Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I am deeply gratified by the level of interest your Lordships and other colleagues have shown in this subject—gratified but not surprised as I know that there are many tireless campaigners for vulnerable children on all the Benches of this House. As the last days of this Parliament rush by, it is important to pause and reflect on some of its major achievements. The “staying put” clauses in the Children and Families Act 2014 represent a seismic shift in provision for care leavers by allowing them to stay with their foster parents until the age of 21.
Previously there was no guarantee that young people studying hard for their A-levels or battling to hold down an apprenticeship or their first job would be able to stay with supportive foster parents. The strong bonds of affection that had formed through the rollercoaster ride of the teenage years would hold no sway if a local authority was not minded—or able—to be flexible. Now, however, the importance of these relationships, where they exist, is enshrined in legislation, with the effect, as the Department for Education has affirmed, of ensuring that some care leavers experience the stability and security of family life enjoyed by their peers into early adulthood.
I believe that in this area we are seeing the early and promising signs of what Dr Samantha Callan, an associate director at the Centre for Social Justice, refers to as the “relational turn” in UK social policy. Encouragingly, this emphasis on relationships is an area of cross-party consensus that goes wide and deep, and crosses national borders. Scotland has led on the importance of children’s nurture in the early years and, of great relevance to this debate, Northern Ireland has much to teach us about how some authorities ensure that adults with whom care leavers have some good history are drafted in as their official personal advisers. In England, however, a system operates where young people are allocated a complete stranger, whose case load can be as high as 49 young people, undermining any chance of a meaningful relationship.
I ask the Minister to note that the Children’s Minister, Edward Timpson, has gone on record as saying that local authority personnel may not fulfil this role as well as non-local authority personnel, and to reflect on how, more fundamentally, it is deeply questionable whether introducing a new professional into a young person’s life shortly before they leave care is the most sensible approach.
I am slightly jumping ahead of myself, because my purpose in securing this debate is to draw attention to those care leavers who have not had placement stability and are ineligible for staying put. Perhaps they came into care very late and were adamant that they did not want foster parents because they felt deeply loyal to their birth families. We heard this week that the police are being called into homes where young people are out of control. The safety of the whole family may mean that they are taken into care but, if they wholly reject the idea of a “substitute” family placement, fostering will be inappropriate.
Staying put is not available to the 9% of looked-after children who are in residential children’s homes, yet almost two-thirds of them have clinically significant mental health difficulties. For that reason, if for no other, we simply cannot continue to show those young people the door at 18. It is encouraging that funding from the innovation programme has been secured to test a model of staying put for those in residential care in North Yorkshire, under its No Wrong Door project. It is crucial that the urgency behind the initiative is not lost. One swallow does not make a summer, and one pilot does not mean that we have embedded the ability of young people to stay until they are ready to fly the nest. But even if staying put were further extended it would not help many of the most vulnerable care leavers, many of whom see themselves as “tough” and “independent” due to poor attachments. They may long to leave the system even if they are not ready, especially if they feel that it has let them down. For these young people, we must think more creatively.
From my own experience as a councillor in Bradford, I know just how important it is to take a whole-person approach to this issue, asking not just what children in care need to survive but what they need to thrive in adult life. I am talking whole-person and whole-government. The Care Leaver Strategy driven by the Social Justice Cabinet Committee has brought departments such as the DWP and BIS to the table to add their contribution, but more must be done.
The recent report from the Centre for Social Justice, Finding Their Feet, powerfully illustrates how relationships are utterly pivotal for a successful transition to adulthood for care leavers, and how policy can be built on that insight. Three-quarters of the care leavers that it surveyed said that they had struggled with loneliness after leaving care. That is undoubtedly what lies behind so many of the dreadful statistics. If you do not have someone to turn to for help with bills, you may end up in debt and even be evicted. If you are in an abusive relationship and there is no one to confirm that, yes, the way you are being treated is wholly unacceptable and help you make a safe exit, it can be incredibly hard to escape. This is a very real problem. Barn and Mantovani’s research shows that the impact of rejection and poor-quality relationships with carers can mean that,
“distinguishing between a loving relationship and a sexual relationship can be difficult”,
for children in care and care leavers. They are heartbreakingly susceptible to sexual exploitation, as many cases around the country have shown.
There are examples of innovative practice initiated by individuals in support of young care leavers. The pilot scheme by my noble friend Lord Freud through CSV which offers grandparent-style mentors to teenagers is a useful contribution in the field.
Another major issue that I would like to flag up for this debate is the centrality of employment for care leavers to be able to reach their potential. Specifically, they are unable to benefit from the investment that this Government have put into apprenticeships because, without family support, they cannot afford to take them up. Wages can be as low as £2.73 an hour. Moreover, while the Department for Education gives bursaries of £2,000 for higher education, there is no comparable support for care leavers taking up apprenticeships, sending the signal that the education path is the only one valued by government. I ask the Minister to take back to the department the idea of bursaries for such apprenticeships. If 10% of care leavers took them up, it would cost a modest £1.8 million.
Local government should also help, but the Centre for Social Justice found that almost two-thirds of local authorities do not provide specific additional financial support for care leavers taking up an apprenticeship. In Bradford we established a scheme to ensure that care leavers were incentivised to take up a traineeship or apprenticeship by topping up their income to £100 and giving them a bus pass if they were working full time. They also get a £10 training incentive. The aim is to ensure that they have £50 of disposable income and are financially better off in work than being NEET and wholly dependent on the state.
The imbalance in support for apprentices brings me to a final theme. It will be no surprise to the House that, as a former chair of the LGA, I am in favour of localism. Where the system works well, councillors are able to take on a direct responsibility as corporate parents and drive improvement. However, in this area there is enormous inconsistency across local authorities. For example, in terms of the number of children who go missing from care every year and for how long, a freedom of information request showed that last year more than 250 were missing for more than a month.
Ofsted has introduced more comprehensive integrated inspections of children’s services, but I suggest that improvement would follow also from more comprehensive data collection so that we know what is happening on the ground. Examples of new data to be collected would be long-term unemployment of care leavers and placement moves. Following on from adoption scorecards, corporate parenting scorecards, which we could introduce, would ensure that conscientious councillors were equipped to drive improvement in their local authorities, and those not pulling their weight would have nowhere to hide.
In conclusion, I reiterate my concern for care leavers’ mental health. The Times has just launched a campaign to highlight the crisis in children’s and young people’s mental health and the subject is rapidly rising up the political agenda. Preventing poor mental health is tightly bound up with ensuring that children grow up with consistent and loving relationships, even when their parents have not been able to provide them. Preserving instead of discarding these when children leave the formal care system has to be a priority.
My Lords, first, I declare my interests as an ambassador for Action for Children and as chair of a charity called Changing Lives, which works with adults and some children with complex needs.
I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Eaton—I nearly called her “my noble friend” because she is a friend. I knew her when she was leader in Bradford and leader of the LGA. She has raised a very important topic. As Back-Benchers, we have a very short time to contribute, so I shall not say as much as I would have liked to say about the overall care system.
The staying put arrangements, which the Children’s Minister introduced at the end of the Bill’s passage last year, are very important and welcome. However, even if they were able to be fully implemented, they would not solve all the problems for care leavers. The LGA briefing and the Ofsted report this week, to mention but a couple of sources, demonstrate clearly that all is not well with social care for children and young people, and that there is an enormous stretch on the funding for young people and children in care.
Because there is so little time, I want to concentrate on the most vulnerable. I start by reminding the House of a report that recently came out from LankellyChase, called Hard Edges: Mapping Severe and Multiple Disadvantage—England. In my view, that report is an absolutely imperative read for all Ministers. It shows a huge overlap between the offender, substance misuser and homeless populations. That is not rocket science, but the report maps it extremely well.
As children, these people all experienced trauma, neglect, poverty, family breakdown and disrupted education; as adults, many suffer alarming levels of loneliness, isolation, unemployment, poverty and mental ill health. This is what happens to the most vulnerable children whom we are talking about today—the ones who leave care early at 16 or 17, go back home for a while, usually a very short period, and then try to find their way, and those who experienced multiple moves in care. We all know that there are too many in the care system for whom there is breakdown after breakdown. When we looked at adoption, we were meeting young people who had been through 14 or 15 placements in a year. Many of those are young people who enter the care system as teenagers. Vulnerable young people are also likely to be those placed in residential care, precisely because fostering will have broken down or they are not seen as suitable to place with a family. This group is inevitably the most vulnerable and too many of the awful reports about young people this year relate to them.
The research from Action for Children, Too Much, Too Young, confirmed that it is the most vulnerable who experience the most instability after care. For example, I know that Durham County Council, my own local authority, has what Ofsted and others regard as a good system for care leavers and for keeping hold of them. I also know, from my chairing of Changing Lives, that we found two young people who had left care and ended up in the direct access hostel. As those of your Lordships involved in the world of the homeless know, such a hostel is the most difficult and brutal end of homeless care. It is for people who are coming out of prison or have been living on the streets, or who are not ready to have independent living or even main hostel living. Those young people ended up there because the placements that they had been found by the local authority broke down. They were therefore with the most inappropriate groups of people and learning not very good lessons, even though we are doing our very best in that hostel. They were not in the right place but had drifted there because their post-care situation had broken down. They also end up being the most costly people for our society.
We can and must do better. There must be a much more coherent and co-ordinated system for all children who have been in the care system. The current arrangements must be seen as the first step, but only the first step. The most vulnerable are simply not covered, mainly because they are not in foster care at the age of 18. The next Government have to have a look at the whole system. They will have to link it to other work, such as that on troubled families, and ensure that much more work with families takes place while children are in care. That was the main recommendation I gave to the Department for Education and the Prime Minister when I did my review of care as Social Exclusion Minister.
Other European countries work much more with the families while the children are in care. Here, we do nothing, so if the children go back and have links back home, nobody is working with the family to ensure that the children and young people have the right support when they leave care. We can and must do better.
My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Eaton, on securing this important debate. The seismic shift to which she referred is being recognised as a critical intervention, contributing to the life chances and well-being of children who have experienced some or all of their life in care. When a state has to step in and take on the role of parent for a child, it is a sign that something has gone badly wrong and needs to be put right.
For the children and young people who are able to remain with their foster parents past the age of 18, it demonstrates that, after all they have been through, there are people who wish to continue giving them the support and care that all young people deserve. They can, at last, benefit from a degree of continuity and stability that has been previously lacking. However, all the positives relating to “staying put” alert us to the predicament of children without the possibility of having that kind of stability, security and continuity beyond the age of 18.
Unsurprisingly, many care leavers feel abandoned, experience poor relationships and have low expectations of themselves and others. Coupled with the onset of adolescence and the sense of abandonment and trauma —and often with mental health issues as well— the circumstances are ripe for some care leavers to fall through the net and into the criminal justice system. Looked-after children and care leavers are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system. The user-led organisation the Care Leavers’ Association has been working on this issue. I am grateful to it for providing me with a preview of a report on the subject that will be published later this year.
According to official figures, the offending rates of looked-after children in England are now just over four times those of all other children. More than 40% of men under the age of 21 in the criminal justice system have spent time in care, while 61% of girls in the 15 to 18 age group in custody have spent time in care. The experience of care is also suggested as a factor in reoffending rates, with those who have been in care potentially more likely to be reconvicted in the year following release from prison. The Care Leavers’ Association is concerned by this disproportionality. Although the figures are relatively low overall, the negative impact on the children concerned, and the risk of them becoming serial offenders, is unacceptable.
Research suggests that the risk of offending is greatest for these young people if, first, they are inappropriately criminalised due to challenging behaviour; secondly, they enter the care system during adolescence and the transition to adulthood; and thirdly, they experience instability in relationships and lack appropriate professional support. The premise underpinning staying put is clear: create and maintain stability and life chances will be dramatically improved. I have heard it said, “Once a care leaver, always a care leaver”. It is an experience that stays throughout the life course, but it does not have to be the kind of burden that prevents people achieving their full potential.
An important element in processing the experience of being in care is reclaiming a sense of identity and ownership of your life and your life story. To be able to come to terms with the nature of that experience is a vital part of the healing process. There should be appropriate support available to that adult, of whatever age, when she or he is ready to engage with their care records. Such records can be life-affirming and address some of the feelings of guilt and misunderstanding so often experienced. One care leaver, who was in custody when he applied for his care records, said after reading them through, “It feels like I have taken ownership of a period of my life that is fundamental to who I am today. Dealing with the past, embracing what positives I can, and putting to bed the residues that followed me through life … has had a very positive impact on my ability to make positive choices”.
We have made some progress in recognising the role that care records, appropriately handled, can play, but we still have some way to go to ensure that local authorities fully understand the impact a negative experience of receiving files can have. The access to records campaign is working with DfE officials to get the message about the refreshed guidance on this matter out to local authority and other professionals in the field.
However, policies and regulatory guidance is one thing, effective implementation is another. One care leaver interviewed by the CLA said, “I got a letter … I’m not getting any leaving care support because I’ve just turned 21, but I never even knew I had any”. All of those who have experienced some or all of their childhood and adolescence in care deserve our focused attention and support. We know, or at least have a good idea, of what some of the problems are and yet we do not seem to be making enough headway quickly enough in finding and implementing effective solutions.
Of course there are financial realities and the Local Government Association has drawn attention to the impact on funds for fostering that the current incarnation of staying put has had on its resources—I have a good deal of sympathy with it—but we have to do something to offer all those who have experienced care continuity, security and the conditions in which they can thrive, and that needs to be paid for. Are we really going to say, especially to those who do not at present have the opportunity to stay put, “Tough luck. We have no money to spare. You will just have to cope as best you can”?
I hope the Minister will be able to offer those young people and those who work with and for them a positive statement about the ambitions of the state for its looked-after children and care leavers.
My Lords, I, too, express gratitude to the noble Baroness, Lady Eaton, for bringing this matter to our attention. It is abundantly clear to us all that people in care are among the most vulnerable and at-risk members of our society. At no point in their lives are that vulnerability and risk more acutely felt than when transitioning to independent adult living.
I declare an interest as a former chair of the Children’s Society and as a member of the Good Childhood inquiry published in 2009. It is good to see the noble Lord, Lord Layard, who played such a key part in that inquiry, in his place today. I remember evidence given to the inquiry by a young person who explained that the moment of leaving care, inadequately prepared and unsupported, marked the start of a long, lonely journey into crime and abuse from which it later took several years to recover.
The behavioural, emotional, social and learning difficulties faced by this group of young people are well documented and already well rehearsed in this debate. These youngsters are three times more likely to run away than other young people and an estimated 10,000 of them go missing each year. Project workers from the Children’s Society report children telling them that they are being pushed towards making a decision to move into semi-independent living arrangements when they often feel quite unready for it.
This is surely why, at an early stage, half-way planning which addresses young people’s emotional development and focuses on the needs which young people have articulated is vital. In particular, this planning needs to attend, as others have said, to relationships and to focus on supporting young people to develop friendships and networks, as well as address relationships with siblings and family. Further, there is a clear need for support in developing practical housekeeping skills, applying for benefits and so on.
Above all, these young people need support in feeling empowered to have a voice into the key decision-making processes that affect their lives. The evidence is clear that where children have participated in and understood the decisions affecting their future, they are much more likely to co-operate with their implementation. It would be helpful, therefore, to know whether the Minister agrees that Ofsted inspections of local authority provision should include a review of the availability of independent advocacy services for young people in this area.
I wish to touch briefly, as others have done, on some of the most vulnerable groups within the 16-plus population. Disabled young people who are looked after are often the most disadvantaged in accessing information and making choices at transition. This is sometimes aggravated by lack of contact with friends and families and vulnerability to abuse. Further, unaccompanied and separated migrant children regularly experience barriers to appropriate accommodation and adequate support and rehabilitation services. Many of these are placed in unsupervised placements, often because they do not have documentation or their age is disputed. Does the Minister agree that there needs to be a much greater focus on adolescents in these high-risk categories, both in training for professionals and in Ofsted inspections?
Finally, research has consistently found that the health, including and perhaps especially mental health, and well-being of young people leaving care is poorer than that of young people in the population as a whole. That is why they are almost twice as likely to have problems with drugs or alcohol or to report other mental health difficulties, and that is why young people, when consulted, wanted to be able to leave care when they were ready and to have a chance to stay in care beyond the age of 18 if they did not feel prepared to live on their own. As has become clear in this debate, that is the crux of the matter. We know that transitioning to adulthood is challenging and demanding for all young people today, but how much more so for care leavers, for all the reasons so clearly stated in this debate? I hope that the Minister can assure the House that she is determined to keep a focus on their special needs in the days ahead.
My Lords, I, too, congratulate my noble friend Lady Eaton on securing this debate. I am particularly pleased—she has made my heart sing today—that she highlighted the importance of securing employment in the transition to adulthood for care leavers. As former chief executive of Tomorrow’s People, I know just how crucial work can be for getting a life on track. Employment provides financial security as well as confidence, a sense of purpose and direction, daily structure, and the chance to widen social networks in a way that claiming benefits is simply unable to do. It is therefore shocking that, in England, at least 38% of 19 to 21 year-old care leavers are NEET—not in education, employment and training. In fact, this is probably a gross underestimate since, by the time they reach the age of 21, local authorities have no information on one-quarter of care leavers, who are not counted in the figure.
The Government have taken measures to increase the educational attainment of children in care. They include the pupil premium of £1,900 per looked-after child, and the rollout of the virtual school head role across the country. However, it is important that this focus on education is not disconnected from the goal of ensuring young people secure employment when they leave care. In fact, one of the key objectives of our education system must be to help young people to make an effective transition from education and care to the world of work.
The difficulties begin early. A simple lack of knowledge of the world of work limits young people's career options. The only adults with whom some children in care come into contact are those who are paid to look after them, limiting their range of role models. As a result, those who aim high often say that they want to be a social worker or a teacher—excellent in themselves, but not suitable for all. Low aspirations, sometimes born of rejection, can be devastating and, sadly, this can be reinforced by the low expectations that some professionals can have of children in care.
Even if young people have aspirations and the knowledge to act on them, significant barriers to care leavers securing employment can remain due to poor “soft skills”, including self-management, team-working abilities and communication. These have to be developed while growing up; otherwise, young people struggle to find employment. Charities such as the Drive Forward Foundation report that those who have grown up in care are often severely lacking in these abilities, with highly negative results. That is where programmes such as ThinkForward, which is delivered in partnership with Impetus, the Private Equity Foundation, and Tomorrow's People in Tower Hamlets, Islington and Hackney can be absolutely transformative. They provide highly trained coaches, offering stable one-to-one support through challenges at home and school for young people identified at the age of 14 as at risk of becoming NEET. Many of those young people are children in care. Each pupil has their own action plan and the coach will broker work opportunities for them. In 2013, some 95% of the young people who had been supported by this programme and their coaches successfully made the transition into post-16 education, employment or training.
I am absolutely convinced that the model of ThinkForward coaches is particularly valuable for children in care. The coaches stick with the young person through any other instabilities such as school moves and changes of career. They build up a relationship with the young person and can nurture and push them to achieve in a way that no one else has ever done before. This is currently being piloted in east London using money from the DWP Innovation Fund. I would think that I had died and gone to heaven if every young person had access to this opportunity. So I will ask the Minister again whether she will find a way to get business, the community and the voluntary sector together with the Government to find a way of putting a financial package together that would enable young people to have this experience. By tracking the outcomes, I hope that we will be able to make the case for all young people in care to be given this help.
Responsible parents do all they can to help young people prepare for work and nurture their ambition. The corporate parent should do no less.
My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness, Lady Eaton, for initiating this debate. I declare an interest as a trustee of the charity Coram, part of whose activities is Coram Voice, which does a great deal with the young people we are talking about today. I would also like to apologise in advance for my voice. This morning her ladyship advised me to stay put, but I ignored her advice and I hope that I was correct in doing so.
I congratulate the coalition on bringing the legislation in last year. This is something that Cross-Benchers do not necessarily do very often, but it is a remarkably progressive piece of legislation, and thanks are due where they are deserved. It was never going to be easy to implement either quickly or seamlessly because there are so many moving parts, so it is extraordinarily difficult for the left hand to know what the right hand is doing. It is easy to focus instinctively on what seems not to be working rather than to notice what is.
I have three brief questions that I would like to ask the Minister. First, can the Government please take action to identify those local authorities which are essentially in the top decile for performance and outcomes, and to try to codify, disseminate and spread that information as quickly as possible? The noble Baroness, Lady Eaton, mentioned the scorecards approach. It may sound rather businesslike, but it works. If you measure things that will stop a lot of discussion because facts tend to bring talking about what might be to a fairly rapid halt. Facts help, and we are talking about young people here, not units of production.
Secondly, on 30 October last year the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Nash, replied to a Question for Written Answer tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Eaton, about children in residential care. At that point the Minister said that the department was thinking about what should be done in the area. Can the Minister please update us on what the Government feel about the practicality of introducing a legal duty on local authorities that would require them to extend “staying put” to residential care? If this is not viewed as practical, what alternatives are under consideration?
Thirdly, if a young person has complex needs resulting from disability or mental health problems, he or she needs to be assessed by adult social care or psychiatric services. Statutory guidance states that this should be done well before his or her 18th birthday. In practice, these assessments are often considerably delayed, which directly impacts on adequate staying-put provision being made. Is the Minister aware of this problem, and what is her assessment of the situation? If it is recognised as a problem, what can be done to resolve it?
I have a final observation. More and more young adults—including my three children, otherwise known as cost centres 1, 2 and 3—are still living at home in their 20s. An awful lot of young people in this rather challenging economic environment are doing exactly the same, trying to puzzle out how to reach even the first rung on the housing ladder. How very fortunate they are, even if many do not realise it, that they have a home and family to go back to every evening. If it feels difficult for them, what on earth must it feel like for a young person leaving care and hoping that their future will not be defined and limited by their past?
My Lords, like others, I think that the noble Baroness, Lady Eaton, has done the House a service in securing this debate at this time. Although it focuses specifically on leaving care, there has barely been a week or month in the last couple of years when the problems that are being experienced by young people in care have not been in the headlines, and some of those headlines have made very worrying reading.
Stable relationships with reliable adults are absolutely pivotal for a good transition out of care and into adult life. That, in part, is why we introduced the Going the Extra Mile scheme in Northern Ireland, which has allowed young people in education, employment and training to remain with their foster carers until the age of 21. That scheme was introduced before the staying-put scheme was even piloted in England. As a result, 28% of 19 year-old care leavers in Northern Ireland are now living with their former foster carers.
The absence of meaningful role models for many young people, especially males, means that many are left at the mercy of paramilitary elements and criminal gangs. Sadly, as in other regions, our mental health situation is not improving.
Nevertheless, for the reasons that we have already heard, living with former foster carers is not the right option for all young people. In these cases, local authorities—or in Northern Ireland, the health and social care trusts—have the duty to provide a personal adviser. That should be the fail-safe mechanism to ensure that there is always someone young people can turn to for support. I should point out that, in Northern Ireland, our health and social care services are integrated, so that social services and health work under trusts and are not the responsibility of local authorities.
As the House of Commons Education Select Committee highlighted last year, it must sometimes be better for local authorities to appoint someone with whom the young person already has an established relationship as a personal adviser. Under regulations, it is possible for a young person’s personal adviser to be someone whom they already know, rather than introducing a new professional into their life. However, I am informed by the Centre for Social Justice that this rarely, if ever, happens in England. Here, again, I think that Northern Ireland has been ahead of the curve. Under our system, some young people are appointed what is known as a “person-specific” personal adviser; an individual the young person chooses to be their personal adviser, allowing a relationship to continue. A huge range of individuals have been employed as PSPAs. They might, for example, be a former foster carer, a family member, an independent advocate, a classroom assistant, a youth worker or even a boxing instructor. It is particularly relevant to the debate around appropriate provision for children in residential care who cannot stay put that the Southern Health and Social Care Trust, which is currently using the approach most extensively, has used a number of residential care workers as PSPAs. This has worked very well as they have a deep understanding of and commitment to the young person and bring skills and expertise to the role.
One of the crucial advantages of the PSPA role is that it allows the trusts to stay in touch with young people with whom they would otherwise have lost contact, the consequence of which is that they cannot access financial support. In England, by the age of 19, 11% of care leavers are not in meaningful contact with their local authority or are no longer receiving services. Some of these young people are the most vulnerable; they have had a poor experience of care and therefore reject yet another new professional coming into their life. Our newspapers are full these days of the consequences of the failure of that system.
Such young people therefore benefit enormously from the appointment of a PSPA. Where the PSPA function has been used well, very few young people have lost touch with their trust. That is not to say the system has been without a hiccup. Human resources in some trusts have been highly reluctant to create contracts for each PSPA. As a result, coverage is patchy. I know that the trusts are coming back to look at how the function can be used more extensively, and I urge them to do so.
I also urge the Department for Education to take a proactive stance on this issue for England. The most basic provision DfE could make would be to introduce easy-to-use model contracts to hire PSPAs, which has proved so crucial to getting the model off the ground in Northern Ireland. In fact, I urge the DfE and local authorities to talk to our commissioners and trusts in Northern Ireland to learn from the benefits of the system and the challenges that we have confronted, particularly with regard to the human relations issues. It would be a travesty if, due to technical issues, we lost the opportunity to provide meaningful support beyond 18 for some of the most vulnerable care leavers of all, who at the greatest point of vulnerability in their lives, can fall prey to gangsters and evildoers of all kinds and squander the opportunity to enjoy a fulfilling and productive life.
My Lords, I, too, am grateful to my noble friend Lady Eaton for securing this debate about how well we look after our most vulnerable care leavers. As she pointed out, if one is not eligible for staying put, it means that one has not had the benefit of a stable foster placement to stay put in.
She also mentioned how often young people who are leaving care lack the indispensable ingredient we all need to live meaningful lives: safe, stable and nurturing relationships. Loss of family relationships can leave a very big hole in someone’s life, and I will focus my remarks on how the corporate parent can ensure that that hole is filled with people and opportunities that will do young people good and help them avoid repeating the cycle of disadvantage they were often born into.
As I have said before in this Chamber, for a child to surface, somebody somewhere needs to be crazy about them. Without ongoing input from adults and others who genuinely care about them, young people will seek security and comfort elsewhere. For example, early sexual experiences, which are often deeply regretted, can lead to young women being entangled in abusive relationships, often with much older men, as well as early pregnancy.
However, good relationships rarely happen as a result of serendipity in this cohort. Care and leaving-care services have to be incredibly proactive. I will describe two major areas where progress should and must be made. First, our care system seems to find it particularly hard to keep siblings together: 95% of those in residential children’s homes are separated from a sibling, as are 71% of looked-after children overall. Yet, where there is a good relationship, siblings can be extremely important in providing mutual support, especially as one or more is leaving care. Indeed, older siblings may want and be able to take on a quasi-parental role. Included in the corporate parenting scorecard mentioned by my noble Friend, Lady Eaton there could be data on the number of sibling separations and the stated reason for each one, thereby highlighting good and poor practice. Even if siblings have to be separated, meaningful sibling contact should be included in care plans by default.
Secondly, respect for sibling relationships has to be part of a much wider prioritisation of existing relationships, especially with reliable extended family members who are rarely completely absent even when a child has had to be removed from their parents. Connections from a young person’s pre-care life are vital. They root that person in their family history when, too frequently, they feel severed from it, with profound implications for their sense of identity—who they are and where they have come from.
We are just beginning to hear in this country about the astonishingly successful family finding and engagement model in the United States. It is based on the fact that, as well as their blood connections with their extended family, care leavers greatly value the supportive and nurturing relationships that they have developed with adults, such as teachers, youth workers or the parents of friends, while in care, even if they have lost touch. Every such relationship is a potential opportunity for a connection that could be lifelong.
In the USA, practitioners have developed methods to draw on this resource and intentionally build a network of support which will become particularly valuable as young people begin to prepare for leaving care. Family finding and engagement looks for at least 40 adults to whom the young person feels connected in a positive way, as well as family members with whom the young person may have had little or no previous contact. Typically out of this number, one or more adults will emerge who is reliable, genuinely interested in and able to engage with the young person, even if they have come from the most dysfunctional of families.
In California’s Orange County family finding project, 97 per cent of the young people involved were able to increase contact with family members. This means having somewhere to spend Christmas Day or to go for Sunday lunch. Most young people take these options for granted, yet they create that all-important sense of belonging, which can, for example, alleviate poor mental health or help prevent it from developing in the first place. The British Association for Adoption and Fostering has said in respect of family finding that the idea deserves urgent attention and the resources and focus to implement such an approach.
A raft of UK pilots would be an excellent candidate for support from a future Department for Education innovation fund. As others have already said, this Government can take pride in the fostering and adoption reforms that they have driven through in the worst of financial times. We have been well served by both Edward Timpson, the incumbent Minister for Children, and Tim Loughton before him. However, it is my strong hope that, whoever is in that role after the forthcoming election, the reforming zeal does not abate but is energised by the urgency of this task.
My Lords, it is an honour to follow the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, who always speaks so passionately and humanely about the need to support and strengthen vulnerable families. I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Eaton, for calling this important debate. I believe that what she said is true. She quoted Samantha Callan of the Centre for Social Justice, an institution which does such important work in this area, who said that we have reached a relational turn in policy. I certainly hope so. Staying put, which the Government introduced in the then Children and Families Bill, and the new quality standards for children’s homes, which really focus on the importance of relationships for children in children’s homes, are both signs that we are moving in that happy direction.
I welcome my noble friend Lord Russell’s speech. This is the first time he has spoken since retaking his seat in the House of Lords. I welcome his constructive, lucid and humane speech, and hope that we will hear from him on many more occasions.
There is a huge cost to the taxpayer in failing to get these transitions right. It is arguable that local authorities are spending large sums from their budgets to protect the budgets of health, criminal justice and welfare departments. Is the Minister thinking about how this unfairness can be addressed? I welcome the Government’s strategy for care leavers. Local authorities have not been adequately funded to provide staying put. Scotland has provided more money per child and has staged introduction. Will the Minister look at additional funding to local authorities to fund staying put? I apologise for not giving her notice of that question.
Over many years, I have heard young people in care repeat how important relationships are to them. My experience of working with young people has also persuaded me of the importance to them of reliable, respectful, enduring and benign relationships. Indeed, it seems to me that the ability to make and keep relationships is the cornerstone of good emotional well-being and mental health. However, the early experience of many young people in care often makes it hard to make and keep such relationships, as has already been said. When these relationships are established, they should be cherished, and it was good to hear how that is happening in Northern Ireland.
I recently met a 40 year-old woman who still receives a card from her social worker each Christmas. I spoke to a man who told me that his 80 year-old mother is giving a party for the former residents of the children’s home that she used to manage to celebrate her birthday. I heard from a broadcaster that he still sees his social worker for tea. I suggest that one aspect of providing a good transition from care is allowing good relationships to be sustained through that transition. However, for that to happen, residential staff need to be equipped to manage their relationships with these young people. There are many experienced managers and staff who would know their way through this minefield.
I suggest that the minimal qualification requirements of one A-level for staff and one year of higher education for the managers, together with the lack of a requirement that their work be supervised by an appropriately experienced mental health professional, militates against staff maintaining their relationships with their young people. Research found that 90% of staff in Denmark’s children’s homes and 50% in Germany’s had a degree-level qualification. While their staff are more qualified, they manage less troubled children. Half of looked-after children on the continent are cared for in residential homes; in this country the figure is 9%, so ours have far higher levels of need.
When the noble Lord, Lord Warner, took evidence for his report on the staffing of children’s homes in the 1990s, the expert evidence given to him showed that an ongoing relationship with a mental health professional was the norm on the continent with regard to children’s homes. Yet even today we do not know how many homes have such supervision in this country, and an expert recently told me that half our homes might be without it.
The new quality standards for children’s homes certainly go some way to meeting these concerns. I am very pleased that they thoroughly recognise the need to support young people’s relationships. They state that the managers and staff,
“are provided with supervision and support to manage and understand their own feelings and responses to the emotions and behaviours presented by children, and to help children to do the same”.
However, in the current financial climate, with child and adolescent mental health services in the state that they are in, it is very doubtful that staff will consistently receive the clinical—I underline “clinical”—supervision that they need. I ask whether the Minister might be prepared to meet me and perhaps other Members of your Lordships’ House, with officials from the Department of Health and the Department for Education, in the very short time left before the end of this Parliament to discuss the supervision by mental health professionals of staff in children’s homes. We have heard the figures on the level of mental health disorders in children’s homes. I also draw the attention of the Minister and the House to the excellent coverage in today’s Times of CAMHS and the manifesto for change published there. I commend the manifesto to your Lordships.
I remember a care leaver, Paul Connolly, who came from a terrible children’s home. There was a boxing club nearby and the boxers became his mentors. He now writes books and teaches physical education. There are some wonderful stories here if we can just do the right thing.
My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Eaton, for tabling the Question and giving us all the space to have a long, hard look at what is really happening to young care leavers today. As many noble Lords have said, it is not a happy story, but I add my acknowledgement of the progress that has been made. It was your Lordships’ House, including many people around this Room today, who, in conjunction with a number of the children’s charities, finally persuaded the Government to accept the amendment to the then Children and Families Bill to enable young people to stay in foster care to the age of 21. Although that is welcome, it highlights the continuing injustice that young people in other forms of residential care do not have the same rights to stay put until 21. I hope that the Minister agrees that it will be only a short period before that anomaly is corrected. I also acknowledge that this Government, as with the previous Government and a wide range of charities, have taken a number of well intentioned steps to make it easier for those leaving care, and we have heard some inspirational examples and stories that illustrate that today.
However, sadly that progress has not been good enough. The recent cases of sexual abuse and exploitation of young girls in Rotherham and Oxford, many in the care system, are just the tip of the iceberg. We all know that that is just one element of continuing neglect, but our failures are wider and deeper than that. To begin with, it is not acceptable that young people in care have such poor educational outcomes. Around 70,000 children are in the care system, and only 15% get more than five A* to C grades at GCSE. In fact, the attainment gap between them and their peers has widened since 2008. Can the Minister indicate what more is being done in the department to close that gap? When it comes to higher education, the figures are even more stark, with only 6% of care leavers studying at that level compared to 33% of their peers. Young people can access a number of forms of help when they get to university. However, those layers of support are increasingly in decline as the institutional budgets are squeezed. Perhaps the Minister could clarify what is being done to promote and guarantee that additional support for young people entering higher education.
Meanwhile, of course, the latest employment figures give even more cause for concern, as a number of noble Lords have referred to. They show that around 34% of care leavers aged 19 or over are not in education, employment or training. That is twice the average of their peers. Care leavers in employment—even those in apprenticeships—have their cases closed by children’s services at 21, rather than at 25 as is the case for those in education. Does the Minister think that it would be helpful if those entitlements were equalised? Perhaps the harshest indictment of our failure is the statistics which show, for example, that 70% of sex workers and 24% of the adult prison population have been in care. Over 20% are identified as having problematic drug use.
A key challenge underlining all that is the lack of suitable accommodation when young people leave care. The Commons Education Select Committee last year published a devastating critique of the system, which found young people aged 16 or 17 years old being placed in bed and breakfast, sometimes for extended periods. Quite rightly, it described the experience as threatening and frightening. Surely the time has come to put a deadline on local authorities using bed and breakfast for that purpose. For others, the transfer to independent living can take the form of a hard-to-let council flat where they can be prey to exploitation and abuse. The Barnardo’s report On My Own highlights vulnerable young people struggling with living alone and facing eviction, sofa surfing or sleeping rough after a breakdown in their accommodation. Does the Minister agree that local authorities should have a longer-term responsibility to provide safe accommodation, perhaps building on schemes such as the impressive Foyer movement, which combines accommodation with work and training?
Finally, as I think all noble Lords have stressed, it is crucial that we address the lack of consistent emotional support for young people moving into independence. The arguments are well made in Action for Children’s report, Too Much, Too Young, which identifies that young people living on their own for the first time often suffer from depression, anxiety and loneliness. They are desperate for some kind of continuity and support from a trusted adult. However, as we have heard, all too often they find that their personal adviser or independent advocate is a stranger who does not really know them or how to motivate them.
We would not expect our own children to fend for themselves at 16, and we would not refuse them the right to return home at 21 or even 25 when things go wrong, so why do we not treat care leavers on an equal basis? Not only should that be our responsibility as a corporate parent, but it would give a much better launch pad for those children to have fulfilled and productive lives. Surely that is an investment worth making.
My Lords, I am delighted that we have had an opportunity to consider the difficulties faced by young care leavers and to discuss what more could be done to help them as they move into adult life. I am particularly grateful to my noble friend Lady Eaton for securing this debate and to all noble Lords for their wide-ranging and eloquent contributions, which reflect the expertise in this area in your Lordships’ House.
The Government are firmly committed to improving the lives of care leavers. We have demonstrated that commitment by putting in place a series of measures since 2010 which mean that young people leaving care are now receiving more help than ever before. In 2013, we published the first cross-government Care Leaver Strategy, which set out our expectations on a range of measures, including: care leavers’ access to education, training and employment opportunities; help to access appropriate benefits and health support; and extra support for care leavers who, unfortunately, have ended up in the criminal justice system.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Young and Lady Armstrong, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester, all referred to young people in the care system ending up in the criminal justice system. The Department for Education has worked closely with the Ministry of Justice in developing a care leaver strategy, and the MoJ has issued guidance to staff in the probation and prison services, as well as appointing a new care leaver’s champion, Teresa Clarke, the governor at HMP and young offender institution Swinfen Hall. Therefore that is very much on the Government’s radar.
The strategy also reflected a number of important changes to the level of support that care leavers are entitled to from their local authority. Those included: support from a personal adviser up to age 21, or 25 if the care leaver is already in education or returning to it—I will say something more on that in a minute; bursaries for those participating in further or higher education; access to a leaving care grant to help meet the costs of moving to independent living; and making it easier for care leavers to get access to their social care records. The vast majority of local authorities have signed up to delivering the Care Leavers’ Charter, which underlines their commitment to delivering those important changes. My noble friend Lady Eaton referred to the struggles with loneliness, as did other noble Lords.
The Government have delivered on the promises we made in the strategy to improve the lives of care leavers. First, and most notably, with the support of your Lordships’ House through noble Lords’ scrutiny of the Children and Families Bill, we have introduced the staying-put duty, which has allowed thousands of children in foster placements to remain with their foster carers until the age of 21. The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, talked about that, and he brings great expertise to that area. The Government are providing local authorities with £44.4 million over three years to support the implementation of that new duty; again, I was asked about funding for that. Our evidence shows that in the first year alone, around 25% of the young people who are now entitled to remain with their foster carer have chosen to do so.
Secondly, we have worked closely with Ofsted in supporting its development of a new and strengthened inspection framework, which includes a far greater focus on care leavers’ services than the old model. That will provide a better opportunity both to monitor and to scrutinise the quality and range of provision within individual local authorities, but will also support and promote the sharing of best practice. I note the right reverend Prelate’s words about Ofsted and how important it is to review what it inspects and make quite sure that that is the best it can be.
Care leavers’ access to financial support is another important issue. The Government amended their transition to adulthood guidance in May 2014 to encourage local authorities to provide at least £2,000 as a setting-up-home allowance for care leavers. We have strengthened statutory guidance for local authorities supporting care leavers aged 21 to 24 who wish to return to education or training, making it clear that local authorities should support care leavers to overcome barriers that might prevent them returning to education or training, up to age 25. We have also established bursaries for care leavers who are in further and higher education, and introduced the Junior ISA, which has provided £200 of start-up funding for more than 54,000 children in care, who can access the money after their 18th birthday.
As part of our commitment to improving services for this group of young people, we have funded a number of projects designed to stimulate new and innovative approaches to supporting care leavers; for example, we have funded the Care Leavers’ Foundation to run the New Belongings project. Care leavers played a central role in the project by helping to identify issues and barriers and to find solutions. The project was initially confined to nine local authorities but I am pleased to say that only last week we announced an increased award to the project, which will allow the first wave of local authorities to focus on care leavers with greater needs, extend the approach into another group of authorities, and develop a gold standard of service planning and delivery for care leavers so that other areas can benefit.
The noble Lord, Lord Russell, asked whether there were examples of good practice and the sharing of good practice. I, too, welcome him on his return to your Lordships’ House. I am very glad that he ignored her Ladyship’s advice—on this one occasion, obviously— and brought his expertise to this debate. My noble friend Lady Stedman-Scott also referred to the need to ensure that care leavers have the very best possible opportunities. I pay tribute to all the work she has done with Tomorrow’s People for this group of young people.
On a similar theme, the Government have provided financial support to Catch22 to deliver the From Care2Work programme, which helps care leavers get a foot in the door, with some of our major employers, such as Marriott Hotels, providing work experience, apprenticeships and employment opportunities for care leavers. The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, and my noble friend Lady Eaton spoke about this. The programme has placed more than 700 care leavers into employment, including 175 apprenticeships.
While the Government are proud of their record over the past five years of improving support for care leavers, I assure your Lordships that we are by no means complacent and that we recognise there is more to do. Mental health was mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, and my noble friends Lady Eaton and Lord Farmer. Given the traumas that many children in care have suffered earlier in their lives, it is not surprising that mental health is a big issue for many care leavers. The Government are taking steps to ensure that they receive the right support and treatment.
The noble Lord, Lord Empey, spoke about Northern Ireland’s integrated system. Here, in July 2014, the Minister of State for Care and Support, Norman Lamb, announced a children and young people’s mental health and well-being task force, which brings together experts on children and young people’s mental health and those with knowledge of wider system transformation from across health, education and social care. The task force is considering what changes and improvements are needed to improve outcomes for children and young people with mental health difficulties, and includes a particular focus on the needs of vulnerable groups, such as those who have been in care.
Staying put has received a broad welcome from your Lordships. The actual cost of introducing it will depend on a range of factors that are difficult to predict, including the proportion of eligible children who choose to remain with their foster carers, and the length of time for which they remain in the staying-put arrangement. It is too early to make a judgment that the level of funding is insufficient but we will, of course, continue to monitor the take-up of staying put and will review the level of funding in light of its implementation.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Young and Lady Jones, referred to the wish to extend staying put to those in residential care. Indeed, we fully recognise that young people who have been placed in care in residential settings would like the same degree of certainty and security as they move into adult life as those who have lived with foster carers. However, it is important that we understand what works about the current staying-put arrangements for foster care before we launch into a new set of arrangements. It is also important to remember that those in residential care face a very different set of challenges and so the solutions will need to be very different. However, as part of our exploration of this area, we commissioned the National Children’s Bureau to carry out scoping work to help us to identify options for extending staying put to residential care.
My noble friend Lord Farmer and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester referred to innovative ways of delivering children’s social care. Through the innovation programme we have recently announced just over £2 million of funding to the No Wrong Door hub model in North Yorkshire, which puts individual relationships back at the heart of the residential care system, and where staff may otherwise have had to cut ties with care leavers, they can now be extended beyond the age of 18. That model will provide a consistent relationship with one dedicated worker, who will stick with the young person wherever they move in the system. Young people will be able to rely on the people they trust to stand by them.
The noble Lord, Lord Empey, helpfully highlighted some of the good practice that is happening in Northern Ireland in relation to personal advisers. We are keen to learn from arrangements that are working and hope that DfE officials will follow up this point in their contact with the Northern Ireland Assembly.
The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, mentioned accommodation issues. The Government are committed to ensuring that young people are always placed in safe and suitable accommodation. We have strengthened statutory guidance to say that local authorities should only place 16 to 17 year-old care leavers in emergency placements, such as bread and breakfast, for no more than two working days. Again, we are working closely to improve that situation.
The noble Lord, Lord Russell, asked a number of questions which I need to write to him about. He mentioned the complex needs of young people. Our statutory guidance makes clear that the assessment needs of young people should be identified as early as possible. Local authorities are expected, through the pathway plan process, to identify and plan the support that young people with complex needs require. The DfE publishes comprehensive data on both the outcomes of children in care and the types of placements they are in, mindful always of what is in the child’s best interests.
The noble Baroness, Lady Young, referred to access to social care records. She, of course, has a great deal of experience in this area. We recognise how important it is for care leavers to have access to information about the circumstances that led to their being taken into care and to understand the decisions that were taken while they were in care. The Department for Education has updated its guidance on transition to adults to be clearer about the principles and processes that should be in place when requests for care records are made.
My noble friend Lord Farmer referred to siblings and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester referred to the importance of relationships, as did other noble Lords. We agree that siblings should be placed together whenever possible. However, key to that ambition is having sufficient foster carers who are able to meet the needs of children who are harder to place, and that will include brothers and sisters.
The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, brings great experience and extensive knowledge to the issues we are debating. On his point about clinical supervision, with children’s homes employing a qualified professional working in the field of mental health, we would certainly expect them to be provided with relevant clinical supervision. However, we do not currently believe it would be appropriate to make it a requirement for all staff working in a children’s home. I note his request for a meeting but, because of the timing, that may need to be for the next Parliament. However, we shall certainly keep it under review.
My noble friend Lady Stedman-Scott again hoped that I would be able to answer her prayers by guaranteeing a coach for every young care leaver. Would that I had such a magic wand. However, I am quite sure that, given her persuasive powers, we will get closer to finding ways of delivering that so that children learn the soft as well as the harder skills as they make the transition into adult life.
I apologise that I have not had time to answer some questions but I shall write to noble Lords on them. This has been an interesting and stimulating debate on a highly important issue. Children in care often have a difficult start in life. Unlike most of us, they do not have their parents to support and encourage them, so it is crucial that the state does as much to support their needs as possible. It is principally a matter for local authorities but the Government must also play their part. We have made a good start and I thank noble Lords for acknowledging the part that we have played. We took over good practice from the previous Administration because this is a cross-party issue. We all wish to make the best decisions for groups of vulnerable children. I again thank my noble friend Lady Eaton for securing the debate and all those who have taken part. We look forward to continuing cross-party work to ensure the best possible start to adult life for all young care leavers.