was supposed to be responsible for that.
Local authorities share the Government’s basic objective in this Bill to make outcomes better for children, but like the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, I have a few concerns about Parts 1 and 2. Before we get to the adoption part of the Bill, I want to reflect on the fact that far too many public services are designed to cope with the symptoms of problems rather than to tackle their causes. This is true particularly for family services. In designing our community budgets in Greater Manchester, we began to quote the case of a family in Salford, who within 12 months had consumed over £250,000 of public spending from various public services—police, local housing and others—but who at the end of the year were no different from the way they were at the beginning of the year. We had spent that public money and achieved nothing, so we need to think about this.
We need to think about the point made by the noble Lord that we are dealing with families with complex, often intergenerational, issues. They do not have role models to help them to know how to perform better. Change cannot come—I wish it could—from command. We cannot send a team of social workers into one of our more difficult estates and tell people to improve their lives. They really do not understand and are not able to do that. We need a holistic, sustained and trusted relationship.
I came across such an approach offered through the Life programme, which is run by an inspirational third-sector organisation called Participle. It had been working in Swindon when I heard that it was looking to expand the programme to see whether its success was transportable to other areas, so I invited it to come and work in Wigan. It has been in Wigan for less than two years, but we are already seeing how the lives of the families whom the project is working with in our most deprived areas are being dramatically turned around.
One example concerns a guy who was a drug addict, who had four children and a very chaotic life style, as noble Lords might imagine. With the support of the Life programme he is off drugs and coping very well. His four children are going to school regularly, and they do not truant or cause anti-social behaviour in the area as they did before. The project has not only saved us from the likelihood of having to take four children into very expensive care, but because of the way in which those children are now being brought up we might be able to break that cycle of deprivation and make sure that those kids think about their responsibilities as parents in a different way. That is important. While I applaud the Prime Minister’s recognition of the problem of troubled families, and obviously welcome the recent injection of more money from last week’s spending review, I do not think we are going to get really sustained improvement simply by hoping that we are going to work on a numbers game. We need a holistic, long-term approach, as demonstrated by Participle.
The noble Baroness, Lady Eaton, mentioned many of the points that I wished to raise, so I will not repeat everything that she said. However, I am concerned about the impact of the bedroom tax in my area on fostering, which is the stage before adoption. The changes that the Government made for one bedroom may be welcome, but I am not sure that it is enough. We ought to ask the Government to see how they think the bedroom tax, or the under-occupation rules as they regard it, is impacting on fostering. I sincerely think that it is having an impact in our area.
I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Eaton, that Clause 3 is really quite unnecessary. It seems a power too far. We already have substantial powers for that. There is a danger of upsetting the market for the provision of adoption, which could be even more disastrous for young children.
On SEN, first, I agree with the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, who is not in her place, about the importance of encouraging young people into mainstream education. In addition to the reasons she gave, I give one example. A mother came to me who had just transferred her child into mainstream education. It was life-changing for that child, and she said that children came around to knock on the door to see whether he wanted to come out to play. Think about that: before that, he had just been trapped in the house and nobody in the neighbourhood knew him because he was off to school in other parts of the borough. Then, because he was at a local school, he was part of the community.
Finally, I pick up the point made by my noble friend Lady Wilkins, which the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, also mentioned, about the financial situation in local authorities. We must recognise that lots of the things in this Bill will be desirable, but if they increase local expenditure when last week there was another 10% cut to local authority budgets, we will be in danger of promising things that cannot be delivered by local authorities if there is insufficient funding. Once we have performed the scrutiny which your Lordships’ House will do very adequately, I hope the Minister will ensure that we re-examine the implications of the Bill to check that any additional costs are fully and properly funded. Otherwise we will be giving parents and young people false promises.
My Lords, I support the Bill and particularly the core phrase of “support and aspirations” which Sarah Teather MP used to launch the Green Paper when she was the Minister, and which I think runs right through the heart of the Bill. I absolutely accept the previous two speakers’ point about local government’s concerns about funding this, but we have to start somewhere. There is no doubt that “support and aspirations” for children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities are due for reform. The much stronger links in the Green Paper between education, health and social care are critical if we are to move to a truly child-centred approach for those with SEND.
Something has, however, slipped between the Green Paper and the publication of the Bill, although there has, correspondingly, been some remedy of this during the Bill’s passage through another place. The links between health and education are somewhat weaker. In particular, I am concerned about the 25% of children and young people with disabilities or physical illnesses who fall outside the scope of the Bill because they are deemed not to have SEN. However, their education is often harder to access because of their disability.
I am reminded of a student at Impington Village College, where I was a governor for 10 years, who had cystic fibrosis. At the heart of the school is a strong medical and support unit called the Pavilion, which has full physiotherapy, occupational therapy, a nurse on hand and other medical support. Having this in the middle of a mainstream school meant that she was able to access a normal education. She was a very bright young lady. Yet, as the noble Baronesses, Lady Warnock and Lady Howe, have pointed out, schools which do not have this system at their heart would have been reluctant to take her with the thought of her having to do physiotherapy twice during the school day in order to make it possible for her to study. I really think that the Bill will move things forward for many children with severe medical problems like this.
For those children who need social care as part of their education, health and care plan, the Bill only outlines the administrative need. It is not enforceable, as other noble Lords have said. Social care is critical to youngsters with serious disabilities. Without it, they too cannot necessarily access their education fully. This week is junior rheumatoid arthritis week. There are children as young as seven or eight who wear splints and use wheelchairs, although it is not a disease you normally associate with the young. They still need that support if they are going to have education in their local school, which has much to commend it. I hope that the Minister will be able to address this quite specific point about a duty of enforceability during the passage of the Bill.
I am also concerned that the SEND tribunals can hear appeals only on the education element. Surely an education, health and care plan is one unit. Surely the principle behind the Bill is to reduce the silo thinking and behaviour. I absolutely cannot understand why a SEND tribunal should not be able to draw in the health and care plan elements.
If we are serious about the age of 25 as being the key date for those with SEN, it is vital that EHC plans can continue into university and beyond. I just do not understand why employers are included—which is wonderful—but not universities. While we are talking about universities, I was astonished to read today a survey from the Snowdon Trust that SEN support is significantly reduced for graduate students. So you can have a certain amount of support for three years of your undergraduate course and, merely because you are bright enough to continue on to be a postgraduate, your support is significantly reduced—often to 10% of what it was before. If we believe that this provision is to cover young people up to 25, this must be addressed.
Noble Lords will not be surprised to hear me say that there is one group of children whose needs are excluded from SEN and that it is an area that really does need to be addressed. These are children who are so severely bullied that they fear for their safety—and worse, some take their own lives. Their downward spiral is often characterised by their refusing to go to school; the number is estimated at 16,000 a year. I am afraid to say that some schools do not help these children in finding them alternative provision until the bullying is stopped and their confidence built up. Providers such as Red Balloon Learner Centres get 95% of their students back into mainstream education. It is time that these children were able to access temporary special needs support, and I will bring forward amendments at the Committee stage of the Bill.
However, more than that is needed. At present, the regulations and codes of practice for schools dealing with bullies are in a number of places, and I believe that they should be brought together in one clear government statement, in legislation, support documents and codes of practice, so that all schools and colleges are in no doubt about the Government’s strong statements against bullying and how this needs to be dealt with. We also need to have training for teachers, social workers and, frankly, children to start to change the culture. Anti-Bullying Pro, a charity that has worked with Jodie Marsh and Alex Holmes, has done amazing work in over 600 schools to develop anti-bullying ambassadors, but there are thousands more schools still to go. Shy Keenan, whose son Ayden tragically took his own life in March this year, is fighting for Ayden’s Law in a strong campaign at the Sun newspaper to provide protection, training and support to ensure that not one more child has to die. I believe that the special educational needs element of that campaign could well be served by inclusion within this Bill.
I want to focus for the last part of my speech on shared parental responsibility. One problem that many young women face is an employer trying to decide whether or not they might be likely to have a child, and whether that will cause problems for the organisation, even though they know perfectly well that to declare this would be discriminatory. But there is another problem, too. We have focused too much on the mother as being the only parent who can provide parental support in a child’s early years. It is time that parents were able to share between themselves parental leave in those early vital months; by doing this, the problems that I have outlined above of invisible discrimination against women should reduce. An employer will no longer be able to assume that a woman will take her entire parental leave. The same is also true of statutory shared parental pay. I am mindful of the comments, too, of the noble Baroness, Lady Drake, on the role of grandparents in this as well. I would welcome that, although it may be a step too far for this Bill—but I think that we at least ought to start the debate.
The other elements of Parts 6, 7 and 8 are also essential to provide the right support for employees, with, of course, due notice for employers. Flexible working, as outlined eloquently by the noble Baroness, Lady Perry of Southwark, is absolutely long overdue. The measures in this Bill are mature and ones that responsible employers will welcome; investing in their staff will encourage them to stay, and make them more productive. These are very much Liberal Democrat reforms, championed by Nick Clegg, and Jo Swinson, the Business Minister, but resoundingly endorsed by the party. It will produce a more motivated and productive workforce, and employers will be able to recruit and retain staff from a wider pool of talent. It will also have the benefit of increasing the diversity of the workforce—no bad thing—and, I believe, support more sustainable growth within our economy.
There are many elements of this Bill that I have not been able to touch on, but I am looking forward to the next stage, when we will be able to look in more detail at the proposals in this excellent Bill.
My Lords, the purpose of the Bill is to ensure that all our children have the best possible start in their lives as they move towards adulthood. Of course the Government are right to seek to improve the way that we treat our children.
The focus of the Bill is on some of the most vulnerable children in our society, and the Government’s desire to improve the outcomes for looked-after children is particularly welcome. However, while there are praiseworthy elements alongside the laudable sense of purpose underpinning the Bill, a number of measures need interrogation and I look forward to some robust, thoughtful debate as the Bill makes its way through Committee and Report, as has already been indicated in many of today’s speeches. I also think that the sections relating to children in care are perhaps too modest in ambition, in spite of the commitment to establish the virtual head teacher on a statutory basis. I shall return to these points.
The focus of my remarks will be on adoption and looked-after children. I should declare an interest as a patron of the Post-Adoption Centre, although I speak in my personal capacity. The first area that I want to address gives cause for concern to many, including the House of Lords Select Committee on Adoption Legislation, so ably chaired by my noble and learned friend Lady Butler-Sloss and which was charged with pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill.
Clause 2 seeks to repeal the requirement to give due consideration to racial origins and ethnicity. The Government claim that black, Asian and minority ethnic children wait longer to be adopted because social workers adhere too strictly to the requirement to consider ethnicity in the previous adoption Act. I have looked in vain for something apart from anecdotal evidence and a few high-profile press examples to support this contention but have struggled to find any. Given the vigour with which the Government have defended their position on this matter, I expected agencies in the field to tell me about the queues of people being denied the opportunity to adopt across racial and ethnic lines, but that was not the case. On the contrary, according to a report in the Daily Telegraph,
“a review of delays in the adoption system by Ofsted concluded that there was ‘little evidence’ that this”—
finding a perfect match—
“was a significant problem ... The study concluded that the main obstacle was not the search for adoptive parents but the complicated legal process of putting children up for adoption in the first place ... ‘There was little evidence of delay caused by an unrealistic search for a “perfect” ethnic match’”.
Last year I hosted a round table organised by the NSPCC with representatives from major adoption and fostering agencies, leading academics with a body of research from the UK and overseas, and adults who had been fostered, adopted, in care and/or were adopters themselves. None could see the merit in getting rid of the need to at least consider race, ethnicity or whatever you want to call it when placing a child for adoption. By the same token, no one suggested that it would be right to say that it was better for a child to languish in care rather than be adopted by parents with a different cultural or ethnic experience. The evidence points to a number of reasons why it takes longer for black, Asian and minority ethnic children to be adopted, a principal reason being that some ethnic groups come into care at an older age than others and are therefore not the desirable babies that many potentially adoptive couples seek.
The noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, argued this point most emphatically. I am sure that she and professionals like me in the field fail to see why the Government refuse even to include ethnicity and race in the welfare checklist, given that these characteristics fit comfortably alongside the other elements of a child’s welfare. Can the Minister give a substantial, evidence-based reason as to why this option has been rejected? Does his department have a view on the extent to which it would be helpful to encourage more people from a variety of ethnic and cultural backgrounds to become adoptive parents and foster carers? I have not heard much on that issue.
Clause 3 is of concern also, as many noble Lords have pointed out from a range of perspectives. Giving the Secretary of State sweeping powers to direct local authorities effectively to outsource adoption services without consultation presents real problems. Of course any local authorities that are failing in their duties with regard to adoption must be held to account, but it is that accountability that would be diminished were these services to be given over in their entirety to the voluntary or private sectors. In the case of the latter, if this is the Government’s ultimate aim—and I hope that the Minister will strenuously deny it—how would this benefit adoption services? I find it hard to imagine how a private sector company would expect to make a profit in this most sensitive of situations, and voluntary organisations have not indicated that they have the will or the capacity to take over from local authorities.
As noble Lords will be aware, adoption is not the end point but the start of a challenging adventure that has ups and downs. Experienced skilled support for all the parties involved is an essential component of the process and can make all the difference to the quality of the outcome. Adopters should be entitled to a comprehensive package of support, provided by the local authority as part of its statutory obligation. Too often, adoptive parents do not know where to go or whom to speak to for the professional advice and support that will help them over the difficult patches; often the children who come into care have been traumatised, have attachment difficulties and so on. Similar support should also be available to foster carers, special guardians and family and friends carers.
The recently formed Access to Records campaign group comprises seven organisations working together to achieve better experiences for looked-after children and care leavers. It points out that an estimated 350,000 adults in the UK have spent all or part of their childhood in foster or residential care. Around 4,000 people a year seek out their records, and some of their experiences are quite distressing. I also want to address the issue of access to the records and notes from one’s time in care. Unlike an adopted person, a care leaver has no right of access to information about their past, their siblings or even their parents; they might simply have a restricted amount of information handed to them, as the following example illustrates:
“I had been in care for 15 years and found out I could apply for my records, but all I got were 10 sheets of paper with lots of information tippexed out”.
The redaction of notes is a big point of contention for many care leavers too. The experience across the country is very varied, so the campaign that I referred to earlier is looking to introduce an amendment in Committee to consider whether we can clarify this position and make it easier for people who have left care to access their records in their entirety.
The last issue that I want to address is what the right age is to expect a care leaver to cease accessing support services. This has been raised in a number of different contexts today, and the age of 25 has been cited in a variety of contexts. We, too, think that that should be the age until which care leavers can access support, whether that is through foster carers, if both parties are in agreement, or through other forms of support. At the moment that is not available to all people who leave care. Indeed, those who go to university are eligible to have that kind of support but those who do not are not, and we think that should be levelled out. I also support my noble friend Lord Listowel’s idea of an amendment that would establish something like the Staying Put programme as the norm for children and young people leaving care. I, too, am convinced that such a measure would help to mitigate some of the worst outcomes that care leavers experience.
Although there is much to be commended in the Bill, there is still an awful lot of work to do to ensure that care leavers and looked-after children have outcomes more equal to children who grow up in more conventional family arrangements. There is a huge range of questions that we have to ask, one of which is to ask why this keeps happening. This disparity in outcomes is not a new phenomenon; it is not exclusive to the late 20th or early 21st centuries. Instead, it has dogged us for decades and we do not seem to make any real inroads. How do we deliver really high-quality care for those who need to come into the system? How can we get more black, Asian and minority ethnic foster parents and mentors? How can we stop young vulnerable girls in care in particular being groomed and violently abused while apparently being looked after by the state? These are some of the really pressing questions that need to be addressed with some urgency.
My Lords, in this Bill, which has many good things, I wish only to signal that where children with communication difficulties are concerned—I declare an interest as patron of the British Stammering Association and indeed as a long-term practitioner—there is more work to be done.
For instance, there is a risk that the proposed changes to SEN services will end up excluding such children. Most children with speech, language and communication needs do not have statements and so will not be eligible for education, health and care plans. If school action and school action plus are replaced by a single category of SEN, they will lose out.
They may also lose out if a local authority uses the qualification “wholly or mainly” in allocating healthcare that is associated with education or training to duck out of providing it for children with communication needs, as my noble friend Lord Touhig observed. I know that the Government claim that this provision maintains existing case law, but I ask for the Minister’s confirmation that lawyers agree.
There are some admirable attempts to join up government at local level, but they need to be really effective. Joint commissioning arrangements between local authorities and clinical commissioning groups are welcome, but the duty must be strong enough to actually deliver support on the ground. Similarly, local offers should reflect local joint strategic needs assessments and there must be arrangements for them to be monitored. Any why should the inspectorates themselves not be required to co-operate? The duty to co-operate in Clause 31(2) has a big get-out clause in it which we will need to look at again.
Personal budgets may not be appropriate for the kinds of provision that these children need. They risk fragmenting commissioning routes, so a measure of quality assurance would be important.
I remind your Lordships of the crucial importance of ease of communication for our children as they navigate school and the wider world. The report by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Speech and Language Difficulties last February emphasised the severe adverse implications of communication difficulties for literacy, mental health, behavioural problems and employment. Four out of five young people not in education, employment or training have speech, language or communication problems, as do very many of those excluded from school, as well as so many of those in custody, as the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, explained in his penetrating speech earlier. Over 1 million children have speech and communication needs not caused by external factors such as having English as a second language.
Not to invest in effective provision produces problems that are costly to solve, as well as distressing for individuals. As my honourable friend John Cruddas said recently, in speaking of social investment:
“Some of the largest returns have been in improving children’s ability to communicate”.
We must ensure that the Bill enables that.
My Lords, I have a grandson who has special educational needs. He is statemented by his local authority and yesterday I was at a review meeting to consider his transition to senior school. My focus today will therefore be on the provisions in the Bill dealing with special educational needs.
I broadly welcome the Bill. It builds well on the Green Paper, Support and Aspiration. I think that it was strengthened by pre-legislative scrutiny and its passage through the other place and, based on the speeches of noble Lords today, I am confident that it will be further improved during its passage through your Lordships’ House.
My concerns prior to the Bill—I have articulated them in your Lordships’ House on other occasions—and the test that I will apply to the Bill fall into two broad categories. First, will the framework provided in the Bill simplify and strengthen the procedures for diagnosis, recognition and support for children with special educational needs and their families? Secondly, will the Bill improve the likelihood of the actual delivery of improved services and support for these children and their families? The Government’s very good young person’s guide to this Bill states:
“We want to put children and young people right at the centre. We want things to work out right for children. We want services to meet children’s needs, not professionals’ needs. We want children to get the help they need without lots of delays. And we want the new law to improve children’s rights in this country”.
If the Bill delivers on these aspirations, it will transform for the better the lives of so many young people and their families.
I particularly welcome Clause 19, which will improve the likelihood of local authorities having more regard to the views of parents, with the intention of achieving the best possible educational and other outcomes. I also broadly support Clauses 36 to 49, which create the education, health and care plans to replace the statementing process, and I am delighted that where appropriate they will last until the age of 25, for the reasons that other noble Lords have articulated
The experience of too many families with children with special educational needs is a constant, debilitating, bewildering and adversarial struggle to get the best for their child. Assessment can be fragmented, disjointed and endlessly repetitive, and the delivery of promised support is often disappointing, under-resourced, uncoordinated and, sadly, non-existent in many cases. These are systemic failures and should not be taken as criticism of the dedicated professionals up and down the country, most of whom do a good job in difficult circumstances. My grandson is in a wonderful primary school, where he receives outstanding love and support and where he is developing very well.
My enthusiastic support for this Bill is tempered to some extent by my real anxiety that implementation of the new education, health and care plans will be jeopardised by the resource constraints on local authorities and others; again, these concerns have been articulated so well by other noble Lords. These resource constraints may well challenge the likely success of the implementation of these new provisions.
As the Bill passes through all its stages in your Lordships’ House, I will be looking for confirmation that the improved theoretical model of education, health and care plans is reinforced with provisions to ensure the delivery, monitoring and assessment of services in a consistent way, so that the admirable promises made in the young person’s guide to the Bill that I quoted earlier become a reality.
My Lords, the fact of life is that more than half the children born today are born to unmarried parents. Some 90% of these children will not be living with both parents when they are in their teens. Sadly, 42% of marriages end in divorce. No longer do we have a society committed to marriage for life, or even cohabitation for life. Unremarkably, we have a dramatic change in the ethic.
Children have emerged from the role of an integral but subsidiary part of the family to a more dominant role, but subject to extreme health and safety considerations, while many parents are obsessed by self-fulfilment rather than maintaining a commitment to marriage. The influence of role models is very apparent, the power of the media is evident and the part played by social media is still hard to assess. Courts and mediators will reflect society. The people involved are products of society, as are we, the legislators.
Someone who was thoughtful, committed and passionate about future generations was the late Baroness Lucy Faithfull. Whenever I think of children I think of Lucy Faithfull. She was the outstanding director of social services for Oxfordshire. Social work was more than a profession; for Lucy it was a way of life. As a legislator she was a force to be reckoned with and was particularly powerful when debating and framing the Children Act in 1989. She took no prisoners and argued her case cogently and with passion. Lucy died on 13 March 1996. She collapsed in the Prince’s Chamber. It was the day of the Dunblane massacre when 16 five and six year-olds were murdered. Some of us remarked that it was no coincidence—who better to greet these children when they reached Heaven?
I am sure that today there are social workers equally committed to their profession but, sadly, they are never short of receiving criticism or being hounded, scrutinised and carrying the can for decisions made or not made. When I chaired social services for East Sussex I was very conscious of those who had turned a family around and who had enabled a child in care, as they were called then, to join the Royal Ballet School, to go to Oxford University or to go on to some other achievement. However, they, the social workers, could never talk about their professional successes because the young person concerned wanted to be considered an equal by his or her peers; they did not want their past to be flaunted or even known. I have great respect for social workers and I am disappointed that they carry such heavy caseloads and are not always given the support that they need.
Moving from the general to the specific, I am pleased with a great deal of what is in the Bill. However, like my noble friend Lady Hamwee, I think that we should consider carefully the findings of the joint research undertaken by the Universities of Oxford and Sussex and possibly consider amending the proposed new Section 1(2A) of the Children Act 1989.
I thank my noble friend Lord Nash for meeting me and the chair of the National Association of Independent Schools and Non-Maintained Special Schools, Sylvia Lamb, to discuss the future of young people aged 19 to 25 with complex and special needs. I believe that there is a follow-up letter in the post and I look forward to reading it.
I chair the trustees of Chailey Heritage Foundation, a school, registered children’s home and transition service for those who have multiple and very severe complex physical needs. On the same site we have a clinical facility, staffed by the NHS and hugely appreciated by parents. The school is over 100 years old and on the past two inspections Ofsted has designated it as outstanding. Three weeks ago the Duchess of Cornwall and the Duchess of Gloucester, our patron, opened our new life skills centre. It is part of Chailey’s transition service for 19 to 25 year-olds with severe and multiple disabilities. It includes residential accommodation and a wide range of day activities.
The transition service is for young people who have left full-time education but are not yet ready to decide where they want to spend the rest of their lives. Until recently, too many of the young people left Chailey for a permanent placement. Most of these placements had few opportunities for continued development and some were heart-breaking in their lack of understanding of the needs of these young adults. Most young people require time to explore life outside school, a time of transition, before they make the fundamental decisions that will govern their future lives. Our young people at Chailey are no exception.
Transition services should be a period in their lives to move from childhood to adulthood and act as a type of social apprenticeship, a period in life that helps them develop as an adult and prepare them for more independent living. I agree with my noble friend Lord Lingfield and the noble Baroness, Lady Richardson, that continued learning of this nature is education for these young people and, because they learn slowly, it needs to continue beyond the age of 18. I was interested in what my noble friend said when introducing the Bill, but Clause 36(10) can be interpreted to mean that a young person over the age of 18 no longer needs an education, health and care plan. Section 6 of the draft code of practice also implies this, and mentions that in some circumstances such a plan would not be appropriate. No, my Lords. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Patel: these young people still need a plan, including education to help them learn what it means to be an adult. For example, they could take part in adult activities with the support of staff, gaining skills in how to work alongside staff and parents to plan innovative placements for their future. This future could involve them within their own communities.
The role of transition to adulthood should be acknowledged as an educational development. If the right outcomes are identified and provision is made to achieve them, then we can have a lasting impact on that young adult’s well-being and future life. It is not enough to say that local authorities can continue the plan after a young person turns 18, as this does not mean that they will actually do so. Will my noble friend consider strengthening Clause 45(3), so that young adults with complex needs can be confident that they will continue to get the support they require?
In conclusion, what so impresses me is the extraordinary commitment of parents. They have clear aspirations for their children, however profoundly disabled. They above all know the challenges faced by these young people. This is our opportunity to make adjustments to the Bill so that society and parents can help these young people have every chance to lead successful and fulfilling lives. I hope that during the passage of the Bill my noble friend will be sympathetic to the amendments that I and other noble Lords have in mind.
My Lords, one of the joys of speaking towards the end of a long debate such as this is that most of the points that you wanted to make have been made more eloquently than you are capable of. That is certainly the case in respect of Part 3 of the Bill. As others have done, I welcome the aspirations behind the Bill, and I share some of the concerns that the Bill as drafted does not fully meet those aspirations. In particular, I share the concerns about the 1.4 million children with special educational needs who do not have statements. As school action and school action plus disappear, I am concerned about how those children will be properly provided for.
I share the dismay of the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, and others, that higher education is strangely excluded. I share the concerns of the noble Lords, Lord Storey and Lord Ramsbotham, among others, about the exclusion of children in custody. I agreed with many of the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, about further education colleges. In particular, I am perplexed that million of pounds have been spent on 20 pathfinders, to enable them to test out aspects of the funding behind these reforms in local authorities. Little evidence has been provided to date, and they have now been extended until September 2014 in order for sufficient evidence to be gathered and evaluated, and yet obviously that will not be in time to support the passage of this Bill or the development of the code of practice.
That enforces the concern that the Government’s admirable motivation to get on with this may perhaps cause them in part to rush at some of these things without the evidence that we need. I certainly share the concerns expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, about choice and inclusion. We need to ensure that the parents of all children with special educational needs have a real choice, and that we do not return to the days of some children essentially being parked in provision that is not challenging and not really education, just the minding of those children.
I would like to ask the Minister a couple of questions about one area of Part 3, which is the dry subject of data. I understand from those who I have spoken to that we do not actually know on a local authority by local authority basis how many children will be provided for in these plans. I would be interested to know if that is the case and whether there is any evidence that could be published over the Summer Recess to show that. In trying to work this out, I looked for an impact assessment for those clauses of the Bill that would have been drafted by the Department for Education, but I could not find one, despite the Cabinet Office guidance that impact assessments are generally required for all UK Government interventions of a regulatory nature that affect the private sector, civil society organisations or public services. This Bill certainly does that, so it seems odd that there is no impact assessment to help us make those judgments.
I am also interested in the data-sharing powers that might be needed for these plans to work. Having read the draft code of practice, I draw the attention of noble Lords to page 42, where it states:
“Before providing a child or young person with the Additional SEN Support, a rigorous assessment of SEN should be undertaken by the institution using all available evidence/data sources, such as attainment and historical data, the child or young person’s development in comparison to their peers, information from parents and, if relevant, advice from external support services”.
I remember painfully taking through the data-sharing powers around raising the education leaving age to 18. If we are now starting to integrate, as we should, care services and health services, I would like to know where the data-sharing powers are to allow that effectively to happen.
I shall address the rest of my comments to Part 6 of the Bill. I shall tell noble Lords a little of the story of a woman called Lucy Herd and her son Jack. In September 2008, Lucy gave birth to Jack, the third of her children. It was a particularly emotional time for her since she had lost five children through miscarriage and regarded Jack as a miracle child. After three days in hospital because Jack had jaundice, he came home and was a remarkably happy, cheerful and loving baby. In August 2010, Lucy was preoccupied in the kitchen, but then noticed that Jack was lying face down in the garden pond. Despite her efforts to resuscitate him, and those of neighbours and eventually the paramedics, unfortunately Jack died. Lucy’s partner, her husband, was working on the other side of the world at the time and needed a good 24 hours to be able to come back to comfort Lucy and receive comfort for his grief at their loss. Obviously, Lucy was also dependent on members of her immediate family, her mother and her siblings.
What Lucy found was that although she was able to take time off to deal with her bereavement, her husband had to return to the other side of the world after only five days because that was the limit of the time off that he was allowed. Her mother, a teacher, was allowed seven days of time off to cope with the bereavement and to provide support, while her siblings were allowed only 24 hours. Lucy discovered that there is no statutory entitlement to bereavement leave when your child dies.
I think that this is something that we should address in Part 6. I have referred Lucy to the CBI and the TUC to discuss this with interested parties and the current indications from the CBI is that it has some sympathy with doing something about this. Perhaps a period of two weeks’ time off and using the rest of the time as parental leave as one would if the child was alive might be an appropriate way forward. Lucy has put a petition on the No. 10 website and has had a response from the Government, from which I will read a short passage so that noble Lords know their position:
“Whilst there is no specific right to ‘bereavement leave’, all employees do have a day-one right to ‘time off for dependants’ which allows them to take a reasonable amount of time off work to deal with unexpected or sudden emergencies, including when a close family member dies. Time off will cover arranging and attending the funeral. Employees who exercise this right are protected against dismissal or victimisation. The right does not include an entitlement to pay. The decision as to whether the employee will be paid is left to the employer’s discretion or to the contract of employment between them”.
I simply ask this question: why do we need to introduce a statutory right to time off in Part 6 for parents, which I welcome, when their children are alive, but not for those parents who go through the unimaginable tragedy of losing a child? That is an anomaly that we need urgently to address. Would the Minister, or one of his colleagues in BIS, be willing, before we go into Committee, to meet Lucy and me to discuss the current government position, perhaps with a representative from the CBI, to see whether we can find a way forward?
Along with every Member of the House who has spoken or is about to speak, I look forward to improving the Bill. There is plenty of work to be done and I look forward to working with the Minister on this, his first Bill, and wish him all the best with it.
My Lords, when you are the 45th speaker in a debate, there is a strong temptation to just say, “I agree”, and sit down, but I am not going to do that because I want the opportunity to welcome the Bill and to echo my colleagues’ tributes to my honourable friend Sarah Teather, because it is to her that we owe the many good things in it.
As a member of the ad hoc Select Committee that looked carefully into Part 1 and earlier legislation on adoption, I will say only on that part that I agree with the views of my noble friend Lady Hamwee and I know that I will agree with the views of our chairman, the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, from whom we are about to hear.
Part 2 is about family justice, and the most controversial part of it is Clause 11, which is about what the court might order in relation to parental involvement when parents split up. Normally, it is in the best interests of the child to be able to make a relationship with both of his parents. However, when there has been domestic violence, it is for the court to decide whether contact with both parents is indeed safe and in the best interests of the child, but it is also for the court to ensure the pre-eminence of the best interests of the child presumption. The child has the right to family life under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the state should facilitate that unless there is danger to the child.
Clause 11(2) mentions a presumption about contact with each parent. There cannot be two presumptions. I am somewhat reassured by the caveats in subsection (3), but I would like assurance from the Minister that the judiciary will be well trained to understand what the Government really mean by that. It is not equal parenting. I trust the good judgment of the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, who I think will suggest some amendments to the wording. I hope that the Government will listen to her wise counsel on this matter as the Bill proceeds through your Lordships’ House.
I have several concerns about Part 3. First, I agree with my noble friend Lady Sharp that in the light of the removal of school action and school action plus, it is all the more important that schools are well prepared to identify children’s problems and either provide appropriate help themselves or buy it in. That means, as my noble friend Lord Addington said, a strong SENCO and proper training at both initial teacher training level, wherever that may take place, and in CPD.
I am also concerned about children with visual impairment, who may not have had statements in the past but whose needs were met by school action or school action plus. It is not clear whether there will be a requirement for qualified teachers of the visually impaired to be involved in assessments under the new single category. Perhaps the Minister can tell us.
Secondly, I should like the Bill to be amended to strengthen children and young people’s involvement in decision-making related to their special needs. Like the noble Lord, Lord Condon, I very much welcome Clause 19 setting out the general principles, which was introduced following pre-legislative scrutiny, but the Government’s good intentions are not reflected consistently throughout the Bill’s SEN provisions. In particular, Clauses 32, 36, 38 and 44 appear to exclude younger children from participation in decision-making by providing for the involvement only of parents and of young people over the age of 16. I will be coming back to that matter as the Bill progresses.
Thirdly, my honourable friend Adrian Sanders introduced in another place at Report a new clause to place a duty for school governors to publish and implement a medical conditions policy in order to support the needs of children with health conditions. The Health Conditions in Schools Alliance has collected compelling evidence of the need for that. As my noble friend Lord Storey said, while many schools provide good support, too many do not. The Minister, Edward Timpson, claimed that,
“the Education Act 2002 already places a duty on the governing body of a maintained school to promote the well-being of pupils and … schools are already under a duty through the Equality Act 2010 not to discriminate against pupils with long-term health problems”.—[Official Report, Commons, 11/6/13; col. 216.]
Despite that, however, it is clear that not all schools take heed of this. He said that guidance on “managing medicines” would be published this year, providing clarification on schools’ responsibilities. However, we need perhaps to put a clear duty in this Bill, because of the extent of the issue. There are 1.1 million children with asthma, 63,400 with epilepsy and 29,000 with diabetes in the UK. When their needs are not properly addressed or understood by their school, these children are unable to reach their academic potential.
Fourthly, despite the Government’s very welcome introduction in another place of a provision that EHCs should be portable, it would seem that they are not to be portable into a custodial setting, despite the fact that a majority of young offenders have special educational needs. I agree with my noble friend Lord Storey on that issue.
Fifthly, there is the issue of young carers. My honourable friend Paul Burstow introduced a new clause in another place to ensure that young carers would have the right to an assessment of their needs and a support plan. I agree with many noble Lords who are hoping for progress on that matter as we go through this Bill.
Part 4 introduces childcare agencies for childminders. These may be a good idea if they improve the quality of childminders as well as making life easier for parents. However, I am concerned about two matters. The first is that some of the money that parents pay will be filtered off in profit for these agencies. How will this achieve the Government’s aim of reducing the cost of childcare for parents? Secondly, several noble Lords raised the issue of inspection, and I agree with them about the dangers of not inspecting individual childminders.
Part 6 makes some very welcome improvements to the powers and duties of the Office of the Children’s Commissioner for England. I have waited many years for this, indeed since the legislation that created the commissioner was first enacted in 2004. I am not surprised that people have been disappointed—as mentioned by the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles—because the powers, duties and resources given to the commissioner by the Labour Government were poor and inadequate. This Government have changed all that. The proposals in Part 6 adhere closely to the excellent recommendations in the Dunford review. At last our commissioner can take her place among the children’s ombudsmen of Europe. Hooray! However, I am concerned by what I heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, about her worries for the independence of future commissioners and I will watch this space closely. As much as I welcome the new powers, I would like to see a few little areas strengthened on the issue of the commissioner to enable her effectively to promote children’s rights. Then, my Lords, I will be truly happy.
My Lords, I am the very last Back-Bencher to speak today. I hope that I am not the least. I welcome this Bill. I think that many aspects of it are excellent. The Government approach to improving the path to adoption and reducing the time taken in care proceedings and achieving the adoption status for children is excellent. However, inevitably, there must be some tweaking here and there, and there are some issues that require amendments in Committee. Much of what I will say will have been covered already. However, as a former family judge, I feel that on a children’s Bill I should, even at this late stage, set out the points about which I have some concern. I do it therefore without apology.
I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord McNally, for giving me the opportunity to discuss some of these issues with him yesterday. I am also extremely grateful to the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Nash, who took the trouble to call me in to discuss these issues some months ago. That was very nice of him and I much enjoyed our meeting. I also wish him well on his first major Bill.
I will make some brief points on Parts 1 and 2 of the Bill, on adoption, private law and public law cases and children trafficked into this country. I am a co-chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Human Trafficking and a trustee of the Human Trafficking Foundation. I am also a governor of Coram and have other interests in the register connected with BAAF, NSPCC and so on. The adoption committee, of which I was chairman, supported the Government’s steps to improve the adoption process. However, we raised various issues and I select a few, confident that other members of my committee have already raised the others.
On Clause 1, I am concerned about the provision concerning foster parents leading to adoption, for this reason: it is absolutely crucial that the Department for Education gives guidance on the importance of pre-placement work done by social workers, so that social workers are not seen as placing children with foster parents without having taken care to see whether the parents are capable of taking the children back. I was delighted to hear that families will be consulted first, but social workers must not jump the gun. Social workers need to be aware that they must not breach the human rights of birth parents and children, as has been said, under Article 8 of the convention by not doing sufficient preliminary work before placing children with those fostering with a view to adoption. Early intervention with birth families may make it unnecessary to remove children. I was disturbed to learn that money was being taken from early intervention to support adoption. It seems to me that money is needed for both.
I am also concerned, as many other noble Lords have said they are, about Clause 2. In our adoption committee, we were very concerned about the evidence that we received on the question of ethnicity on the basis that if it is out altogether, social workers may go the other way. We had evidence to that effect, with social workers saying, “Ignore ethnicity—it is no longer there. It has been taken out”. I entirely agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Hornsey, so in our report we recommended putting that factor along with others in Section 1(4)(d) of the Adoption and Children Act 2002. I hope that the Minister will listen on this point, which has been canvassed across the House already. I also put down the marker that post-adoption support is essential. The Government are going some way with the passport but have not yet gone far enough.
In our adoption report, we raised the issue of children from abroad who are in the process of being adopted by English adopters and are living with them but who have, until the adoption process is completed, no actual legal status with that family. I do not think that this has been dealt with yet. Those prospective adopters need some legal status to deal with the children whom they intend to adopt. There was a possibility for a residence order, but in a later part of the Bill that is being got rid of. I am not sure that the introduction of arrangements in their place would give the prospective adopters parental responsibility. The foreign birth family may or may not by then have parental responsibility under our law if the adoption process has taken effect in the overseas country. No one else in this country will have parental responsibility, so it is crucial that the prospective adopters who have children living with them have it in order to deal with schools, health and other such issues. I also put in a plea for the Department for Education to get on to the Home Office to hurry up immigration procedures for children in the process of adoption.
However, my major concern on this Bill, along with others who have already spoken on it, is Clause 11. I hope that the House will forgive me if I dwell on this for a moment as a former judge who tried this sort of case. In the majority of cases where parents separate, they come to a sensible arrangement for the children and the involvement of both parents. In some cases, mediation helps that process but there is a hard core of parents who fight out their failed relationship in the arena of the court over child issues. The relationship has soured and become corrosive. One or both parents become unreasonable and it is difficult to get it through to them that the child’s welfare is the overriding concern of the court and more important than the right that some parents feel they have in the arrangements for the children. Mother and fathers can be utterly unreasonable and vindictive towards the other parent. I have seen it again and again in the cases that I have tried. I take the view that in this highly charged state, parents are the last people who should be making decisions about their children’s relationship with the other parent. Some mothers, for instance, cannot believe that their children love the other parent. How could they, when she hates him?
There is the overriding presumption in the Children Act 1989 that the welfare of children is the paramount consideration. Clause (11)(1) sets up a second presumption, inserted by Clause (11)(2), which is girded around with a degree of protection, if not in the interests of the child. A judge or family magistrate starts none the less with a clash of two potentially opposing presumptions: paramountcy of the child’s welfare and presumption that involvement of the parent will further the child’s welfare. Judges and magistrates may disentangle this, and come to a balanced decision, but this is an area of private family law where both parents will now, in the absence of legal aid, be unrepresented and appearing before the judge or magistrates without lawyers. They will be trying to sort out how to arrange the future of the children in this atmosphere of failure of the relationship and a high degree of tension, and no one other than the court to help them.
Clause 11 is a laudable attempt to involve parents, principally fathers, who might not otherwise be involved with their children. We have to be seriously concerned about a substantial group of children whose fathers have no further, or virtually no further, contact with them after separation from the mother. But the wording of Clause (11)(2), aided by press publicity, which has not always been helpful to the understanding of the intention of Clause 11, has raised unrealistic expectations that in future the parent, usually the father, will be entitled to play a substantial part in the future life of the child, regardless of issues about the child’s best interests. Judges and family magistrates will not of course make orders that do not put the child’s welfare first. In this hard core of cases there will then be a serious gap between expectation and the reality of the court decision.
Family academics, particularly from Oxford, Coram, the NSPCC and other groups with real knowledge of what goes on at the coal face, are expressing their major concern about the insertion of a second presumption in child legislation; I share it entirely. I suggest that the word “presume” should be deleted and the words “pay particular regard to” inserted. This would highlight the importance of the involvement of both parents without the legal problem of competing presumptions and, I hope, lower the degree of false expectations by parents of the degree of involvement that can be achieved. It might also be a good idea to have a definition of the word “involvement” to identify direct or indirect involvement and not to be taken to mean any specific quantity of a child’s time.
There is an issue about getting rid of the words “residence” and “contact”, a brave effort by the Government to cut out words that carry baggage, as did “custody” and “access”, but one that I fear is likely to be ineffective. I also fear that the punters who want to fight out their failed relationship through child proceedings will not be fooled. However, there are issues relating to international relations, for example the Hague convention on child abduction and possibly the Brussels II Regulation, and the need for a parent from whose care a child has been abducted to be able to prove a right of custody in order to invoke the support of the child abduction convention. There are also other people who are not parents who may need a form of residence order and the usefulness of parental responsibility for a child in their care. The word “arrangements” may need to be modified and more carefully defined.
The funding of experts is a major issue that I will not go into at this hour. I have some concerns about the need for a greater degree of flexibility in the 26-weeks care proceedings if social workers do not get their act together quickly. I very much agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler of Enfield.
My last point concerns an area that is not in the Bill—the protection of children trafficked into this country. These children almost certainly do not have a parent in this country, or if their parent is here, he or she will have trafficked the child. The local authority of the area in which child or young person is identified as trafficked has a duty to accommodate such a young person under Section 20 of the Children Act 1989. Accommodation does not include sharing parental responsibility with the birth parents. Parental responsibility is given to a local authority only after the grant of an interim care order. I do not suggest that every local authority notified that a trafficked child needs accommodation should seek an interim care order because that would be time-consuming and expensive. I suggest instead that when a child or young person is identified by the national referral mechanism as trafficked, the local authority required to accommodate the child under Section 20 should also automatically be granted parental responsibility for that child while the child is accommodated by it. It would cost nothing, but it would mean that someone would take genuine responsibility for that child in this country. The noble Lord, Lord McColl, pointed out how many trafficked children go missing. Local authorities need to realise that accommodated children need much more care than they currently believe they need.
There are many other issues about which I have some concern. They will arise in Committee, and I foresee a lively time. I apologise for taking so long, but this is an area about which I feel very strongly and have some knowledge.
I am very grateful to the House for allowing me to speak in the gap. The noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, is now neither last nor least. I declare my interests. My family is peppered with special educational needs, and I publish information and advice about them.
I share with the noble Lord, Lord Knight of Weymouth, and many others the conviction that higher education should be in this Bill. I want to see those who are older than 18 given a right to involve their parents in special educational needs negotiations with institutions. There are many institutions that currently refuse to involve parents in such discussions. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, that choice seems to be threatened by the wording in this Bill, and I, too, want to see how the wording of admissions policy regulations works with this Bill. I want to understand how this Bill affects co-responsibility where children are educated at both a mainstream school and a special school, particularly as regards academies.
I want to be sure that education, health and care plans are owned by somebody, that there is an effective right of appeal for parents who are denied one and that the Government will provide examples of good practice and will not just let these things be developed independently by local authorities. I want to make sure that the military have effective means of portability for education, health and care plans, given the way they are moved around, and I want to be sure that this Bill works for home education. There was considerable progress on this in the Commons, but I do not believe that we have yet got to the end on it.
Most of all, I want to pay attention to the needs of those children who are currently school action or school action plus, who are the great majority of children affected by this Bill. The fact is that labels help. They help the kid, they help the school and, most of all, they help the parents. I have seen this time and time again. Everybody is better after somebody has been diagnosed, and to remove labels is a dangerous thing to do within the context of schools. It is taking us back to the invisibility of these conditions, which was not a good time.
We have problems in the overdiagnosis of school action and school action plus, which is exacerbated by a number of perverse incentives that encourage schools to inflate the statistics either because they wish to give reasons why children were not performing so well or because there were financial incentives involved. We have got to the point where either the pattern of SEN and birth date is the first documented proof of astrology, or there really is a serious problem in the way we are diagnosing school action and school action plus kids. What we want to do is not to abolish it but to get it right. One area that I particularly want to pay attention to is exam concessions. Either we are not giving exam concessions to the kids who deserve them, or we are giving exam concessions to kids who do not. One way or another, we have to explore a way of setting that right.
My Lords, I am very grateful to all noble Lords who have contributed to this wide-ranging debate today. It bodes well for the energy and expertise that will be brought to bear as we scrutinise the Bill in its future stages.
As my noble friend Lady Hughes has made clear, we support reform and the opportunity to improve standards for children in care, children with special educational needs and family justice. The Every Child Matters framework introduced by the previous Government remains an essential guiding principle and helped to transform the lives of many young people, but more can and needs to be done. The Bill provides a welcome opportunity to push forward and demand more of all the agencies impacting on the lives of children.
There is a great deal in the Bill that we support, but there are also glaring omissions and several fundamental differences on policy, which we will explore in detail. Our starting, middle and end point is the need to put the interests of the child first. We have the most concerns where we believe that the Bill veers away from these principles. That message has echoed around the Chamber today. I also agree with my noble friends Lady Morris and Lord Judd that the issue is not just about the wording on the face of the Bill; the dedication of staff, their willingness to collaborate across boundaries and the cultural climate in which they operate all have an important impact on the delivery of services and change.
In that context, what changes would we like to see in the Bill? First, I think we all agree that it is unacceptable that it takes on average two and a half years to be placed for adoption. This has to change, and we are pleased with the progress already being made by those involved to cut the unnecessary delays. We have already seen that by concerted and co-ordinated action, local authorities and courts have been able to act voluntarily to speed up the process without legislation.
Returning to our original theme, we are concerned that the new policy emphasis on the speed of adoption will not always be in the best interests of the child, nor is it a realistic option for many children, particularly older ones, which is why we feel that other forms of permanency including kinship care and long-term fostering should have equal weight and be the first consideration where options are being weighed up. I was very pleased to hear the Minister confirm that this was a concern that he was prepared to address.
We also see a danger that early fostering for adoption can create unrealistic expectations among potential adopters and children, with greater stress and pain should the placement not last. This is why it is important that children should not be placed for adoption unless a formal decision about their future has been made. It is also important that their continued connection and relationship with their siblings post-adoption is planned at the outset of proceedings. Importantly, we also share the concerns of the Lords Select Committee on Adoption Legislation, particularly about the removal of the need to consider ethnicity in adoption. These concerns have been echoed by a number of noble Lords today. The answer surely has to be that it should be included in the statutory welfare checklist so that it becomes one of several factors considered, but not the overriding one.
The Bill gives far-reaching powers to the Secretary of State to outsource local authority adoption services. We share the concerns that have been raised today by a number of noble Lords about how these powers might be used. We will be seeking to define, qualify and add a process of parliamentary scrutiny for those decisions before we are prepared to see those recommendations going forward.
With regard to family courts, again we are concerned that the dogmatic time limits might jeopardise the interests of the child. Of course we share the desire to speed up care proceedings, but we are concerned that the rigid application of 26 weeks might result in complex issues in a child’s background being overlooked.
More fundamentally, we are concerned at the emphasis on shared parenting being introduced as a presumption in separation or divorce, and this point has been well made by a number of other noble Lords. Obviously it is desirable to maintain the involvement of both parents but this should not be at the expense of a child’s welfare, and there is a danger that this paramount principle will be compromised in the new formulation. We look forward to exploring and improving this wording as we progress in the Bill.
We will also be seeking to ensure that continued access to siblings remains a central consideration of any care order, and we hope that noble Lords will support us on this. We will be seeking measures to better support young and vulnerable witnesses in court to ensure that their voice can be heard without adding to their trauma.
On the issue of special educational needs, we will again ensure that the interests of the child are at the heart of our proposals. We have heard many powerful speeches today, and many examples of families struggling to access support. It should not be the case that those with the sharpest elbows or an encyclopaedic knowledge of the system get the best provision for their child, but all too often this has been the case. We welcome the Government’s aspiration to transform the service.
We have heard some divergent views today about whether or not this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for reform; I suppose that the jury is out on that. Either way, we intend to ensure that the wording in the Bill is unambiguous and comprehensive so that the rights make sense and everybody can understand them. That is why we are concerned that much of the detail, such as the new code of practice, will be set out in secondary legislation and subject to the negative resolution procedure, which by any standards is not a sufficient level of parliamentary scrutiny.
Noble Lords have raised a range of important issues on special educational needs this afternoon and it is not possible to comment on them all. However, I will give noble Lords a flavour of some of the issues that we will be addressing in Committee. Services should be streamlined and integrated, which is why we will argue for the definition of SEN to include all children with disabilities, whether or not they are judged to have an immediate educational need. We will aim to ensure that local authorities have a duty to secure social care provision within the overall duty to provide education, health and care plans. We will want to explore what can replace the more graduated approach of school action and school action plus provision, which has provided substantial care in the past for so many young people.
We will argue for a single point of appeal for parents if services are deemed to be inadequate or failing, a case well made by my noble friend Lord Touhig. On the local offer, we will require Local authorities to be specific about services available and will expect them to meet a minimum standard. We also support the case, made passionately by the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, that the barriers that prevent disabled children from choosing mainstream education should be removed.
While we welcome the concept of personal budgets, we share the concern raised by several noble Lords that the pathfinder pilots are simply in too early a stage for us to draw substantial conclusions. Again, we would like to learn far more about the results of those projects before we specify too much detail in the ongoing legislation.
While we welcome the increase in age provision to 25, we will address the loopholes that might allow some young people to fall through the net, such as those in young offender institutions—an issue which that already been flagged up by the Minister—those moving into higher education, and young adults with complex needs transitioning into adult services, a problem described eloquently by my noble friend Lord Patel of Bradford.
On childminder agencies and early years provision, we remain sceptical of the Government’s commitment. Despite the known long-term advantages of early years investment, we have seen a 40% cut in the early intervention grant compared to 2010 and a massively unpopular attempt to increase child/staff nursery and childminder ratios. This is why we will be tabling amendments to protect the current ratios; although the Government have rolled back on that proposal, we do not trust them not to come back with similarly ill thought-through proposals that could damage the interests of young people. We will also want to allow further consultation before childminder agencies can be introduced so that the full implications can be considered and the issue of improved inspection addressed. My noble friend Lady Massey made a powerful case for the importance of PSHE. We will use this opportunity to push for the inclusion of PSHE education in all key stages of the national curriculum, to provide a better understanding of relationships and improved child safety in future.
We welcome the Government’s plan to improve parental leave and extend requests for flexible working. My noble friend Lord Stevenson rightly made the case that shared parenting is normally, and obviously, to the benefit of children. We will want to explore the application of these changes to ensure that they can be universally taken up, and my noble friend Lady Lister made a strong case for further scrutiny on that. We see those changes as a further step forward, building on the family-friendly achievements of the previous Labour Government. However, we also agree with my noble friend Lady Gibson that it is important to ensure that existing employment rights are not diluted in this process. We will also want to explore what further help can be given to young carers. That is an important issue raised by noble Lords around the Chamber, and we look forward to debating the details of the new rights for young carers in the Bill.
The Bill covers a wide mandate and several departments. It is inevitable that some noble Lords will want to concentrate on specific sections of the Bill but, whatever the focus, there remains a common thread running through the clauses. As I said at the outset, our yardstick will be what is in the best interests of the child and how we can achieve better outcomes for all young people. In listening to the debate today, it is clear that there is an emerging consensus about the improvements that we would like to see in the Bill and on which we can focus in Committee. I hope that the Minister can reassure us that there will be genuine dialogue and, unlike his colleagues in the Commons, a genuine welcome for amendments that meet our shared objectives. On this basis, we look forward to working on a cross-party basis and with the ministerial team to improve the Bill.
My Lords, the debate this evening has been constructive and heartfelt, and I thank all noble Lords who have contributed, particularly the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, for her comments about working forward on a cross-party basis. Many noble Lords have spoken based on extensive experience and expertise, and it would be a privilege to discuss this Bill further in this manner when we move to Committee stage. The Bill is detailed and wide-ranging, and this evening’s debate has clearly shown that the principle that the need to improve children’s services and that the needs of all children, especially the most vulnerable, is central to all we do, is something on which we all agree.
As noble Lords have kindly acknowledged, this is my first piece of legislation as a Minister. I will do my best to respond to the key points made tonight but, in view of the number of speeches, I undertake to write to all noble Lords who have spoken this evening to ensure that I address all the points made in full. I again recognise the work of the Adoption Legislation Committee, particularly its chairman, the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, for the authoritative and considered reports that helped to shape these legislative proposals on adoption. Many noble Lords will have built on the committee’s scrutiny in their comments this evening.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Hughes, Lady Howarth and Lady Gibson, and my noble friends Lady Hamwee, Lady Benjamin and Lord Eccles have all raised important points. Everyone involved in the debate today agrees that all children deserve stable, loving homes to thrive. Adoption is the right option for some children; for others, returning home to live with their parents, wider family or friends in long-term foster or residential care will be the right option for them. The Government have a significant programme of reform under way in all these areas, which aims to ensure that children are able to benefit as early as possible from a permanent home that meets their needs, whichever option is right for them. I am grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, for highlighting the good progress that we are making in this area. Where adoption is the right option, however, we are uncompromising in our efforts to reduce damaging delay. Noble Lords have expressed heartfelt views about the best way of doing this, and I am sure that we will return to the issues of ethnicity and adopter recruitment, as well as many other issues, as the Bill progresses. I am pleased that noble Lords have welcomed the Government’s commitment to clarifying the position with regard to kinship care and fostering for adoption, and I look forward to sharing our progress on that in Committee.
I turn briefly to family justice and particularly to the question of parental involvement, as addressed by Clause 11 and in this debate by the noble Baronesses, Lady Hughes and Lady Howarth, and my noble friends Lady Perry, Lady Tyler, Lady Hamwee and Lady Benjamin. As has been recognised in the debate, this issue is a balance that it is essential to get right. The Government are clear that the provision in Clause 11 does not change the principle that the welfare of the child must be the court’s paramount consideration. We believe that it is important to make clear, especially to parents, how court decisions are made. Wherever possible, parents should work together to resolve disputes about their children’s care. This clause will encourage them to do so by making clear that unless there is a good reason, children should have a relationship with both their parents. Of course, however, it will not achieve this by itself. That is why we are putting in place a wider package of measures to help parents, including better information, advice and support outside the court system. DfE and MoJ officials will be working closely with the NSPCC and others to achieve this.
I turn to Part 3 on SEN. It is clear that noble Lords have a wealth of knowledge and expertise in SEN and disability issues which is long-standing in many cases. I will cover a number of key points raised by noble Lords and write more fully. Almost every noble Lord has spoken on this issue and they will forgive me if I do not pause to list them all. The noble Baronesses, Lady Morris and Lady Howarth, and the noble Lord, Lord Judd, emphasised how achieving the ambitions of Part 3 will depend on a change in culture and approach and in ways of working on the ground. That is a crucial point to recognise. The Bill provides a framework for these changes to happen. We will build on the work of the local pathfinders to take the measures forward sensibly and carefully from September 2014 onwards.
I believe that opinion across the House is behind the principle of the SEN provisions. However, questions have been asked about their scope. It is important to be clear that the purpose of the new approach set out in Part 3 is to reform and bring much-needed improvement to the support for children and young people with special educational needs. This rationale was first set out in the Green Paper and has been followed through to the Bill. However, the reforms are enabling. Local areas can apply the principles behind them to a wider group of children, including to those who are disabled but do not have SEN. Some pathfinder areas are already taking such an approach.
The noble Lord, Lord Patel, spoke passionately about supporting children with health needs, specifically children with cancer. I would like to reassure him that the Minister for Children and Families recently met with CLIC Sargent, where he gave a commitment to see what more we can do through the SEN code of practice and other means to provide the additional support that we all want to see whereby no child, particularly a child with cancer, misses out on the opportunity to fulfil their potential.
Noble Lords, including the noble Lords, Lord Rix, Lord Low and Lord Patel, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hughes, while welcoming the new duty on health bodies, have raised the issue of a specific legal duty on local authorities to deliver the social care provision in EHC plans. Existing duties in Section 17 of the Children Act 1989 and, in the case of disabled children, the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act, already provide important protections, and we expect authorities to provide care services to meet assessed needs. However, prioritising children with EHC plans as a matter of course over all other children in need of social care would risk other groups being marginalised—for example, children suffering neglect.
My noble friend Lord Addington and the noble Lord, Lord Rix, raised the very important issue of access to apprenticeships. Young people with SEN should have access to the same opportunities as their peers. That is why we amended this legislation following pre-legislative scrutiny to enable young people on apprenticeships to receive support through an EHC plan. Of course, it is also essential that apprenticeships are stretching and prepare individuals for sustained employment. Work is currently under way to reform the apprenticeship programme, following an independent review by Doug Richard. The recent consultation included questions about English and maths requirements and accessibility. We will be publishing an implementation plan for apprenticeship reform in the autumn.
On dyslexia, my noble friends Lord Storey and Lord Addington mentioned the need for teachers to be sufficiently trained in supporting children with SEN. Teachers’ initial training must enable them to meet national standards. This includes their ability to adapt their teaching to meet individual needs. My department has worked with the National College for Teaching and Leadership to develop specialist resources for ITT and new advanced-level online training resources in dyslexia and other types of SEN to support teachers in developing their skills in these important areas. I am also pleased to say that currently 39 special schools are designated teaching schools that are investing their particular skills and specialisms in developing the next generation of teachers.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hughes, the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, and my noble friends Lord Storey and Lord Addington spoke with expertise and passion about young people with SEN in the youth justice system. I agree with noble Lords that all young offenders, including those with SEN, need to receive the right support and access to education, both in custody and when they return to their communities. I have listened to the debate this evening and echo the undertaking given by the Minister for Children and Families to identify further improvements to the support that this vulnerable group of young people receive while they are in custody that will complement the transformational reform of education in custody being undertaken by the MoJ.
My noble friend Lord Storey raised the issue of children with health conditions in schools. His concerns were echoed passionately by the noble Lord, Lord Rix, the noble Baronesses, Lady Gibson and Lady Young, and my noble friend Lord Addington. There are already strong legal duties on schools to support children with long-term health conditions such as asthma, diabetes and epilepsy, including in the Education Act 2002 and the Equality Act 2010. Schools must make reasonable adjustments to their practices, procedures and policies to ensure that they are not putting those with long-term health problems at a substantial disadvantage. However, simply giving schools additional legal duties would not tackle the root cause of poor practice. The DfE will issue revised guidance to school leaders, local authorities, staff and governing bodies later this year to replace the Managing Medicines in Schools and Early Years Settings guidance, which dates back to 2005.
The noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, spoke with extensive knowledge and passion about the choice for parents of disabled children when it comes to placing their child in school. The vast majority of children with SEN have always been taught in mainstream schools. Our policy on inclusion recognises that. The Bill will change the general principle that children with SEN should be taught in mainstream settings and will extend it to young people in further education. I look forward to discussing her specific concerns about disabled children without SEN further.
The Bill also improves choice for parents and young people by giving those with EHC plans the right to ask for a place at any mainstream school, FE college, academy or free school, non-maintained special school, independent specialist college or independent special school organised to make provision for children with SEN that is approved by the Secretary of State under Clause 41. The local authority will be obliged to name the preferred school or college unless it would not be suitable for the child’s age, ability, aptitude or SEN needs, not compatible with the efficient education of others or an inefficient use of resources.
As recognised by my noble friend Lord Lingfield and the noble Lord, Lord Rix, successful local implementation planning will be key to the smooth introduction of reforms. Feedback suggests that general awareness of reforms is already high, including in non-pathfinder areas, with many areas already starting to establish or planning to establish new systems and processes. We have established the pathfinder champion programme and are funding the Council for Disabled Children and other voluntary and community sector organisations to ensure that local areas have access to a comprehensive package of support. We know that a number of non-pathfinder areas are already preparing to implement the reforms and working with pathfinder champions, and we are currently looking at what additional support might be needed. However, I know the noble Lord, Lord Rix, speaks with extensive expertise in this area, and I would welcome the opportunity to discuss the questions he has raised with him and with other noble Lords who would be interested in more detail ahead of Committee.
Tonight’s debate has universally welcomed the fact that the new system will be from birth to age 25. However, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester, my noble friends Lord Lingfield and Lady Sharp, and the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, asked specific questions on the post-16 aspect of the new system, which I will seek to address now. We all recognise that some young people with special educational needs require more time to complete education beyond the age of 18. The Bill rightly enables them to do so, but we want to avoid the expectation that every young person with SEN will have an entitlement to education up to the age of 25 regardless of whether they are ready to make, or have already made, a successful transition into adult life.
I assure noble Lords that no young person who needs an EHC plan to complete or consolidate their learning can be denied one just because they are over 18. I should like to reassure the noble Lord, Lord Rix, specifically that supporting young people into employment is very much one of our ambitions. Chapter 6 of the indicative code of practice makes it clear that EHC plans should be focused on achieving outcomes and helping children and young people to make a positive transition to adulthood, including paid employment. We have also developed supported internships, which can be delivered by all colleges from this September.
My noble friends Lord Storey and Lady Sharp, among others, asked about the inclusion of higher education in the new SEN framework. Securing a place at university is a positive outcome for any young person. The higher education sector has its own very successful system of support in the form of the disabled student’s allowance and we should not seek to duplicate or replace it. However, we will look to improve the transition to university in the regulations and the SEN code of practice.
A number of noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Storey and the noble Baroness, Lady Hughes, asked about our proposals for childminder agencies. This proposal is a small but significant part of the Government’s childcare reforms, which must secure higher-quality parental choice and affordability. We expect that Ofsted inspections will focus on ensuring that agencies are adept at assessing the quality of childminding and putting in place arrangements to drive up quality, ensuring that agencies provide proper support, training and guidance to their childminders and that parents can have confidence in their quality. Ofsted will bring forward specific proposals for inspection arrangements in due course and consult on them.
I am pleased that the House has welcomed the provisions in Part 5 on the Office of the Children’s Commissioner. I am grateful for the comments of the noble Baronesses, Lady Massey, Lady Gibson and Lady Lister, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Truro, the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, and my noble friends Lord Eccles and Lord McColl. I look forward to further discussions about how the commissioner’s new powers will operate in practice. Meanwhile, I refer the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, to the note that my honourable friend the Minister for Children provided to the Standing Committee in the other place, which explains how the appointment process will work in line with the office of public appointments principles and code of practice.
I welcome the comments made by my noble friend Lady Perry and echoed by the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, who rightly pointed out the importance of the measures in the Bill for women. The introduction of shared parental leave and the extension of the right to request flexible working will help to balance the roles and responsibilities in relation to childcare across the genders. I agree with my noble friend Lady Perry about the importance of these measures for fathers. This is about achieving real cultural change, which undoubtedly will take time. Families need and demand the changes in the Bill that will enable this cultural change to happen. As the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, rightly said, the Modern Workplaces consultation included consideration of a “daddy quota”—leave and pay reserved exclusively for fathers—although economic restraints mean that it is the wrong time to take this forward. I believe that the additional flexibility that shared parental leave will give families will provide far more choice and opportunities for fathers to take on more childcare responsibilities and to play a full role in their children’s lives.
As my honourable friend the Minister for Children has said, we are considering how the legislation for young carers might be changed so that rights and responsibilities are clearer to young carers and practitioners alike. We will also look at how we can ensure that children’s legislation works with adults’ legislation to support the linking of assessments, as set out in the Care Bill, to enable whole-family approaches. The Minister for Children and Families and the Minister for Care and Support will soon jointly meet the National Young Carers Coalition to discuss the key principles for taking this work forward over the summer, as well as how we can most effectively involve the NYCC during this period. I know that noble Lords will be keenly interested in our progress in this area, and we will be pleased to meet those who are interested to discuss it further.
I shall also address in writing the important issues raised by the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, the right reverend Prelates the Bishop of Leicester and the Bishop of Truro, my noble friend Lord McColl, the noble Baroness, Lady Young, and others concerning issues affecting care leavers and others in the care system, as well as support for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children and care leavers. A number of noble Lords also raised the important issue of trafficked children, a particularly vulnerable group. I will respond to the specific points raised in writing following today’s debate. I will certainly agree to meet the noble Lord, Lord Knight, to discuss bereavement leave, and I will take the noble Baroness, Lady Young, up on her invitation to meet the families that she mentioned.
The later stages of this Bill, Committee in particular, will provide an opportunity to consider the detailed issues that noble Lords have raised today. I look forward to those debates and to engaging with noble Lords outside the House to clarify and discuss the Bill’s provisions. Again, I offer my thanks to all noble Lords who have spoken today. I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.
Bill read a second time and committed to a Grand Committee.
House adjourned at 10.45 pm.