Committee (2nd Day)
Relevant documents: 7th and 9th Reports from the Delegated Powers Committee.
Welcome. If there is a Division in the Chamber while we are sitting, the Committee will adjourn as soon as the Division Bells are rung and resume after 10 minutes.
26: After Clause 6, insert the following new Clause—
“Looked after children: duty to provide information about support on returning home to care of parents or others with parental responsibility
(1) Except in circumstances prescribed by regulations, a local authority must provide the information specified in subsection (2) to—
(a) any person who has contacted the authority to request information about “return home support services” for a looked after child returning home to the care of P; and(b) any P within the authority’s area, to whose care a looked after child has returned, who has contacted the authority to request any of the information specified in subsection (2).(2) The information is—
(a) information about the return home support services available to people in the authority’s area;(b) information about the authority’s duties under section 22(3A) of the Children Act 1989 (“return home support services”: personal budgets) and regulations made under it;(c) any other information prescribed by regulations.”
Amendment 26 is in my name and that of the noble Baroness, Lady Massey of Darwen. Our two amendments relate to support for children returning home from care. Perhaps the best way to illustrate quickly what this is about is to give a couple of illustrations. Here is a quotation from a female caller to ChildLine:
“I’ve been in and out of care from a very young age due to my mum hitting me, neglecting me and taking drugs. Social services would come and take me away and I would spend some time in care, then mum would promise to change and I would go back home for the whole situation to start again. I don’t understand why social services keep giving me back to mum if they are going to end up taking me away again”.
Recently, I met a group of young care leavers, who shared with me their experiences. A 15 year-old girl—a lovely, lively young girl—had been promised that she was returning to a well equipped home. She found that there was no cooker and no microwave, and that she was sharing a pull-out sofa-bed with four other members of the family. There was no support. She had been doing well educationally in care, but when she went home her results plummeted. Another young woman did not want to return home. Her social worker offered to take her to McDonald’s; lo and behold, she was taken back to the family home and told that she had to stay there. I am sure there is good practice, but there is clearly a lot of work to be done.
I turn to the detail of my two amendments, which are supported by the NSPCC, the Family Rights Group, the Who Cares? Trust, the College of Social Work and TACT, the largest independent fostering and adoption agency. Returning home to a parent or relative is the most common outcome for children who have been placed in care. However, approximately half the children who come into care because of abuse or neglect suffer further abuse when they return home. Social workers often feel unsupported and lack the time and resources to support the children whom they return. In over one-third of cases, children returned home without an assessment. Parents’ problems often remain unresolved. Practice is highly variable in different local authorities. The Bill should be amended to require local authorities to assess, prepare, support and monitor a child’s welfare when they return home, and to ensure that parents know what support they are entitled to, just as has been developed in changes to adoption. It is vital that we improve support for all looked-after children if we are to protect our most vulnerable children from harm, and thus extend the entitlement in Clause 4 to support for children who return home.
Further research has shown that two-thirds of children who returned home remained with a suspected abuser even after concerns had been identified. Over one-third of children return home from care without an assessment, and a further 8% return after only an initial assessment. Research highlights children returning to households with a high recurrence of drug and alcohol misuse: 42% with drug misuse and 51% with alcohol misuse. Recent statistics published by the Department for Education show that almost half of children who return home re-enter care. In total, two-thirds of children who returned home experienced one failed return and one-third had oscillated in and out of care twice or more. A report published by the Department for Education concluded that appropriate services and support in place for a child and parents from the beginning of the care episode, throughout care placement and after the return home could significantly reduce the cost to the local authority. It costs around £2,650 per placement in care but it only costs £193 per month to look after a child in need. It therefore makes good financial sense to ensure that children and families get the support they need.
In a new Department for Education consultation on permanence, there have been welcome proposals in this area but they apply only to voluntarily accommodated children and, although it is more likely for such children to return home, it is important that support is also provided for all children returning home from care. Most importantly, the Government’s current proposals do not ensure effective assessment or that children returning home—and their parents—receive the support needed to increase the likelihood of a successful return.
I mentioned a recent meeting with some young people. In summary, they all found that they had not been given enough information about why they were returning home and their views were disregarded. One of them said that she had been promised regular monitoring for months after her return home, gradually reducing over time. She received two brief monitoring visits. None of them had received any substantial support to integrate back into the home and rebuild relationships, nor had their parents’ problems improved enough for them to stay at home safely. They all agreed that there needed to be more support for children and their families when they returned home and for this to happen over a longer period of time.
This amendment aims to increase the chances of successful return home from care for all looked-after children by requiring local authorities to adequately assess, prepare, support and monitor the welfare of the children when they return home from care, in line with support that is proposed, in Clauses 4 and 5, for children who are adopted. I look forward to the Minister’s response and beg to move.
My Lords, I support Amendments 26 and 29, in my name and that of the noble Earl, Lord Listowel. I will briefly state the arguments for my Amendments 30 and 31, which refer to improved support for special guardianships.
I want to reflect on some of the things which came up in Committee last week about children wanting to know; children having experiences and having a voice. We know, from children’s own stories, that support for them is not always there when they return home from care. Returning home to a parent or parents is the most likely outcome for children who have been in care and this can be the best result, but NSPCC research shows that about half the children who go into care because of abuse and neglect suffer the same when they return.
I will illustrate this with something I heard at the weekend, at the opening of a centre in Brighton which supports young people whose parents are addicted to drugs or alcohol. Children may be placed in care because one or more parents are addicted. The parent or parents go into treatment and are rehabilitated: they get clean. The children return and family stress may mean that the parent turns again to drugs or alcohol. The parents need support and the child needs support. I know from my experience as chair of the National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse that some local authorities and drug or alcohol agencies provide excellent information and support for parents, but others do not. So often in services, we end up with a vicious circle of rehabilitation and relapse—be it drugs or prison, abuse or neglect—with children in the middle. A recent report from the Centre for Social Justice talked of children falling between the cracks, and so they do. We have in the Bill an opportunity to strengthen local authorities’ responsibilities towards children returning home from care and increase the chances of it being a successful return. If that return is not successful, not only does it cause more stress for children and families but it is expensive, as the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, said. Improving things is not likely to cause extra expense to the LA; it is likely to save money.
One key is assessments of the needs of the family and the child. It is worth asking families and children what they need rather than making assumptions about it, assuming that everyone is the same or that they simply need information. As Amendment 26 suggests, information is important, but it is not everything. Information about support services should also be in place. More than one-third of children return home without an assessment taking place, and assessment is not necessarily ongoing. Assessment should not be a one-off. Needs can change. I know that successful treatment for an addiction means revisiting the initial assessment regularly. The Department for Education produced a useful data pack entitled Improving Permanence for Looked After Children in September this year. It has messages and questions for local authorities, such as: what are all the assessment and decision-making processes for return to home from care? What services are available for returning children to their family? How do services link across children adult and specialist services—for example, can access to parenting programmes and drug or alcohol programmes be part of a “return to home” plan? What action are you currently taking to improve return on practice?
All those questions are important, but perhaps the most important is the linking of services. So often, services are parcelled out into child, adult, mental health, drug and alcohol, but often there are significant overlaps which are not recognised or responded to. Following a child’s return home from care, neither they nor their parents have a right to any support, and children often end up, as we have heard, back in the same situation—as I said, a vicious circle. Children have said, “I was left to it. I have been in care because my dad assaulted me. Since I have been home, he has been threatening me, pushing me around. I have been cutting myself and I feel like I want to die”.
We all know that behaviour change is difficult. It is perhaps especially difficult for troubled families. The needs of such families—of all families and their children—must be addressed before a child returns home. Engaging with families has been identified as an opportunity to enable the return home to be successful. Personal budgets are important and Clause 4 suggests that they should be available to parents of an adopted child. It is vital that that is extended to children returning home. I hope that the Minister will respond sympathetically to the amendments.
I shall say a quick word about my Amendments 30 and 31, which refer to special guardianship support services and personal budgets. I shall not go into detail on the amendments; they are self-explanatory. Their aim is simply to ensure that improved support for adopters in the Bill in the form of personal budgets and better information about support is extended to special guardians who, like adopters, are providing a permanent home for a child as an alternative to them being in the care system.
I am aware that this issue will come up again but, meanwhile, I hope that the Minister will respond favourably.
My Lords, I shall speak only briefly to the amendment because I presume that the Minister’s response will be that this should not be necessary because it should be provided by local authorities through good practice. I support the amendment simply because the postcode lottery in local authorities means that some will get good services, good information and steady support but a large number will not. The Government, in setting a framework, have a responsibility to ensure that there are consistent services right across the piece.
Many years ago, when I was dealing with children in care, I had to deal with what we called yo-yo children—those children who came in and out of care. When you identified a child who was not consistently either in care or at home, you settled down and set a proper assessment and programme for that child and made sure that there was a good way forward. I hope the Minister will have an answer to the kind of practice that is happening, otherwise, at a later stage, I will need to support the amendment.
As to special guardianship, when we were sitting in the adoption committee it became clear that there was very little difference between some children who were adopted and many children who were in special guardianship placements. The one difference was that those in special guardianships were struggling even more than those in adoption placements because, although the support is poor for post-adoption, it is even less for post-guardianship. Any services that are extended to adoptive parents must be looked at in relation to special guardianships, because these very often are the same children but have the benefit of being placed with those who know them and who loved them even before they were placed with them. I believe that is what the Government have been trying to do.
My Lords, I support what the noble Baroness has just said about special guardianship. It is a paradox that there were obstacles to special guardianship when it was a desirable outcome in particular cases.
I thank the noble Earl for arranging the meeting with the group of young people 10 days or so ago. I found it encouraging and disturbing at the same time. They were a remarkable group of young people. I do not think I could have been nearly as resilient as most of them seem to have been in the conditions they described. In support of the amendment, I shall read from a few of my notes: “There was no checking on the conditions I’d be going back to”, and the noble Earl has referred to the capacity of the mother and the physical conditions; “it depends on the child to tell or to ask for help”, which is a very salutary thing to have heard; “I went home once a month but no one checked up or even asked how the weekend went”, and the picture that I got was of variable circumstances and variable support depending, frankly, on where the child was. One—I hesitate to call him a child—young person said, “I should not have been allowed to go home”.
My Lords, sadly, I was not able to go to the gathering of young people. However, what one has seen and read is appalling. The most appalling aspect of it is that the children’s voices are not automatically heard in situations such as these on every occasion when they are of an age where their voices could be heard. Their rights should be protected, and if they do not wish to go home there is no question that they should be sent home under those circumstances. We have seen and read so much evidence from so many organisations that I hope the Minister will be able to give us a great deal of reassurance about the changes that are clearly needed.
My Lords, I make the point that if you want to know what a child needs, you should ask the child. If you want to know what the child’s parents need, it is also often quite a good idea to ask the child. People who are addicted are not always totally candid with the social workers, but if a child goes home for visits or is sent home—apparently permanently but that turns not to be permanently—he or she knows exactly what is going on in that home and can help the services in assisting the parents so as to ensure that the child can eventually go home if the parent is genuinely rehabilitated.
I also add my support to what the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, said about special guardians. They perform an invaluable public service at very little cost. Some of them break down because of lack of support and help, and we ought to do something about that.
My Lords, this is Committee: I was rather carried away by reading the notes and I meant to ask the noble Earl a question on his drafting in Amendment 26. In proposed new subsection (1)(a), he provides for,
“any person who has contacted the authority to request information”.
I suspect that he does not quite mean “any person”. I can imagine circumstances where it would be entirely wrong for information to be given out. Perhaps he can give the Committee some assurances about that, particularly if he is going to come back with this at a later stage.
I thank the noble Baroness. She makes a very good point and I shall look at that. We are trying to ensure that anybody caring for these young people gets the support they need to do an excellent job. We do not want people who might wish to misuse any information about them to get information.
My Lords, I want to intervene briefly. We know that many children want to maintain contact with their natural family, even if they know that that family is chaotic. I absolutely support the amendments but my concern is that they do not push hard enough for support when the child initially goes into care. This builds on something that I was trying to say last week. Our responsibility ought to be to ensure that, while the child is in care, work none the less goes on with the natural parents so that an assessment can be made of whether they are capable of change and willing for change to take place. Our problem is that too often children who themselves have improved are then sent back home and no work is done with the parents before that happens. That is often why the placement breaks down again, and that is expensive—not just in monetary terms in trying to deal with that when the child comes back into care, but precisely because it adds to the damage that has already been done.
I chair an organisation in the north-east which does quite a lot of work with people who have addictions. We have a programme where we take mothers who are addicted into residential accommodation with their children. It is largely paid for by the National Health Service but we put a bit of our own money into it and we try to get some money from local authorities too. During the residential period, intensive parenting takes place and what happens to the children in that situation is also monitored extremely carefully. In that way, you really can make an assessment as to whether it is going to be feasible for the mother and her children to make it outside the care system.
One problem that was re-emphasised to us while we were on the adoption Select Committee is that very often parents who are encouraged or are made to put their children up for adoption because they are not capable of looking after them simply go and have other children. Our intervention with the Cyrenians in Newcastle is really trying to stop that by saying, “If you’re going to have another child then you’ve got to take the steps necessary to make sure that that child actually stands a chance”, so that there is not a wheel continually going round where they are saying, “If I can’t have that child then I’m going to have another child”, without any exit.
The Government really need to look at how we work with natural parents once the child has gone into care. If we can get better at that work, we may indeed be able to return children much more successfully and the support package being talked about in the amendments will then really bear fruit.
My Lords, briefly, I particularly support the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, in relation to Amendments 26 and 27. These amendments are important because, as she said, the statistics show us that the system is not working well for children who return home. While going home is the most common outcome for children in care, around half of them have to go back into care—sometimes more than once in this revolving-door pattern that can emerge—simply because there is not the good social work practice in relation to children returning home that we associate with other forms of childcare.
As the amendments address, there is not good assessment, good identification of need or provision of the necessary support services. There is also, very often, no continued monitoring of how that child is faring when they go home. That is the first point which the Government need to address: the statistics show us that it is not working when half the children who go home have to come back into care. That obviously not only damages them; as the research has shown, the costs of the consequence of coming back into care escalate because as children return from successive attempted reunifications, they are more damaged. The cost of caring for them in other placements then becomes that much greater. As the University of Loughborough has shown, as well as the social and moral imperative to try to reduce these failed reunifications there is, potentially, a financial benefit. If you can prevent the escalating cost of failed reunification, it makes financial sense as well and may in fact reduce costs to the local authority.
These amendments are about preventing further breakdown and damage to children. They are really about the good social work practice that should be going on but which we actually know is not, because reunification practice varies so widely across local authorities. The amendments would at least set a standard as to what should be required.
I wonder whether the noble Baroness, Lady Hughes, will tackle the question that she has just referred to. Is there anything in existing legislation—I do not know how many Acts there are but there are those of 1989, 2002 and 2004, and probably quite a few more—which prevents the favourable outcomes described so well by herself and by other Members of the Committee?
My Lords, no doubt the Minister will enlighten us but what I am saying is that where local authorities have discretion around the quality of the social work practice that they will deliver to different groups of children, as they do, it means that some of those groups lose out. Demonstrably, by the statistics, it appears that children who are sent home from care are sometimes sent too early or without thorough assessment, do not necessarily get the ongoing support and are not monitored sufficiently. Those kinds of things happen with other cases—with child abuse cases, perhaps. However, it seems as if in many local authorities a decision is made that the child can go home but the focus of attention does not continue on to that child, which is more likely to result in breakdown.
My Lords, noble Lords have highlighted some key areas on support of children, particularly those who may be returning from care. I assure the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, and others, that we take these issues seriously. I hope, too, that I can be heard.
Okay, I shall shout loudly.
I shall speak first to Amendments 26 and 29 on the issue of assessment and support for children returning home from care to their families. As the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, pointed out, and as research has shown, almost half the children who return home later re-enter care, and almost one-third of those children have very poor experiences of that return. This is clearly unacceptable, and we recognise that. The noble Earl gave a very compelling instance of this, which was echoed by my noble friend Lady Hamwee.
This area is a priority for the department, which is why we established an expert group over a year ago to help us to understand and drive forward the improvements that we recognise are needed. The group includes academics, local authority representatives and sector organisations such as the Family Rights Group, the Who Cares? Trust and the NSPCC. We thank them for their work in this area. We are particularly pleased that the NSPCC is undertaking research in this area to understand how decision-making and support can be improved for these families. This will and must include ensuring that the voice of the child is at the heart of all decision-making, and I hope that that will reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, my noble friend Lady Walmsley, and others. The working group has focused on how data can be used effectively to support local authority practice improvements, identify the areas where the statutory framework needs strengthening, and help us understand how we can support changes in practice that are effective and sustainable.
The current statutory framework clearly sets out requirements to return a child to their parents and to provide information about the support services available for these families. It is important to acknowledge that the statutory framework is different for those children who are subject to a care order and return home and those children who have been voluntarily accommodated and then return. The current statutory framework clearly sets out the requirements for placing a child with their parents—that is, when a child will remain subject to a care order after returning home. For example, a robust assessment of the parents’ suitability to care for their child must be undertaken; a nominated officer must be satisfied that the decision to return a child to the care of their parents will safeguard and promote the child’s welfare; and the local authority must continue to review the child’s case, setting out the services and supports in the child’s care plan and reviewing this regularly. However, the statutory framework for voluntarily accommodated children is not as strong—and noble Lords are clearly aware of that. That is why we are consulting on changes that might be made to this.
The Improving Permanence for Looked After Children consultation launched on 30 September includes a number of proposals to address the issues faced by voluntarily accommodated children in returning home. We want to strengthen the statutory framework to ensure that the decision to return voluntarily accommodated children is taken by a nominated officer, that the plan for support following the return home is clearly set out and reviewed, and that these children and their families are offered continuing visits and support from the local authority following the return. Those are some of the issues that noble Lords have just raised and which the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, highlighted. Also, the department’s evidence-based intervention programmes announced in February 2013 include interventions forsome of the children who often return home, such as teenagers. There is, for example, a focus on developing multisystemic therapy and family integrated transitions; this intervention supports children and young people returning home from care or custody.
We also propose to place a duty on local authorities to review a child’s case within a specified framework where the return home is unplanned. The consultation on these changes will close at the end of November, and we expect to publish our response in the spring, with the changes coming into force in the summer of 2014. I hope very much that noble Lords will take advantage of this consultation and feed in their experience, expertise and ideas effectively by the end of November.
I now turn to Amendments 30 and 31, which refer to information and support available to special guardians. Special guardians do a very important job, which we heard from both the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, and my noble friend Lady Walmsley. We agree that we need to look at whether they are being given sufficient support. The department therefore commissioned the University of York in March 2012 to carry out a two-year research project to investigate how special guardianship was working in practice, and the rates and reasons for any breakdowns. The final report is expected in autumn 2014. This is a major piece of research which will help us to understand how well special guardianship is supporting children and families.
We are planning to pilot personal budgets, as noble Lords know, as part of the adoption support fund prototypes over the next 18 months, to see how they work in practice and whether they deliver the benefits that we expect. These pilots, alongside the richer understanding that we will have by then of the way in which special guardianship is working, will allow us to reach an informed view about the potential for personal budgets for special guardians. If there is a need to change the statutory framework we will consider what secondary legislation and statutory guidance needs to be brought forward and will consult on these before implementation. I hope, again, that noble Lords are reassured by the work going on. I hope, therefore, that I have given noble Lords sufficient reassurance that the Government recognise and are committed to working towards supporting birth parents and special guardians, and that the noble Earl will withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for her very careful reply. It is very welcome that the expert group was set up a year ago, and it may be too early to ask what progress has been made. We have heard the rather depressing statistics about children returning from care. How much difference does the Minister expect to be making in the next three years, year by year? What is the timescale for changing the outcomes for these young people? Perhaps the Minister would write to me.
My Lords, I thank the Minister and I also thank my noble friend Lady Massey of Darwen for her eloquent support, and for all her experience with the issue of substance misuse. Clearly, it is concerning that people who are addicted to alcohol or other substances will lapse from time to time, and if children are placed with them such families need to be monitored, with additional support put in as necessary.
I am very grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken in support of the amendment, and I particularly thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, for her communication on the voice of the children at our recent meeting. I was very glad that she was able to make the time to be present. I hope that those young people and others will feel that we have done justice to their concerns today. I will consider what the Minister has said and beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 26 withdrawn.
27: After Clause 6, insert the following new Clause—
“Local authority investigation: advocacy
In section 47 of the 1989 Act (local authority duty to investigate) after subsection (5A) insert—“(5AA) In meeting its duty under subsection (5A), a local authority shall give consideration to making arrangements for the provision of independent advocacy for the child in relation to any decision making meeting in the course of section 47 enquiries unless the child states that he or she does not wish to receive the services of an independent advocate.
(5AB) For the purposes of this subsection—
(a) “advocacy” means the provision of independent and confidential information, advice, representation and support to a child;(b) “independent” means where the person appointed is not connected with the local authority by virtue of being—(i) a member of the local authority or any of their committees or sub-committees, whether elected or co-opted;(ii) an officer of the local authority employed by the Children’s Services Department of that authority; or(iii) a spouse or civil partner of any such person.””
My Lords, I shall speak also to Amendment 28 standing in my name. Both amendments relate to advocacy and, again, it may be helpful if I begin with an illustration of why advocacy is important.
Advocacy is a means of ensuring that the wishes and feelings of children, particularly children in care, are heard. A typical issue might be whether they have the right to have contact with siblings or to continue to remain in the same placement. Another concern might be a child whom it is convenient for the local authority to move to a new placement, or the local authority may consider that it is in the child’s best interests to do so, but the child very much feels that where they are is where they wish to continue to be.
The first amendment looks at advocacy in relation to child protection conferences. This is a probing amendment and its purpose is to debate the merits of the introduction of a statutory presumption that local authorities should give consideration to ensuring that children and young people are supported by an independent advocate in initial and review child protection conferences unless they choose to opt out.
The purpose of the two amendments is to elicit a debate on advocacy and to get an assurance from the Government on two things. First, will the Government produce an advocacy handbook to replace the 2004 Get It Sorted guidance, which is now nearly 10 years out of date, to reflect current policy and practice? Secondly, will the Government collect more data on how advocacy is used in child protection conferences and care reviews so that we know better what happens and how good access to advocacy is for children in care in those two situations?
Evidence has consistently shown that the child’s voice is often not heard and effectively represented in child protection cases. Both professionals and children think that meaningful engagement of children in the decision-making process would lead to improved outcomes. Recent high-profile cases have once again put child protection services under close scrutiny. The exposure of systematic safeguarding failures in Oxford, Rochdale and Edlington have raised questions about the extent to which services are putting children’s experiences and voices at the heart of the child protection process. The 2012 Monro Review of Child Protection states:
“Children and young people are a key source of information about their lives and the impact any problems are having on them in the specific culture and values of their family. It is therefore puzzling that the evidence shows that children are not being adequately included in child protection work”.
Child protection conferences are a key part of the child protection process, although I shall not describe them in detail. Until recently, the framework for ascertaining a child’s wishes during the child protection process was provided by the Working Together to Safeguard Children guidance, published in 2010. From April 2013, a revised version of this guidance has been in place with the aim of reducing the level of prescription and bureaucracy involved within safeguarding procedures. Although the revised guidance recommends obtaining and understanding the wishes and needs of children within a child-centred system, it gives far less prominence to the involvement of children during assessment and within the child protection process than the previous version. In particular, there is no longer a presumption that a child, subject to age and understanding, should be invited to attend their conference with an advocate if they wish to do so. So there is less prescriptive guidance alongside no clear statutory right to advocacy. This risks reducing the opportunity for people to participate in the child protection process.
The next amendment relates to children in reviews. Again, this is a probing amendment. Edward Timpson, the Under-Secretary of State for Children and Families, clearly recognises the importance for children of their being heard in decisions affecting them. However, if this is to be effective, children need to be able to access independent advocacy and support when significant decisions are being made about their lives.
I shall not go into the details of what independent advocacy is. However, various professionals are supposed to take on this role. They consider what they need to do in the best interests of the child but no one is there to say to the child, “We are just interested, independently, in what your wishes and feelings are. We just want to help you to express those things”. That is the particular niche for independent advocates.
For instance, it has been suggested that IROs—the independent reviewing officers—can fulfil the role of ensuring that the child’s wishes and feelings are heard in their reviews. However, they have a number of different roles: they chair the meeting, draw together the views of the child and the other professionals, and have a duty to monitor the case. National advocacy standards require an advocate to act on the child’s instructions about their express wishes and feelings and to uphold their rights. Non-instructive advocacy is provided for younger children and those with communication difficulties. All advocates will discuss matters and seek to help the child to understand the views of others but, ultimately, they are required to act on the wishes and feelings of the child, reflecting the child’s perception of their best interest.
Looked-after children, care leavers and children in need have a statutory right to an advocate in making or intending to make a complaint under the Children Act 1989. We introduced this in 2004 in the Lords, and over the years since there has been an increased recognition by the Government of the importance of advocacy for looked-after children and care leavers. However, there is an inconsistency in implementation which means that children and young people still do not receive the advocacy support to which they are entitled. In particular, provision of services is patchy and inconsistent. A report from the Children’s Commissioner illustrated the postcode lottery and provision of advocacy services in general and the legal categories of children covered by local authority contracts. For example, some services are not commissioned to provide services to children in need. Research by the Children’s Society showed that one-third of local authorities do not report any spending on advocacy services. Recent experience from the helpline of the charity Voice has shown a great increase in recurrent calls from young people, many of whose home advocacy or children’s rights services state that they are unable to help them.
We need to strengthen the right to independent advocacy for these children. Particularly helpful for this would be a new advocacy handbook which would draw together all the existing guidance, standards, frameworks and minimum standards; describe better the provision of advocacy services for children and young people in child protection conferences; draw on the recent reports of good practice—it would give examples of good practice—and the involvement of independent advocates in child protection conferences; and, importantly, look at the routes to training and practice for advocates. They are extraordinarily important professionals. It is a relatively new profession that has blossomed in the past 10 years and we need to be quite clear what the requirements are for training, support and supervision of these advocates. These need to be clearly laid out and monitored.
I hope that the Minister and your Lordships will find this discussion helpful. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response. I beg to move.
Amendment 65A seeks to appeal restrictions to Section 8 orders for children in local authority care. At present, legislation which aims to ensure the welfare of looked-after children is not being consistently implemented at local authority level. For instance, Section 9 of the Children and Young Persons Act 2008, states that:
“As far as is reasonably practicable”,
and when “consistent with their welfare”, a local authority must provide accommodation for a child that is “in the authority’s area”, yet in reality one-third of children in care are placed outside their local authority’s area. In the case of residential care, almost half of children are placed outside their area.
Similarly, Section 8 of the Children and Young Persons Act 2008 states that suitable accommodation should ensure that,
“if C has a sibling for whom the local authority are also providing accommodation, it enables C and the siblings to live together”,
yet in a survey by the Children’s Rights Director in 2011, almost three-quarters of children in care reported being separated from their siblings. Young people in children’s homes are most affected with, I am advised, 96% being separated from a sibling. Noble Lords will agree that the current situation is unacceptable, yet there is little recourse at present for looked-after children to enforce their rights.
Independent reviewing officers are supposed to intervene if a child's views and welfare are not being taken into account in care planning, and have the power to report cases to CAFCASS, which reports to the family courts. However, this rarely happens in reality. Between 2004 and 2011, independent reviewing officers reported only eight cases to CAFCASS. Independent reviewing officers seem to lack the time, independence and legal expertise to properly ensure children’s rights are not breached.
Similarly, the complaints procedures available to looked-after children are both too lengthy and insufficiently robust to make a difference in serious cases. A survey by the Children’s Rights Director in 2012 found that over one-third of the looked-after young people surveyed said that making a complaint made no difference at all to their situation and over one-fifth said it had made it worse.
Finally, children in care already have access to legal action through judicial reviews for very serious cases. However, while judicial reviews are superior to complaints procedures and IROs as they are truly impartial, robust and fast enough to make a real difference, there are also limits to their effectiveness. First, they can question only the way a local authority has made a decision, not the decision itself. Secondly, judicial reviews are an extremely expensive way of enforcing rights, costing upwards of £30,000. Given the economic climate we are in, it is increasingly unlikely that judicial reviews will continue to be an option for looked-after children. Thirdly, they happen after the event and usually after significant harm has been sustained.
However, there is an important legal right that looked-after children are denied, which could provide them with a means to prevent local authorities acting against their interests. As I am sure noble Lords are aware, Section 8 orders such as contact, prohibited steps and specific issue orders enable children to prevent their parents taking actions that are against their best interests. If a parent attempts to prevent a child seeing a family member or tries to move the child away from their home, the child may, through their solicitor and if that legal representative considers there to be sufficient grounds, ask a court to make a Section 8 order. Though rarely exercised or indeed necessary, the right to do this is a crucial protection for children in difficult situations.
However, at present, Section 9(1) of the Children Act 1989 states:
“No court shall make any section 8 order, other than residence order, with respect to a child who is in the care of a local authority”.
This is a gross inequality for looked-after children, denying them the same rights available to all other young people. Opening up Section 8 orders to looked-after children would give them a clear and direct means of redress if a local authority is acting against their interests and welfare. For instance, a child threatened with an unnecessary move far away from home could ask a court to make a prohibited steps order. The threat of legal action would also provide a clear incentive for local authorities to implement existing policy concerning looked-after children and act in their best interests. The paramountcy principle is enshrined in the Children Act 1989; importantly, this will be driven not by government but by the people whose lives are most affected.
It is not envisaged that large numbers of looked-after children will approach courts to make Section 8 orders against local authorities. However, for those in very serious situations where such legal action is appropriate, this will be an enabling right which could make all the difference. The potential gains of opening up Section 8 orders are very great. By allowing young people to seek help from a court to prevent local authorities acting against their interests we could prevent many disruptive placement moves, which have such a harmful effect on the outcomes of children in care. Opening up Section 8 orders would enable prevention of harm rather than simply redress after the event. It is a vital early intervention measure and this proposal will be an historic step forward for the rights of children in care. I look forward to hearing the Government’s response.
My Lords, in responding to Amendments 27 and 28, I pay tribute to the long-running commitment of the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, to improving the lives of our most vulnerable young people by ensuring that their voices are heard. As my noble friend Lady Walmsley said earlier, it is only if we listen to children in the child protection system and those who come into care that we will ensure that they are being effectively supported and safeguarded. In particular, children in care need to be able to challenge and influence strategic planning as well as day-to-day decisions taken about their lives.
For those in the child protection system, the revised government guidance Working Together to Safeguard Children makes it clear that the child’s needs are paramount and that children need advocacy as part of an effective child protection system. The Department for Education has also worked with the office of the Children’s Rights Director on the publication in August this year of the Young Person’s Guide to Working Together to Safeguard Children. This highlights that in child protection conferences and the child protection process children should be listened to and supported, including by being able to ask for an advocate to help them put their views across. To quote from it, social workers,
“should ask your views so that you can have your say on what should or should not be in the child protection plan. Remember, you can ask for an advocate to help you do this, if you want”.
I believe that the guidance strikes the right balance of clarity over statutory responsibilities, while allowing local authorities and professionals to develop professional practice in the best interests of children. I feel that guidance rather than primary legislation is the most appropriate vehicle for promoting advocacy support for children.
While advocacy can help and benefit some children, sadly one of the concerns highlighted in recent, tragic cases is that the social worker and other front-line professionals have sometimes not done enough to seek the views of children at the assessment or the child protection inquiry stage. I would not want at this stage to detract from the important responsibility of professionals to listen to the child by introducing in legislation an additional person with this responsibility.
I turn to advocacy for looked-after children. The Children and Families Minister meets regularly with groups of children in care and separately with care leavers. We recognise that many of them say that they do not have access to advocacy services and that, as the noble Earl said, provision is patchy. That is why the Government, as part of our commitment to improving advocacy services, have doubled the funding to them from £150,000 to £300,000. This year, we are supporting both the National Youth Advocacy Service and Voice to provide an advocacy service for looked-after children and care leavers. The services will include information and advice via telephone, enabling young people to access and obtain advice when they want it, and the allocation of an independent advocate to support and represent young people when they want it.
We do not think that further legislation in regard to the role of advocacy in children’s reviews of their care plans is necessary. The Government have already strengthened the role of the independent reviewing officer to give due consideration to the wishes and feelings of the child when making decisions with respect to the child. It includes a specific duty to ensure that a child understands how an advocate could help to support them at their care plan review meeting. We recognise that even more needs to be done, and that is why we are working closely with the advocacy sector and Children in Care Councils to enable all children to know their rights to have an advocate.
Most importantly, Ofsted’s new inspection framework of local authority child protection, children in need, adoption and looked-after children services is to be implemented from November. This new framework will examine how the social care system as a whole, rather than fragmented parts, helps, protects and looks after children. It will focus on the experiences of children and young people, including whether they have access to advocacy, and the difference that adults are making to their lives and that of their families. This will serve to highlight both good practice and areas where service must improve.
The noble Earl asked two specific questions. He asked whether I would agree to look at producing an advocacy handbook. I will ask my officials to look at these issues in consultation with key partners. We have not had pressure from local authorities or front-line practitioners around this issue, and would need to be convinced that there is a real need for further government guidance before agreeing to give this priority over other issues. We will look at it further. On whether we will collect data on the national provision of independent advocacy, we are not intending to introduce a new data requirement on local authorities to report to the department on the provision of advocacy, or how they listen to children. That is a matter for local practice, and it will be monitored and examined as part of Ofsted’s inspection framework. However, I note the noble Earl’s concerns and will discuss that further with my officials.
I turn to Amendment 65A from my noble friend Lady Stedman-Scott. The principle behind this is one that we have discussed on a number of occasions with Dr Roger Morgan, the Children’s Rights Director. I acknowledge the spirit in which the amendment has been tabled—to give courts the same power to issue a Section 8 order for a child in the care of a local authority that they have in respect of children who are not in care. However, what my noble friend proposes is unnecessary. There are separate provisions under Section 34 of the Children Act in relation to contact arrangements for looked-after children. We would not want to cut across the responsibilities of the local authority in relation to any decisions made by it about placement decisions in the best interests of the child. Section 8 orders are private law orders; they are used as a means of resolving disagreements between parents about the residence and contact arrangements for their children following separation or divorce. The reason why children in the care of a local authority do not come within scope of most Section 8 orders is that the local authority has shared parental responsibility for these children. As part of care planning arrangements, a local authority can decide a range of matters regarding the care of a child. That includes where the child should be placed.
I recognise that there are circumstances in which children in care are unhappy about decisions related to their placement and parental or sibling contact. To enable courts to make Section 8 orders, however, would fetter the ability of local authorities to make arrangements for the placement of children. As I have said, there are separate provisions in Section 34 of the Children Act 1989. The care planning framework already provides for contact arrangements. Local authorities have parental responsibility for children in their care and a duty to take account of a child’s wishes and feelings.
I hope that what I have said reassures my noble friend, and I would be happy to discuss this matter further with her if she so wished. I hope that I have provided reassurances to the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, my noble friend Lady Stedman-Scott and other noble Lords of our commitment to enabling children’s voices to be heard. I urge the noble Earl to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I listened to the noble Lord very carefully. I note that the amendment of my noble friend Lord Listowel refers to,
“independent advocacy for the child in relation to any decision making meeting in the course of section 47 enquiries”.
I have a lot to do with young people who have ME. In many cases, not even the parents are invited to the decision-making meeting, and the children are never consulted. Can the noble Lord reassure me that this will not occur in the future? One particular charity, the Times Trust, has dealt with 90 such cases in the past 12 months, and each time the parents and the children are ignored—the decisions are made over their heads.
I thank the Minister for his response to my amendment and I am delighted that he acknowledges the spirit behind it. I believe this to be worthy of more discussion, and I know that his officials have already promised that. On that basis, I shall not be pressing the amendment.
I also thank the Minister for his response. It seemed to me very sympathetic and reflected the very positive attitude of this Government towards the idea of advocacy and hearing the voice of the child. I saw that reflected in the practice of Edward Timpson MP when he was chair of the all-party parliamentary group on young people. I believe that he still regularly meets groups of young people in care—groups of younger and older people—as well as care leavers. I think that this sort of approach will make a huge difference to policy. If good advocacy can make a difference for one child through having contact with his siblings and the principle is proved that children should have such access, that raises the game for everybody and creates opportunities for other children with similar difficulties.
I was grateful to be reminded of the doubling of funding for advocacy by the Government from £150,000 to £300,000, and I am grateful for the Minister’s consideration of the idea of a handbook. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 27 withdrawn.
Amendments 28 to 31 not moved.
Schedule 1 agreed.
Clause 7: Contact: children in care of local authorities
32: Clause 7, page 5, line 30, at end insert—
“(2A) In subsection (1), after paragraph (d) insert—
“(e) his siblings (whether of the whole or half blood).””
My Lords, I am sure that Members of the Committee will recall that last week we debated the importance of kinship care and, unless there are reasons why this should not happen, the importance of children in care keeping in touch with members of their biological family one way or another. This amendment rehearses some of those arguments. Indeed, the importance of family contact and strengthening the potential for family contact for children in care will be a theme that I will return to a number of times as we go through the Bill.
The effect of Clause 7 is to clarify the existing law that any decision by a local authority about allowing a child in care—under a care or emergency protection order—contact with the parents or some other family member is subject to the local authority considering whether such contact would place the child at risk of harm. Obviously that is essential and, although the law probably currently provides for that, we have no objection to it being clarified here in Clause 7.
However, we think that if the Government are serious about the importance of continued family contact, they should go further and require local authorities to give specific consideration to enabling children in care to remain in contact with their siblings. That is the purpose of Amendment 32. We know that sibling contact has not always been a priority for agencies—certainly not the priority that it seems to be for the children themselves. We think that there is a need for the Government to enshrine sibling contact as a priority in the legislation.
There are two main reasons why we think that. First, 63% of children in care whose siblings are also in the care system are separated from them, so the vast majority of children in care who have siblings in care as well are not together. Those living in children’s homes are much more likely to be separated from their siblings than those in foster care, yet the sibling relationship is often the longest relationship in a child’s life, potentially offering the stability that is often absent from other aspects of the life of a child in care. The second reason is understandable: it is that young people in care themselves feel strongly that they generally have too little contact with their siblings. Some 85% of children in care thought it important to keep siblings together, and over three-quarters thought that councils should help children and young people to keep in touch with their brothers and sisters.
This amendment would make that sibling contact a priority in social work practice. I think we can all understand why continued contact with your brothers and sisters when you are in care is fundamental, yet it seems now that in many cases—the majority—siblings are separated and risk losing that contact, stability and link to their biological heritage. I hope that the Minister will accept the amendment. I beg to move.
My Lords, I strongly support the amendment. As I think I said at our previous sitting, when I chaired the adoption committee we had two meetings with children, one with looked-after children and the other with children who were or were about to be adopted. Each group made it absolutely clear, particularly younger children—the seven, eight, 10 or 12 year-old children—how important their siblings were. They said to us that siblings were more important to them than parents. Some of them would have liked to have seen their parents; they all wanted to see their siblings. It was so sad; one little boy said, “I’m so worried about my brother. I don’t know what’s happening to him. Nobody will tell me and I’m not allowed to see him. I wake up at night wondering how he’s getting on”. That is not acceptable for children. The amendment would alert everybody to the importance of siblings, which is why I support it.
My Lords, I very much agree with all that has been said. I remember being struck by the strength of feeling expressed by the young people. At our previous sitting we talked about the importance of identity; contact with one’s siblings and understanding that family dynamic is another aspect of identity. I have been impressed by somebody outside the group of people whom the noble and learned Baroness saw, whose feeling of responsibility for her younger sibling was important to her to express and fulfil. By separating her from her younger sister—by being deprived of caring for her—she was being deprived of the expression of her own personality. That was of huge significance to her.
My Lords, I would also like briefly to support the amendment and give an example of how passionately young people in care feel about being separated from their siblings. Delma Hughes, who was separated from her five siblings, I believe, later went on to become an art therapist and work with young and vulnerable people. She felt so passionately about correcting the wrong that had been done to her that she set up a charity called Siblings Together. It has run for several years, organising holiday camps in the countryside and events at the Young Vic theatre, so that young siblings who may never see each other apart from on such occasions can spend a week or so together. That woman is a real example of how terrible it feels to young people when they are separated from their siblings, and how at least one of them has become a champion in the area and made a huge difference to many other young people who have gone through that experience.
My Lords, I ask the Minister: why is this not already happening? It seems crystal clear that at least keeping siblings in contact with each other is common sense, is vital and makes emotional sense. I do not understand why there is a problem here. Why are children being separated when they go into care or adoption proceedings?
My Lords, I very much agree. As we have talked about the last three groups of amendments, it has occurred to me that we appear to be living in a parallel universe. Ministers stand up and, quite correctly, read out the situation as it should, theoretically, be. Although Ministers tell us in good faith what the situation is in theory, it is not happening.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hughes of Stretford, made a point which struck me as a little odd. She said that 60% of those siblings who are both in care and who are not together or seeing each other are in children’s homes. I understand that it might be quite difficult to get foster carers to take pairs of siblings because they might be prepared to take only one child, but it should not be that difficult to put sets of children together in children’s homes where there are multiple places. Might the Government consider doing some research to find out why that is? I would have thought that was the very place where you could keep groups of siblings. Could that be looked into?
My Lords, I support this very strongly. We should not have reached the position we have, but I have some understanding of how we have reached it.
I have talked to many young people over the years, and particularly remember two groups I saw, with the Children’s Rights Director, who talked about the way conflict in their families was relieved by the fact that they had siblings to share their sojourn and be a comfort when things were really grim. They were the people who were their in-group when all this was going on, so were even more important to them than their parents, who were often the enemy and doing the destructive things, while siblings were their protection. That is not always so: there are siblings who are damaging to each other. Professional decisions to separate siblings may be quite right, but they must be made properly, not by accident. I fear we have reached the position where it is by accident because of the way we arrange placements and the shortage of good ones. We have young people in adolescent groups because they are easier to manage with staff who can manage them and small units with small children, but many fewer family group homes than there were, so you do not have the mix of youngsters together. Managing a unit of very difficult young people is about training, and confidence.
I sincerely regret this, because I have heard heartfelt pleas, similar to the ones outlined by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, from young people—particularly in court—saying, “Whatever happens do not separate me from my siblings”. It is the siblings, not the parents, who mean everything to them.
It is a serious practice issue. I am not sure how legislation would make it right, but this amendment might be a step towards it. I hope the Minister will assure us that Ofsted might look at this when they look at the organisation of residential care in various authorities and how families are planned for. I am a social worker so I know how easy it is, under pressure, to delude yourself that it is the best answer for the child when it is actually the best solution for you.
My Lords, I support this amendment because as a child I was separated from my siblings for a while, which was quite customary. It happened in the Caribbean, but it is the same experience no matter in which part of the world we are. I know how important it is to feel that we can speak to our siblings if we are going through some trauma in our lives. Children from diverse backgrounds who live here in Britain go through hell almost every day. I always say that their life is like a marathon. To have siblings there to help with bonding and to give confidence to face the world is terribly important. I am here to passionately support this amendment because of personal experience.
I turned up explicitly to support the amendment and am reassured that I need not have done. I hope that people will take heed of those remarks and recognise that, in addition to the amendment, somebody should be looking at the idiots who are doing what they are doing.
My Lords, at the moment considerable consultation is taking place with local authorities on children’s homes, particularly in the area of safeguarding and bringing in new and helpful ways of running them. Is it possible, within that consultation, to consider the relationships of the children in the home, and why siblings are separated? Could that be part of the appraisal of the effectiveness of running children’s homes?
My Lords, I thank the noble Baronesses, Lady Hughes and Lady Jones, for raising this extremely important issue. The amendment gives me the opportunity to say that I have published draft regulations for your Lordships’ consideration. I completely agree that contact between siblings can be of great importance and extremely beneficial—this is not in dispute. However, I hear what the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, my noble friends Lady Hamwee, Lady Walmsley and Lady Benjamin, the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, and the noble Lord, Lord May, have said. I am afraid that we do not agree that amending Section 34 is the right thing to do. The Family Justice Review recommended that the Government should consult on whether Section 34 should be amended, along the same lines as proposed in this amendment. We did just that. Drawing on the experience and knowledge of a number of experts, we agreed that amending the law was not the right thing to do, and that more work needed to be done to improve practice and facilitate positive contact between siblings.
When the child’s local authority is considering what contact there should be—whether with the child’s parents or siblings—the authority must ensure that it is consistent with safeguarding and promoting the child’s welfare. In doing so, the draft regulations require local authorities to have regard to the child’s care plan. We consider that that is the right approach. Current regulations already require local authorities to consider and review contact arrangements with siblings. Local authorities are under a duty to include in a child’s care plan details of how they will meet the child’s needs in relation to all family relationships. This includes arrangements for promoting and maintaining contact with siblings.
I wonder whether the Minister could develop his argument and try to convince us. First, what was the reason given by the respondents in that consultation as to why changing the law was not the best course of action? Secondly, picking up on the point made earlier by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, why does the Minister think the current requirements on local authorities in the regulations, to which he is referring, are patently not working, as so many children in care are losing contact or are not placed with their siblings?
I am grateful for the noble Baroness’s further question. We consulted a number of experts, including Dr Beth Neil, Fran Fonseca, Jack Smith, Linda Jones, Roger Morgan, Julie Selwyn and Alan Rushton. They felt that this was a matter of practice and that more work needed to be done to improve practice. I agree, and I share the noble Baroness’s concern about this. In the light of the feelings expressed today, it is a matter that we need to look at again, but our current thinking is that it is a matter of practice and not a question of changing the law.
When siblings are looked after but are not placed together, their individual care plan must set out the arrangements made to promote contact between them. The care plan must be reviewed regularly, which allows for the arrangements to be revised as the child’s circumstances change. Sibling contact is already provided for in the Children Act 1989, and the court must consider contact arrangements before making a care order. The looked-after siblings can apply to court for contact. We have specifically ensured that the court continues to consider contact arrangements through Clause 15.
As for the question about children in care homes, which was raised by my noble friend Lady Walmsley and the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, I can give the commitment that we currently have a programme of work to look at how to improve the quality and support of practice in children’s homes. I shall ask my officials to look specifically at the issue of siblings being placed together as part of this work. It is true that Ofsted should look at how siblings are placed in children’s homes.
I wonder whether I could pursue something that has been said. On the question of whether the children’s officers throughout the UK are in support of this system—and I am thinking particularly of the requirement that the English Children’s Commissioner is clearly going to have much more independence than she currently has—is this an area that needs looking at? Could the Minister clarify that?
It is something that we can ask the Children’s Commissioner to look at. We will talk to her about this. As my noble friend Lady Walmsley said, perhaps this is an area where we should do further research. I shall ask my officials to consider this. I think that the noble Earl raised that point as well. I have noted the strength of feeling on this point today, and we will take it away for further consideration. Nevertheless, I ask the noble Baroness to withdraw the amendment.
Before the noble Baroness does so, it occurs to me that the matter of staying put might be helpful in this arena. If there are two siblings, one of 16 and one of 17, in the same foster care household and then one turns 18, enabling the foster carer and the young person to stay together past the age of 18 might enable that sibling relationship to endure further. I do not know what the experience is there, so if the Minister can help with any information with regard to whether there is a significant factor in helping young people to stay put—if that helps in the issue of keeping siblings together—I would be grateful to him. Perhaps the voluntary agencies know of examples in that area; again, I would be grateful to hear about that.
First, I thank all colleagues who have contributed to this debate, because their contributions added considerable weight to my introduction. There was obvious support across the Committee for this amendment and the issue. The noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, were able to give us some direct testimony of children, and the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, as ever, gave us her insight into what is going wrong with the system and why things are as they are.
I am pleased that the Minister said that he has heard the strength of feeling on this issue. He made two points in response. The first was that a number of experts had said that because this was a matter of practice, changing the law was not the right way to try to improve contact between siblings in those care cases. There is a dynamic relationship between the law and practice, is there not? We frequently set out what professionals ought to do in legislation. Yes, we may flesh it out further in regulation, but practice is often defined in legislation. His second point was that we already have regulations that require that. Clearly, they are not working when so many children in care—by accident, as the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, said; it is not intended—are by default losing contact with their brothers and sisters.
For clarification, in response to the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, what I actually said, which has come from the Children’s Rights Director, was that of those children in care whose siblings are in care, 63% lose contact with their siblings. The noble Baroness is right that this is counterintuitive, but apparently those living in children’s homes are much more likely to be separated than those in foster care. One would not expect that, so there are some further questions to be asked in that regard.
The Government must take this away to consider it. The current regulations are clearly not working to the benefit of children in the way that they should. I look forward to the Minister communicating with us and returning to the issue in later consideration of the Bill so, for the moment, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 32 withdrawn.
Clause 7 agreed.
33: After Clause 7, insert the following new Clause—
“Care leavers’ access to personal information
(1) It shall be the duty of every local authority and voluntary organisation that looks after or provides accommodation for a child or young person to maintain such records as prescribed by regulations.
(2) Regulations under subsection (1) may provide for the transfer of records held by a voluntary organisation comprehensive information from the records relating to their personal history, family background and time in care.
(3) A care leaver has the right, at his request, to receive from the local authority or voluntary organisation comprehensive information from the records relating to their personal history, family background and time in care while they were a looked after child or young person, and such information will include personal sensitive data and also identifying information about other family members, acquaintances and significant others.
(4) Subsections (1) and (3) do not apply to a request for information in circumstances where the local authority or voluntary organisation is authorised by regulations to withhold the information or any part of it.
(5) Local authorities and voluntary organisations have a duty to provide appropriate and reasonable support on request, including information and advice, along with explanations of the process of redaction, the offer of appropriate counselling and access to intermediary services to care leavers having received their care records.
(6) The regulations may provide for the circumstances in which the local authority or voluntary organisation holding the records may arrange for another local authority or voluntary organisation near the care leaver’s home to provide access to the records and support.
(7) In this section, “care leaver” refers to a person aged 16 and over who, while they were a child or young person, was in the care of or looked after or accommodated by a local authority or voluntary organisation.
(8) It shall be a defence to any allegation of unlawful disclosure of data under the Data Protection Act by the data controller, if it can be shown that the data controller has made a reasonable examination of the data and has satisfied himself as to the need to disclose data and identities of individuals whose consent has not been obtained under section 7(4) of the Act having regard to the needs of the care leaver as set out elsewhere in this Act.”
My Lords, I start by declaring an interest as someone who has had direct experience of the childcare system and of accessing social services care records.
This amendment is informed by the experience of care leavers and by professionals in the Access to Records campaign group, which comprises, among others, the Care Leavers’ Association, the British Association for Adoption and Fostering, the Association of Child Abuse Lawyers, the Childcare History Network, the Post Care Forum and Barnardo’s and is also supported by the charity TACT.
Whether they have spent all or part of their childhood and/or adolescence in the care system, for too many the current system simply is not working in a consistent, helpful way. At the moment, care leavers apply under the Data Protection Act for access to personal information held in care records, but unfortunately the DPA is often misinterpreted by local authorities, with some organisations severely restricting the information made available. There are too many examples of care leavers receiving such incomplete and heavily redacted records that their case histories are rendered virtually meaningless. Furthermore, the service given by local authorities is erratic and inconsistent: some are enabling and supportive while others are bureaucratic and obstructive. Some seem so concerned about negligence claims and media headlines that their position is defensive from the very beginning.
The relationship between practice and legislation was brought up in discussion on the previous amendment, and it is key here, too. Our argument is that, although there are regulations and guidelines in place, they are not working sufficiently well. Before I go into the detail of the amendment, I want to say something about the rationale behind it.
Many of the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, last week in relation to Amendment 25 resonated with me, because very similar issues concerning identity, belonging and knowledge of family history are relevant to this amendment. The question, “Who am I?”, is fundamental; it is a question necessary for us to recognise our sense of self and our status as a distinctive and unique human being. We understand that responses to that question are highly complex: we are the sum of our experiences and memories, and of what other people tell us and how they respond to us. Some experiences are indelible and remain with us through memory; some experiences, even though they are an essential part of our experience of the world, may none the less be forgotten, especially if they have produced trauma of one kind or another.
If you have been brought up in care, you come to think about what kind of person you are and where you have come from, asking, “Who am I?”. However, these questions may be unanswerable. Who is there to tell you at what age you accomplished something or about a specific difficulty you had, or the circumstances of your early life? How is it possible to accumulate the kind of knowledge about yourself that people brought up in conventionally caring situations take for granted? It may be your story and your journey but it seems to belong to the state in the form of records, whether they are hand-written, type-written or whatever.
Several thousand people ask to see their records and many of these requests come from people in their middle or later years. The lifelong needs of adult care leavers are at least as pressing as those of adults who have been adopted, although this is rarely recognised in respect of access to care records and the aftermath. The DPA enables care leavers to see personal information about them on their care files. The problem is that when asking a local authority to see these files, care leavers’ experiences range from a response which is at best enabling and supportive and at worst bureaucratic, restrictive and inconsistent with the corporate parenting role. There are some examples of good practice but we want the Government to ensure that local authorities work with the Information Commissioner’s Office to enable care leavers to have all the personal information they are entitled to, and to exercise their discretion regarding third-party information in a less restrictive way.
As I have suggested, despite the requirements already in place, we think that the standard and quality of case-record keeping is not consistent across the children’s services sector. Organisations need to be mindful of keeping older records safely and under secure conditions, whether they are paper, scanned or microfilmed. We have heard too many instances where organisations with poor archival records and retrieval systems respond to the care leaver’s request for personal information with a statement that the files or records cannot be found, without any sense of the profound impact that that can have on the post-care adult. Without support, the persistence necessary to obtain care files places a substantial psychological and emotional burden on the individual, who may already be very isolated. Even if they are not isolated, the impact of disturbing revelations can have repercussions on current relationships and families.
We also need to make sure that we can track where records have moved to: for example, a children’s home might have been closed or a voluntary organisation wound up or absorbed into another organisation. Not being able to find records on that basis is also frustrating and works against care leavers. Regulations could provide a framework for the coherent transfer of care records systems across childcare service providers.
Our evidence suggests that the response from the authorities is often not focused on the rights and needs of the individual care leaver. Again, this echoes other points that have been made in respect of children. Although we are clearly talking here about adults, they still have rights and needs as care leavers that are not being respected by the rather defensive attitudes often displayed by local authorities, which seem to be worried about potential criticism or fearful of litigation.
Similarly, when it comes to sensitive personal data, care leavers can find that many data controllers interpret existing provisions narrowly and that the information withheld significantly reduces clarity about the information they want to access. There are circumstances where organisations can withhold information, and there are plenty of guidelines on that. However, again we come to this point: they are not being implemented consistently or necessarily in the best interests of the adult care leaver who is seeking to find out more about their past, particularly when it comes to relatives. Even if somebody gets hold of their care records, there is then the issue of whether they understand how and why the data controller has made decisions about what information is provided and about what has been withheld, redacted or left out. In relation to that, there is also the need for adult care leavers to at least be offered the opportunity to have some kind of support in going through what is often a difficult situation to navigate.
We understand that some data controllers feel nervous about making disclosures of a sensitive nature that particularly affect other people’s personal backgrounds—for example, a mother or father or other relative—and we want to make sure that data controllers have adequate protection in such circumstances, hence the latter part of the amendment. To summarise, care leavers seek information about their past for all kinds of reasons. It may be that they are starting a new relationship or becoming a family, or perhaps they have been bereaved.
I should like to give a flavour of the experiences of some adult care leavers who have been in touch with, particularly, the Care Leavers’ Association. In one instance, a care leaver—let us call him Arthur—wanted to connect with his records because he was coming to a new phase in his life. He was told that he had come into care because his mother was admitted to hospital but he was not told why. It was considered that the reason for her admission was private and that he had no right to know. It turned out that his mother had suffered from a long-term, severe mental illness.
A second example is of a social worker who took a boxful of records, unsorted, and handed them over to someone on their doorstep and went away again. So there was no support or help through that difficult situation at all.
Another care leaver said:
“I am now at the stage in my search of having applied to Council X three times, Council Y once … Council Z and Council Q as well as making numerous Freedom of Information requests about the children’s homes and other institutions I was kept in as a child”.
Again, the implication of this is that if your own family and children ask you, “What was it like? Where are the photographs of you? What was your family like?”, and you do not have that information, having to persistently knock on the door can be very debilitating.
The Care Leavers’ Association says:
“Care Leavers above a certain age are … a largely invisible group whose rights and needs to access basic information about their family background and childhoods are continually being denied. This discrimination needs to be addressed to ensure that they can access crucial information that may profoundly affect the decisions they make in life. Care leavers’ fundamental human right to access their social care files should be recognised in legislation and fully supported so that they can make sense of their past and go forward into the future”.
I beg to move.
My Lords, I strongly support the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Young. This is a very important issue. I applaud her efforts in challenging the current problems for care leavers in accessing their records and I respect her poignant experiences and her descriptions of the loss of identity, the “Who am I?” and the journey.
The treatment of care leavers can be about blatant discrimination and defensive responses. I have been told by two people how much distress and frustration this has caused them. As the noble Baroness said—I want to underline some of these matters—there are many forms of such discrimination. Those that I have heard of relate to organisations which have poor information, or have a reluctance to seek out information and respond that the records cannot be found—that they have lost the records. In one case, I heard that records had been moved. As the noble Baroness said, children’s homes close and organisations merge. Where do these records go? How does the care leaver find them? What help is there for them to find them?
Some local authorities or voluntary organisations become defensive or evasive, despite the fact that a care leaver has the right to access personal information. The request for information may also involve another person who has to give permission, although it may be deemed possible to give the information without permission, but some organisations which control those data may interpret the rules very narrowly. I know of one person who is still trying to access information after a year of trying. Redaction of records may occur, as the noble Baroness said. In this case, surely local authorities and voluntary organisations should provide explanations and offer counselling and support to those who receive their care records.
There needs to be flexibility about who can provide the information. People change residence. It should be possible for another local authority or voluntary organisation near where the care leaver lives to provide information and support the care leaver. People who have been in care may be desperate to access information about their life—just as those who have been adopted may wish to access records. To remove part of someone’s life history is surely cruel and unnecessary. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
I strongly support the amendment moved by the noble Baroness and speak to my Amendment 41. I support the amendment because of the importance of human curiosity. In recent child case reviews commentators have criticised professionals because they simply were not curious. They did not ask, “Why was this child bruised? Why did somebody not ask why the child kept coming back?”. They complained about the lack of curiosity among professionals. When Anna Freud, back in the 1930s, spoke to teachers about how to be a good teacher, she said that the most important quality was curiosity. She said, “We need you to be curious about the child, think about where he is, where he is going, and how to get the child to go there”.
Curiosity is so important and is reflected in our culture. Stories from Genesis or of Michelangelo’s most celebrated works of art are about where we come from. Another example is Haydn’s “Creation”. We are fascinated about our origins. The noble Lord, Lord May, is absent now, but he knows that we spend billions on finding out about the origin of the universe. How did we come into being? I am concerned that to deny young people the opportunity to find out where they come from is a way of undermining and frustrating their curiosity. It is a way of stifling their wishes and interest in the world if you say, “No, you can’t know where you come from; no, we will not help you with that”. This weekend I was looking at some photographs of my father from the 1950s which I had never seen before. I found them inspiring. I very much identify with the concerns of the noble Baroness and it was a privilege to hear her talking about her own experiences in this area. I hope that the Minister will give a sympathetic reply to her amendment.
My amendment deals with support for young people leaving the care system and allowing all young people to have access to personal advisers up to the age of 25. Currently, past the age of 21 it is restricted to young people in training and education. I give the example of a young man, Ashley Williamson, who is a care leaver of 21 or 22. He left care at the age of 16. I have met him on a number of occasions recently. He has chaired the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Children and Young People in Care; he has provided advice on matters around sexual exploitation of children in children’s homes; and he left care himself at the age of 16 and wanted nothing more to do with the system. He washed his hands and went on with his life. However, at the age of 20 he connected with his local authority again and asked for help. He found a fantastic personal adviser who was very supportive and helped him to get a fantastic home for himself. Now, in his early twenties, he has a good, solid base. He has been very helpful to me and I am sure he will be helpful to other young people in care because he is articulate, intelligent and thoughtful and has had that experience.
For so many young people, early trauma means it takes them longer to do what many of our own children might do. Give them the time to make mistakes and then to realise they need to come back and ask for help. If I remember the story correctly, a young man who was a foster child of a social worker, Kate Cairns, was, as the age of 19 or 20, in prison and addicted to very nasty substances. He was a very difficult person to deal with and yet, 10 years later, at the age of 30 he had his own family, was employed and was providing for his children. Given time, he changed.
Let me give more detail on this amendment. Most people continue to receive love, advice and, perhaps, financial assistance from their parents into their adult lives and the average age for a young person leaving home is 26. However, young people in the care system are often thrust into instant adulthood at just 16 and, like most 16 year-olds, they tend not to have the life skills to be able to cope independently at this age. Of course, they often find adult life especially hard due to the traumatic childhoods they have endured. So young people leaving the care system are disproportionately more likely to end up getting involved in crime and drug abuse and very often struggle to achieve good qualifications. Our failure to help this group of people, for whom we have a clear responsibility, leads not only to personal tragedy but to great cost to society.
At present, young people leaving the care system are designated personal advisers and have pathway plans drawn up for them. These help to smooth their journey to adulthood but, at present, are only available until they are 21 unless they are in education or training. Young people who are not in training or education also need support. I recommend that personal advisers be made available to young people up to the age of 25, whether or not they are in education or training. These young people need that kind of support even more. This would ensure that vulnerable young people leaving the care system receive the ongoing support and advice that other young people receive from their parents and take for granted. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I am not going to make a speech but I strongly support the noble Baroness, Lady Young. The more I learn about and think about disadvantaged young people, the more I realise that the question they are always asking themselves is, “Who am I?”. Their second question is “Am I a person who could succeed?”. Some of your Lordships may remember the two Ofsted reports about schools which were outstandingly successful although the children were from very disadvantaged backgrounds. The three principal things those schools had in common were: outstanding leadership, very committed staff and, thirdly, every child believing that they could succeed.
Thank you. This is the first time I have done this. Forgive me, I will start again.
I will speak to Amendment 45, which has three parts. It seeks to ensure that children leaving care have the best possible support into adulthood. I strongly support the points made by the noble Earl, Lord Listowel. If every young person had a personal adviser to take them on their journey from youth to adulthood, our hearts would sing. Indeed, as I said to the Minister on a visit last week, we would think we had died and gone to heaven because of the difference we could make to their lives.
I strongly support Amendment 38, tabled by the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, to allow young people to remain in foster care until the age of 21. This amendment is vital as it gives looked-after young people stability into adulthood and allows them to keep the relationship they have built up with their foster carer over many years. The more support they have, the better the outcome and the more hope for their future.
However, I also worry that this measure cannot provide an answer for all looked-after children, particularly the most vulnerable. For this reason, I have tabled three supplementary amendments. These are probing amendments intended to question inconsistencies in our current policy towards children leaving care.
I declare an interest as the chief executive of Tomorrow’s People. Day after day, young people who have not made that transition come to us. We have to try to rebuild their lives, put them back together and get them on the right path. The cost of this is extensive, whereas if we spent the money earlier it would be better for them and for the country.
I shall speak, first, to Amendment 45A. This would guarantee to young people who make an early exit from care at 16 or 17 the ability to return to a foster or residential care placement if their return home or move into independent living breaks down. At present, the door closes behind care leavers when they exit care early, allowing no recognition that this may be a mistake. It is crucial that we give young care leavers the safety net that all other young people enjoy.
I am aware that under the Children Act 1989 local authorities must already accommodate any 16 or 17 year-old who is homeless. However, at present the law does not require that the accommodation has a supported element. This means that if a young person leaves care at 16, returns to their birth family and the placement breaks down, as an estimated 50% of returns home do, there will be no entitlement to return to foster or residential care. Similarly, if a young person decides to move into independent living and struggles to live alone and manage a tenancy, he or she is likely to be given a place in a hostel or a new flat when what is really needed is a more supported option.
Young people who leave care at 16 and 17 are extremely vulnerable. They are the most likely to have incomplete education, be unemployed, have unstable housing and experience drug and alcohol misuse. I know that the law has previously recognised this fact as the Children and Young Persons Act 2008 states that children should not leave care before 18 unless they are deemed ready by an independent reviewing officer. The logic of this is that if a child is under 18 and not ready to live independently we must continue to support them. For children who have left care and shown that they are not ready to live independently, the same logic must apply. It is not unreasonable that we should try to guarantee these very vulnerable young care leavers the chance to return to a supportive environment.
The second amendment I shall speak to is Amendment 45B. This aims to question how we treat children leaving residential care. Amendment 38, tabled by the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, would extend foster care to 21. While this has received national funding for pilots, had explicit backing from the Children’s Minister and is already in some stage of implementation at local authority level, there has been no mention of what happens to the roughly 2,500 children who exit residential care every year. This is a very vulnerable group of young people with challenging needs. For example, 62% of young people in children’s homes have “clinically significant” mental health difficulties, and 74% of young people in children’s homes have been reported to be violent or aggressive in the past six months. These young people are the most likely to struggle to sustain a tenancy and live independently yet they are also the most likely to make an early move to independent living. Currently, more than half—56%—of children in residential care leave care at 16 or 17 and the remainder will leave on their 18th birthday.
On moving to independent living, they lose both the supported environment and the relationships that they have built up with their carers. It is crucial that we offer children in residential care the same opportunities that children in foster care have to remain supported until 21.
I understand that there are barriers to extending residential care—primarily the cost of such provision. When I am doing my work at Tomorrow’s People, people come up with many ideas and the first thing that other people say is, “Oh, we can’t afford it”. If we talked about that before we talked about the solution, we would never do anything. The Minister knows that I am absolutely sure that there are more innovative funding models to enable that provision to be put in place. I stand ready to do anything I can to make that happen because the costs of abandoning these young people are likely to be far higher. This is a probing amendment motivated by a pressing problem. We wish to hear the Government’s views on how we can support children leaving residential care.
Finally, I shall speak to Amendment 45C. This amendment would ensure that local authorities provide all care leavers with the resources to stay in a new foster, residential or semi-independent placement until 21 if they wish to do so. It is aimed at care leavers who are not able to stay in a former foster or residential placement but still wish or need to be supported. Although remaining in a former care placement is likely to be the ideal option for many looked-after young people, as it preserves existing relationships with carers, this is not always possible. Rather than forcing young people, who are unable to remain in their current placement into independent living, the opportunity of a supportive placement should still be offered.
The new supportive placement could be a semi-independent placement, such as supported lodgings or university-style accommodation. On some occasions, it could be a new placement in residential or foster care. What is important is that we find the right options for all care leavers. Whether it is remaining in a former placement or finding them something new, none should be left unsupported.
I appreciate your Lordships’ willingness to consider these amendments in the context of the Bill so that we can extend the logic of the noble Earl’s amendment on remaining in foster care, as I stated at the outset. To sum up, these are our most vulnerable children, whom we cannot allow to fall through the loopholes of provision.
Perhaps I may briefly put on record my support for the amendments, in particular for that of the noble Baroness, Lady Young. It struck me, listening to those who spoke in support of it, that we are talking about not casual interest but real need on the part of the children and young people concerned. It is important to understand that.
Perhaps I may say something briefly, going back to the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Hornsey. What has happened to good recording? In the distant past when the Data Protection Act came into being, I was involved in writing some of the guidance—it is such a long time ago that I do not think I have a copy of it or any reference to it—about how data should be made available and where we should redact the information that should be kept separate. Good recording demanded that there were separate parts to the record which were absolutely clear and identified, so that if there was an appeal, someone could look at the separate parts of the record.
What has happened, I ask the Minister and local authorities, to personal story books? What has happened to the need to keep packs of photographs, which used to happen when I was in children’s departments and, early on, in social services? What has happened to those good social workers who shared their recording? I shared my recording with those people I was working with, so they had a copy—unless there was a child protection issue which could not be shared. Therefore you asked other people involved for their permission at the time to share information.
Some of those principles of recording have been lost over time. Perhaps Ofsted could look at the principles of recording these days. I am not saying that it is a simple issue. It is not; I understand how complex it is; but I think that some of the basic principles have been lost. If we returned to some of those, the issue would not be a forward issue. Clearly we have an issue going back for those people who find themselves unable to access records. I have seen records which are so redacted that they are unintelligible. I have had to go through them as an information officer. I felt so strongly about the professional issue that I wanted to intervene briefly.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Young, on her brilliant exposition of her amendment and the reasons behind it. Others have said better than I can how impressed they were with it.
However, I also want to congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman-Scott, because her amendments are all very important. I hope, too, that if they are put to the vote they will receive the support that the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Young, obviously will get. I hope very much that they are supported.
My Lords, I omitted to comment on the amendments of the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman-Scott. I support her welcome amendments. Of course, children in residential care are among the most vulnerable. Unfortunately, the way it works is that there tends to be a placement in foster care and, if that does not work out, then it is in residential care several broken placements down the line. So the ones with the most complex needs are often in residential care and they need the most support.
I welcome what the noble Baroness has said. There is an issue about price and other issues around it. One solution offered by Jonathan Stanley, a former chief executive of the National Centre for Excellence in Residential Child Care, is to pair up young people in residential care with foster carers so that—one can do a staying-put—one can ensure that there is a seamless move from a residential setting to a foster setting for at least some of these young people to the age of 21.
Norfolk is a very good exemplar of break-home practice. There they have supported housing right by the children’s home so that there is little movement for the children and they can feel in touch with the staff in their old setting. The noble Baroness has made some extremely important points and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s reply to her concerns.
My Lords, I support the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Young. I would like to draw the Committee’s attention to the case of a young man I know who was brought up in care for many years. For the first 49 years of his life he kept wondering who he was and where he came from. This affected his relationship with his children—when he eventually had children—and with his wife, who had to deal with his depression. He had a loss of confidence, did not believe in himself and did not feel worthy. After much searching he eventually found out who he was and it completely changed his outlook on life. It changed his mental well-being. He got a better understanding of who he was and started to accept his situation in life. That is why I believe that it is an abuse if we deny any young person information which can help them come to terms with their identity, culture and background if they wish to do so.
My Lords, we have had a good debate and I do not intend to talk at any length. However, I wish to make a few quick points.
First, obviously, I welcome and endorse the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Young. She made an eloquent speech last week about the importance of identity and she has raised the issue in a helpful way today in a different but complementary context. It is no doubt important for children as they are growing up and becoming fully rounded adults to know about their history. It is their history and it is their right to have access to it. We all accept that point.
The second point to make is that we have talked about children and young people leaving care but very often adults can be well into middle age before they really begin to question their identity and want to search for that information. That provides a particular challenge for the people who keep the data because we are talking about keeping it for a very long time. Nevertheless, it is still people’s right to have access to it.
To pick up on a point made last week by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, about people in care who had been bereaved, having lost their parents, one would have hoped that somehow or other we could have lined up all these rights to information and brought them together. We are talking here about the same sorts of issues coming up in a number of different contexts. I would have hoped that somewhere in the midst of all that would be a universal right to that information and that we could address it in that way rather than in a piecemeal way.
Thirdly, I was alarmed to hear noble Lords today talking about data being lost, or indeed being dumped on a doorstep. There is a real issue here concerning the security of the information. It is rather alarming, and I absolutely agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth. What has happened to all those accurate expectations of privacy and security and of records being kept properly? You cannot help but wonder whether there is going to be a scandal at some point with all this stuff coming to light, having been left on a rubbish dump somewhere. I do not think that anybody here has a sense of reassurance that this information is being kept securely in a proper place. Perhaps the noble Lord could address that and say what the requirements are for keeping the information secure.
I should just like to add my support for the amendment. The noble Baroness has raised a very important point, as have the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, and the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman-Scott. In particular, I hope that we will get a chance to debate the whole question of staying in foster care until the age of 21. I know that my noble friend Lady Hughes will respond in more detail on that but I want to pick up one point which the noble Baroness touched on concerning the distinction between foster care and residential care. Clearly, there is a distinction and we have to be careful not just to lump the two issues together. There is a difference for young people leaving residential care, which is, after all, still formally an institutional provision. What those young people really need is a phased transition to independence, rather than just the requirement to stay on until they are 21. They need help over a period of time to find their feet and to find independence. Therefore, while the noble Baroness raised absolutely valid points, I think that we need to separate them out and make slightly separate provision for them. I know that we will debate this in more detail when we come to Amendment 38. Apart from that, we have had a very good debate and I thank noble Lords.
My Lords, so far as concerns accessing information for looked-after children and care leavers, I share the convictions of the noble Baronesses, Lady Young, Lady Massey and Lady Jones, the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, and my noble friends Lady Hamwee and Lady Benjamin that all young people should be able to access their records. However, we believe that this is a matter of practice rather than legislation. As the Committee will hear, our regulations on this are clear.
Regulations require the local authority to open a case record in respect of each looked-after child. So, for example, a child seeking information referring to them that is held within a foster carer’s records could make a subject access request to see that information. Care leavers are entitled to access their records, regardless of whether they were in foster care or a children’s home.
Our transitions guidance states that local authorities must assure themselves that agencies which contribute to the young person’s pathway plan understand their responsibility to make arrangements for secure storage of documents containing personal information about care leavers. Local authorities have a duty to retain records for 75 years from the birth of a child. Under the Data Protection Act 1998, people who were looked after have a right of access to personal information held by their responsible local authority, fostering service et cetera.
The new Ofsted framework, which comes in from November, says that:
“Care leavers are provided with information … about their legal entitlements such as access to their records”,
and Ofsted will look at the quality of the records. We share noble Lords’ concerns that all young people should have access to their records but we do not consider further legislation as the most effective way to achieve this. I have asked my officials to meet the noble Baroness, Lady Young, and the Care Leavers’ Association to look at how we can improve current local authority practice in this area—including in relation to the state of the record-keeping, which the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, and the noble Baroness herself referred to—and to report back to the Children’s Minister and me.
I turn to the amendment tabled by the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, on providing welfare support for care leavers. The Government are committed to ensuring that care leavers receive the best platform to make their way in life but we do not think that extending Section 23C of the Children Act is the way to improve existing practice. Statutory guidance on care leavers already sets a clear expectation that local authorities continue to stay in touch and support their care leavers until age 21, and beyond if they are in education or training. Local authorities should respond to requests by assessing the young person’s needs and preparing a pathway plan.
We intend to strengthen statutory guidance to make it absolutely clear that local authorities should ensure that all their care leavers—whether or not they have indicated a wish to return to education—are aware of their entitlement to a personal adviser up to age 25, if they wish to engage in education. That guidance will make it clear that even where a care leaver has problems that are a barrier to their currently returning to education, and which may mean that they will not be able to return to it for quite some time, they should still get the support they need to overcome these problems.
Several amendments have been put down by my noble friend Lady Stedman-Scott about the importance of care leavers having the ability to stay on in their placements until age 21, whether that is in residential care, in supported placements or with their former foster carers. I agree that this can be particularly important for those remaining in education. We want local authorities to provide all young people with a menu of options to choose from. The Minister for Children and Families wrote to all directors of children’s services last October, urging them to ensure that young people are always placed in safe and suitable accommodation that meets the individual needs of care leavers.
The Committee may be aware that the revised Ofsted inspection framework which comes into practice in November this year has a specific focus on the quality of leaving care services. This will include an assessment of their accommodation. Being able to stay in placements beyond 18 is mentioned within one of the grade descriptions for the care leavers’ judgment. I am pleased to inform your Lordships that the department is also funding Catch22 to deliver a project on improving support to care leavers from children’s homes—
My Lords, I apologise to the Minister but a Division has been called in the Chamber, so the Committee will adjourn for 10 minutes and resume not before 5.58 pm.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
My Lords, I am pleased to inform noble Lords that the department is also funding Catch22 to deliver a project on improving support to care leavers from children’s homes, including looking at how providers can offer an environment in which young people from children’s homes can benefit from staying put-type arrangements.
On the question of 16 and 17 year-old care leavers returning to care, the statutory framework states:
“Local authorities should use joint protocols to ensure that: there is flexibility to enable young people to return to more supported accommodation if they are not coping with independent living … Provision and partnerships should be developed in such a way as to permit young people to move to other accommodation in a crisis, including returning to more supportive accommodation if appropriate”.
We are also planning to change the law so that directors of children’s services sign off decisions for 16 and 17 year-olds leaving care. We think that such a move will ensure that young people leave care when they are fully ready. We believe, therefore, that we do not need to impose new duties on local authorities, but need to ensure that all local authorities use good practice. Again, the new Ofsted inspection framework will lead to support for care leavers being given more scrutiny. I hope that the course of action that I have outlined will reassure the noble Baronesses, Lady Young and Lady Massey, the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, and my noble friend Lady Stedman-Scott. I urge that the amendment be withdrawn.
My Lords, the noble Lord has said many times that local authorities should do this, that and the other, but we all know that some local authorities are under tremendous pressure and have difficulty in finding adequate social workers as they do not have enough money. Some of us were wondering whether the Government have sanctions to ensure that local authorities do it. What provisions are there for ensuring that it happens? I believe that Ofsted has to report on it but I am not sure.
My Lords, I start by thanking the Minister for his response and for his offer for me to meet with officials to discuss this issue further. There is still a case to answer here. In the brief life of this Committee, we have heard time and time again that there is a huge amount of inconsistency across different local authorities and that there is a disconnect between practice and what already exists, so we are not getting the impact. My noble friend Lady Howarth talked about initiatives in record-keeping but that is not happening in a consistent way and this still needs to be addressed.
We have a whole suite of amendments relating to looked-after children. Like my noble friend Lord Listowel, I am very pleased that the Government are taking seriously the need to address the needs of this particularly vulnerable group. However, those needs do not stop the moment you leave care. Although the noble Lord referred on a number of occasions in his summing up to children, we are actually talking about post-care adults who still have needs, vulnerabilities and difficulties and who still have to come to terms with their difficult experiences.
I thank my noble friend Lord Listowel and the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, for their support. I can clarify for the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, a point about the doorstep incident. I was not very clear because I was desperately trying to summarise what I wanted to say. What actually happened was that the social worker brought the box around and handed it over to the person, who was hoping for her notes and records but who just got this box with a load of papers in it in no particular order. There was no understanding that this was a difficult situation to handle: the social worker was off again in her car straight away. It was not just a box of papers dumped on the doorstep but, having said that, the whole issue of redaction is one that I would like to explore with the Minister and officials. Having said all that, I beg leave to withdraw.
Amendment 33 withdrawn.
Clause 8: Contact: post-adoption
34: Clause 8, page 6, line 44, at end insert—
“( ) the benefit to the child of an order under subsection (2),”
My Lords, Clause 8 is also about contact: contact post-adoption. Subsection (5) sets out the points which a court must consider when there is an application for an order for contact by any person who has obtained the court’s leave to make that application. The court must consider: any risk of the application disrupting the child’s life to the extent that he or she would be harmed; the applicant’s connection with the child; and representations made to the court by the child or any person who has applied for, or been granted, an adoption order. I am quite prepared to be told I have misread this, because the amendment comes out of my own head: it has not been raised by anyone else with me. If I have got it completely wrong, I apologise to my noble friend who has put her name to it.
There must be a place for considering the welfare of the child. Section 1 of the 1989 Act states that when the court determines any question with respect to a child’s upbringing, the child’s welfare is the paramount consideration. Is that the answer in the sense that it would apply in any event? If so, why do we have the new subsection (5)(a) about the risk of disruption to the child’s life, because welfare of the child would clearly cover that? It seems to me that the balance of the clause as drafted, the presumption, is that if the risk of disruption to the child’s life is slim, you should not take account of it. I am curious—to use a term used earlier in a different context—about what has and what has not gone into the clause. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am happy to support my noble friend Lady Hamwee’s amendment, because it is never a bad thing to draw attention to the paramountcy principle in the 1989 Act and the fact that the welfare of the child must be pre-eminent. What she is suggesting is really nice, because it is positive. What we have in Clause 8(5)(a) is negative: that you should not do it if there is any risk. My noble friend is saying that you should do it if it is to the benefit of the child. I am a very positive person and I should like it that way round.
My Lords, I hope that I can reassure my noble friends Lady Hamwee and Lady Walmsley on this point. We are very concerned to ensure that when the child has contact, it benefits the child. There is both the positive side, when contact benefits the child; and the negative side, to protect the child where such contact is not regarded as being in their interest. It is striking that research has shown that the proportion of children suffering negative consequences from contact after adoption is twice the proportion for those for whom contact had a positive effect. In the light of that, this must obviously be weighed up extremely carefully.
My noble friends are clearly well aware that the paramount consideration of the court must be the welfare of the child throughout his or her life. Section 1(2) of the Adoption and Children Act 2002 states that the paramount consideration of the court when coming to a decision relating to the adoption of a child must be the welfare of the child throughout his life. I hope that that gives the reassurance that my noble friend is looking for. If it does not, I am more than happy to write to clarify, but I hope that she can be reassured that the balance is right and that the protections that she wants are indeed here in both directions, as it were.
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. I agree that contact is important and frequently beneficial. I of course accept what she says about the Government’s intent. I am much less persuaded about the wording, because it seems to me that if the paramountcy principle applies, as it must, there must be a question why one is spelling out risk of disruption but only to the extent described. I do not quite understand the drafting, so I shall take up her offer of considering it further, but I beg leave to withdraw the amendment
Amendment 34 withdrawn.
Clause 8 agreed.
Clause 9: Promotion of educational achievement of children looked after by local authorities
35: Clause 9, page 9, line 15, at end insert “and section 23B(8A) and monitoring and evaluating the effectiveness of that local authority in discharging its duties under sections 23C (4B) and 23CA and advising them on ways to improve”
My Lords, I shall speak also to Amendment 37 in my name. Amendment 35 is about the effectiveness of local authorities with respect to care leavers. At its core is the need for monitoring and evaluation of their effectiveness.
In a debate on a previous amendment, I spoke about the Department for Education’s data pack on improving the performance of local authorities with regard to looked-after children. This data pack contains checklists and recommendations. I will not repeat the advice given there, but simply say that monitoring and evaluating effectiveness is good not only for clients—in this case, care leavers—but for the local authority. The duties on care leavers are set out in the Children Act 1989 and are clear. We all know that local authorities have many duties, and perhaps not much money, but surely evaluating practice is an important one. There is also good practice to share. After all, if local authorities do not monitor and evaluate practice, how do they know what is going on and how it might be improved? I was intrigued by the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, which seemed to be about the difference between “should” and “must”. Guidance is presumably the “should” bit, but guidance is not always respected. Does that therefore give rise to the need for a “must”?
Amendment 37 involves the improvement of safeguarding and the educational achievement of looked-after children. I understand that the Government are planning to revise the guidance on promoting the education of looked-after children to reflect that the virtual school head teacher will be statutory early next year; maybe the Minister can confirm and clarify that. At least 15 local authorities have virtual school head teachers already working with care leavers up to the age of 25. Pilots have taken place, with positive results in, for example, Hertfordshire and Oxfordshire. The purpose of my amendment is to seek to ensure that the education of looked-after children covers young people after the age of 18, just as local authorities have a duty to support the educational achievement of care leavers up to the age of 25.
In the special educational needs reforms proposed in the Bill, the Government have recognised the importance of extending support to vulnerable pupils beyond statutory school age, from birth to 25 years, through education, health and care plans. This is, of course especially important as care leavers are less likely than their peers to achieve academically. It is vital that care leavers benefit from the same overview provided by virtual school heads as do looked-after children.
The Minister in another place stated that the vast majority of local authorities have some form of virtual school head, but there is variation across the country and legislation was to ensure that this variation was eliminated; again, I look to the Minister for clarification. I am asking for that support to be genuinely extended to looked-after children and care leavers, not simply for reinforcing practice which exists already. I hope for a positive response in this House and look to the Minister for that. I beg to move.
My Lords, I support my noble friend Lady Massey’s Amendments 35 and 37. I will also speak to Amendment 36 in my name. Amendment 36 would grant control of the pupil premium to the virtual school head. It would ensure that virtual school heads are responsible for allocating the pupil premium to looked-after children.
Clause 9 is one of the few parts of the Bill that provides extra support for children in the care system. It amends Section 22 of the Children Act 1989 by introducing a duty upon every local authority to appoint an officer whose role will be to ensure the promotion of the educational achievement of looked-after children. The role is usually referred to as a “virtual school head teacher” or “virtual head”. The idea of the virtual head is not new. My noble friend Lady Massey referred to pilots; pilot schemes have been trialled in 11 local authority areas and have been shown to be extremely successful.
Why is this amendment necessary? Well, the most recent figures we have show that in 2011-12, just 14% of children looked after for at least one year achieved A* to C in GCSEs, including English and Maths. That compares with 58% of all children, so there is no doubt that children who have entered the care system, and who are likely to have experienced abuse or neglect before entry into care, need additional educational support. Once in care, the disruption that can be caused by a placement breakdown or move can also severely impact upon educational achievement.
As parents and grandparents, I am sure we all know that young people approaching their GCSEs have enough to contend with without needing to worry about whether they will be living in the same house when they take the exams. For many young people in care, this is a common reality. It is little wonder that their success rates in exams lag behind the norm. The original proposal to require local authorities to provide a virtual head was contained in the report of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Looked after Children and Care Leavers, Education Matters in Care. At that time, the chairman of the all-party group was Edward Timpson MP, who is now the Children and Families Minister.
The all-party group went further. It also recommended that:
“Virtual School Heads should control the Pupil Premium”.
The pupil premium allows for a level of financial support for eligible children, which is currently about £600 per annum, to be used by their school. The all-party group report also noted that virtual heads have little control over how the pupil premium is spent and recommended that the system would be more effective if they were given control of this resource. As the present Children’s Minister recommended that these changes were necessary when he chaired the all-party group, I am sure that I am not alone in being a little disappointed that they are not included in the Bill.
The arguments in favour of their introduction remain and I hope that when we consider the Bill on Report, we will ensure that these provisions are properly made. The case for allowing the pupil premium to be controlled by the virtual school head seems to be supported by recent comments made by Ofsted’s chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw. He expressed concern that a significant minority of schools are struggling to show how their use of the premium is having any significant impact upon the attainment of those pupils it was intended to assist, so clearly there is an issue that Ofsted recognises. I hope that the Minister will see the wisdom of this amendment, and I look forward to his reply.
My Lords, I support the amendments in this group—in particular my noble friend Lord Touhig’s amendment—but I very much support the point made by my noble friend Lady Massey about the need to evaluate. That is a theme throughout the considerations of this Committee. It is not that nobody has thought of doing the right thing but that we have not been good enough in implementation and monitoring, and in amending what we do in the light of the evidence. That is why that amendment is important and is one that we should pursue.
My comments will be in particular about the pupil premium. It is a brilliant little idea. I admit that when I first looked at the Bill and when we were discussing it at Second Reading, I could not be against the notion of the virtual school head but it did not quite ring right with me. I was not against it but I was just not sure that it would have any impact. Perhaps those local authorities that have voluntarily carried it out and feel they own it will make a success of it. My worry was that once you made it statutory throughout the nation, it would become just a job to be done and a box to be ticked. It needed some sort of bite beneath it that would give it teeth and make sure that something happened. I did not raise this at Second Reading because I could not think of anything at the time, but I think that the pupil premium might be one of those things that means that schools and other places in the education system have to sit up and listen because there is a control of resource in someone else’s hands. That might just give the edge to this post, new as it is, as it starts its contribution to education.
There are perhaps one or two other reasons. My noble friend Lord Touhig was right to say that the evidence at the moment is that some schools are not spending the money to greatest effect. Many are, and there are now lots of things that will help them spend the pupil premium to great effect, such as the toolkit. A lot of good work is being done by Ofsted and a lot of people. My worry is that this could be one of the cases where the group of people on whom it is spent least effectively are those children who are looked after. They seem to miss out on every bit of the system. This gives us a chance to make sure that in this we actually give them a head start.
I envisage that those people who are virtual heads could build up a body of expertise and experience about how best to spend the pupil premium. In that way, they could be champions of spending quite a significant amount of money. I am sure that teachers throughout schools in all local authorities might then look to them for advice. I trust that they will do it carefully. I would sooner the amendment said “in partnership with schools” because I do not think it will work unless it is in partnership with schools. Perhaps after consideration here, if it were to be brought back on Report, my noble friend Lord Touhig and others might wish to reflect on that. However, it is a really good addition to what is basically a good idea—the virtual school head. Until this amendment, they ran the risk of not having any teeth to do their work.
My Lords, I am delighted by the cross-party support which Clause 9 has attracted. In spite of the modest progress in recent years in the attainment of looked-after children, progress is nowhere near what it needs to be. That is why we have decided to make the role of the virtual school head statutory, so that all local authorities are required to appoint a dedicated officer to discharge its duty to promote the educational achievement of the children it looks after.
Natasha Finlayson, of the Who Cares? Trust has said:
“Virtual school heads have been shown to have a positive effect on the attainment of young people in care”.
Ofsted’s thematic inspection of the role of virtual school heads published last year found that, where the role works well, it has a positive—some might go as far as to say transformative—effect. One of Ofsted’s key findings in that report referred to the very effective support virtual school heads provide. That support not only made a difference to children’s educational progress but often enhanced the stability of their placements and had a positive impact on their emotional well-being. Every inspection report of local authorities will in future, from November, include how virtual school heads are improving outcomes for looked-after children
On the aim of Amendment 36, I am sympathetic to the motivation of the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, and the noble Baroness, Lady Morris. If we want to maximise the benefits of pupil premium funding it is right to expect the virtual school head to have a role. As looked-after children will attract a pupil premium plus of £1,900 in 2014-15, dialogue between schools and virtual school heads will be vital.
We have therefore signalled our plans to extend the role of the virtual school head to work with schools to manage the pupil premium plus and ensure that the money is spent on securing the best educational support for children in care. Discussions between the school and local authority on the content of a child’s personal education plan and how the pupil premium will be used to support meeting the needs set out in that plan are crucial. That is a message that we intend strongly to emphasise in guidance.
I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss the role of the virtual school head in relation to care leavers. We know that their educational outcomes are not good enough compared to their peers and I recognise entirely how important it is that someone is there to support care leavers who are in, or who wish to return to, education. I can see therefore why there are calls to extend the role of the virtual school head to cover care leavers. In a number of local authorities, the virtual school head’s remit includes some overlap with care leaver services.
Although I share the objective of the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, in the amendment, I believe that addressing the educational needs of care leavers will not necessarily be met by adding a new duty to Section 23B. Extending in statute the role of the virtual school head to care leavers too widely risks undermining the very reason we are making the role statutory: to redouble our efforts to narrow the intractable attainment gap between what looked-after children achieve compared to their peers. If we extend the role of the virtual school head, it would add significant burdens to the local authority and the person undertaking that role and would dilute the impact of the role. We do not wish to do that.
I do not wish to appear complacent on this point. Supporting care leavers to stay in education and training is vital. That is why we have extended local authority responsibilities to care leavers up to the age of 25, where they are in education and training.
Under its new inspection framework, Ofsted will be looking at the quality of care leavers’ services and whether they have access to appropriate education and employment opportunities, including work experience and apprenticeships. They are encouraged and supported to continue their education and training, including those aged 21 to 24. Care leavers are progressing well and achieving their full potential through life choices, either in their attainment in further and higher education or in their chosen career or occupation.
If we are changing legislation, we have to be really sure that the changes are for the better and we have to have evidence of impact. We know that the virtual school head has had an impact on looked-after children nationally, and we cannot risk diluting that. There are other ways to ensure that the support that care leavers get to continue their education and training takes place.
I hope that I have provided reassurances to the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, and the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, of our commitment to improving outcomes for all looked-after children and care leavers, and that they will join me in welcoming our recent announcement on the pupil premium plus and withdraw their amendment.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have contributed to this short debate, and the Minister for his clarification. I am particularly pleased that the issue of monitoring and evaluation of practice is coming up quite consistently; it is terribly important. I also look forward to seeing how the Department for Education guidance, which I have quoted already, is played out in practice and implemented. I shall be interested to see how local authorities use that guidance to improve practice.
My noble friend Lady Morris emphasised how looked-after children miss out, and talked about champions of spending. I am pleased that the Minister could confirm that the virtual school head will be made statutory. Again, I look forward to hearing how exactly that role will now be defined. Will it include the pupil premium, which is a very interesting and important issue—perhaps, as my noble friend Lady Morris said, in conjunction with schools? In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 35 withdrawn.
Amendments 36 and 37 not moved.
Clause 9 agreed.
38: After Clause 9, insert the following new Clause—
“Young people resident with foster parents to remain with them until the age of 21 when they choose to do so
(1) Section 23C of the Children Act 1989 (continuing functions in respect of former relevant children) is amended as follows.
(2) After subsection (4) insert—
“(4AA) The assistance given under subsection (4)(c) shall include the continuation of accommodation with the former local authority foster parent, unless—
(a) the former relevant child states that he or she does not wish to continue residing in such accommodation,(b) the former local authority foster parent does not wish to continue to provide accommodation, or(c) it is not reasonably practicable to arrange such accommodation.”(3) At the end insert—
“(11) In this section “former local authority foster parent” means a local authority foster parent within the meaning of section 22C(12) with whom the former relevant child, as a looked after child, was placed under section 22C(6)(a) or (b).””
My Lords, this amendment would allow young people in care to remain with their foster carers until the age of 21 where they and their foster carers agreed to do so. I hope that it might be helpful if I give a couple of examples of practice in this area already. Before I do so, I would like to correct an omission that I made earlier. The Minister was kind enough to say some good words about my work in this area, and I omitted to thank him for them. I appreciated what he said.
I recall a couple of relevant episodes while on the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Looked After Children and Care Leavers. One young man described his experience of being set up in independent accommodation. Pretty soon the local drug dealer had decided that he wanted to join this young man, and soon afterwards he lost his accommodation. I think that he also ran up a big back rent. A foster carer talked to me about a young girl who had been excited by the prospect of moving into independent accommodation at 17 or whatever, and his comment was, “Well, she was doing so well at school while she was with me, but now that she’s independent she obviously has other priorities”. We should try to normalise the experience so that it is what we would want for our own children: we want them to keep in touch with us and we do not want them disappearing goodness knows where, getting mixed up with goodness knows whom.
If I may make just one more comment, there has been a lot of concern about the experience of young women in care in recent years—the past 18 months, I suppose. One has to remember that many of these girls and women leaving care have had poor experience of men in their lives, and unfortunately many of them may turn to men who will not treat them well. For them this has been the norm and their experience. It has been striking for me, in recently meeting young women who have been allowed to stay with their foster carers past the age of 18, that they have a good continuing relationship with their male foster carer—and one can hope that they have a better model of how a man can relate to a woman than many of those who move out earlier.
Young people are living at home longer than ever, with an average of leaving home now at well over 24, yet many children in foster care, who are arguably among the most vulnerable in society, are still required to leave their foster home at the age of just 17. Those who get to stay past their 18th birthday are either the lucky few, funded by their local authority, or fortunate enough to have foster carers who can afford to offer them a home for free and support them out of their own pockets. Research shows that the longer a young person can stay with a foster family, the more successful they are later on. In 2011-12, only 320 young people remained with their foster carers past the age of 18, which is only 5% of care leavers; in the most recent year, only 10 more young people stayed put. It has been put to me that, in the current rate of progress, to reach the Government’s aspirations of 25% of young people staying put would take about 140 years.
Care leavers are more likely to be unemployed, young single parents, mental service users, homeless or in prison than those who grew up in their own families. This amendment to the Children Act 1989 is really important, in that it would allow young people to remain with their foster carers up to the age of 21. Staying Put has been piloted already in 10 local authorities across England, with great success. Young people who stayed with foster carers were twice as likely to be in full-time education at 19, compared to those who did not. Those staying put gave young people more control over their lives and their transition from care. Studies have shown that allowing young people to remain in care until 21 is associated with increased, post-secondary educational attainment, delayed pregnancy and higher earners.
The benefits to care leavers and to society of extending care have been found to outweigh the cost to government by a factor of at least 2:1, so staying put represents value for money. The department’s evaluation of the pilot found that to implement the policy nationally would require £2.7 million per year. This modest funding could be found partly through a smarter use of existing expenditure but, given all the burdens being placed on local authorities, it is only reasonable, especially as central government will be the greatest beneficiary in the long term, that a sum is set aside to enable local authorities to make the transition to this new arrangement, with many more—we hope that soon it will reach 25%—staying put.
To point out the saving to state-funded services, I turn first to housing. For every young person staying put with their former foster carer instead of independent living before they are ready, a one-bedroom flat is freed up locally, so this saves on local authorities paying rent on such properties in the private sector at high expense. Many care leavers who are forced to live independently before they are ready build up huge rent arrears, and that money is rarely recouped. Staying put is successful also in tackling the benefits cycle that young people are often at risk of entering. The one-to-one support and guidance offered by foster carers to young people in their transition to adulthood is crucial to ensuring that they can be helped on the road to becoming net contributors to society as adults, rather than a drain on resources. Those who stay put are more likely to be working full-time or part-time, or studying, and hence claim less housing benefit and income support.
The Children’s Minister strongly shares our belief that more young people should be allowed to stay with their foster carers for longer, and I am grateful to the Minister for taking a couple of occasions over the summer to talk to me about this issue. I recognise that the Government really want to see this happen, but they are in favour of a voluntary approach. As I have said, over the past year, only 10 more young people have taken up the Staying Put offer, so overall there has been a 0% increase because the number of young people coming into care has increased over the period.
What is happening is that, even in the current situation, many young people and foster carers have had to fight with their local authorities to allow and support Staying Put placements. We need an end to this postcode lottery. It is unacceptable that at a time when young people should be focusing on their education and training, as the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, said, they face doubt and anxiety over their future. Interviews with former pilots show that half had scaled back the provision, either by reducing the maximum age from 21 to 19 or by excluding NEETS, who are the people most in need of support and guidance. While I welcome the Government’s current interest in care leavers and the many important measures that they are bringing forward, I believe that without legislation, too few fostered young people will have a realistic chance of staying with their foster carers beyond the age of 18. This is a rare opportunity to change the law and ensure that the next generation of care leavers is given a better start in adult life. My parents would not have wished there to be any uncertainty that I would not get the support I needed to go through my education and go to university. I am sure that noble Lords as parents would also want to be certain that they could support their daughters and sons through whatever they chose to do during their transition to adult life. So far, I have not heard anything from the Government to reassure me that we will see this happen soon. If we introduce this provision in the legislation, within a short time we would see hundreds of young people on a better course as they left care. I look forward to the Minister’s response and I beg to move.
My Lords, I strongly support this amendment. As I said earlier, it is part of a suite of amendments aimed at making the lives of young people in care more palatable. The idea of being told at the age of 16, 17 or 18 that you are going to be independent and that you will live in a flat, with minimal training in handling a budget and coping with the unwanted visitor referred to by my noble friend Lord Listowel who will derail your attempts to study or work, is unthinkable in relation to our own children. There is a concept that we should think of children in care or looked-after children as being our children, so we should do everything we can to ensure that they do not experience even more disadvantage.
I am not going to repeat all the statistics, research and evidence put before the Committee by my noble friend; suffice it to say that the Staying Put scheme was piloted in 11 local authorities. As he has said, the outcomes for the young people who stayed with their foster carers were significantly and substantially better than for those who were not able to do so. It gave them an opportunity to take more control over their lives and to make more successful transitions from care towards independent adulthood. The Fostering Network found that none of the pilot authorities reported significant problems with foster carer provision as a result of offering the Staying Put scheme, which I know is a concern that has been expressed by some people. While a minority did say that staying put would mean that in theory a former foster bed would no longer be available, it is often the case that foster carers plan to retire after the placement ends and would have been retiring at whatever age the young person left, whether or not it was beyond the age of 18. In addition, foster carer recruitment strategies have simply been amended to suit the new needs of the service.
I shall quote a leaving care manager who participated in the Staying Put pilot scheme. He said:
“Nowadays we do not even recruit foster carers who would not want to offer Staying Put. Indeed, because many of them now want to provide a Staying Put placement, we are keeping them happy and ensuring their future commitment to our service by allowing them to keep young people living with them. They see it as the natural and obvious thing for a professional fostering service to do and they want to play a part in that”.
In short, it requires a slightly different approach to fostering and its role, and Staying Put should be seen as just another part of the recruitment challenge. Another leaving-care manager in a pilot authority said that it actively assisted in recruitment of foster parents. He said:
“Staying Put has made a massive difference to [our local authority]. It has created a feel good factor in children’s services. It is now a flag that we wave, and has even helped with the recruitment of foster carers because they can see that we are committed to the whole journey of a young person in care rather than taking them to 18 and then dumping them”.
I want to focus on that last phrase “dumping them” because the last thing we want is for children in care or about to be care leavers to feel that this cycle of being dumped or the state of not being wanted is being repeated right up until they are 18.
Although the economic arguments are, of course, important, we should not lose sight of the moral and compassionate arguments. It is unacceptable for an 18 year-old coming out of the care system to harbour that feeling of being dumped, of being discarded again by an uncaring system. Staying Put is one way of reassuring those young people that they have not been left without support. If it were up to me, it would probably be a little older than 21 ideally. I see this as a rare opportunity to make sure that the next generation of care leavers gets a much better start to their adult life than people have had in the past.
My Lords, I support what the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, has said. I remember him stalking in the Corridor in July; he was very excited and asked whether I would support this. I did not indicate but walked away and reflected on what he had said. I remember my professional circumstances, where foster parents at my school came to talk to me about this issue and how upset they were. It was quite traumatic for them as foster carers to lose children at 18 when they had so much more to offer in those important years. I thought about my own children. At 18 my daughter has just gone to university. It has been a very difficult time for her and she has needed the support of her parents, her family and friends.
We talk about cost but the cost is minimal: there is a saving. Never mind the savings we have heard about in terms of compassion as a society but the savings, as research has shown, in terms of those young people being more likely to be successful in their lives. If they are more successful in their lives, there will be fewer problems that we might have to pay for later on.
My Lords, I, too, support the amendment. It is so obviously a good idea. I have a suspicion that if it is not part of the legislation a voluntary system will work in a few places and will be disregarded right across the country. It is for that reason that it needs to be made part of the legislation.
My Lords, the meeting arranged by the noble Earl brought a number of comments about Staying Put. It was clear that there is a shortage of accessible information—particularly because not all authorities are operating the system—and that there are real complications when there are cross-boundary considerations. That follows on from the point made by the noble and learned Baroness.
Some things were mentioned which really took me aback. When a young person becomes 18, if he or she does stay with the foster parents a tenancy agreement has to be signed. As a couple of the young people we met said, “This does not reflect our relationship. They are our foster parents; they are not our landlords”. It is necessary, I understand, to have a tenancy agreement in order to qualify for housing benefit and income support. I asked how the total income compared to fostering allowances and I was told by the foster carer we met that the total income had reduced by about 50%. He was very enthusiastic about his foster daughter remaining with him. That foster daughter also said—she was part of a sibling group—that she had to be CRB checked in order to stay with her sisters. Something has gone wrong with the system.
My Lords, I, too, have my name on the amendment and support it wholeheartedly. The noble Earl, in his introduction, used the word “normalising”. We are trying to normalise the relationship between the young people and their foster carers because, as my noble friend Lord Storey pointed out, most young people who grow up in their birth family do not leave home at 18. They stay on.
I was interested in what the noble Baroness, Lady Young, said about the pilots. It did not have an adverse effect on the recruitment of foster carers; indeed, it had a beneficial effect. It occurs to me that the Government might be a little concerned that if we make it a right for young people, if they and their foster carers wish it, to stay on until 21, it will take away foster parenting places for other children coming into the system. Frankly, I think that we should be putting more effort into turning the tap off and giving more support to families so that children can safely stay with their birth parents, but that is an argument for another day. That might be the case, but I have a suggestion that might fulfil some of the need without the problem of taking away a foster-caring place for some other child. I have promoted this idea to successive Children’s Ministers over the past few years, who all say, “That sounds like a good idea”, but nothing ever gets done.
Many children go off to university or college, or to work somewhere else when they are 18, but they maintain a close and supportive relationship with their birth families. Why not allow foster parents, if they so wish, and the young person wishes, to have a sort of little stipend or retainer to act as a supporter and adviser to the care leaver for the next few years when they have left the bedroom in the house? That bedroom would then be freed up. A lot of young people who get on very well with their foster parents go back and visit them and ask for advice anyway. But many of them, knowing that the parents may have taken on another foster child and will be busy, would be hesitant to go back to the foster parent and ask for help and advice when things go pear-shaped, such as their accommodation or education plans going wrong, or they have trouble with their employment. Whatever it is, they would have somebody officially who was being paid a little bit by the state to help them and stop new arrangements breaking down. It is when they break down that the state has a great deal more cost liability to try to put things right. There is an existing relationship of trust, understanding, knowledge and emotion. If the Government cannot accept the noble Earl’s amendment—I very much hope that they will—perhaps the Minister will consider my suggestion of a sort of halfway house. The parent could retain that relationship formally and, one hopes, the care leaver would have no hesitation in going back to that person for advice if things went wrong.
My Lords, I strongly support this amendment. I have heard the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, talk about this halfway house before. It is not a bad idea, but I hope that we can go the full way, for two reasons. First, there is the cost-effectiveness, which one or two people have mentioned. We sometimes forget that early intervention can actually save money in the long run; we should not forget that. Early intervention is not just about babies or children but older people. This example applies and it can be effective in this case. Cost-effectiveness was the first thing that I wanted to mention.
The second thing is the incredible importance of education, which has also been mentioned. Young people in education tend not to get pregnant when they are 15 or 16, they tend not to misuse drugs or alcohol, and they tend to do better if they are encouraged in that education. Like the noble Lord, Lord Storey, I was very impressed by the young woman at the meeting we had last week, who talked about the importance of education to her. As we know, education is such a key thing for all children, but particularly for these children. Therefore for me, cost effects on education swing this towards the Minister accepting this amendment.
My Lords, I will not repeat all the arguments that have been made, but of course, I want to support this. However, I will take it from a slightly different angle. I am quite sure that the Government do not want to take away from the determination that the local authority has to do its work. I know that devolution is important, and that the independence of the local authorities, such as it is, is valuable. Therefore I can understand that that might well be a government point of view. I can understand that the Local Government Association may have some concerns about additional responsibilities being added in statute, and I can understand some of the arguments, such as that if we have older young people in placements, they may block placements when we are short of foster-parents.
I have looked at those issues. It is quite clear that unless there is something absolutely straightforward, either legislation or regulation, in this area, local authorities will not be consistent in their care of over-18s. I have numerous case studies, which I will not read out now, but they have made me think that I need to speak about this in this way, rather than supporting the independence of local authorities, as I usually do as a vice-president of the LGA. Time and again, we read of young people—and I have met them alone, and with the noble Earl, Lord Listowel—who tell heartbreaking stories of their education and of how their success in other areas is being stymied because they have to leave their family in which they have all their relationships. We are failing significantly to understand that emotional context.
Noble Lords have talked on numerous occasions about their own children. Sometimes you do not get rid of them until they are 30. They do a lot of things in between, and you still take them back. I have not had children of my own but I have brought up more than most, and I know about that trauma. Secondly, I understand that fostering, and numbers, are now improving, and that we have to look at that in a different way. It was explained to me—and this is not an area in which I have recent expertise—that foster parents who take adolescents often retire, as has been said, but also tend not to take small children when they need a placement. You need a different set of skills and you are looking for different foster parents. The idea that these young people are blocking a foster place is not a real one.
I can understand that the voluntary way forward is preferred by the Government. It will not work in present circumstances in local authorities, pressed as they are, unless there is some very strong legislation or statutory guidance.
My Lords, I support this important amendment, which I knew was coming up today. I was sitting as an adult magistrate in Westminster Magistrates’ Court earlier today, in a general remand court, and I took a note of the type of cases we heard. I had 26 defendants in front of me today, five of whom were in the age range of 18 to 21: a perfectly typical illustration of the age range that we see. Although it is not always obvious in court what someone’s background is, I would make an educated guess, based on their previous criminal history, that four of those five had been in some sort of care: that was not a surprise. The fifth defendant was a foreign national who was only 20 years old and was living rough in London.
This is totally typical of the type of defendants whom I see in my adult work in central London, and that is why I support so strongly the amendment moved by the noble Earl. I would see a similar distribution in my youth work, and this one amendment could make more difference than any other single amendment we are talking about this evening.
My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Young, made a point about the age of 21. Noble Lords are sharing their experiences of parenting today, and the thought that my 21 year-old could be launched out into the world now fills me with anxiety. I feel that she is on a bit of elastic, will be coming back every so often and we will be there for her as things go on. I understand the evidence put very eloquently by the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, for this proposition, which I support. However, this is such an unusual opportunity that I wonder whether we should be saying 21 or 25. It might be pushing it slightly to say 25, but 21 seems so young. This is about making evidence-based policy, so I would be interested to know what the evidence is for the age of 21.
My Lords, I do not want to delay the Committee but I want to make a few quick comments in support of this amendment. It is very dear to my heart, as I was Minister of State for Children when we instituted the pilots to which several noble Lords have referred. One reason we did that was because, in the White Paper we wrote at that time, I felt strongly that one of our guiding principles in going forward and trying to improve the situation for children in care—a view shared by members of the Committee—was that we should provide them, as far as possible, with the same opportunities that we would want for our own children. As so many noble Lords have said, we have seen a social change over the last 20 years in that our young adult children do not leave home at 16, 17 or 18. Even if they go to university, their bedroom is still there and they come back. They often come back after they have done their studies and they now do not leave home until, on average, their mid-twenties. When the state is the parent, we have to aspire to the same opportunity for those children for whom we are collectively responsible. This is one of the most compelling reasons why we should extend these pilots and make them national.
The benefits to the young people in the pilots have already been well expressed and I will not rehearse them. There is, of course, a cost. The Department for Education has estimated, on the basis of the pilots, that the cost of instituting Staying Put nationally would be £2.7 million. I know that it does not work out as an average because some local authorities have more children in care than others, but, on average, that is £18,000 per annum, per local authority—not per child or per placement: per local authority. So the costs, relative to the benefits, are very small and, as we have heard, there are additional savings to the state from some of the state-funded benefits and support that would have been reduced in the pilots.
The Minister in reply to the previous debate said that helping care leavers to stay in education and training was vital. He also said that when the legislation is being changed, we need evidence of impact. I put it to the Minister that this particular proposal satisfies both of those criteria. If we were in government, and if we are in government again, this is something we would definitely be looking at to see if we could fund because the costs relative to the benefits are also small. I hope the Minister will consider this favourably.
My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to debate the important subject of how local authorities support care leavers. I fully understand concerns raised by noble Lords, including the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, the noble Baronesses, Lady Young, Lady Massey, Lady Morgan and Lady Howarth, the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, and my noble friends Lord Storey, Lady Howe and Lady Walmsley, and many external parties about the ongoing support for care leavers. As the noble Earl has said, we have had the opportunity of discussing this matter privately on a couple of occasions recently. I look forward to further discussions with him on this matter as he knows I also feel strongly on this subject.
We have emphasised the importance of staying put in revised statutory guidance, because we recognise that for many young people the ability to stay on with their former foster carers, particularly when they are in further and higher education, is the right decision. The Minister for Children and Families wrote to all directors of children’s services last October, encouraging them to prioritise their staying put arrangements, so that all young people who wanted to could benefit from this provision. I accept there is more to do. Naturally we are disappointed that the 2013 statistical returns from local authorities show only a marginal increase in young people in staying put provision. However, we should recognise that these figures collected by local authorities are a snapshot at 19 and they run only until March 2013, so there is not much time to see the impact of the actions we have taken since 2012. Moreover, they do not tell us about the number of young people who might be benefiting from this provision from the age of 18, and who will leave this arrangement before they turn 19. From next year the department will be collecting data at age 18, 20 and 21, and will be able to see from 2014 how many young people are benefiting from this provision before and after the age of 19.
Our approach is and has been to improve practice. We are continuing to look for ways to promote and encourage this. We have already worked with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the Department for Work and Pensions to issue practical guidance on staying put to help carers and local authorities around tax and benefit issues. As I have already said, the revised Ofsted inspection framework that comes into practice in November has a specific focus on the quality of leaving care services. A focus on the care leaver assessment will be on accommodation, and inspectors will consider staying put opportunities. Being able to stay in placements beyond 18 is mentioned within one of the grade descriptors of the care leavers’ judgement. We will monitor closely the reports on these inspections and feedback from care leavers, and expect to see significant improvements in 2014 and 2015 in the number of young people staying put. In addition, through our work with the National Care Advisory Service, my department will encourage local authorities to share effective practice where they are making good progress in this respect. While doing everything that we can to promote staying put, we must recognise that this sort of provision will not be appropriate for all young people. Care leavers, like their peers, have different needs, and attitudes regarding their transition to adulthood. The crucial point is that young people should be offered a range of placements that are safe and suitable, and meet their individual needs. I want to reassure noble Lords that the Government want to encourage all looked-after children to stay in care until they are 18 and beyond, where this is the right choice for them. We want to do everything we can for all care leavers.
I recognise the strength of feeling expressed today, and wish to take the issue away to consider further what more we can do to increase the numbers of young people in staying-put arrangements. I understand that noble Lords feel there is a case that all we are doing is not enough. I have asked my officials to work further with the Fostering Network and others on this issue. The noble Baroness, Lady Hughes, mentioned a figure of £2.5 million, which is no longer our view of the figure, although it is a figure that the Fostering Network has recently come up with. We believe the figure is considerably higher, but we will be working with the Fostering Network to see if we can pin this figure down further. I would be pleased to discuss this issue further with the noble Earl over the coming weeks.
I hope that what I have said reassures noble Lords of our commitment to this issue and I therefore urge the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, the noble Baroness, Lady Young, and my noble friends Lady Sharp and Lady Walmsley not to press their amendment.
I thank the Minister for his reply. Before thanking colleagues, perhaps I may put a few questions on the detail to the Minister. With regard to the timescale, he was good enough in his comments just now to say that he expected a significant increase in the next two years in the number of young people staying put. Perhaps he would like to write to me with a clearer timescale. My concern is that unless we move quickly on this in the next one, two, three or four years, hundreds of young people will miss out on a pathway which we know would do them a lot of good and mean that they would have much better outcomes. If the Minister wishes to take a different approach, the voluntary approach, I should be grateful if he could make it clear when he hopes to achieve the target of 25%, which I think is the government target. It would also be helpful to know what steps the Government will take if that target is not reached or if good progress is not made in that direction. Those are just a couple of questions. He may prefer to write to me rather than answer them now.
I thank the Minister. I thank all colleagues for their support for the amendment. It is heartening for me to hear that depth of support from across the Committee. If I may say so, it was most interesting to hear from the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, about his experience today in an adult court. It was not at all surprising.
I should have made clear a couple of things in my opening remarks. First, 11 local authorities took part in the pilots to begin with. Then two of them merged, so it became 10. That is the reason for the disparity between the comments made by my noble friend Lady Young and me about the number of local authorities in the pilot evaluation. I also omitted to say that some of the local authorities taking part in the evaluation were selecting young people who work in education or training, so that does not give us as clear a picture about the successful outcome as one might like. I think that it is still very clear, but I want your Lordships to be aware that there was a difficulty there in terms of the group used in the pilots.
I welcome what the Minister has said. Of course, the measures that he is proposing are untried. We have seen only a marginal improvement in the past year. My concern is that in the years to come—the next one, two, three or four years—if the movement is too slow, hundreds of children will miss out on an education, a training or employment and go down much worse pathways if we do not grab the nettle and act now. I look forward to studying what the Minister said and to further conversations before Report.
I reiterate once more how grateful I am to noble Lords across the Committee for their support and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 38 withdrawn.
39: After Clause 9, insert the following new Clause—
“Provision of accommodation for children
In section 20 of the Children Act 1989 (provision of accommodation for children: general) after subsection (1) insert—“(1A) Where a local authority provides accommodation for a child identified as a victim of human trafficking who has been trafficked into England or Wales, that local authority shall have parental responsibility for that child during the period that child remains in the accommodation of the local authority or until the arrangements for the child have been completed, or both.
(1B) Where another local authority provides accommodation for that child, that local authority shall have parental responsibility for the child during the period that child remains in the accommodation of that local authority or until the arrangements for the child have been completed, or both.””
This amendment deals with a totally different subject. There are three amendments in this group but I do not propose to speak to Amendments 43 or 234 because I understand that those who tabled them will in due course ask to degroup them. Therefore, I shall speak exclusively to Amendment 39.
This amendment relates to the most disadvantaged group of children who come into this country. Very often, they are children brought here against their will, or certainly without any knowledge of what is going to hit them when they get here. They may be sexually exploited or they may be victims of domestic service or forced labour, such as the Vietnamese boys who run the cannabis farms in rented accommodation. Among them are boys who are trained, Fagin style, to steal, and there are other children who go through appalling sorts of slavery. When they escape, or if they are fortunate enough to be picked up at the border control, they are not as well looked after as adults.
This is an area where adult victims of human trafficking—modern slaves—are quite well cared for in this country in many ways. It is much to the Government’s credit that they have signed the European directive on human trafficking and, indeed, are in the process of implementing it. However, we fall far short of what should be done with the children. They are placed in the care of a local authority, not under care proceedings, which we discussed earlier today, but under Section 17 of the Children Act 1989, which requires local authorities to look after a child in their area. They are placed with the nearest local authority by whoever has identified them as trafficked, and the local authority has an obligation to look after them under Section 20 of the Children Act. I repeat: it is an obligation to accommodate.
We know that very worrying numbers of children go missing from local authority care. Local authorities do not even know why or how some of these children have come into care because it takes anything up to 48 hours to register a child into care, and these children often go missing within 48 hours. In another place, Peter Bone MP sent a message to all local authorities asking how many children who go missing are trafficked children. No local authority responded with any figures at all, and only about eight out of all the local authorities responded at all but they had not identified the children who were missing as trafficked children.
If the children have a mobile phone, as they usually do, they are given a number and are told to ring the trafficker. The trafficker waits outside the care home, or very often the home of the short-term foster parents who have not had time to get organised with this child who is suddenly dumped on them: the child gets the telephone call, goes out of the front door and is never heard of again. Those children are trafficked or retrafficked. Something like 300-odd children have been identified as being trafficked, and that, I suspect, is the tip of the iceberg.
The reasons for asking for a local authority to have parental responsibility are twofold. One is that these foreign children do not have anyone in this country with any responsibility for them until they get to the local authority—perhaps with the exception of those who are trafficking them, who may be relatives. Secondly, the local authority does not have parental responsibility, as defined in the Children Act, for these accommodated children; it simply has a requirement to accommodate them. It is right to say that there is a requirement to look after them but if they do not have parental responsibility—and local authority social services know exactly what parental responsibility means—that is what they receive after they get a care order. Even an interim care order gives them a joint parental responsibility with the family. However, for these foreign children there is nobody with parental responsibility.
Parental responsibility may not be the best way of dealing with this; there are two views on it. I have tabled this amendment because I am concerned that, currently, local authorities are not treating these children with the seriousness that they should. Local authorities are overworked and very often under-resourced. These children are dumped on them at very short notice, identified as having been trafficked and are not given the same degree of care as a child who goes through the care process in this country. It seems that there are two ways forward here. Either the local authority makes a care application, which costs money—and it is getting more and more expensive for local authorities to make care applications—or, as I suggest, there should be an automatic parental responsibility. It would not cost a penny but it would flag up to local authorities the actual responsibility they have for these children who are dumped on them. They cannot just accommodate them and not really take that extra step of being a joint parent.
I am extremely concerned about the standards for the children we have been talking about last Wednesday and today. They are only a small number of children but, my goodness me, we are failing them. It is a blot on the England and Wales system, under which we are failing to deal with them. I do not know whether I really need to declare again an interest as a trustee of the Human Trafficking Foundation or as co-chairman of the All-Party Group on Human Trafficking and Modern Day Slavery, but this is a truly serious matter for a small group of children. One way of dealing with it is to give local authorities parental responsibility. It would hit them with the fact that they have to do something practical about these children.
Barnardo’s was given some money—I believe by the Government—to trial having specialist foster parents to look after trafficked children. I was told by one of the representatives of Barnardo’s that it was not taken up. I think that 15 specialised foster parents were trained and that local authorities were told they could have this for nothing. They were not being asked to pay a penny and they did not take it up. I think there were two or three places where local authorities did not do it, which is an indication of the degree of concern that I understand the overworked social services have for this group of children. Something absolutely has to be done. I beg to move.
My Lords, I rise to reinforce, in a way, what the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, has said but also to ask some questions. I should perhaps declare an interest as a council tax payer in the district of Dover. As I see it, the amendment, as tabled, would require the local authority to bear the financial responsibilities of looking after these trafficked children, far more of whom probably come in through Dover than through any other point of access to the United Kingdom.
It so happens that a year or two ago, my wife chaired the Kent Community Housing Trust, which is for old people. During that time they received a panicked telephone call from the county council saying, “We simply can’t cope with this flow of people. Can you help us?”. Luckily, an old people’s home was able to be diverted for that purpose. As the noble Baroness said, it is not easy. In one case a child arrived at the children’s home absolutely white with fear and said that he had just seen a murder and the murderer. The child knew that the murderer had seen him, so he feared for his life. He was kept in the home for 16 days and at the end of that period he slipped down to the village to buy some fags and was never seen again. We are talking about quite a tough world.
What are the financial implications for local authorities which receive an enormous number of young people? My noble friend was being rather critical of the local authorities but they were presented with a very difficult problem at very short notice.
The local authority has the obligation under the 1989 Act to accommodate children, so there are no financial implications that I understand. The only financial implications would be if the local authority were involved in care proceedings, when it would have to pay for the applications.
They do it already. There is no difference. They have a requirement under the Act to accommodate. They have had that since 1989, or since 1990 when the Act came into force. I am talking about giving them a parental responsibility order, which is a wake-up call and has nothing to do with finances at all.
I am asking that Amendment 43 be decoupled from this amendment because it deals with a quite different issue. I wish to speak briefly to the amendment moved by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, if the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, will allow me. It is extraordinary that there are children in this country, from wherever they have come, for whom the local authority fails to take some sort of action. I do not often say this but, in my day, children would be seen as having no parental cover whatever and there would be no doubt that the local authority would have had a care order. There is no doubt that that would have happened in the past. The noble Baroness, Lady Howe, agrees.
I understand why we want fewer court proceedings. Having been the chair of CAFCASS, I absolutely understand that. They are expensive and are often not helpful to the child’s experience, never mind that of the local authority. Under the 1948 Act we had a way of ensuring that children were placed under the equivalent of a care order by a process in the local authority. In the days of Sections 1 and 2 of the Children Act 1948, one lot of children went to court and the others went through a process in the local authority. We should ask the officials to look at this. Without a doubt we have a national responsibility to protect this small cohort of children. I have come into contact with them because I deal with serious sexual abuse issues. The girls who are trafficked are seriously sexually abused. It is not just prostitution; it is abhorrent prostitution. Unless we find ways of protecting these youngsters they will just slip away and disappear, not of their own choice. I support the noble and learned Baroness in her attempt to find a way that is not expensive but which secures these children’s futures.
My Lords, an issue that is not directly relevant to this amendment, but which is akin to it, is that of parental responsibility and the accommodation that these children go into. I know that these highly vulnerable children are put into shocking accommodation. They are followed by traffickers, drug dealers and criminal gangs. They are abducted and disappear or something even more terrible might happen to them. I want to emphasise that parental responsibility must include decent accommodation for these children.
My Lords, I have put my name to the amendment. I think that I could sum it up by saying that it would turn accommodation into care, and it is care that is needed. It is not surprising that children in this situation go missing, because the only people whom they know are those who have trafficked them. If they are given the means of staying in touch, as so often they seem to be, they will respond to a contact or make contact themselves. It seems that very often the first thing that happens is that they are given a mobile phone and instructed: “You keep in touch with us”. Whether this is the right way of going about it I do not know, but I have heard those around me who have much more recent or, indeed, current local authority experience muttering, “But the local authority has to do this”. Well, let us find a way of making sure that the local authority does more than what fulfils cold letters on paper and actually produces the service.
My Lords, I would like to explore this in a bit more detail. Perhaps the Minister, if he is not able to give the information in his reply, could write to us. My experience in local government and as a head teacher is that, of course, children are trafficked, but some are trafficked because their parents in another part of the world want a better life for them, so they pay someone to put them on a plane and the poor child then arrives in the UK. As I understand it, there are regional centres where the children are received. There is one in Dover. Liverpool was and is another regional centre. The children come to Liverpool and Liverpool tries as best it can within the resources to cater for them and to look after them. I know that for two reasons. One is that, four or five years ago, our director of social services wrote a report saying, “Look, my budget can’t cope with the number coming in. We want to help, but it seems unfair financially that Liverpool should carry this burden”. Secondly, I also know as a head teacher that some of these children have been put into foster care. I gave the example at a meeting of a Mongolian street child, whose grandparents had paid a trafficker to bring him to the UK. He landed in London but was sent to a regional centre, which happened to be Liverpool, where he was fostered with a wonderful family in Halewood. He came to my school and he was well looked after. For me, the issue is not the reluctance of local authorities to deal with this but the sheer size of the problem and the support that they get. I hope that that makes sense.
I am reminded of the report by my noble friend Lord Laming on the death of Victoria Climbié. One of the comments made by the social workers in Haringey who were interviewed was that they were overwhelmed at the time, particularly by unaccompanied asylum-seeking children and young people. This can put a heavy burden on local authorities. I have another, related experience of visiting a children’s home some years ago. I spoke to the manager, who was very experienced—in many ways, she was a remarkable manager—but when it came to working with unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, she felt that these were not their children. She had enough to do looking after the children with whom she had to deal, rather than having to deal with these other children, if you like. There is a difficulty and perhaps the amendment is a helpful way of tackling it. Some people will just say, “Look, we have enough on our plate. We don’t want to think about these extra children and we’ll find ways not to do so”. I am not sure whether that is exactly the issue in hand, but my experience is that, understandably, given the strains on social services and the immense emotional burden that caring for children with complex needs brings with it, some people can find ways to rationalise not giving proper care to vulnerable children because those children come from a very different background from theirs.
My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the noble and learned Baroness for tabling this amendment. We all share her abhorrence at what is currently happening out there in the way that the care system is routinely failing trafficked children. I was interested to hear what the noble Lord, Lord Storey, said. One aspect of it might be that children whose parents want a better future for them come here voluntarily. However, the people that the noble and learned Baroness is talking about are duped into coming here on completely false pretences. They are told they are coming for waitressing jobs or otherwise to earn money. They certainly do not expect to come in the mode of being owned by a gang member, which is where they find themselves. The noble Lord is right that there is some good local authority practice but that is where people want help and support genuinely to make a better future here: these are not the same people.
This all goes to show that the problem for local authorities is much bigger, in the round, than we are looking at. There are people who come in on the noble Lord’s terms and those who come in on the noble and learned Baroness’s terms. There are some excellent charities working in this sector, as well as the local authorities who are providing a safe haven and proper care and advice for these young people. However, they need to do more and they are very much the exception. All too often, everyone feels powerless to prevent those children who are rescued disappearing. It is not just that they are being traded and sold into slavery and sexual abuse. Very often, the children go along with the gang members because they are spooked by some form of black magic which is endemic in their original societies or they feel that their families will be threatened by violence back at home if they do not go along with it. In no sense are they involved voluntarily: this is under absolute fear, duress and panic. It is a scandal that we are allowing this to happen on our territory and are unable to prevent it.
I was pleased to hear the proposals of the noble and learned Baroness. I do not know well enough what difference it would make but it would be fair to say that if it did make a big difference it would have a cost implication. If it were not going to make much difference, it would not. We have to own up to the fact that there may be a cost implication to what is being proposed. It is only right that, if a child is under 18, the local authority should have the same duty of care to look after them as it would to any other young people under its jurisdiction. It also seems only right that, when they go missing, it takes the same level of care as it would for any other young children under its jurisdiction, including making sure that it escalates the details of those young people beyond the local missing persons’ procedures.
We have touched on what is going wrong with local authorities. It is partly about resources but they also think that it is just too complicated to deal with on their own, particularly when they are dealing with young children and traffickers who are constantly moving and crossing local authority borders and other boundaries. It is all too easy for local authorities to feel that it is, in a sense, someone else’s problem and that the problem has moved off their estate and into the hands of someone else. That is not justifiable and we want to work with the Government to find some way to deal with this problem. It seems an absolute affront to our civilisation that children can be bought and sold and exploited in our own sight, and that we seem to be powerless to stop it.
The real solution probably lies with having the political will to make this issue a priority, which I do not think that it has been up to now. At the same time, a lot could be done if all the agencies involved worked more closely together to share information and act decisively. Whether that needs to be put in legislation is another matter, but a bit more joined-up action and joined-up government could go some way to addressing it. I very much appreciate the noble and learned Baroness raising this issue, and I hope that the Minister will explain how she is going to solve this problem.
My Lords, first, I thank the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, for her tribute to the Government in relation to adults who have been trafficked. We appreciate her comments. But we share her concerns, and those expressed by other noble Lords, on the welfare of children who have been trafficked into this country. These are often extremely vulnerable children, who may have suffered tremendously at the hands of their traffickers. As recent work by the Refugee Council and the Children’s Society shows, these children can fail to gain the support that local authorities should provide. They should get the same support as other looked-after children; the legal duties to support them are the same. The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, pointed towards that. Local authorities already have statutory duties to safeguard and promote the welfare of trafficked children. They should be treated and supported in the same way as a local authority should support any child whom it is looking after.
Parental responsibility in law is not required to fulfil the duties of a parent in practice. Where local authorities are failing in this duty, they should be held to account. The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, pointed towards that, too. But requiring that they gain shared parental responsibility would not in itself bring the improvement provided. There was an interesting mini-debate about cost; the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, and the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, reassured the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, on that, and we are grateful for that.
Assigning parental responsibility could have unintended consequences. A trafficked child may well have a parent somewhere who already has parental responsibility for them. Although the local authority should act as a parent until the family is reunited, it should not automatically acquire parental responsibility towards that child. While it is clear that some local authorities are not performing adequately their statutory role to promote the interests of trafficked children, adding a requirement on them to seek parental responsibility for these children could create legal complexity without addressing the reasons for these failures. Instead, we believe that we must continue to pursue the programme of reforms to the care system that are already under way. As we implement these programmes to provide more stable placements, improved education and health outcomes and support towards independence and adulthood, I assure noble Lords that we shall take account of the particular needs of trafficked children. Already, for example, we have published revisions to statutory guidance on missing children which strengthen advice on identifying and meeting the needs of child victims of trafficking. The consultation on that has just finished, and we will take the comments from tonight into account in the final version of that guidance.
I mention to the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, that the number of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children has in fact dropped over the past two years, which is of course very welcome.
This is a very vulnerable group of children, and we fully recognise that. We understand what the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, and others are arguing. We will be very pleased to arrange a meeting with noble Lords to discuss this issue and consider whether more could be done. In the mean time, I hope that the noble and learned Baroness is willing to withdraw her amendment.
I thank all noble Lords for their contributions. Perhaps I should have said earlier that this was a probing amendment. I see disadvantages in local authorities having parental responsibility, but I never suggested in the amendment that they should hold it exclusively. It would be similar to a care order, where the local authority and the parents share parental responsibility. There is no suggestion that it should be a sole responsibility.
It is important to recognise that asylum-seeking children are not necessarily trafficked. I am talking about a relatively small number of children, in the hundreds, but they are the most vulnerable children coming in from outside.
Perhaps I should clarify my comments to the noble Earl, Lord Listowel. He suggested that local authorities, because they are dealing with large numbers of asylum-seeking children, were therefore not dealing with trafficked children. I simply wanted to place that in the context that the numbers there are dropping. In case I caused any confusion, perhaps I can clarify what I was saying.
I am talking about a very specific group of children. Some trafficked children may seek asylum, but that is a completely different matter. I am talking about children who have through the NRM been positively identified as trafficked or are going through the process of identification—one or the other. I am not talking about children who might possibly be trafficked but who have not yet gone through that identification.
The reason for tabling the amendment was as a wake-up call to local authorities. I totally understand the extent to which they are overburdened and underresourced—I said that—but this small group of children is slipping through the net. I was delighted to hear what the Minister had to say about missing children, because there is a serious lack of data from local authorities on children who go missing. They ought to be able to identify what sort of children they are. Are they the children who keep going missing from children’s homes? We know that there are children who go missing three, four or five times a week. That is not the sort of child we are talking about. The group we should worry about is the child who goes missing and is never identified again as a child who was in a children’s home or a foster home. Local authorities do not even know. They have to get their act together to know that those are trafficked children.
I welcome the opportunity to discuss that further with the noble Baroness. I have no doubt that the group of which I am a co-chairman would very much like the opportunity to do that, particularly the chairman of the Human Trafficking Foundation, Anthony Steen, who was previously an MP who worked tirelessly for this cause. This children issue is one that we are truly concerned about. I very much welcome what the Minister said and I am happy to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 39 withdrawn.
Committee adjourned at 7.49 pm.