Wednesday 29 June 2016
Children and Social Work Bill [HL]
Committee (1st Day)
Relevant document: 1st Report from the Delegated Powers Committee
My Lords, 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.
Clause 1: Corporate parenting principles
1: Clause 1, page 1, line 7, leave out subsection (1) and insert—
“(1) Without prejudice to the duties imposed by section 22 of the Children Act 1989 (general duty of local authority in relation to children looked after by them) or any other specific duties imposed upon them by law in performance of their functions with respect to the children and young people mentioned in subsection (2), local authorities, the responsible bodies for maintained and independent schools, health authorities, responsible persons appointed under the Children and Families Act 2014 and the Secretary of State must, in carrying out functions in relation to the children and young people mentioned in subsection (2), take appropriate steps to—(a) safeguard and promote the best interests, health and well-being of those children and young people;(b) ascertain the views, wishes and feelings of the child or young person, and give due consideration and appropriate weight to those views, wishes and feelings in all decisions concerning them;(c) identify services available and suitable for the child or young person provided by themselves or another relevant partner;(d) in co-operation with other relevant partners, help those children and young people gain access to and make the best use of services provided by the public body or its relevant partners;(e) promote high aspirations, and seek to secure the best outcomes for those children and young people;(f) ensure that those children and young people are safe, and provide for stability in their home lives, relationships, education or work;(g) ensure provision of appropriate support to advance their recovery, happiness and emotional stability;(h) keep siblings together and ensure family contact wherever possible;(i) prepare those children and young people for adulthood and independent living.”
My Lords, we are at the start of Committee on this important and valuable Bill. Although, sadly, with the current political situation as it is, it is unlikely that we will know whether the Bill will complete its passage through your Lordships’ House—or indeed its passage through the other place—and become law, it is my great pleasure to start the first group of our Committee stage on the Bill with my Amendment 1.
The amendments in this group consider the extent and purposes of the corporate parenting principles set out in Clause 1. In many ways this section of the Bill seeks to reinforce existing good practice, with local authorities such as Trafford and Leeds already demonstrating that the care and well-being of looked-after children is not just the duty of social workers but a duty across the whole of the organisation.
Amendment 1 contains two new elements, the first of which extends the corporate parenting principle to health authorities and schools and the second of which, dealt with also in my Amendment 28, introduces a recovery principle to better ensure that looked-after children have access to therapeutic support.
I will be focusing on extending responsibility for the principles to other bodies such as schools and health authorities. We all have a responsibility to ensure that children have the care and support to thrive in life. Nowhere is this more important than for those children who are in the care of the state. Yet far too often we fail in this duty. There is a 40% achievement gap between looked-after children and their peers in the attainment of five GCSE grades A to C, including English and maths. We also know that 34% of care leavers are not in education, employment or training by the time they turn 19. The figure among the general population is less than half that: 15.5%.
It is extremely positive and important that the Government have sought to address this imbalance by introducing a set of principles that responsible corporate parents must abide by. This is a vital step, introducing a universal element that looked-after children up and down the country can count on while also providing consistent standards for the locally elected officials and local authorities responsible for meeting their needs.
So the Government’s proposals provide a good starting point. Yet I—and, I know, other noble Lords—believe that the legislation before us can be more ambitious in its intent. In laying out these responsibilities, we have to imagine the extent and breadth of a child’s world, the people, professional or otherwise, with whom they might come into contact, and the expectations that they will have of them. It is therefore vital that we extend the responsibility for these principles to include other bodies. We must put ourselves in a child’s shoes and imagine the kind of services they come into contact with.
Schools, for instance, are an obvious and integral part of their experience. The extension of these principles to other responsible bodies also has the important purpose of ensuring that health professionals—just like social workers—understand their responsibilities to looked-after children and that resources and support are properly directed to meet their needs.
I look forward very much to listening to the debate on this group of amendments—and, indeed, the whole debate—and I beg to move.
I will speak to Amendments 6, 8, 11, 12, 13, 15, 19 and 20. I do not disagree at all with the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Howe. Indeed, I welcome the fact that she has spelled out a lot of the responsibilities on local authorities which were not present in the original Clause 1.
Before speaking to my amendments I would like to place on record that my request at Second Reading that Committee should be delayed so that we had the opportunity to prepare properly for it, rather than trying to complete all the procedures during the Recess, was not honoured. It has been a nightmare trying to get things done without the expert briefings that we are normally accustomed to, as well as meetings with Ministers, and trying to deal entirely by email with the Public Bill Office. I sincerely hope that the usual channels will note this and that in future we shall not be expected to come so ill-prepared into such an important bit of legislation.
My concerns about these amendments are not to do with the corporate parenting principles but are all built around the word “must” in Clause 1. As my noble friend Lord Bichard would have said, if he had been here, the whole point of setting out corporate parenting principles explicitly is to make those responsibilities explicit and leave those most affected in no doubt as to what their responsibilities are. My concern about Clause 1 as currently represented is that words such as “have regard to” can equally be “disregard”—and we do not want any of these principles disregarded. Therefore, I hope very much that the Government will consider altering the words rather than waiting until Report before having a vote. That applies to Amendment 6. Amendments 8, 11, 12, 13 and 15 remove the word “to”, which again makes the language if anything more robust rather than leaving anything to disregard.
I would also like at this stage to introduce the problems faced by children in the criminal justice system. My noble friend Lord Laming produced a masterly report called In Care, Out of Trouble, which I referred to at Second Reading. The duty on local authorities and their responsibilities must include the children in the criminal justice system. My noble friend in his report points out that one of the problems of not having clear instructions to local authorities is that you have inconsistency. For example, it is laid down that a child who is going to be placed after release should have that location confirmed to them at least 10 days before release—but all too frequently that information does not reach the child until the day of release, which makes it impossible to plan for a child’s engagement with education, employment or other services.
Therefore, I am calling for an acceptance that corporate principles are laid out and that the language should be robust, so that there is absolutely no doubt in the mind of local authorities as to where their responsibilities lie.
My Lords, I have Amendment 18 in this group, which adds wording about protecting safety and providing stability in home lives, relationships and education or work. It is very similar to the wording in proposed new subsection (1)(f) in Amendment 1, moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Howe.
Coincidentally, I also submitted the same amendments as the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, to remove “have regard to the need” and the other amendments he referred to that follow from that—so of course I have added my name to those.
I wholeheartedly agree with the noble Lord, Lord Bichard—who would have been able to speak for himself if we had met on Monday as originally planned—that the whole point of setting out the corporate parenting principles explicitly is to make the responsibility explicit. That is most likely to be achieved if the drafting is as clear as possible. The inclusion of “have regard to” detracts from that clarity. It also changes the nature of the duty: it is no longer to encourage people to do something but to “have regard to” encouraging people to do something. How pathetically weak and feeble. I could have regard to something but decide to do nothing as a consequence of my regard. That will not do.
We need a set of corporate parenting principles that protect all those things that contribute to the health, well-being and future opportunity of children in care and those leaving care. That is why my Amendment 18 adds the principle of protecting their safety and providing stability in their home lives, relationships and education or work.
Children in care who are abused will be damaged for ever if we are not very careful. That is why we need to keep them safe. Children who are moved around from one foster placement to another and have no stability feel insecure and cannot keep up those relationships that help them to know who they are and their place in the world. The people they value and who value them are so important to their sense of self-worth and their attainment in life.
The Education Select Committee found that health services are turning away children in care who do not meet diagnostic thresholds. Access to services is prohibited when children do not have a permanent address. They experience moves in care, moves from one foster parent to another—or, even worse, moves out of their area. Problems include registering with a GP and poor communication between local authorities and clinical commissioning groups.
Designated health professionals report that they have not been asked to contribute to the strategic planning of services for these children, and some others felt that there were no robust routes for contributing to commissioning processes and decision-making.
Stability at home, school and in relationships is vital for these children and should be included in the principles. It is very important that the legislation is clear, so that those affected are in no doubt what their responsibilities are. The only people who benefit from confused or over-elaborate drafting are the lawyers. As drafted, Clause 1 is confused, and we must try to clarify it during the course of our deliberations.
Many noble Lords are seeking to add important additional principles, including my noble friends Lady Tyler of Enfield and Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville. Their amendments on mental health and poverty alleviation will come later, and I support them wholeheartedly. But the point I am making is that these amendments, and others, would be to no avail if the principles just had to be regarded and not strictly adhered to. So I say to the Government: if you really believe in these principles as drafted—and, I hope, as amended by several important additions from me and others—please accept that the words “have regard to the need” must go.
My Lords, I am probably one of only three people in this room who has actually been a corporate parent. Having worked in a local authority, I know that if you put wording in a Bill that says “have regard to”, the chief officer, who may want to do the right and proper thing by these children, will be put in a spot of bother. If a local authority and its lawyers see “have regard to”, they will have a conversation with the chief officer which will start: “Do you really have to do this, if the financial situation is tough and bad?”.
If the Minister and his department want this to have some bite and for people to really take notice of it, he will strike out “have regard to” at every point in the Bill. We now know what happens to children who are in care and what their life chances are. If we really want to change that, we have to put some obligations on. We will come in the second group to some of the other people who ought to be linked with those obligations but we must be very clear what we expect a corporate parent to do. We do not say to normal parents, “Would you like to have regard to whether to take your child to the GP?”, or ask them whether they might have regard to whether they might support their child in school. Parents know what their responsibilities are and we must be very clear what corporate parents’ responsibilities are—so my plea to the Minister is to get rid of “have regard to” and to support particularly the amendments spoken to by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, and the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley.
My Lords, briefly and telegraphically, I particularly note proposed subsection (1)(h) in Amendment 1 from my noble friend Lady Howe of Idlicote, which would create an obligation to keep siblings together. I pay tribute to Delma Hughes, who grew up in care and who, when she went into care, was separated from her five siblings. She has set up a charity called Siblings Together and set up summer workshops in the Young Vic, for example. When I saw her on Sunday, she was taking a group of siblings off to swim together. So often when young people come into care they get separated from their siblings, which can be a great loss to them. I pay tribute to Delma Hughes for her work and her advocacy with government over many years and I welcome the amendment. It obviously depends upon professional judgment, which is why the aspects of the Bill dealing with social work development are so important.
My Lords, I will introduce a totally different note into the debate. I want assurances from the Government that corporate parenting will not be used as an excuse for not working with the natural parents while the child is in care. One of the major failures in this country is that while the child is in care, we do not do any work with the natural parents. We send children back from care to their natural parents more than they do in most other European countries. I went to look at this in Denmark and Germany when I was Minister for Social Exclusion. I was looking at why we in this country did so badly with children in care. They cost us more and the outcomes are poorer, which means that we should learn from what goes on elsewhere.
What the social workers in Berlin said to me was, “We don’t pretend that we can be substitute parents. We know that we have to be the bridge between what has gone wrong and where they might go”. That means that they were prepared to take them in earlier, but when I went to breakfast in one children’s home, three mothers were there. I have to say that they were clearly fairly dysfunctional, but as soon as the children went out to school, the key workers did some work with those mothers. They said that the children might never go back home, but anyone in this Room who has worked with children in care—which was my first job in Newcastle—knows that it did not matter how long they had been away from home or how bad things were there: the children wanted to know about their families. I am concerned that we sometimes say, “Right, they are in our care now and we can look after them. We’re not going to spend any time with that dysfunctional natural family”. I believe having that in our system is one of the reasons why we fail.
My Lords, I will speak briefly. I welcome the corporate parenting principles in the Bill, but I hope that we do not end up making them so complex that local authorities find them difficult to implement by adding things that should perhaps belong in other places such as the national offer or in other parts of the Bill. We should keep the principles simple. However, I agree absolutely with the noble Lord, Lord Warner, and in particular with his Amendment 29. The noble Baroness, Lady Howe, referred to it in terms of the other people who should be incorporated into taking responsibility for these young people. We will come to that, but I would rather we dealt with it in another part of the Bill rather than here.
I also agree with the noble Lord, Lord Warner—as one of the other people in this Room who has been a corporate parent—that the phrase “have regard to” would become a major discussion around the table of a local authority in difficulty that had to make savings. It will not be true in places such as Leeds or Kensington and Chelsea, which really have a grip on this.
I will also say that, as the Minister knows perfectly well, the Ofsted report published yesterday showed that many of our care systems are doing much better. Eight out of 10 children’s homes are now rated as being good or doing well. They can improve, so we are not at the bottom. Certainly a lot of local authorities need to improve, but we are on the way up. I hope that anything we do here and anything the Government do in future will encourage the direction of travel that we appear to be on at the moment. But it will certainly not be helped by the phrase, “have regard to”. “Must” is a much better word.
My Lords, as the only person in this Room who will have applied the Children Act from the day it became law until I retired as a judge in 2005, perhaps I may say first that I agree strongly with what the noble Lords, Lord Warner and Lord Ramsbotham, said, and particularly with the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, who said that we must not make corporate parenting—which I entirely support—too complicated. There is just a danger that we may be putting too much in. Everything that is set out in the amendments is right, but I am not absolutely certain whether it all has to be in primary legislation.
I should like to pick up the phrase “have regard to”. I can see the Minister being advised by his team that it is a phrase which is used in the Children Act, particularly in Section 1, which states that,
“the court shall have regard to”.
In my view, there is a great difference between the court having regard and others doing so. Judges in family cases are trained to know what is meant by the phrase, which means that they have to take the issues into account and then they have a checklist to decide what in fact they should actually be doing. But it is interesting to note that Section 17 of the Act does not say that a local authority should “have regard to”; it talks about the “general duty” of every local authority. It seems to me that there is a very real distinction between having regard if you are a judge or a magistrate trying cases and having regard if you are a social worker with very considerable financial constrictions.
I cannot understand, I have to say, why we need the phrase “have regard to” when those who drafted the Bill took the trouble to say “must”. The phrase “must act in the best interests” is a very simple way of looking at it. But the phrase,
“must, in carrying out functions … have regard to the need”,
is, as the noble Lord, Lord Warner, pointed out, a let-out.
So having started listening to this argument on the basis that “have regard” is a perfectly good phrase that I applied day in and day out for many years, I think that there is a real distinction between the judiciary and the magistracy having regard and the way in which local authorities should be told rather than being left to exercise their discretion, which is rather different.
My Lords, I will speak very briefly in support of what my noble friend Lady Armstrong said—but perhaps with some qualification. The parents that we are talking about are not necessarily dysfunctional, but sometimes they are struggling with enormous material problems of poverty, housing and homelessness. It is easy sometimes for words to be misinterpreted, but I hope we can remember, in all that we are talking about, that sometimes we are talking about the families in this country that have the greatest struggles with poverty. The stress of getting by can sometimes be just too much, and that is why their children are taken away from them.
My Lords, with regard to “have regard to”, there is no question that “have regard to” involves a responsibility to have regard to, and that it is not right to say that you can have an obligation to have regard to and ignore the thing altogether. On the other hand, if you have regard to, you are not bound to consider that as absolutely binding because there may be other circumstances that go in a different direction.
The noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, pointed out that in the Children Act “have regard to” comes in one place but does not come in a different place. I am strongly of the view that in this particular case it is the latter aspect that should rule. In other words, it should not say “have regard to” in the first clause here; it should be a case of, “These are the things you have to do”, as in Section 17 of the Children Act, which lays down a general duty to do these things. I also agree with the view that one has to be careful not to make it overcomplicated, otherwise those who are trying to operate it will find it difficult to operate. We are duty bound to make it as simple as possible—and as effective as possible.
One thing about the amendment moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Howe of Idlicote, that I find difficult is the taking out of the local authority’s responsibility. I entirely agree about spreading responsibility to others, but I think that the local authority has a very particular responsibility. It is the local authority that takes children into care when it comes to that situation, and therefore it should be left with a general duty to do the things that are the corporate parenting principles—clear, effective and unqualified.
With regard to the other organisations—the noble Baroness’s amendment demonstrates how many there are, and there are one or two options to add a few more—I do not think that the situation is as precise and workable as the one for corporate parenting. I would very much like to see corporate parenting standing on its own as a general duty, clear and effective.
The idea that the local authority has to keep in touch with the natural parents is very important. It is true to say—although I hope this is improving—that there was a situation in which the local authorities were often ready to hand children back from care to a parent, with disastrous results. I am convinced that this jurisdiction and responsibility of local authorities is extremely difficult to exercise with complete success every time. There is no doubt that it is a very difficult jurisdiction. I was certainly conscious of that in 1988 and 1989, when we were putting the responsibility on local authorities in a way that was more definite than before. Some noble Lords will remember that there was a possibility of making children wards of court. In effect, that has been almost completely taken away by the duty on the local authority. Setting out the principles on which a local authority has to operate is extremely useful.
I am not certain about the point on criminalisation. The criminal law stands as it is. It is the duty of the local authority to do what it can to prevent any children in its care falling into the hands of the criminal justice system. If that is what this means, I am all in favour of it.
As the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, explained, there is sometimes the difficulty of getting the child to know what the position was in time for the child to act. That difficulty should certainly be avoided at all costs. But it is difficult to place a responsibility on the local authority to reduce the criminalisation if it does not mean something like that. So I would be glad to know more about exactly how it might be expressed. Otherwise, a good number of these amendments are for consideration as part of the proper basis for corporate parenting.
My Lords, I agree with much of what has been said so far. I am looking at the end product—the child who will one day grow up to be a parent. We need to demonstrate all the skills necessary for that child to understand what parenting means. Perhaps all of us should become corporate parents as a way of making sure that, when young people grow up, they understand what parenting is. Many young people who go through sexual abuse and grooming misinterpret what love, understanding, nurturing and caring are about. So when we read every detail in these amendments, we should do everything possible to make sure that we get it right for the children because the end product is that one day they will become parents and grandparents.
My Lords, as another corporate parent from a local authority, I am pleased to join in this discussion today. It is our duty and our responsibility as a corporate parent to do what we would do not only for our children but for other children. We should focus totally on that.
I want to focus on care leavers, in particular, and the importance of working with partners to enhance their life chances, enabling a continuous celebration of their achievements and talents—and there are achievements and talents in children in care and care leavers. We have a responsibility to work even harder to create a positive narrative about what children in care and care leavers can achieve.
As a snapshot, in north Lincolnshire we have a corporate parenting pledge which incorporates our ambitions for care leavers. We have made a specific commitment in regard to staying put. This includes a children’s campus and a children’s home with four self-contained staying-close suites, where children who move on from the home can live under the same roof and, importantly, have the safety and protection of trusted adults. As one young person said, “Being invited next door for a Sunday lunch is something we treasure”. Care leavers are encouraged to stay in touch and, for our part, our children in care council works with them into early adulthood.
I look forward to the opportunity to innovate, practise and implement new ideas to support and protect children. This includes supporting children and families at the earliest point to prevent the potential need for statutory intervention.
I shall focus, too, on the disengagement of young people and the variety of factors and vulnerabilities that we know may cause it. In the first instance, it could be because of welfare issues, special education needs, additional needs with ill health and school refusal.
It is vital that we look at bespoke alternative education packages for young people who may be outside mainstream education. The Children and Adolescent Medical Needs Education Team, CAMNET, provides direct tutoring and mentoring for children unable to access education due to acute health needs, supports young people who are NEET and provides independent careers advice and guidance. In all cases the aim is to support the child to achieve their hopes, dreams and aspirations. This is fundamentally what this Bill addresses. There is particular emphasis also on the transition to adult plans for disabled children, with mentoring for independent living through progression of education and work. We simply cannot do this alone, so it is about working with schools, colleges and other providers to establish fair access to ensure continuity of education for young people excluded from school in some instances but at risk of permanent exclusion and of disengagement post 16.
I am encouraged that the Bill will address and strengthen the role of local authorities in promoting and defending the interests of care leavers. We do all we can to defend the interests of those care leavers and all who want that support up to the age of 25. The Bill addresses and promotes high aspirations. That is what we need to focus on to help these young children secure the best outcomes, taking account of their views, wishes and feelings. We need to make sure that they feel safe and have stability as we prepare them for adulthood and independent living. I also welcome further support for innovation in children’s social care by allowing local authorities such as mine to pilot new, innovative approaches. We must embrace and learn from other areas where it works well.
Finally, we will help every child in care to build a better life. I welcome the Bill, particularly the steps to help strengthen our social work profession to make social workers feel valued and supported, as well as delivering a valued and personalised service. We should also test different ways of working to achieve better outcomes, and also the same outcomes more effectively.
My Lords, when I first studied the raft of amendments tabled to this important Bill it seemed likely that we would have a high quality of debate and of argument. Certainly, what we have heard in the last 36 minutes bears that out. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, for moving the amendment. I shall speak to Amendment 7 in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Hunt.
Some noble Lords may have been present in the Chamber about an hour ago when the Minister responded to a Question on care leavers and my noble friend Lady Kennedy of The Shaws asked—I paraphrase her remark—what life had come to when we had to have corporate parents. I certainly echo the view that it is unfortunate that there has to be such a term, but the Minister answered the point well when he established that the term “in loco parentis” is very important in these situations. I believe that corporate parents have a duty to do no less for children in their care than do birth parents for their children. That is a very important role indeed—perhaps one of the most important roles of a local authority. I know from experience that elected councillors take their responsibility in this regard very seriously. Corporate parenting should mean the full and active involvement of the formal and local partnerships needed between local authority departments and services and associated agencies responsible for working together to meet the needs of looked-after children and young people as well as care leavers. Recognising that different component parts each have a contribution to make is critical to success.
One challenge of being a good corporate parent is to help each individual child. In many cases it is not recognised that every child is an individual. Often the only thing that they have in common is that life has not been easy for them and that perhaps at some stage a local authority or a court has decided that compulsory intervention was necessary. The noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, also made the important point that whenever possible, corporate parents should prevent children coming into contact with youth justice. The Government have recognised many of these sentiments in the seven corporate parenting principles outlined in Clause 1, but principles must reflect duties established by existing legislation and it seems that, in some instances, the principles in Clause 1 actually confer fewer responsibilities on local authorities than currently exist in social care legislation.
I sit somewhat in awe when I hear noble and learned Members of your Lordships’ House pronounce on legal matters, and I would not for one moment seek to question them, so I was very pleased when the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, talked about the “having regard to” in Amendment 7, to which I am speaking. If I picked him up correctly, he said at one stage that it would be difficult if a local authority decided to set aside those responsibilities in full. I would be more concerned if there were situations where a local authority concluded—there could be reasons many why—that it could not or would not meet those responsibilities in full. Anything less than that would potentially steer that local authority into difficult waters in terms of the service it was providing as a corporate parent.
I am not going to comment on the detailed legal principle of that, but there seems to be further ground to be tilled in that respect. I am sure that we shall do that and perhaps the Minister can respond, having taken appropriate advice. Just talking about “having regard to” seems rather weak. That is why I hope the Government will recognise that Amendment 7 is put forward in a positive and constructive manner. It seeks to strengthen the Bill and the support provided by making it a requirement that local authorities must ensure that these principles are met in full.
There were other notable contributions, in particular that of my noble friend Lady Armstrong, who talked from experience not just in her own working life but as a Minister in this important sector. I would be very concerned if there were situations where, as she suggested, corporate parenting was used as an excuse for not trying to achieve what should in many cases be the desired outcome: settling the child with his or her family, if that is at all possible. When children and young people become looked after, it is essential from the outset that there is robust and flexible planning for their future. Certainly stability is crucial to a child’s development and happiness, as the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, said. The system should support stability through minimising moves and seeking permanent solutions wherever possible.
For that reason, I believe that the wording in Clause 1 needs to be strengthened in order to demonstrate that we all want our children and young people to have successful and productive lives—and, to ensure that that happens, that we will provide the services and support in every form which will help them succeed, particularly when they have problems to overcome. The amendments in this group offer considerable opportunities to contribute to that and I would not take issue with any of them. I hope that the Minister will respond in a positive manner.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baronesses, Lady Howe, Lady Walmsley and Lady Pinnock, and to the noble Lords, Lord Ramsbotham, Lord Bichard, Lord Hunt and Lord Watson, for their amendments relating to the corporate parenting principle set out in Clause 1. The noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, commented on timing and I can assure him that the usual channels, as he so comprehensively described them, will be made aware of his point.
In designing the seven principles, the Government have set out the key decisions that young people tell us are of fundamental importance to being a good corporate parent. Given their importance, it is absolutely right that we should debate the principles to ensure that when they are enacted, they do what is intended—namely, to change the culture within local authorities so that they take into account the needs of looked-after children and care leavers when discharging their functions.
At the outset, I want to be clear that the Government intend that the corporate parenting principles will have a life beyond the statute book. My honourable friend the Minister for Children and Families tells me that he wants every social worker, housing chief, leaving care adviser and council leader to have those principles on the wall of his or her office. He wants them to be discussed at council meetings, at looked-after children review meetings, and by foster carers when they talk to their children’s teachers. In short, he wants to drive a culture of good corporate parenting across the whole local authority and not just through the children’s services team. We cannot change culture through legislation alone, but we can legislate to influence how people talk about their responsibilities and how they discharge those responsibilities in relation to looked-after children and care leavers.
Amendment 1 seeks to broaden the corporate parenting principles to relevant partner agencies and to strengthen the emphasis that local authorities place on them. I understand why the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, seeks this change. The thrust of Amendments, 6, 8, 11, 12, 13, 15 and 20 tabled by the noble Lords, Lord Ramsbotham and Lord Bichard, and the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, is in a similar vein. Amendment 7, from the noble Lords, Lord Watson and Lord Hunt, also seeks to strengthen the way in which local authorities would be required to apply the principles. Amendments 18 and 19 from the noble Baronesses, Lady Walmsley and Lady Pinnock, and the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, look to strengthen how local authorities keep safe children in care and care leavers and promote stability in their lives.
Much of what I say in response to this group of amendments applies as a whole, and I shall therefore speak to them as a whole. There is already a comprehensive set of duties on local authorities required by the Children Act 1989 in regard to looked-after children and care leavers. This is further supported by statutory guidance. Interagency co-operation is also vital for providing coherent services for looked-after children and care leavers. Under Section 10 of the Children Act 2004, local authorities must make arrangements to promote co-operation between themselves and partner agencies, including health agencies.
We are about changing culture and spreading good practice, as the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, said, and putting the local authority in loco parentis—I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Watson, for supporting this view—and not, as my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay said, having a range of bodies with responsibility. We do not want to create a complicated and confusing tick-box approach, burdening local authorities with a whole raft of extra duties. I am grateful to the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, for her comments in that regard. Quite rightly, noble Lords want to ensure that looked-after children and care leavers can access services beyond those provided by local authorities, particularly in relation to mental health. Indeed, this Government, too, want to ensure a far greater attention to the mental health of those in care who have suffered abuse and neglect.
Noble Lords will recall the publication last year of the Government’s mental health strategy, Future in Mind, which marked our commitment to transforming child mental health and well-being services. This landmark publication seeks to end the frustration of having to fight for help or be in crisis before anybody acts. Our £1.4 billion investment will go a long way in establishing accessible child mental health services, and nowhere is that more important than for looked-after children.
I would like to speak briefly to Amendment 8, proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, which seeks to ensure that the behaviour of children in care is viewed and managed in the same way that a reasonable parent would manage the challenging behaviour of their own children. I wholeheartedly agree that local authorities should adopt a restorative approach whenever possible, so that police intervention is viewed not as a first but as a last resort. I stress, too, that the vast majority of looked-after children do not get into trouble with the law, so I would not want to give undue emphasis to criminalisation by adding an explicit reference in the principles. I am also mindful not to pre-empt Sir Martin Narey’s review into children’s residential care, or the review of the youth justice system that Charlie Taylor has been commissioned to carry out. Both reviews will be published in due course, and I know that both are looking into the issues of criminalising children.
Principle (f) requires the local authority to have regard to the need for children in care and care leavers,
“to be safe and for stability in their home lives, relationships and education or work”.
That is an important principle, and I understand why the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, and the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, seek to strengthen it. We all agree that it is essential that local authorities act in a way that ensures that children in care and care leavers are kept safe. Protecting children from harm is the reason why children are taken into care in the first place, and safety should be a central consideration in all subsequent decisions about the child or young person—for example, regarding who cares for them and where they are placed. That is what principle (f) provides for, and I believe it achieves that aim. I am not convinced that the amendments tabled by the noble Baroness and the noble Lord alter the effect of the clause, or that the proposed changes would drive local authorities to act any differently from how they would in order to adhere to the principle as it is currently drafted.
I also remind noble Lords that the Children Act 1989 sets out a range of specific duties that local authorities must discharge in respect of looked-after children and care leavers, including a duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of looked-after children under Section 22.
With regard to care leavers, local authorities also have duties in relation to ensuring that they are housed in suitable accommodation, defined as accommodation that is safe, secure and affordable. I also reassure noble Lords that the associated statutory guidance will set out how local authorities might apply these principles in more detail. This will include how a local authority might keep looked-after children and care leavers safe and provide stability in their lives. For instance, a local authority might decide not to apply the “intentionally homeless” rules as strictly for care leavers in some circumstances.
I recognise why noble Lords may wonder whether the phrasing of the legislation—to “have regard to” the principles—is sufficiently strong. They will ask whether instead local authorities should have to ensure that they meet the need to carry out those principles. Amendments in this group, in various ways, seek to change that terminology. In establishing the seven principles, we seek to articulate the kinds of things that a local authority must have in its mind and culture when it exercises its functions in relation to this vulnerable group. Our intention is to provide a clear and helpful point of reference, and to drive a shift in approach where necessary.
Given that the principles are about how local authorities carry out their existing functions in relation to looked-after children and care leavers, the principles should not, and were never intended to, be about limiting the discretion of a local authority in how they are applied. The corporate parenting principles build on the 1989 Act, and the wording of the clause means that local authorities must have regard to the principles—they cannot disregard them—but they have flexibility in terms of how they carry them out. The guidance will inform how that works in principle and in practice.
As I said when I began my response to these amendments, the Government seek to embed a strong corporate parenting culture in every local authority. We need to strike a balance between a top-down and a grass-roots approach. In other words, particularly if we want to avoid unintended consequences and a tick-box approach to parenting by the state, the legislation needs to be sensible and proportionate. We want to give local authorities the freedom to meet the needs of looked-after children and care leavers in the way that works best for them. For example, it might be that the local authority decides to waive council tax for care leavers under 22 or under 25 as they do in North Somerset.
On the point made by the noble Baronesses, Lady Lister and Lady Armstrong, about parents in poverty and the particular stress that that may involve, local authorities have duties under Section 17 of the Children Act 1989 to help families who are struggling to prevent children being taken into care. Once they are taken into care, though, under the existing care planning and review system the local authority must involve the parents and guardians in the care planning for children taken into care, unless that is not in the best interests of the child.
The noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, talked about children having all the skills necessary for adult living, including the skills of parenthood. That may be something that, hopefully, can be covered in the local offers from local authorities. The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, made a very important point about keeping siblings together. This is something that I will cover in a later amendment, if I may.
With regard to the very good point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, about learning from what goes on in other countries, I agree that we in this country often take rather myopic approach to what happens. I will go back to see whether we have looked enough at other countries’ experiences.
I hope that I have been able to provide enough reassurance to the noble Baronesses, Lady Howe and Lady Walmsley, and the noble Lords, Lord Bichard, Lord Watson, Lord Hunt and Lord Ramsbotham, on the corporate parenting principles and that they will feel able to withdraw and not move their amendments.
My Lords, just before the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, replies, the Minister mentioned on several occasions the 1989 Act, which has a very strong and clear set of principles and duties in it. The Minister has heard from many noble Lords that we feel that the way in which Clause 1 is worded is nowhere near as strong. Does the Minister agree that it is not as strong as in the 1989 Act? Which set of duties has supremacy? To have the duty on Clause 1 worded in a much weaker way than in the 1989 Act can benefit only lawyers; it introduces confusion.
With respect to the lawyers present—including myself from many years ago—I will not comment on the last point. We are trying to set out principles and not put local authorities under any more duties than necessary or into any kind of straitjacket. But the noble Baroness makes a point about a number of duties and we will go back and look at this in more detail.
I thank the noble Lord for answering my point about siblings. I look forward to the debate on the amendments. I also thank him for his clear reply to the important point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong of Hill Top. He said that the care plan process must involve parents. However, the experience so often is that parents do not get the help they need with their addictions or mental health support. So I hope that the noble Baroness will consider bringing back an amendment on this on Report. In the interim, I look forward to having discussions with colleagues to get their advice on whether anything more can be done to ensure parents get the support they need.
My Lords, I am sure that noble Lords will agree that this has been an interesting and wide-ranging debate. It has opened up many other areas that we will need to address as the Bill progresses.
We are all grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Nash, for the way in which he has dealt with the comments made. Clearly, he will take into account many of the points made and will consider whether changes can be made in the right direction to satisfy us so that we all know the right way forward.
I gather that there is probably something substantially wrong with my amendment which might cause problems at a later stage. Certainly, at the moment, I do not wish to press it. I will look at it again and, unless other Members of the Committee wish to press the amendment at this stage, I suggest that we withdraw it and think about the next stage. We should think about the other amendments we shall be going on to in Committee, but we should also consider how we might reframe them to meet the problems we may still have on Report.
Amendment 1 withdrawn.
2: Clause 1, page 1, line 7, after “England” insert “and its relevant partners”
My Lords, Amendment 2 is a probing amendment. After all the things that have been said about laying out too many details on what the responsibilities on local authorities are, I am conscious that by raising the question of relevant authorities I am also raising the spectre of spelling out what those relevant authorities may be. I am aware of the danger of being accused of teaching my grandmother to suck eggs but I plead that, in research carried out recently, it was discovered that only 17% of the community commissioning groups in this country realised that they had a responsibility for funding healthcare support for probation. Therefore, it is worthwhile considering whether the Bill should not include, at least in general terms, the partners whom the local authorities will need to consult and work with if they are going to achieve the aims set out in the corporate parenting list.
Who are they? They are children’s social care, mental health and health services commissioning bodies, the education services, the police and the criminal justice agencies. The purpose of my probing amendment is to find out how the Government intend to ensure the co-operation of other departments and agencies in the delivery of services for looked-after children. We look out at a silo-ridden world and one thing that has been pointed out in report after report on children’s services is the lack of consistency between local authorities, which therefore introduces a postcode lottery—which we cannot do. The aim of the Bill is to establish consistency and therefore I hope that, in spelling out the relevant partners in more detail, it may be possible to ensure that consistency by helping local authorities to set up a tick list, if you like, of who they ought to consult in looking after these children. I beg to move.
My Lords, I rise to speak to my Amendments 3, 31A, 36 and 37 in this group. They would all have the effect of extending duties to government departments, going beyond local authorities, in recognition of the role they play in the lives of looked-after children and care leavers. I should like to advance this by creating a comprehensive and tangible national offer for care leavers to lay the strongest foundation for their transition to adulthood.
With all the uncertainty in this country, in Europe and in the world at this time, there may be a silver lining; it may help us to gain some insight into the uncertainties experienced by these children. Their Chancellor and Prime Minister are either absent or unable to function. They have no idea from one day to the next where they are going to be. So when we feel uncertain about the leadership of our parties in this country and of our future, or if we fear that we have alienated our friends and neighbours, it may give us some understanding of what it feels like for a three, five or 10 year-old who is in a family in which the parents simply do not function; there is no leadership or guidance and tomorrow they may be we know not where. Perhaps we know to some extent the fear and anxiety that these children feel. If we do not intervene effectively by giving them guidance, leadership and a clear structure to their lives, they may go through their whole lives experiencing fear on a daily basis, unable to form relationships and function in the world. To some degree we are experiencing a lack of structure at the moment.
I welcome the commitment of the Government to putting for the first time corporate parenting principles into law. I see it as an important step in making sure that children’s best interests, life chances and future prospects are put at the core of decision-making processes. The Minister will be aware, however, that the corporate parenting role does not stop with local authorities, because all levels of government are corporate parents to children in the care system. My first amendment seeks to extend the scope of corporate parenting responsibilities to include central government departments. I heard what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, said about corporate parenting responsibilities, and perhaps it is unfortunate that I am using these terms. But I go back to what he said earlier in the debate today. What I am seeking, and I think what we all want, is to extend the duties more widely than just to local authorities. That will ensure that we all work together to get the best outcomes for these children.
Welcome steps were taken in the 2013 cross-departmental Care Leaver Strategy, which brought together for the first time government departments to consider the impact of their policies on care leavers. For instance, care leavers in the employment system are now flagged up to workers in jobcentres and employment agencies so that the staff know that they are dealing with a care leaver and need to exercise particular care. I pay tribute to the Government for that. The amendment provides us with an opportunity to further advance that progress.
My noble friend Lord Ramsbotham spoke of the need to work across different agencies. I would like very briefly to quote from my noble friend Lord Laming’s recent report on preventing the criminalisation of young people in care, In Care, Out of Trouble. He takes forward the theme of how we must work better together to improve outcomes. For instance, he says:
“The work must be driven by strong and determined leadership at national and local levels, taking a strategic multi-agency approach to protecting children in care against criminalisation”.
His first recommendation is that,
“commissioning and disseminating a cross-departmental concordat on protecting looked after children”,
is vital. So he very much embraces the principle of ensuring that all departments work together to protect and promote the welfare of these children.
Noble Lords engaged in this debate will be aware that more than 10,000 children aged over 16 left the care of a local authority last year to begin the difficult transition into adulthood. Not only are these young people beginning this journey but they are also finding themselves independent and often without the support network afforded by a family. This rapid accession into independence, coupled with a lack of a close support network, means that many care leavers are at particular risk of debt and financial hardship—two things that no parent would wish on their child.
In subsequent groupings my noble friend Lady Howarth of Breckland and I will discuss a national offer so that these children get better support as they move forward from care and face fewer financial worries. In the meantime, I commend these amendments to your Lordships and I look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I have Amendment 5 in this group and lend my support to Amendments 4 and 31, which are in very similar territory. The purpose of my amendment is simple and has already been alluded to—the new corporate parenting principles should apply also to commissioners of physical and mental health services for children in care and care leavers.
As we have already heard, Clause 1 introduces a set of principles to which all local authorities must “have regard” when carrying out their responsibilities in relation to children in care and care leavers. Like other noble Lords today, I very much welcome the introduction of these principles. They should help to ensure that, when local authorities make decisions about services and what is best for children, they have the children’s best interests—their health and well-being, their wishes, feelings and aspirations—at the forefront of their mind.
It was argued very strongly at Second Reading and has already been mentioned today that parents will always seek the best for their children and that the state should be no different. I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that most parents would move heaven and earth to ensure that their child is either in good health or receiving the treatment they need if they are physically ill or in mental distress. I believe that the corporate parenting principles should be extended to health commissioners, reflecting the vital role that these bodies play in shaping the lives and outcomes of children in care and care leavers. As we know, these children are much more likely than their peers to have poor physical, mental and emotional health. To give one example, children in care in England are four times more likely than the average child to have an emotional or mental health problem. That is an issue we will return to in a subsequent group.
As the Education Select Committee identified in its recent inquiry, health services are often not organised in a way that makes it easy for children in care to access. There is already evidence of targeted support being decommissioned because of financial pressures. Child and adolescent mental health services tend to be reluctant to assess or treat a young person until they believe that they are stable in their placement and that there is little risk of them being moved to another area. It is a similar problem, I have heard, with GP registrations. It very much affects access to the services that these children need. It is a vicious circle. Placement instability leads to poor access to services, higher levels of unmet need and poorer outcomes. We simply have to do something to break this vicious cycle. That is the purpose of this amendment.
I will finish by saying that I have listened very carefully, both at Second Reading and, indeed, to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, today about the need to ensure that the local authority responsibility as corporate parent is sharp, clear and undiluted, and is not made too complicated. I will not mind at all being told that I do not have the wording of my amendment right or that it is not in the right place and should be in a different part of the Bill; I just want these principles to apply to health commissioners, without in any way diluting the core, central responsibility and accountability of local authorities.
My Lords, I support Amendments 3, 31A and 36, which, as the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, said, seek to extend corporate parenting principles to central government departments in recognition of the role that they play in the lives of looked-after children and care leavers. I am grateful to the Children’s Society for its briefing on this.
Like other noble Lords, I welcome the Government’s commitment to placing corporate parenting principles into law for the first time, and see this as an important step in making sure that children’s best interests—a key principle—life chances and future prospects are put at the core of decision-making processes. Statistics for looked-after children highlight a situation requiring leadership from central government to improve life chances through accepting their responsibility as corporate parent. The Prime Minister has emphasised this a lot recently. I think that we were going to have a life chances strategy announced tomorrow, but that has been rather derailed now. For instance, we know that at least 38% of care leavers aged 19 to 21 are not in education, employment or training. Research by the Centre for Social Justice showed that 59% of care leavers found coping with the mental health problems referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, very or quite difficult. The same survey by the Centre for Social Justice found that 57% of care leavers found managing money and avoiding debt difficult.
This cocktail of poor educational attainment mixed with mental health difficulties, low-paid work and difficulty with managing money should alarm us all. More importantly, it should compel us to do better for these young people by ensuring that all levels of government which make decisions about their lives should be required to consider their responsibilities as corporate parents.
Welcome steps were made in the 2013 cross-departmental Care Leavers Strategy, which for the first time brought together government departments to consider the impact of their policies on care leavers—so in a sense the principle has been established. Extending corporate parenting principles to central government is, I would suggest, the next logical step. I hope that the Minister will agree that there is no argument against this in principle. We might question the practical ways of doing it, but this is an opportunity which we must seize for central government to do its bit for care leavers by adopting the very corporate parenting principles that it is now rightly laying down for local government in recognition of the pivotal role that central government policies play in the everyday lives of care leavers.
My Lords, I very much support the spirit of this group of amendments, but not necessarily the wording. I also very much agree with the point made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, about being very clear and crisp about the responsibilities and principles that we require the corporate parent—the local authority—to adhere to. That is absolutely right. I say to the Minister in a spirit of helpfulness that in other legislation such as the Care Act 2014 we have joined other agencies and given them a duty to co-operate with a primary agency with regard to that primary agency’s responsibility to discharge a set of obligations placed in legislation. We had many debates similar to this one as the then Care Bill went through Parliament. The Bill had to deal with the issue of the primary responsibility on the local authority in relation to adult social care, but, at the same time, required other people to help discharge those obligations.
It should not be beyond the wit, if I may so, of parliamentary draftsmen and the department to construct a clause that identifies those particular service areas that need to be under a duty to co-operate with the responsible local authorities in discharging the principles in whatever version of Clause 1 that we settle on. I have to say to the Minister that this Government are very keen to emphasise that we are all in this together. It would be very nice to apply that principle in discharging the obligation on local authorities in Clause 1.
I go back to what I said earlier about my six years as a corporate parent. I spent a lot of my time working with the chief officers of these other agencies to get them to do their stuff. But this was at a time when money was much more easily available within local authorities. It was not in a period of really tough financial circumstances.
The noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, described a silo mentality. That silo mentality is alive and well. People have to protect their budgets and they look at ways of doing so. If we do not place these other agencies under some obligation and duty to co-operate in protecting these children and working with the local authority, we will find in some parts of the country that people take a narrow interest point of view of what their obligations are, because the financial circumstances in which they are placed as a local authority are too tough to do otherwise.
We have seen what has happened where local authorities have had their budgets cut for adult social care. They have reduced their eligibility criteria. We will see some of the same patterns of behaviour in these other authorities if we do not take the opportunity in this legislation to require the other agencies—and I suggest to the Minister that we should name them in the Bill—to have a duty to co-operate with the responsible local authority in discharging their obligations.
My Lords, I have some difficulty in the way that this clause and the next clauses are drafted. There are some overlaps, and I think that that is what is causing some of the debate.
In my Second Reading speech, I emphasised the importance of relevant partners, including government departments and wider. Whether we can specify them, I do not know. But where we can specify them is in the local offer, which is what comes next. That is why it is difficult to debate one part of this Bill without debating the other.
In the local offer, the local authority and its partners should be able to provide young people with the assurance that they can be exempt from council tax, which we will debate again later; that they can get proper accommodation; that they will not have another agency or department evict them if they run into arrears; and that they will get proper help, if they need it, with any benefit system. Those things need to be available to them in the local offer through the partners. I am not much good at drafting, but I hope that the Government will take back what I have said and look at how those two things knit together.
As I said earlier, “leaving care” is a very unfortunate phrase. It implies that you are leaving the services that you need. These youngsters are “moving on” from one stage of their care life into, we hope, another one, if we manage to see them through to the age of 21 and possibly 25. That is the time when the government partners will be most important. Earlier on, the local authority will need to work closely with different partners such as the police and health—that needs to be clear. I hope that the drafting can be looked at again so that the partners can be specified crisply and clearly—like the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, I think that that is the only way to get good legislation—and somehow be included.
My Lords, I agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Warner, said. The spirit of these amendments strikes me as very appropriate. What we need is a duty that is appropriate to people who are not corporate parents but have a duty and a responsibility to do what they can within their sphere of responsibility to help the corporate parent to carry out the corporate parent’s responsibility. Of course there is another area where in a sense this happens: in ordinary families. These authorities may well have a duty as well to try to help the ordinary parent, not just the corporate parent, to fulfil their responsibilities. That is not so easy these days for many. So while I entirely agree that this is a proper course to take, and I suggest, along with the noble Lord, Lord Warner, that it should be drafted along the lines of the Care Act, we ought also to have at the back of our minds the fact that there are other children who sometimes need special care, too.
My Lords, I speak as a corporate parent. I am a corporate parent for the nearly 400 young people in the care of Wiltshire Council. I have concerns about the amendment. I believe that I am responsible as the corporate parent for such a child’s life chances—so I am responsible for the plans for the child’s health and for challenging the local commissioning group and the local GP who is responsible for looked-after children in our county to give that child the right services. I believe that that is my responsibility, as it would be my responsibility as a parent.
I am concerned that if we move some of the responsibility to another body, it will not do it as well as it would if we were pushing it to do it. So I welcome the strengthening in the Bill of the responsibility of the corporate parent, but that corporate parent is responsible for not just health but life chances, including apprenticeships, traineeships and jobs into the future. That is my responsibility as a corporate parent, just as it is to give support to my own children as they move on through their life chances—not, I have to say, just up until 18.
I very much look forward to debating looking after a looked-after child for many years into their future. I am still looking after mine; a couple of them are in their 40s and they still come home for advice and support. In Wiltshire we are looking at how we might use volunteers, the voluntary sector, mentors in the communities and people who are special in those young people’s and young adults’ lives to help us to do that. So please strengthen our role and allow us to be the ones to strongly challenge other departments to deliver the services that our children require.
My Lords, perhaps I may say that those of us who also have been corporate parents do not disagree at all that somebody clearly has to be a corporate parent. What we would like to see in the Bill is for other departments—particularly government departments, which are nowhere in other legislation—to have a responsibility to work with that corporate parent in legislation, and to give that support. That is what I think everyone who has spoken means.
To add to that, the danger is that government policy will undermine what local authorities are trying to do. That is why we need government policies that will work with and support local authorities in their corporate parenting, rather than working against them.
My Lords, I shall speak to Amendments 4 and 31 in this group. Clause 1(1)(d) refers to “relevant partners” but, as the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, stated, that is too vague. I want to emphasise some of the benefits of explicitly including health and housing services in that framework of support.
As my noble friend Lady Lister said, looked-after children, young people and care leavers historically experience poorer health than their peers and are also more likely to need specialist health services than the general population—whether that be mental health services, help with addictions or sexual health advice. Looked-after children, surely, must have access to mental health services and the speech, language and communications support that they need.
None the less, as the Local Government Association has pointed out in briefings sent to noble Lords, children’s services are already overstretched and any new duties must be fully funded so that they do not have an unintended detrimental impact on other services for vulnerable children and young people. Expansion of corporate parenting duties took place in Scotland in 2014 and, for the most part, has been a success without requiring any additional investment from central government. Perhaps there are lessons to be learned there.
Currently, looked-after children are supported by a social worker, an independent reviewing officer, a carer and a personal adviser who advocate for their interests. The most important thing is to ensure that there are good outcomes, and for that to happen there should be a focus on continuity and building strong relationships, not simply adding an additional member of care staff to the structure.
For the NHS to contribute effectively to the corporate family, health services must be able to identify looked-after children and young people accurately, and local authorities must help it to do this. The NHS provides services to assess individual need and provides access to therapeutic services resourced to meet those needs.
Where children are not within mainstream education provision, access should be co-ordinated to make sure that they receive health promotion advice and appropriate health checks, including, most importantly, mental health checks. A lead clinician could be appointed to co-ordinate mental health support in each local authority area.
The days when social housing was provided mainly by local authorities is long gone. Housing services provided directly by councils or in partnership with housing associations remain an integral part of the corporate family. Throughout the country there are many housing associations with close links to local authorities in terms of providing housing for groups of people with specific needs, and care leavers are clearly one of those groups. Homeless people are another and, without proper support, young people in the first of those categories can easily slide into the second one. Care leavers are particularly vulnerable to homelessness, and preventing homelessness among care leavers should be recognised in local strategies and plans.
Moving into independence involves more than simply finding a roof. Corporate parents should satisfy themselves that young people leaving care have the necessary life skills and confidence to cope with independent living. Some young people will need more support than others, and that is why a range of services needs to be made available—and this should include the type of tenancy offered. A single person’s tenancy may not be the best option for a young care leaver striking out into the big, and possibly bad, world for the first time.
The noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, talked about this transitional period. She urged us not to talk about people leaving care but to people moving on. That is a very apt description. Health services as well as housing services must support people as they make the difficult and inevitably demanding move into independent life.
The local offer made to care leavers will lack both authority and effectiveness if it is restricted to the list appearing in Clause 1. Given the debate that we have had within this group, that is unlikely to remain the case. If the corporate parenting principles were applied to health agencies, it would encourage them to take greater responsibility. The same would be true of housing.
In closing, I will say that the call of the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, for consistency is important. He suggested that that could be achieved through some kind of tick list of what agencies are required to be involved. I hope that I do not do them a disservice by saying that my noble friends Lady Lister and Lord Warner support the principle of extending the agencies involved—and so do I.
I hope that the Minister, having heard the various comments in this debate, will accept the amendments in principle and come back on Report with an amendment that broadens the scope of Clause 1.
My Lords, Clause 1 introduces for the first time seven principles to which local authorities must have regard whenever they exercise their functions in relation to looked-after children and care leavers. The principles are applicable to all local authorities in England and they apply to all parts of the local authority, not just children’s services. These principles are important because they create an overarching framework to guide everyone, not just social care teams, in all local authorities in the way that they carry out their key functions in relation to looked-after children and care leavers.
The noble Lords, Lord Ramsbotham, Lord Watson and Lord Hunt, and the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, seek to apply these principles additionally to the “relevant partners” of local authorities, as defined by Section 10 of the Children Act 2004, so that they, too, would have to have regard to them. In particular, there is a desire to ensure that health and housing bodies must have regard to the principles in exercising their functions. The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, has sought to apply these principles to other organisations, including central government, and to the United Kingdom as a whole.
Let me first respond to Amendments 3 and 31A. These would require every government department in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to have regard to the corporate parenting principles. They would require government departments in these countries to have regard to any guidance issued by the Secretary of State for Education in respect of the corporate parenting principles which are placed on English local authorities only.
The reason Clause 1 seeks to apply the principles in law only to local authorities in England is that it is they that are corporate parents for looked-after children and care leavers in England. It is the local authorities in England, and not central government departments, that are charged with carrying out functions in relation to looked-after children and care leavers, such that they are the corporate parents of those children and young people.
The clause does not extend to other parts of the United Kingdom. So even if we wished to apply the principles to central government departments, I expect that the devolved Administrations, which have their own legislative frameworks determining the arrangements for looked-after children and care leavers, would have something to say about that.
The noble Lord, Lord Watson, made a point about corporate parenting principles being applied widely, as in Scotland. The Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014 applied corporate parenting to 24 bodies. It has been in force for only a year and so it is a bit early to say what its impact will be.
The noble Lord makes a good point: we should look at it and see what lessons can be learned, as Scotland is at least a year ahead of us on this.
To focus on England, we absolutely acknowledge that there is a role for central government—but it is a different role. Central government departments are not the corporate parents of the children taken into care or accommodated by local authorities. The role of government is to set the broader policy framework.
That is not to say that government departments across Whitehall do not recognise that looked-after children and care leavers need more support and assistance. That is why, if we take health services as an example, the NHS Constitution for England makes clear the responsibilities of clinical commissioning groups and NHS England to looked-after children and, by extension, care leavers. It is also why looked-after children are mentioned specifically in the mandate to NHS England.
The noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, made a point about CAMHS not being willing to treat children not in a stable placement. Child and adolescent mental health services should treat children according to level of need, irrespective of the stability of their placements. The expert group set up to look at care pathways for looked-after children will specifically address this point, with a view to ensuring that access to treatment is according to clinical need and in line with existing statutory guidance.
There are other examples where central government in England has championed looked-after children and care leavers. That is why they now attract pupil premium at a rate of £1,900 per pupil—higher than for other eligible pupils. That is why they also get priority in school admission arrangements.
In 2013, the first cross-government Care Leaver Strategy was published. It recognised the need to work coherently across government to address the needs of care leavers in the round. As a result, a number of changes were made, including measures to better identify care leavers so that they got tailored support—for instance, through the introduction of a “marker” by Jobcentre Plus so that care leavers could be identified and offered additional help. This work continues. We are now working on a refreshed strategy, and have been working closely with seven other government departments in England. The development of the strategy, which will be published shortly, has the backing of the Social Justice Cabinet Committee.
Amendments 36 and 37 seek to require government departments to publish information about services that will help care leavers prepare for adulthood and independent living. As with Clause 1, Clause 2 is about local authority services. The local offer is a manifestation of what it means for each local authority to be a good corporate parent. I agree that central government has responsibilities to looked-after children and care leavers alongside local government. The work we have been doing with each government department at both ministerial level and involving senior officials meeting regularly to discuss what more can be done to support care leavers at the level of national policy represents a significant step forward in increasing the understanding of and commitment to care leavers across Whitehall. Guidance of course is incredibly useful and we shall be consulting fully on what the guidance on corporate parenting should include. But although—quite rightly—central government can and is setting the framework for good corporate parenting, the biggest impact on the lives of looked-after children and care leavers will be made at local level.
We have not extended the principles beyond local authorities in England because it is their duty to both looked-after children and care leavers—and I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Bybrook, for her remarks in this regard. These principles will guide local authorities in how they should exercise their existing functions and duties in relation to these vulnerable children and young people. As I have said, through these high-level principles we want to embed a corporate parenting culture across the whole local authority.
I recognise that looked-after children and care leavers need more support and assistance from a variety of public bodies. They will need to be able to make best use of services provided by other bodies, including clinical commissioning groups, NHS England, schools, housing and sometimes youth offending teams. That is why the fourth principle sets out a requirement to have regard to the need to help looked-after children and care leavers gain access to and make best use of services provided by the local authority and its relevant partners.
Of course, one could seek to apply these principles to a whole range of other public bodies. However, I believe that in doing so we would risk creating an overly bureaucratic tick-box approach that would do little to improve the life chances of looked-after children and care leavers. Instead, we need to embed a cultural shift. As I have said, the duty to co-operate with the relevant parties is already on the statute book in Section 10 of the Children Act 2004, where there is a duty to co-operate to improve the well-being of children and care leavers.
I emphasise that though we do not believe that extending the principles in law to other bodies is the way forward, we recognise that there is more to do to raise the awareness of these young people. Indeed, the consultation which local authorities will undertake with their local practitioners on developing the local offer being introduced under Clause 2 will ensure that access to NHS services and housing is inevitably brought into the process without the need for further prescription. To reinforce this, the department will also set out in statutory guidance how the corporate parenting principles should be applied in practice. Partnership working and commitment to care leavers is at the heart of the sea change that is needed to transform their lives.
Last month the Prime Minister signalled the Government’s intention to create a care-leaver covenant. This will provide a means through which public, private and voluntary sector organisations will be able to demonstrate how they support these young people and improve their lives. I would expect partners such as police and health bodies to consider how they can contribute to supporting care leavers. I also hope that many organisations in the private and voluntary sectors will commit to supporting young people leaving care through the care-leaver covenant.
I hope that noble Lords are reassured and that the noble Lord can be persuaded to withdraw his amendment.
Can the Minister explain what part of Section 10 actually requires other agencies to co-operate? It looks to me as though Section 10 is all about combined authority functions, which is not the same as the point being made in this debate about other agencies. Can he also respond to the point that both the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, and I made about looking at the Care Act to see the way in which the coalition Government took account of the need to require agencies to co-operate with the primary responsibility given to local authorities to deliver the health and well-being of people covered by the Act? We are asking the Minister to consider that and I did not hear anything in his speech that suggested he would take away the proposition that he should look at requiring a duty from these other agencies to co-operate with the local authority as the corporate parent.
I am grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken. Many issues have come up during the course of the debate, not least those raised by the noble Lord, Lord Warner. I suspect that this subject will reoccur on Report and I hope very much that, unlike the period in the lead-up to Committee, it will be possible to have meetings with the Minister and his officials to discuss it. I suspect that at least the Local Government Association and local authorities will wish to be consulted on what actually appears in the Bill. So in the hope that that may happen—
Amendment 2 withdrawn.
Amendments 3 to 8 not moved.
9: Clause 1, page 1, line 10, after “interests,” insert “prevent the unnecessary criminalisation,”
My Lords, this is where I can offer an explanation to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, about what I am seeking in terms of prevention. The report of the noble Lord, Lord Laming, was by no means the first to raise these concerns. What I am aiming at is not protection for children who commit serious offences, but protection for children in care whose minor offences would not attract police attention if they had been committed in a normal parental home. There is nothing new about this issue; it was the subject of a thematic inspection in 2012 by Ofsted and the Inspectorate of Probation, and was examined by the Justice Committee in another place in the same year. It was also the subject of a report by the Department for Education in 2013. Moreover, the National Police Chiefs Council identified this as a major problem and stated that every effort should be made to avoid the unnecessary criminalisation of children in care by making sure that the criminal justice system is not used for resolving issues that would ordinarily come under the umbrella of parenting.
The evidence produced by the noble Lord, Lord Laming, in his report about the importance of prevention through the operation of good parenting, whether corporate or natural, showed that the offending rate for looked-after children was six times higher than that for normal children, but that the rate of their movement into the criminal justice system was not inevitable, as was proved by some very good work undertaken in Surrey over four years which reduced the rate by 45%. That shows that it can be done through good joint working.
The Department for Education issued statutory guidance in 2015, which is generally sound, but the noble Lord, Lord Laming, has shown up once again that there is a lack of consistency—we come back to that vital word—in the way that the guidance is applied in local authorities up and down the country.
What are cited as driving these children into the hands of the criminal justice system include multiple changes of social worker, placement moves and placements far from home, all of which make children feel angry and isolated and can have a negative influence on their behaviour. The authorities can have some influence over that if they really take seriously the principles that we have already discussed. I therefore hope that the Bill will emphasise the responsibility of local authorities for the prevention of this “unnecessary criminalisation”, particularly as in the phrases brought to our attention by the Police Chiefs Council. I say that in relation to Amendment 9.
Regarding what I seek to do in Amendment 14, which is to do with making certain that they have legal advice, it is unfortunate that my amendment has got mixed up with Amendment 28A, in the name of my noble and learned friend Lady Butler-Sloss. Again, that is a casualty of what happens if you try to do things during a Recess. I am seeking to amend Part 1 to include a duty on local authorities to promote access to legal advice and representation for children in care. The sort of activities that they would need help with are assessing appropriate education in an area, having a voice in family law proceedings, regularising immigration status and claiming compensation when they are victims of trafficking. It is not good enough merely to provide access; there must be a duty to provide the access itself, which is what my amendment therefore seeks.
If there is one other group of children I am concerned about it is those people who are listed as unaccompanied asylum seekers, of whom there are 2,630 currently around. Nobody appears to have parental responsibility for them and I am worried about the effects of the recent Immigration Act, which says that any responsibility for care ceases at the age of 18 for an unaccompanied asylum seeker. They then have to go home, wherever that may be—and for some who were born in this country that means their country of origin. Only when they are back in their country of origin, according to the Immigration Act, can they appeal against being sent back. That must be a denial of every sort of right, which is why I asked the Minister earlier at a Cross-Bench meeting whether there had been any form of liaison between the Department for Education and the Home Office over the clauses in this Bill.
When we have child victims of trafficking being left to navigate the immigration system, the criminal and family justice system and the national referral mechanism without support and without any parental responsibility for them being cleared, it seems that we are not exercising our national responsibility towards these children. That is why I have tabled these two amendments and I beg to move Amendment 9.
My Lords, first, I apologise for Amendment 28A. That is my fault because, having been asked to table the amendment in something of a hurry—I endorse very much what the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, said about this all coming rather quickly—I am afraid I did not read through the list of amendments sufficiently carefully. Nor, I have to say, did the Public Bill Office, which happily tabled it. I have apologised to the Minister’s Bill team for the fact that two identical amendments have been tabled. However, I would like to speak briefly to it.
Various groups of children, such as those under the age of 18 or children who are leavers from care, may need legal advice. One such group are English children caught up in their parents’ unhappy divorce or separation proceedings, where they, or one parent—usually the mother—may be the victim of very serious domestic abuse. Currently, there is absolutely no legal aid in private law family proceedings. The judge or magistrates have to try to find out what is going on. A report, the name of which escapes me, talks about this great concern in relation to the private and public law sectors. On the nub of those two areas, some children who are the victims of what is going on in the family are not discovered, so their problems come up in the private law sector where their parents are not entitled to legal aid and there may or may not be good CAFCASS support because CAFCASS may or may not be asked to become involved until a very late stage. The welfare of such children is paramount under the Children Act, yet at the moment they are unlikely to get proper representation in proceedings where their parents have no representation and where their manifest needs may be overlooked because the judge or the magistrates do not have the information that is needed. That is one group who need this legal representation for children and young people.
As many Members of this House know, I spend a lot of my time involved in combating child trafficking. The children involved in this are a very special group. Generally, they come from overseas and many lack much, if not all, English. They may or may not go through the national referral mechanism. Some of them emerge on the streets of London and other places. They very much need all the help they can get. One of the things they need is legal representation to fight their way through the absolute maze of the various aspects that may hit them. Immigration is the most important but is by no means the only one. They need someone to help them. They need an independent trafficking advocate, who we have talked about. The Minister in the Commons has said that that issue is being looked at again with further pilots. However, these children also need legal representation.
I remind the Minister that the Government have now said that they will look after some at least of the 26,000 or 28,000 unaccompanied children who are stuck somewhere in Europe, although they do not seem to have begun to implement this policy. There has now been a promise to have some of them in this country. They perhaps more than almost anyone else will need the help of lawyers. This is therefore a very important amendment. I commend it to the Committee.
My Lords, these are extremely important amendments from the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, and, by default, the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss. I too want to talk about child migrants and children who are trafficked. I am not a lawyer but I know that there are lawyers in the Room, so I hope that they will be able to reinforce these issues if I am right about them. It seems to me that child victims of trafficking from abroad are often left entirely on their own to navigate the immigration system, the criminal and family justice systems and the national referral mechanism mentioned by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, without the support of anyone with parental responsibility for them. There seems to be no further announcement on the second pilot for independent child trafficking advocates, so I would like to know what is happening there.
UNICEF has pointed out that for children who have been trafficked there are apparently no monitoring systems to track outcomes for them once they leave care. Therefore, it is difficult to review cases and analyse long-term outcomes. Recent evidence presented to the Refugee Children’s Consortium suggests that there is not enough access to legal advice in a child’s care plan. There should be an active duty to promote this access for these children, who are extremely vulnerable.
Currently, the guidance on unaccompanied asylum-seeking children sets out that social workers should understand how to access specialist immigration legal advice. However, this advice is often sought too late for children. Further, it is important that children in local authority care are able to access legal advice on other areas of law. Children can require a broad spectrum of legal intervention to ensure that their best interests are represented: for example, to stay in education, to access support for their special educational needs or to gain compensation from a perpetrator.
The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child’s concluding observations on the UK Government’s fifth report noted that some children in care do not feel listened to and that unaccompanied migrant and asylum-seeking children may not receive independent legal advice. Figures gathered by the Children’s Society show that almost all unaccompanied children’s immigration cases would be out of the scope for legal aid. This is not a satisfactory picture, and I would like reassurance from the Minister that it will be looked at. We may well need to bring it back at a later stage of the Bill.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, for raising concerns about the legal aspects of children and care leavers, and in particular for extending that to children who have come here as refugees, and perhaps as unaccompanied minors. There has been a commitment from the Government that 20,000 such children will be accepted into this country by 2020. I know that my local authority in West Yorkshire has already been asked to accept 70 such children.
The difficulty that has been raised is one that we all ought to be aware of: we are in danger of creating two tiers of care leavers. On the one hand, there are those who are rightly included in this Bill, and we all praise the direction of travel. We are rightly saying that local authorities and corporate parents generally ought to take greater responsibility for those care leavers up to the age of 25. Therefore, in this Bill we are saying that young people aged 18 are not yet fully prepared and need help in the transition to adulthood. On the other hand, however, in the Immigration Act, which was debated in the last Session, the decision was made that, unless their asylum application is successful, young people aged 18, who have had some of the most harrowing experiences that any of us can imagine, not only will not receive any further care and support but will be sent back to their country of origin.
Noble Lords will probably not know, but the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, and I do, that the European Union Sub-Committee on Home Affairs, having spent many months on unaccompanied migrant children in the EU, has just drafted what I think both of us regard as an excellent report. I hope we can give a draft to the Minister so that he can see the evidence that the committee had from unaccompanied minors and can see the consequences of not extending the support that we are going to give care leavers in this country to unaccompanied minors.
I shall read one section from the evidence of the British Association of Social Workers, which said:
“The fear of removal upon turning 18 is so overwhelming for many young people that they run away from care and live in an underworld of street life, so essentially the system itself is putting these young people at risk of exploitation and abuse. The current Immigration Bill”,
as it was then,
“will ‘rubber stamp’ this abusive process by making all unaccompanied asylum seeking young people whose case fails destitute”.
My Lords, I support Amendments 14 and 28A, with particular reference to unaccompanied asylum-seeking children and the regularisation of immigration status. I look forward to reading the EU sub-committee’s report. I want to refer back to a report by the Joint Committee on Human Rights, of which I was then a member, on the human rights of unaccompanied migrant children and young people in the UK. We took a lot of evidence about the position of unaccompanied migrant children and young people, including questions around legal provisions—this was before the LASPO provisions were fully effective. We said that the picture painted of the legal landscape in this area was deeply troubling, and we called for an immediate assessment of the availability and quality of legal aid and legal representation for unaccompanied migrant children in England and Wales. I suspect it is going to emerge that the position is even more troubling today than it was then.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, I spent many hours wrestling with the Immigration Bill. One of the issues raised by the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, and myself, following representation from Amnesty and the Project for the Registration of Children as British Citizens, was the position of an estimated 120,000 children in the UK subject to immigration control and without leave to remain, over half of whom were born in this country and many of whom were in the care of a local authority. We drew attention to the evidence of the failure of local authorities to support these children in making a timely application to regularise their immigration status, or to register as British citizens.
As the Refugee Children’s Consortium, to whose important work in this area I pay tribute, pointed out, a child without a way to regularise their immigration status in local authority care becomes a young person without support at 18. As some of us pointed out then, you do not magically become an independent adult when you turn 18; when the clock passes midnight, you are not suddenly able to look after yourself. We do not expect any other children to be able to do so, so why should we expect it of the most vulnerable children in care—unaccompanied asylum-seeking children?
Finally, a recent briefing from the UNHCR and UNICEF sets out what the UK can do to ensure respect for the best interests of unaccompanied and separated children. One of the recommendations is on the need to strengthen procedural safeguards for assessing and determining a child’s best interests, including by ensuring high-quality legal representation and advice for unaccompanied and separated children. I hope that the Government will take that on board because it is not too much to ask. They should consider what a difference it could make to an extremely vulnerable group of young people.
My Lords, the report In Care, Out of Trouble: How the life chances of children in care can be transformed by protecting them from unnecessary involvement in the criminal justice system, an independent review chaired by my noble friend Lord Laming and sponsored by the Prison Reform Trust, was published about a month ago. Can the Minister tell us how the report has been received and when it is likely that a response to the recommendations made in it will be forthcoming?
I too share the concerns about the status of young people in the immigration system as they leave care. I would like to emphasise the point that has been made on all sides, most recently by the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, that these young people need advice early on when they enter care about their immigration status so that they can make early applications in order that when they leave care, it has been sorted out. Often they do not get that support and everything is up in the air for them. This is such an important point.
My Lords, I too support Amendments 14 and 28A, but I want to speak mainly in support of Amendment 9 tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham. I do so from the background of having been the architect of youth offending teams and as a former chairman of the Youth Justice Board. One of the most depressing things about the report of the noble Lord, Lord Laming, is that we continue to find that the same number of children, if not more, who have been looked after and have left care are in the criminal justice system. My responsibilities as chairman of the Youth Justice Board related to the under-18s. If noble Lords go to Feltham, as I did recently, or look at young offender institutions for 18 to 21 year-olds, they will still see very disproportionately represented young people who have been in care. It is worth giving this special consideration, without distorting and overcomplicating Clause 1 too much; the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, in Amendment 9.
These children are a special case. Many of us have tried to ensure that they get a better deal so that they do not go into the criminal justice system. Progress has been made among the under-18s in diverting them away from it, but there is still a long way to go. That is particularly the case among young people who have been in care and then are taken into custody. It is the case that when they leave custody, a depressing number of these young people quickly get on to the escalator of reoffending and they are back where they started. Many of the sentences are short. I should say that I am not advocating longer sentences for people in these circumstances, but they are usually not long enough to enable those running the custodial institution to change the behaviour of these young people and provide them with support. Typically, when they come out of custody, whether they are under 18 years of age or aged 18 to 21, for many there is no one in their lives to support them, they have accommodation problems and they do not have any employment. They then go back into the kind of environment which led them to get into the criminal justice system in the first place. Many of them offend outside the area where they were in care, so we have some problems about whether those local authorities always pick up the background of these children.
It is very difficult in today’s world for a youth offending team working with a young offender in one area to get the host local authority, if I might put it that way, to take responsibility for that young person who had been in their care. We have to look very seriously at Amendment 9 from the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham. It gives focus to the importance of trying to do our best to stop these young people who have been in care, or who have left care, going through the revolving door of the criminal justice system—particularly those who end up in custody and then fail again when they leave custody.
My Lords, first, I very much support the amendments that wish to provide legal assistance to children who are in need. It is extremely important that they should have such help. I suggest for consideration setting up an advice centre because the problems that unaccompanied minors who come from abroad face include the intricate law in relation to immigration. If you go to a high street solicitor, it is difficult to get the kind of advice that you might wish for in that situation. It would be important to have a small team of specialists set up by the Government, or by anyone whom the Government could persuade to set it up, which would be available to provide that kind of help to children in that situation. That would be children who are in care or unaccompanied minors who come into our system otherwise than by the ordinary ways of care. It may be a good idea to bolster this type of amendment with a suggestion as to how it might be carried out efficiently and at reasonable cost.
My second point is in relation to Amendment 9. I understand the problem broadly in terms of the report of the noble Lord, Lord Laming, and other reports—for example, the chief officers’ consideration of it. To ask people to do this is a great aim, in a sense, but I feel that if we are to do this we should offer them some assistance on how they go about it. Is the main way of approaching it to try to prevent the children in care committing criminal offences, small or large, or is it saying that if the children commit small offences we should persuade the police to do nothing about it? In other words, we should not commit these people to the organisation that deals with complaints generally. As has been said, ordinary children may find themselves in a disciplinary situation in their own families which does not involve the police and it may be that something of that kind is required. I am not at all certain how this problem can be dealt with but I am very much aware of it, and of the point of view that it should be dealt with. I would like to give more help to the people who we are asking to deal with it in how they go about it.
My Lords, I want to make two small points, the first of which was introduced quite well by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay. The one report not mentioned was that of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Children, which reported on an inquiry jointly with the police about children and the police. One thing that came clearly out of that inquiry was that when children kick off—to use a phrase that children would use—and create a disturbance because of difficulties in a children’s home, if the police are called to help deal with that disturbance they have to record it as an offence. But if it happens at home in a domestic situation and the police help out, it is not recorded as an offence because the people concerned cannot be pressed to press charges. We must look at the spectrum of these things because once a child has a criminal record we know that they are likely to feel fewer inhibitions about starting on that road.
In my day we had something called IT. It was nothing to do with technology. It was called intermediate treatment. The noble Lord, Lord Warner, will remember it well. It was a different sort of order where a child was not criminalised but had to go into a programme which sometimes related to the offence they had committed, so children who took away cars were sent off to learn how to manage cars properly and it took all their leisure time. The IT programmes were immensely successful. There are things that could be done in the future but certainly I think chief constables are keen not to have to prosecute. They have to because statistics are kept and the people who keep the statistics say that they have to be consistent. The noble Baroness, Lady Massey, and I heard this explanation with some disbelief. Surely the Government can do something about it quickly to stop that kind of intervention.
The second point I want to make is slightly different and is about asylum-seeking children and children who find themselves in this country at 18 and then discover that they have an immigration status that they did not know they had. Why can youngsters get to that point? The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, was right about that. I do not know why in this day and age a school does not discover that a child has an uncertain immigration status. Schools are doing so well at the moment. The Minister knows that. Surely we can tackle this issue. I would like to be sure that there is a plan from when a child enters the system right through and that we do not wait until the day the child finds themselves cast out. We must have a plan on that day for what is going to happen to them with the proper legal support and advice. I cannot think why we should take these children in at all if we cannot promise that we can give them hope for a future that does not mean being returned to the terror that they have just left. We have to make those decisions sooner rather than later. If there is proper planning I am not against children being returned. In the Vietnamese programme children were returned successfully because the planning was done properly. It is when we do not have plans that problems arise. I met a young man recently who found himself with no status on the day of going to college and he did not go.
It may interest the noble Baroness to know that one of my first jobs with children was working in an intermediate treatment centre. The teacher was a woman. The social worker was a man. They worked very well in partnership. The youngest boy was eight—a Traveller boy. The oldest was 15, going on to do a mechanics course. It certainly seemed to me a humane and effective way of working and I hope that we can go back to using more of that kind of approach.
I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, and the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, for these amendments —Amendment 9 regarding the unnecessary criminalisation of looked-after children and Amendments 14 and 28 concerning access to legal advice and representation for looked-after children. The first of the noble Lord’s amendments seeks to make it a requirement, linked to the principles, for local authorities and their relevant partners to prevent the unnecessary criminalisation of looked-after children. I understand why the amendment has been proposed and strongly agree that we must avoid children in care being unnecessarily criminalised. Local authorities should adopt a restorative approach wherever possible so that police intervention is viewed not as a first but a last resort. As noble Lords have said, children’s life chances can be badly affected by unnecessary involvement with the criminal justice system.
Existing guidance requires local authorities to have clear strategies in place to help protect and divert children from the justice system. As the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, said, in some areas the police, local authorities and children’s homes have worked very well together to ensure that restorative approaches are used wherever possible.
The framework of corporate parenting principles in the Bill already makes clear what it means for a local authority as a whole to act as a good parent. Good parents will not hesitate to safeguard their children from the risks of offending or involve the police unnecessarily. However, it is an important issue and we intend to cover it in the new statutory guidance that will underpin the principles. For instance, the guidance will stress the importance of co-operation and joint working between local authorities, the police, children’s homes and foster carers, and it will emphasise the importance of keeping a sense of proportion in relation to challenging behaviour.
The noble Lords, Lord Ramsbotham and Lord Warner, rightly raised a number of the very important issues highlighted by the Laming report. They will also be aware that Sir Martin Narey is currently carrying out a review of residential care which also looks at this issue in detail. In addition we have Charlie Taylor’s review of youth justice. All three of these reports and their findings will help and support us in developing guidance in this area and will give us a clear picture of other actions that we may need to take.
The noble Lord and the noble Baroness also proposed inserting a new corporate parenting principle to promote access to legal advice and representation for looked-after children. I agree that it is vital that we hear the voice of the child being cared for rather than simply treating them as part of an administrative process. Under the existing arrangements there are a number of adults who children in care can talk with and turn to. They include court-appointed guardians, their social worker and a named independent reviewing officer who will follow their case long term and can also advise the court.
Under the existing requirements, local authorities are required to make looked-after children aware of potential advocacy support to make representations or complaints, most significantly the advocacy services clause set out in Section 26A of the Children Act 1989, from which various pieces of guidance flow. An additional legislative clause is unlikely to impact further on either children’s or local authorities’ awareness. The associated statutory guidance will make clear that local authorities should consider how they can best listen to and hear from looked-after children and care leavers.
A number of noble Lords raised a range of issues relating to unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. The majority of these children will continue to receive support under the Children Act 1989 if they have a legal right to remain. Once that right is exhausted, they then get accommodation, subsistence and other social care support under the Immigration Act until they leave the UK. The Department for Education has been working closely with the Home Office to ensure that children receive appropriate support. However, in the light of the detailed points raised by noble Lords raised today, I would be very happy to arrange a further meeting to find out what has been happening. Given the depth of our discussions today, that would be better than me attempting to respond, not very well, to their points today.
I hope that on that basis the noble Lord will be happy to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister, particularly for her closing remark because many noble Lords would welcome such a meeting. Although there has been mention of liaison between the Department for Education and the Home Office, it does not appear so in the legislation before us.
Once again I am very grateful to noble Lords who have spoken. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, was speaking, I was reminded of an inquiry I conducted into the unlawful killing of Jimmy Mubenga, an Angolan asylum seeker who died on an aircraft. One of the witnesses who came before us was the Immigration Services Commissioner. She told us that one of her problems was trying to get some form of control over the people who were allegedly advising asylum seekers on their legal rights. She was looking for a job, as it were. She is an official; she is there. It seems to me that if anyone is going to get a grip on this, she will do so as someone already in the system with a responsibility to the asylum seekers who might be involved.
I absolutely agree that something needs to be done to co-ordinate all these activities. How the prevention is going to be done is probably by picking up good practice from somewhere and applying it to other places. I mentioned the work that has been done in Surrey, but it is not alone. As the noble Lord, Lord Warner, knows, there are many good things going on in various parts of the country that could be adapted with advantage. However, I have another concern over the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974. An extremely good report on this was produced by the Standing Committee for Youth Justice, which recommended that offenders should have their offending looked at at the age of 18 and that anything other than the most serious offence should be expunged so that they start with a clean slate. I have put forward a Private Member’s Bill and I hope to include that as priority number one.
I return to something the Minister said which gives me slight heebie-jeebies, which is that yet more statutory guidance is needed. I mentioned at Second Reading that there was concern over the number of Henry VIII clauses already in this Bill; we want to be very careful about adding yet more, not least in view of the remarks made previously by my noble and learned friend Lord Judge in the House. I hope that what comes out in the discussions that we will have between now and Report can lead to further consideration of these two very important issues and I look forward to taking part in them. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 9 withdrawn.
10: Clause 1, page 1, line 10, after “health” insert “(including mental health)”
My Lords, in the last hour or so we have heard a lot of talk about prevention, and the Minister latterly talked about life chances. My amendments today cover both prevention and life chances, and I wish to speak to Amendments 10, 16, 22 and 80A in this group.
Amendment 10 calls for mental health to be included in the definition of health. Amendment 16 comes in the part of the Bill on the best interests of children and supports the development of high aspirations in promoting “social and emotional” outcomes. Amendment 22 comes within the guidance for staff members for looked-after pupils and would reinstate issues for child welfare that were in the Children Act 1989. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, about this; I do not know where that Act has gone but it had such a lot of good things in it and was complete. I shall talk later on about the importance of taking into account certain things in that Act, such as age, gender, vulnerability and so on. Amendment 80A would add the category of,
“returning home to the care of a parent”,
to those looked-after children who have ceased to be looked after by the local authority.
Amendments in this group tabled by other noble Lords come in between my amendments and are to do with respecting the background of children and promoting well-being, prevention and life chances. I leave it to the capable hands of other noble Lords to talk about those issues.
Amendment 10 is about mental health. I remember that at Second Reading the issue of mental health came up over and over again. I want to emphasise the importance of attending to mental health here. The Royal College of Nursing, together with other notable organisations, has pointed out that the mental health needs are higher in looked-after children—I think one would expect that. Mental health must be addressed in the early years by carers, social workers and schools so that it does not deteriorate as children age.
Amendment 16 is about adding social and emotional outcomes to promoting “high aspirations”. The reason for this is that young people need to aspire. To express their views and feelings and to make the best use of services, they will need social and emotional skills and not simply information about what they should do. A strong body of research suggests that children need a strong base of resilience and confidence to succeed in personal relationships, academic achievement and communication skills. I shall come on to this again much later in Amendment 86.
Amendment 22 recalls the 1989 Act. It requires a local authority, in supporting children, to take into account issues such as gender, vulnerability, religious persuasion, racial origins and linguistic background; it should also take into account the trauma and suffering that children may have experienced. This is also important. It does not appear in the Bill but it should take into account that different children have different needs. There should be a special place for children who have gone through trauma, as we know some migrant children have.
I spoke at Second Reading of the important needs of migrant children in care. I declare an interest as a Member of the EU Home Affairs Sub-Committee, which is just completing an inquiry on unaccompanied migrant children in the UK. It is a lengthy report but it will be very useful. One of our witnesses spoke of the high level of trauma in asylum-seeking children from conflict zones and the lack of attention that some local authorities give to their mental health needs. Trafficked children, too, have horrendous stories to tell and their support needs are very great. I know that many children who are not migrants or trafficked children also have had horrendous experiences and need a lot of support.
Some authorities are responsible for far more child migrants than others and need extra help to cope with the numbers. I wonder what will happen to the cash situations of local authorities helping these children, particularly crowded authorities such as Kent. We should spell out the specific groups of children who are the most vulnerable and need the most help. I hope that the Minister will look seriously at the issues relating to the prevention of life chances. I beg to move.
My Lords, I shall speak to Amendments 17 and 21. In doing so, I draw attention to my various educational interests as set out in the register. I thank the officials who were generous with their time between Second Reading and now in helping to answer a number of points for me.
I support the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, on her Amendments 10 and 16, which deal with mental health and social and emotional well-being. Those seem essential in the essence of what we are trying to do here. I support wholeheartedly the corporate parenting principles. Earlier today my noble friend the Minister described them during Oral Questions as bringing together what it means to be a corporate parent for the first time. Clearly, we want to make changes and improvements to them but it surely must be the right ambition to build on the Children Act 1989. I am conscious that the noble Baroness, Lady Evans, and I are the only two people speaking in the Committee who were affected as children by that Act. For me, it had the happy consequence that I went from a primary school that had corporal punishment to a secondary school that did not. I am deeply indebted to my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay for that.
The purpose of my first amendment takes up what the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, was saying about the driving forces behind this group: prevention and having ambition for children. Amendment 17 is really about ambition and would insert “educational” before “outcomes” into the fifth of the corporate parenting principles. I gave the reasons for doing so at Second Reading because it seems odd to me that while health is rightly mentioned in the first of the principles, education is not mentioned explicitly in any of them. Yet the life chances agenda which is commendably at the heart of the Government’s legislative programme shows that there is no better way to improve a child’s long-term life chances than to give them a great education.
We know that for many looked-after children, the education they receive is sadly not yet good enough. The noble Baroness, Lady Howe, has already referenced the gap in performance at key stage 2. At the end of primary school just 52% of such children reach level 4 in their English and maths SATs, which is the expected standard, as compared with 80% of other children, and indeed boys do even worse than that. Previously looked-after children do not do much better, so we really have a problem here. That is not to say that lots of bodies are not engaged in trying to solve it, but the reason for the amendment is to ensure that there is absolutely no doubt whatever that all the agencies and institutions involved in the lives and improving the life chances of these children should be focused on dramatically raising those unacceptably low standards. That is why I believe that “educational” should be included.
To complement the insertion of the word in the principle, I continue to urge the DfE to commission the two relevant What Works centres, the Education Endowment Foundation and the Early Intervention Foundation, as well as Ofsted to commission reviews of interventions that are particularly effective in raising the educational standards of these vulnerable pupils. If we are to achieve our ambitious goals for them, it is only right that we equip teachers and schools with the tools to do so.
The aim of Amendment 21 is to bring to the fore my own and indeed the department’s belief in the power of developing “character, grit and resilience”, to use the department’s words, in order to help young people to live happy, successful and independent lives. This clearly complements Amendments 10 and 16. One of the great benefits of character education—and I speak as someone who has set up two schools which have this philosophy at their heart—is that its effect is greatest on those who start from the lowest point. The Nobel Prize-winning academic James Heckman found that character strengths, which are sometimes called non-cognitive skills, are malleable. The leopard can change its spots, and this is especially true of younger children. Developing in these children from an early age character strengths such as self-control, gratitude, compassion and so on has a positive impact on life chances that continue to have effects as they grow up.
The benefits of having these strengths are clear. For example, a 2011 study from New Zealand found that children with strong character skills are less likely to be involved in crime, while equally children with weaker self-control have poorer outcomes. However, we know that this can be changed with judicious intervention. A working paper from Harvard University has shown that children affected by violence can be taught courage and self-control to help turn off toxic stress. What a powerful intervention that could be for some of the children under discussion today—not only children who are in care but also refugees, trafficked children and others. Many other studies show similar benefits. In his book How Children Succeed, Paul Tough talks about the KIPP charter schools in the US which have been incredibly effective at getting young people into college by developing their character strengths so that they can escape poverty. I visited one of those schools in the South Bronx area in New York, which had a graduation rate from high school into college of 8%. But that school had a rate of more than 80%, which is a really extraordinary improvement in life chances.
I think that all in this Room agree that the Government are serious about improving the life chances of vulnerable people and about putting character development at the heart of their educational approach. Amendment 21 seeks to connect the dots between these two ambitions, which in my view would undoubtedly have a positive effect on the future success and happiness of looked-after and previously looked-after children.
I shall speak to Amendments 23 and 25, and I support the amendments of the noble Baroness, Lady Massey.
The noble Earl has raised the issue of siblings. For children separated from their parents, siblings may form their next-closest relationships and therefore, wherever possible, we must also seek to avoid the separation of siblings. This can have devastating effects on those who have already undergone the suffering of being removed from their homes and filtered through the social care system. Many describe knowing they have a sibling that they are separated from as having a piece of themselves missing.
Your Family, Your Voice, which briefed me, states that currently 50% of sibling groups in care are split up. I find that an astonishing statistic. We sometimes read stories in the papers about siblings who were adopted and find their brother or sister later in life. Do we really think it is acceptable to be creating situations like that in this day and age? I accept that from time to time there may be a case for splitting up siblings, where one is very disruptive or has a detrimental effect on other siblings. However, the normal situation should be that priority is given to keeping siblings together—and, if it is considered desirable to split them up, the local authority needs to explain the reason why it is doing so.
It is important that we listen to what children want, and facilitate it. With regard to Amendment 25, where it is clearly unsuitable for a child to remain with their parents, relatives or close friends may be able to step in to prevent them having to be taken into care. For a child, being taken away from their home, whatever their circumstances, must be highly traumatic. However, where they are going to live with a friend or relative who is already known to them, this will lessen the strain and upset, and in many cases will mean that the child is raised within their family.
There are an estimated 200,000 children being raised by kinship carers, 95% of whom are not classified as looked after. The briefing that I received from the Kinship Care Alliance, which I understand is serviced by the charity Family Rights Group, stated that,
“children in kinship care are doing significantly better than children in unrelated care, despite having suffered similar early adverse experiences—in particular they feel more secure and have fewer emotional and behavioural problems and are doing better academically”.
So this approach also has the economic benefit of savings for the state if the child is not taken into care, although I understand that at present kinship carers are not being given any financial help. This aspect needs to be looked at. Having an extra child or children in the house may create financial hardship in terms of both needing bigger accommodation and having more mouths to feed. I understand that a large percentage of kinship carers have to give up work to take on the extra children. It would therefore be helpful to give them some support. I understand that local authorities often seek close relatives and friends to look after the child, but I would like to see in the Bill that this has to be done and considered, because it seems to be a much preferable outcome for the child.
My Lords, I am afraid that my Amendment 24 in this group would add further corporate parenting principles to Clause 1. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson of Abinger, I want to add the principle that siblings should be kept together as far as possible. If they cannot be fostered or even adopted together, at least they should be located as close as possible to each other and arrangements made for them to have contact if they want it. That last point, made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson, is absolutely right: we have to take account of what the child wants in relation to his or her siblings.
Many children who suffer the trauma of the break-up of their family and being taken into care rely very much for their emotional well-being on the support of their siblings. I know that most local authorities do their very best to ensure that they can be together as much as possible, but it is not easy to find foster parents who will take more than one child, or a group of two or three. If we are laying down corporate parenting principles, it is vital that sibling issues are in there. Emotional well-being is important for educational attainment and success in life, and we let children down if we ignore it. Although it is mentioned in Clause 1(1)(a) of the Bill, we need to be more specific about how that well-being should be achieved on a matter as important as siblings.
My second point is that children’s backgrounds, personalities and interests should be valued in decisions about their care. Children are people and should be treated as such, not just as a number or a cost. When decisions are made about where to place them, they should be treated as unique human beings.
Thirdly, I want children’s rights and entitlements to be recognised in the corporate parenting principles so that they can play their full part in society. I will come on to other amendments about rights later in our debates, but they should be up-front in Clause 1.
Finally, my amendment supports the move of my noble friend Lady Tyler to ensure that children have a proper physical and mental health assessment from a properly qualified professional, and that their needs are promoted. They must have appropriate treatment or therapy to help them to recover from whatever trauma has contributed to them coming into care. Of course, we know that around 20% to 35% of sexually exploited children have been in care. My noble friend will say more about that issue later.
As I said at Second Reading, this assessment and treatment should include any speech and language needs because, if not detected and addressed, this lack of ability to communicate freely can not only hold the child back in their education but cause such alienation that they may find themselves in trouble with the law. That would be a terrible disaster, as we heard when discussing the previous group. It can also prevent children engaging fully with their own care and expressing their views. It is so important that those views are heard when decisions are made about their care, so we must ensure that children are equipped with the skills and abilities to make their views known. So I hope that the Minister will look kindly on these additional principles and agree to their incorporation.
My Lords, my amendment in this group is Amendment 28. But before I turn to it I should say that, having listened to all the points that have been made, whether on speech and language difficulties, referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, the kinship carer issue mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson, or the splitting up of siblings—all these issues are so important. The fact that they have not been addressed effectively does not speak well of what we have achieved so far. We must ensure that we achieve more appropriate success in future.
My Amendment 28 stresses the need for a recovery principle to guarantee therapeutic support for looked-after children. Amendment 1, to which I spoke, also proposed that relevant bodies must also ensure the provision of appropriate support to advance looked-after children’s,
“recovery, happiness and emotional stability”.
As many as six in 10 children in care are there because they have experienced abuse or neglect, yet our support offer often falls woefully short. Between 60% and 90% of children who have experienced sexual abuse will not get access to therapeutic support. NSPCC research has also found that as many as one in five children are turned away from CAMHS after referral to a service. While the average waiting time between referral and assessment is two months, unbelievably many children are waiting up to six months.
Around 100 children contact the NSPCC’s ChildLine service each week about mental health concerns and abuse. This has profound implications for children. Looked-after children are four to five times more likely to attempt suicide than their peers outside the care system. Research from the United States also indicates that nine out of 10 children who are abused go on to develop a mental health condition by the time they are 18.
Young people who worked with the NSPCC to provide evidence for the Education Select Committee’s inquiry into the mental health of looked-after children said that the traumatic reasons that caused them to enter care are often never really dealt with. One said:
“Wounds turn into scars that will never heal”.
Another child, describing her care experience, explained to the committee that she had just accepted that she did not deserve the best in life. No children should ever have to carry these burdens with them throughout their lives.
It is therefore vital that the Government accept this amendment. Some £1.25 billion is on the table to improve mental health provision in the UK, and we must ensure that this reaches looked-after children. A robust legislative framework that puts the needs of looked-after children first is a vital way of achieving this.
Amendment 33 in this group is mine. In the natural parent system there are normally one or two people who are linked to the child, and that link continues. When children go into care, the difficulty is that the staff looking after the children are apt to be different from day to day and week to week, and certainly from month to month. My proposal is that when a child comes into care, a member of the local authority care staff should be appointed with a responsibility for the well-being of that child. When I use the phrase “well-being”, I am thinking of course of the Care Act and the wonderfully large coverage that that phrase embraces. It is extremely important that this should happen.
Inevitably, there will be a need for change from time to time. I have therefore proposed that where it has to be changed, a new appointment is made so that there is always some individual responsible for the well-being of that child. An example of where this can happen and be important is in relation to the provision for the child. If a child is being provided for in a certain situation and it appears that a more inexpensive arrangement can be made for that child’s care, the idea might be to move that child from the more expensive arrangement to the less expensive. It is important that someone with responsibility for the well-being of that child should have an opportunity to be involved in that kind of decision. That seems to be well worth while.
The noble Lord, Lord Harris of Haringey, in his report on deaths in custody, suggested that where a vulnerable person came into the custody system it was important that a single person should have responsibility for looking after the well-being of that vulnerable person. I do not think the Government have actually refused to accept that particular proposal but they have not accepted it as yet. What lies behind that proposal is very much the same as what lies behind mine and I hope the Government will accept both.
My Lords, I have Amendments 34 and 87 in this grouping. I shall deal with Amendment 87 first, for reasons that I hope will become obvious. Both amendments are to do with the mental health and emotional well-being of children in care. I support much of what has been said and proposed in this very wide-ranging grouping; there are many very important issues being dealt with here.
At Second Reading I argued that the bedrock of promoting the mental health and emotional well-being of children in care should be the introduction of an improved system of mental health assessments for children entering care, throughout their time in care and indeed when leaving care. I acknowledge the work that is going on. The Minister has already referred to the current pathway that is being developed by the Department for Education’s expert group. It is indeed promising. However, that does not negate the need for a statutory strengthening of current mental health assessments.
Current statutory guidance states that children must receive a physical health assessment when entering care, whereas it is recommended that their emotional well-being should be evaluated by what is called a strengths and difficulties questionnaire. That is widely regarded as inadequate. The latest figures I saw suggested that around only 70% of children in England entering care had these questionnaires completed for them. As we have already heard this afternoon, children entering care often exhibit challenging behaviour resulting from their experiences before entering care, usually to do with abuse and neglect. Moreover, these questionnaires are completed by foster carers, who I am sure are doing their absolute best but who may have little or no training in mental health.
The point of my amendment is that these assessments really should be conducted by professionals with specialist knowledge of the therapeutic needs of children in the care system and how they should be met. The point I most want to emphasise is that the introduction of these mental health assessments for children in care is the first and most basic step towards improving their mental health. However, it is only that. They are a mechanism and not an end in itself. We want to see that these assessments ensure that children in care receive the right support and interventions to deal with their mental health and emotional needs.
This could include a range of things, such as peer support, group working, play or art therapy, counselling or a referral to CAMHS. I was encouraged to hear the Minister say earlier in the debate that access to CAMHS should be based on clinical need. That is absolutely right. However, at the moment, there is precious little evidence that that is happening.
The Minister also quite rightly raised Future in Mind, an excellent report that holds much promise if it is implemented properly. However, recent research by the NSPCC about the local transformation plans, which are the mechanism for implementing Future in Mind, reveals that just 14% of plans contained an adequate needs assessment for children who had been abused or neglected. There is a lot more to do.
As to Amendment 34, much of what I have already said applies. The amendment would introduce a duty to promote children’s physical and mental health and emotional well-being, including a requirement for a designated health professional. Currently, clinical commissioning groups are required to have access to the expertise of a designated doctor and nurse for children in care, whose role is to assist commissioners in fulfilling their responsibility to improve the health of children in care. However, this is not underpinned by primary legislation.
The duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of children in care should also include a particular duty to promote that child’s physical and mental health and their emotional well-being in line with the existing requirement to promote the child’s educational achievement. The two are inextricably linked; a point that was made very clearly by the noble Lord, Lord O’Shaughnessy. All the research tells us that levels of well-being impact on educational attainment and can predict future health, mortality, productivity and income outcomes. There is an awful lot at stake here.
The effect of this amendment would be that all clinical commissioning groups must appoint at least one person who is a registered medical practitioner or registered nurse who will be required to discharge this duty, building on the existing role of the designated doctor. This would put the requirement for the appointment of a designated health professional on the same statutory footing as the requirement for local authorities to appoint a virtual school head and a designated teacher. I see this as another piece of parity of esteem.
My Lords, I support Amendments 10, 16, 34 and 87 and the separate issue that is Amendment 33. I am not going to rehearse all the arguments about why looked-after children and children taken into care are a very special case in relation to access to mental health services, but they are. The noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, made the point about the inadequate assessment of the state of their mental health and the trauma they have suffered. It is pretty intolerable. Some of us who are veterans of the discussions on the Health and Social Care Act 2012 spent a very long time trying to persuade the Government to deal with parity of esteem between physical and mental health in that piece of legislation. Finally, the Government gave way and it is in there. It is part of the way the mandate has been changed for NHS England.
That is fine in terms of that piece of legislation but there needs to be some follow-through in this legislation as well. That is why Amendments 34 and 87 are so important because not only do they deliver parity of esteem in terms of physical and mental health, they lead to some practical ways of making that happen. We all know that access to CAMHS is extremely variable around the country. There is no equivalent access in different parts of the country. That is why we should start to really push the boat out on this issue in this legislation. I hope the Government will recognise the seriousness of the issue of proper mental health support in the Bill for these children who have very special needs. They have gone through particular sets of trauma in getting to the point where the state has had to intervene and bring them into the care system.
I wish Amendment 33 from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, had been on the statute book when I was a director of social services. I would like to have been put in the position of having to address that issue. I became the Children’s Commissioner in Birmingham in 2014-15. There is a deeply depressing familiarity for me when talking to children in private meetings about their experiences in care. They would readily tell you how many social workers they had had, not just in their time in care but in the last 12 months. There is massive turnover for a group of people who have already lost a lot of confidence in the adult world. These are young people who have often had very bad experiences at the hands of adults. They have often had a transition of adults through their lives with no consistency.
The noble and learned Lord has raised an important issue and I wish we had had more time as I would have added my name to his amendment. The Government should take this amendment very seriously. It will of course be difficult always to get that right in the present circumstances, but at least it should be clear in law that that is what the corporate parents should be trying to do as soon as the child comes into the care of the local authority.
My Lords, I visited my GP last week and she expressed her concerns about the number of care leavers coming to her surgery with mental health issues—anxiety, depression, self-harming, suicidal emotions and erratic behaviour. She said: “Floella, if only we could do something about this when the child is entering care. If only we could identify that they are suffering from mental problems it would save the NHS resources and save them suffering and long-term unhappiness.” That is what many Peers have said this evening, while charities such as the NSPCC have said it for a long time. I, like others, strongly believe that we need to adequately identify the issue and that children should receive assessment for their mental and emotional well-being by professionals with specialist training in the mental health of looked-after children. This is necessary because the children are suffering long-term. We spoke earlier about corporate parenting. I believe that the principles should include the responsibility to ensure that children are offered the support they need to recover from psychological harm caused prior to their entry to the care system. That should be paramount when we have to look after those children.
There must be provisions made to guarantee that the children in care will never be denied access to, or disadvantaged when trying to access, mental health services. They are finding that this is a problem. They must never be told that they cannot get professional help because they are not in a stable placement, or disadvantaged because they have moved out of an authority placement. We know that a high percentage of children in care end up in prison or are homeless, and that many suffer from mental problems while in prison. During my prison visits, I often speak to young people who say. “If only things had been different for me when I was a child”—a phrase repeated over and over again. Children who have been abused or neglected could face serious long-term mental problems throughout adulthood because of the lack of support, so it is essential that we are able to deal with difficulties early and offer the right support to children.
Children need that support but the NSPCC has found that there are not enough therapeutic services for those who have been abused or neglected. This has to stop. There is cause for concern because more and more children are reporting sexual abuse, which is occurring every hour of the day, and because we have almost 70,000 children living in care in England. This has to stop and we have to help these children. We must not let them down. That is why I am supporting and have put my name to Amendment 87.
My Lords, nothing has been said during this debate that one could reasonably disagree with. My only question is: would it help if we had it all in the Bill? I would draw attention to the Local Government Association’s concern, which is that if all these things are in a Bill they restrict the capacity to think through the targeting of where there is greatest need. In some communities, the greatest need may not be for the in-care community.
We know, as I said this afternoon during Questions, although I was rather interrupted, that the children who are on the list of those in greatest need are likely to have a greater need for intervention than some of the children in care. We should not do anything that inhibits local authorities and their partners from making proper assessments and being able to direct those services. I know, having talked at length to the noble Lord, Lord Warner, and to other people who have been in poor authorities, that there is some despair about whether some local authorities will ever reach that point of being able to make good assessments. I also know from work that I am doing with the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Children that some remarkable work and turnaround is happening in other local authorities. We should try to work with the best towards the best and enable a local authority to do that.
I am interested that the noble Lord, Lord Warner, is so sanguine about the suggestion of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay. I can see a million difficulties in having his suggestion on the statute book. Again, much as the bit of me that was a director of social services would have liked to have had that, the other bit would know how impossible it is to get one person. What is the role now of the independent reviewing officer, for example? We know that IROs have not been particularly successful, yet those are the people who we have identified as the ones to focus on the children. There must be alternative ways.
This is where the two parts of the Bill come together. If we are able to get the social work bit of it right and develop really good social work, it seems that the other issues will not be so pressing—apart from the ones raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler. The mental health issues of children in care are of particular concern and I would support her. This is because CAMHS is in such disarray, probably in greater disarray than some other areas in local authorities, and although I think that the Government have good intentions to put money into the service, we know how hard it is to get that funding properly directed. However, we could make a real difference to young people’s progress if we ensure that their therapeutic needs are met early on, not when they are developing serious mental disorders and personality conditions. We know that behavioural work with children at an early stage works very well. While I am finding it difficult to support a wide range of the amendments, again because I want to keep the Bill as simple and implementable as possible, we should look seriously at these mental health issues.
My Lords, undoubtedly many telling points have been made on these wide-ranging amendments. I cannot offer my support for all of them, but I certainly can in respect of those tabled by my noble friend Lady Massey and the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler of Enfield, concerning mental health. My noble friend urged the promotion of mental health, something that we might imagine was not necessary but unfortunately it is. Current statutory guidance requires that children entering care should receive a physical health assessment by a trained clinician, yet mental health and emotional well-being are assessed only through a strengths and difficulties questionnaire. That is not an alternative to a full assessment conducted by someone with the appropriate qualifications in mental health, which should be instituted as a matter of urgency. The noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, sets it out clearly in her Amendment 87. This is not a new demand. I can recall asking for it on several occasions during our consideration last year of the Education and Adoption Bill, and I was not alone. Noble Lords from all sides of the House expressed the same call.
It is now well past the point when Ministers should get it, by which I mean the fact that 45% of children entering care have a diagnosable mental health condition. Their needs should be identified early and clearly. The noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, referred to the plans that form part of the implementation of Future in Mind, and I hope that I am quoting her accurately when she said that only 14% of children entering care receive proper mental health assessments despite the proposals in the document. I would suggest that the time for that situation to change dramatically is now long overdue. We missed the opportunity in last year’s legislation, so I hope that will not be allowed to happen again.
My Lords, I shall speak to Amendments 10, 16, 17, 21 to 25, 28, 33 and 34, 80A and 81A, 84A and 87 regarding the promotion of the mental, physical, emotional and social health and well-being of looked-after children and care leavers, as well as their educational outcomes, along with the educational outcomes of children who leave care and return to their parents. I fully agree that promoting the mental health and social and emotional well-being of looked-after children and care leavers and promoting positive educational outcomes for these groups is critically important, and I shall deal with each of the amendments in turn.
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Massey of Darwen, for her Amendment 10 and the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, for her Amendment 34. The Government have made clear in Section 1 of the Health and Social Care Act 2012 that a comprehensive health service is one that addresses mental as well as physical illness. The Government’s intention is to ensure that the first corporate parenting principle, which refers to promoting the health and well-being of looked-after children and care leavers, is interpreted as covering both the physical and mental aspects. We think that this is clear in the Bill as currently drafted, but we will clarify the position in associated statutory guidance.
I turn now to Amendments 16 and 21, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, and my noble friend Lord O’Shaughnessy, which focus on social and emotional outcomes and character strength. I completely agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, that we want to see children in care achieve and excel in all areas of their lives, including social and emotional outcomes. I assure the noble Baroness that the word “outcomes” is wide enough to include social and emotional outcomes, but we will make that clear in statutory guidance. Children’s care plans already include the need to identify appropriate outcomes for health, education, family and social relationships, social identity, social presentation, self-care, and emotional and behavioural development.
I am grateful for the amendment of my noble friend Lord O’Shaughnessy which focuses on character strengths and improving mental health in preparation for adulthood and independent living. I agree that these are very important elements of support, but we do not believe that central government should mandate exactly how local authorities should prepare their young people for independence. However, it could well be set out in local offers. It is also important to allow flexibility.
We expect local authorities to have regard to the views, wishes and feelings of looked-after children and care leavers and to respond to their individual needs. We will produce statutory guidance to steer them through this process and will of course consult on the guidance while it is under development.
We would like local offers to cover all the skills that young people leaving care should have developed, a point made very forcefully to me by a young girl in care with whom I recently had an interesting discussion.
I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, for Amendment 87, which proposes an amendment to the Children Act 1989. I can confirm that Section 22 of that Act already prescribes the general duties of local authorities in relation to looked-after children. Existing regulations also require the authority to make arrangements for a registered medical practitioner to carry out an assessment of the child’s state of health and provide a written report of the health assessment. The aim of the assessment is to provide a comprehensive health profile of the child to identify those issues that had been overlooked in the past and that may need to be addressed in order to improve the child’s mental, physical and emotional well-being, and to provide a basis for monitoring a child’s development while having looked-after status.
Our investment of £1.4 billion over the lifetime of this Parliament will go a long way in establishing accessible child mental health and well-being services. Nowhere is that more important than for looked-after children. However, it is an important principle that entry to the care system should be based on need rather than because of the circumstances of children’s upbringings.
The noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, made the point about the lack of therapeutic support for abused children. We agree that it is essential for children who have been abused to be able to access support, as stated in the NSPCC report. The investment of £1.4 billion, to which I have already referred, will lead to a significant increase in access to high-quality, evidence-based services. We also need to ensure that this funding is used to improve preventive and early intervention, including through more support in schools and foster care training.
The noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, and the noble Lord, Lord Warner, made the point that there is little evidence that access to CAMHS is based on clinical need. We agree that many looked-after children are currently unable to access services. The local transformation plans show how every area will address these issues and, we are assured, the basis on which they address the needs of all children, particularly those who are vulnerable.
We know that approximately half of all looked-after children do not show signs of mental health difficulties following the strengths and difficulties mental health questionnaire that is completed for all looked-after children. However, it is right that we should ensure a timely and effective response for those who need help and support. Automatic mental health assessment on entry to care would not be an effective nor efficient use of our healthcare resources.
However, a universal approach to assessment and need cannot be justified, regardless of financial pressures. Existing preliminary screening, which can be followed by more targeted assessment and support, is what current arrangements deliver and is the right thing to do. Approaches that use screening can capitalise on the carer’s views as the child starts to settle in the placement and mental health and emotional well-being needs start to emerge. Indeed, Teresa Latham, a foster carer who gave evidence at the Education Committee recently, said that a child on day one is not the same child six weeks later. So many areas develop in that period of time.
It is right that we should continue to review whether our approach is the right one. That is why we have established an expert group on the mental health of looked-after children, those adopted from care and care leavers. Led by Professor Peter Fonagy and Alison O’Sullivan, its role is to develop care pathways and models of mental health care for these children, meaning that all professionals will be working to the same agreed standard of care. Their work is expected to take about 18 months, and we will be looking at their outcomes and recommendations with great interest.
I would now like to turn to Amendments 22, 24, 28, and 33 proposed by the noble Baronesses, Lady Massey of Darwen, Lady Walmsley and Lady Howe of Idlicote, and my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern. The first three amendments concern the corporate parenting principles proposed in the Bill, while Amendment 33 would place a new duty on local authorities to appoint a member of staff to be responsible for the well-being of each looked-after child. Underpinning all is a concern that care should be child-centred and take account of the different needs and circumstances of individual looked-after children. These are concerns that I am sure are shared by all across the Committee.
When a child enters care, the statutory process of assessment and care planning requires that the child and their needs are considered carefully and holistically. The child’s background, the community they come from and any support needs they have as a result of past experiences such as abuse and neglect must be taken fully into account. The child’s placement and support around the child should then be tailored accordingly. This includes helping children to continue any religious instruction they may be undertaking, or allowing them to take part in festivals or ceremonies of significance to their culture.
Effective assessment and care planning should already take account of contact with the family, including siblings, where this is in the child’s interests. Section 34 of the Children Act 1989 sets out clear expectations on where reasonable contact should be considered, and gives powers to the court to order contact. Assessment and care planning should also identify and ensure appropriate responses to trauma. It sets the framework for action, and children’s social workers and care leavers’ personal advisers are the key professionals to ensure that the response happens.
The key ingredient of addressing the effects of early-life trauma is to promote stability in children’s lives. The changes in decision-making for long-term care placements in Clauses 8 and 9 of the Bill, and the regulations that we introduced in 2015, which promote the effectiveness of long-term foster care placements, all support the stability of looked-after children. We recognise that effective support for the most vulnerable and traumatised children also requires strong partnership between social workers and mental health professionals. As I have said, the Government’s children and young people’s mental health strategy, Future in Mind, marks our commitment to transform child mental health and well-being services.
The amendment from the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, also references the importance of promoting children’s rights and entitlements. I reassure her that principles (1)(b) and (1)(c), which would require local authorities to have regard to the need to encourage children to express their views, wishes and feelings, and then to take those wishes and feelings into account, were designed expressly to ensure the promotion of the child’s rights and entitlements and to put their individual personalities, talents and interests at the heart of their care. That is a child-centred approach.
I turn to the amendment proposed by my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern. We share his concern to strengthen accountability within local authorities and to ensure that every child in care receives the services and support that they deserve. The first of the corporate parenting principles—to act in the best interests and promote the health and well-being of looked-after children—is central and will apply across all local authority functions. It will embed a culture of good parenting across the whole authority, complementing the responsibilities that individual social workers and independent reviewing officers already have in relation to each looked-after child. I do not believe that appointing one individual in a local authority will achieve the better outcomes for looked-after children that we are seeking. Indeed, it could work against everyone in the local authority accepting mutual responsibility.
I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Hodgson for the two amendments that she has tabled. Amendment 23 concerns keeping siblings together and Amendment 25 would require local authorities to have regard to the need, wherever possible, for a child to be looked after by a relative, friend or other connected person.
In relation to siblings, the Government agree that it is vital, wherever possible and consistent with children’s welfare, that brothers and sisters are able to live together. We all know that close sibling relationships can be an important source of support throughout life. They can also be a protective factor for vulnerable looked-after children. I am pleased to say that there are already extensive measures in place to ensure that sibling relationships are protected and prioritised wherever possible. Section 22C(8)(c) of the Children Act 1989 requires local authorities to find a placement for looked-after children such that siblings can live together. In addition, volume 2 of the Children Act 1989 statutory guidance and its associated regulations make it clear that wherever it is in the best interests of the child, siblings should be placed together.
If, for whatever reason, the local authority is unable to place siblings together, the Government’s statutory guidance is clear that the active involvement of all parties is needed to facilitate contact between siblings in a way that supports the development of healthy sibling relationships. Moreover, IROs should ensure that care plan review meetings consider whether sibling contact commitments in care plans have been appropriately implemented and that the child is happy with the quality and frequency of the contact they have.
Looking beyond siblings to wider relationships, the Government recognise how vital it is that children and young people are helped to maintain family and other close relationships. Section 22C of the Children Act 1989 already sets out a clear hierarchy of placements for looked-after children. Local authorities must give preference to placements with an individual who is a parent, a person with parental responsibility, a relative, a friend or another person connected with the child. My noble friend Lady Hodgson mentioned kinship care. As I say, looked-after children are placed according to a hierarchy. Priority is given to kinship care. Local authorities must place looked-after children with kinship local authority foster carers in preference to non-kinship foster carers. Local authorities are required to publish a policy setting out their approach to supporting the needs of children living with family and friends, and we have provided a grant to grandparents to develop an early help model for kinship carers. We will of course ensure that these issues are factored into the statutory guidance that will underpin our new corporate parenting principles.
The noble Baroness also raised the issue of safeguarding welfare. Local authorities are already under a direct duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of looked-after children by virtue of Section 22 of the Children Act 1989.
I turn to Amendment 17, tabled by my noble friend Lord O’Shaughnessy. The amendment proposes to amend principle (1)(e), the fifth principle, so that local authorities would have to have regard to the need to secure the best educational outcomes for looked-after children and care leavers. The Government are committed to achieving educational excellence for every child, including looked-after children and care leavers. My noble friend referred to the 50% key stage 2 figure. That obviously is nowhere near good enough, but it has risen by 10% over the past few years. Still, obviously we have a long way to go.
I can understand why, when we mention promoting health and well-being, not to include in the principles an explicit mention of education appears to be an oversight. I assure the Committee that that is not the case. The Children Act 1989 already provides for a range of duties that local authorities must discharge in respect of the children they look after. This includes a specific duty to promote the educational achievement of the children it looks after. Every looked-after child must have a care plan, which includes a personal education plan. We have made the role of virtual school heads statutory, while corporate parenting principle (1)(f) specifically mentions education. Looked-after children also attract pupil premium funding worth £1,900, and pathway plans for care leavers should also include information about how the local authority will support care leavers in their educational aspirations and career ambitions. They are a priority for the 16-19 bursary, worth £1,200 annually, and they also receive a one-off bursary of £2,000 if they progress to higher education.
Support is also available to help care leavers to access higher education. They are a target group in the Director of Fair Access guidance to universities in writing their access arrangements. Support from a personal adviser up to the age of 25 is already available to those in education and training, and we propose to extend that.
I turn to Amendments 80A, 81A and 84A, put forward by the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, which seek to extend the duty of the virtual school head and the designated teacher, in both academies and maintained schools, to promote the educational achievement of children who ceased to be looked after because they returned home to the care of their birth parent or parents. I agree with the noble Baroness that children taken into care but who later return to their birth parent or parents may also be vulnerable and need extra support in education. Many of these children come from disadvantaged backgrounds, and it is important that they and their families are given all the support they need.
Where a child ceases to be looked after because they return home, the child will be a “child in need” and a plan must be drawn up to identify the support and services that will be needed by the child and family to ensure that the return home is successful. Like other children who are disadvantaged, these children’s needs should be met by mainstream educational services. Many will be eligible for additional educational entitlements, such as free early education from the age of two and the pupil premium.
I agree that we must take care not to dilute the role of the virtual school head to the extent that they are spread too thinly. Many of them already operate flexibly and extend their support to former looked-after children, ensuring that their advice, support and advocacy role is targeted in proportion to the needs of the children whose interests they are responsible for. That is already happening and will continue.
We have covered a lot of issues in this group of amendments. In the light of my comments and those made by the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, about how putting all these things on the face of the Bill would restrict local authorities’ ability to think through where there is greatest need and how we should share good practice, I hope that noble Lords will be prepared to withdraw their amendments.
Given the strength of feeling that has been expressed on all sides about the mental health amendments in particular, would the Minister be prepared to agree to a meeting for those of us who tabled those amendments, and other Peers who have spoken with such passion on the subject, between now and Report?
Before the noble Baroness withdraws her amendment, I want to say how very pleased I was to hear that Dr Peter Fonagy, director of the Anna Freud Centre, an institution with such an illustrious history in the treatment of abused children, is being appointed to run a working group looking at how mental health professionals can better work with children in care. The Minister might consider taking to Dr Fonagy, at the beginning of his research, the concern about children’s homes. In his report in the 1990s, Choosing with Care, the noble Lord, Lord Warner, highlighted the fact that best and widespread practice on the continent had psychiatrists or relevant mental health professionals working in partnership with staff in children’s homes, as much to support staff as in meeting the mental health needs of these children. Only about half of our children’s homes have a connection with mental health professionals in that way.
This issue is so important. Although there has been progress in terms of the qualifications of staff in children’s homes, still we have a long way to go. They need the best mental health professionals supporting them. I would be most grateful if the Minister could flag that up to Dr Fonagy.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that very complete response. This has been a varied group of amendments and the debate has raised issues that I know the Government will take on board.
The noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, raised a very interesting issue about what goes into the Bill. I agree with her, of course. It seems to me that some of the issues raised today would be very easy to slot into the Bill. However, we need more discourse, perhaps with outside agencies, as the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, suggested, to condense other issues that might be reinforced in the Bill.
I am very glad to hear that there will be a review of mental health and looked-after children. The three issues that came out very strongly for me were mental health, prevention and assessment, the last of which was brought up by the noble Baronesses, Lady Tyler, Lady Walmsley and Lady Benjamin.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord O’Shaughnessy, for his support. We have talked about this before. To respond very quickly to him, I think character education does link with personal, social and health education. I do not care what you call it but it is important, although I will not accept the name “grit” education, because it is very American and it sounds like a film. As far as I am concerned, that is out, but we can talk about that some other time. The noble Lord, Lord Warner, and others mentioned CAMHS. CAMHS has borne the brunt of funding cuts since 2010 and cannot be relied on to do all the work that we expect of it.
I return to the very interesting remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson, on kinship care. I suggest to the Minister that this may be an area where we would benefit from a discussion with the Kinship Care Alliance because those of us who are old enough to have been here for a while—there are one or two familiar faces present—will remember that over the last 10 years, or possibly longer, the issue of kinship care has come up in three or four Bills but we have never resolved it. We have never resolved what kinship carers need or how they should be recompensed for the service they provide. They save the state millions of pounds but they still often live in poverty with no support. I hope we can crack this issue with this Bill and achieve some sensible way forward on this.
I hope the Minister accepts that this is an important issue. My comments are linked with what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, said because we tried with one such Bill to have a person appointed in every local authority who would support kinship carers and the relevant children. Sometimes children cannot be happy and healthy unless their carers are happy and healthy. Many kinship carers are not happy and healthy but are struggling under tremendous financial, physical and mental burdens. That is another issue to which we may well come back, but in the meantime I thank noble Lords for their contributions and beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 10 withdrawn.
Amendments 11 to 25 not moved.
Before the noble Lord, Lord Watson of Invergowrie, moves Amendment 26, it may be helpful for the Committee to hear that we intend to adjourn at 8 pm. If we have not finished this group of amendments, we will continue the discussion on Monday, but we shall adjourn at 8 pm, wherever we get to.
26: Clause 1, page 2, line 4, at end insert—
“( ) to promote early intervention in meeting the current and future needs of those children and young people.”
I thank the noble Baroness for that clarification. In moving Amendment 26, I wish to speak also to Amendment 50.
We on these Benches believe that the Bill as a whole would be much strengthened by adding another corporate parenting principle: early intervention. Prevention is of course better than cure, but the earlier that children at risk of harm or in need of additional support can be identified, and the earlier that those children can access services, surely the better their chances of overcoming the challenges they face, having a healthy life and forging a more positive future.
Many of the 10,000 young people leaving care in England each year have poorer outcomes than their peers in terms of education, work, mental health and well-being. Early intervention is crucial in addressing this and should include, for example: support at school and beyond to help children in care overcome barriers that can prevent them progressing in education; financial education; careers advice; and an introduction to the workplace and familiarisation with the world of work to help to build a successful transition into employment, so preventing debt and poverty. Perhaps most important of all is the need to identify and overcome trauma and past harm to prevent more significant mental health needs developing later on, a subject that was referred to in depth on the last group of amendments.
It would be wrong to suggest that local authorities and social workers are unaware of these issues or do not attempt to address them but, for whatever reasons, not enough is being achieved in terms of outcomes for looked-after children, young people and care leavers. An additional corporate parenting principle promoting early intervention would highlight the imperative of meeting these needs, and I hope that the Minister will accept that important principle.
Amendment 50 focuses on the need to even up the provisions for young people in care up to the age of 21. The staying put offer makes provision for children to stay with their foster parents; this amendment would make provision for other care leavers also to have suitable accommodation. We believe that there should be comparability of provision in place for all types of care.
Many young people these days stay at home long after they turn 18, often indeed into their thirties. This is usually for financial reasons but it also reflects the support that comes with being in a stable home. How ironic it is that care leavers do not have a home to fall back on, yet are even more likely to need one. The problem is that, like so many aspects of care leaver policy that we are debating, it benefits only a proportion of those who need it. Many of the most vulnerable young people in care will not be in a stable foster placement, meaning that they will not benefit from staying put. Instead, they are often expected to live independently without appropriate support and without any experience of doing so. We all remember leaving home for the first time and what a dramatic change that involved. Most of us will have been fortunate enough to have had a stable family home to fall back on if things got too difficult. Care leavers have no such cushion and have to deal with situations that can be stressful at best and dangerous at worst.
At present, there is no central funding and no requirement on local authorities to provide accommodation that meets their needs. We know that care leavers are much more likely than their peers to become homeless. Accommodation is at the heart of improving life chances for this group. Without a safe and stable home, how can we expect young people to go to college, gain skills, get a job or even in some cases attend healthcare appointments? Indeed, why should we expect these young people, many of whom are vulnerable and recovering from past abuse or neglect, to know how to live on their own? They often require a supported form of accommodation to give them the basic foundation they need to cope with other challenges.
The Children and Families Act 2014 introduced a special duty on local authorities to support some young people to remain with their foster parents up to the age of 21. This is welcome but it creates a disparity between those young people and others in care who cannot benefit from these arrangements. There are many reasons for providing accommodation up to the age of 21 but, critically, it must be appropriate to the young person’s needs and requirements. It could be residential or supported accommodation; it could be foster care as well. There are course costs to this but the Government should accept that funding needs to be provided to local authorities to meet the cost of this important provision.
In recent years, there has been political consensus that early intervention is key but the austerity Budgets imposed by the Government since 2010 have created an economic climate that has made that difficult to take forward. The Bill offers a real opportunity to send a clear message from government that early intervention should be a guiding principle in everything done to support children and young people in care, and care leavers. I beg to move.
My Lords, I shall speak in particular to Amendments 27, 49 and 88. I spoke at Second Reading about these issues and referred to the Children’s Society report, The Cost of Being Care Free. As we have heard today, young people in the care system suffer inadequate preparation for the financial implications of independent living. Care leavers are already vulnerable and deserve proper support to prevent them falling into poverty. Rent, council tax, electricity, gas, food and general household bills are all a black art and a mystery to them.
The key findings in The Cost of Being Care Free included that young people leaving care alone and with no family to support them are falling into debt and financial difficulty, due to insufficient financial education from local authorities. Almost half of local authorities in England failed to offer care leavers financial education, support and debt advice, leaving vulnerable young people unprepared for the realities of adult life and at risk of falling into dangerous financial situations. Many care leavers receive financial advice only once the situation has reached crisis point. Such dangerous financial situations could be prevented through financial education and advice, so it is important that we should do everything we can to make sure that this happens.
Young care leavers who have spoken to the Children’s Society stress that they would have welcomed more financial education and support prior to leaving care. They said that due to insufficient preparation on the part of the local authority, they had to figure out what bills needed to be paid and what their responsibilities were when they turned 18. Many young care leavers become destitute and homeless, as we have already heard.
On access to the benefits system, out of 4,390 decisions taken by jobcentres to apply for sanctions on care leavers, only 16% challenged them and 62% of those challenges were overturned, which means that 3,960 sanctions were applied to care leavers, meaning that there was one sanction for every 13 care leavers. It is simply unacceptable that care leavers should be sanctioned in this way.
I turn now to Amendment 88. I should say that I have tabled it on behalf of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which is extremely concerned about the life chances of young people leaving care—in fact, it is more about the lack of life chances. All the information and advice that could be made available to care leavers should be made available, and I fully support these amendments.
My Lords, I shall speak to Amendment 48 tabled in my name and to Amendments 49 and 50 in this grouping. Amendment 48 would provide a national offer for young people leaving care and would help to address the concerns that have just been raised about them entering poverty and social exclusion. It would build on what we were discussing earlier; that is, placing duties on departments in very specific ways to work to promote good outcomes for these young people. The national offer would include a council tax exemption, for which the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth of Breckland, will make the case shortly, as well as an entitlement to income support to reduce the risk of sanctions and help to support care leavers into work. There should be an extension of working tax credit to care leavers under the age of 25 to ensure that work always pays for them, along with an extension of the shared accommodation rate of local housing allowance, again until the age of 25.
I recognise that this is a very difficult time financially, and of course some of these proposals would have financial implications. While I am reluctant to burden the public purse still further, as the Minister and noble Lords will know, the cost of failing to intervene effectively on these young people is huge, including criminalisation and many becoming pregnant early in life. They will have young families and be struggling as it is, and yet they will have additional financial burdens and so on, although I understand that a couple of the provisions would be unnecessary for the mothers of young children. There are the knock-on costs, and of course there is the absolute misery for young people who are struggling in life and then perhaps having their own children taken away from them. I hope that noble Lords will bear that in mind.
On income support, which is covered in the first amendment, research undertaken by the Children’s Society has found that care leavers are three times more likely to have sanctions applied to them than other adults of working age, with 4,000 sanctions applied to care leavers between 2013 and 2015. Where these sanctions were challenged, although care leavers are less likely to challenge them, some 60% were overturned. This implies that the sanctions are being misapplied. Fewer than 16% of care leavers challenge benefits sanctions as opposed to 23% of the general population. Care leavers are particularly vulnerable to the effects of benefits sanctions, which currently can last for between four and 13 weeks for a low-level infraction such as being late for an appointment at a jobcentre. One young person told the Children’s Society that she was sanctioned in the lead-up to Christmas. She said:
“Don’t know why … it caused a lot of issues … I wasn’t able to sustain myself”.
Allowing care leavers to claim income support would ease their burden. Income support is still a sanctioned benefit, for groups who should be preparing for work. Currently care leavers are not eligible to receive income support by virtue of their status of having been in care. Extending the entitlement to be on income support to care leavers would be a recognition by central government of the need to be more supportive to this particularly vulnerable group during their search for gainful employment. This amendment is very much focused on reducing the impact of sanctions on care leavers, rather than providing them with a higher level of income.
The second part of the amendment applies to working tax credit. Care leavers currently cannot claim working tax credit under the age of 25 unless they have a child or disability. This amendment seeks to extend eligibility to claim working tax credit to all care leavers in full-time work of more than 30 hours a week in recognition of their risk of falling into debt as a result of being liable for household expenses such as rent, energy bills and basics, where many young people would not cover these costs in full if living with family members. It would also recognise the particular need to provide clear incentives to this group to move into, and stay in, work.
I understand that there may be some rationale behind restricting access to working tax credits until a person reaches 25. Younger workers on low wages are likely to be living with their families and not have the full financial liability of running a household. Those over 25 may be less able to fall back on their families for support. However, care leavers take on the full financial burden of adult life as soon as they begin independent living, yet are not able to claim the national living wage. Regulations by the Children’s Society show that they are £42 a week worse off than an equivalent older non-care leaver. Extending working tax credits to care leavers under 25 would be a significant step forward in ensuring that work paid for care leavers, and would secure the surest financial footing for them at the beginning of their adult lives.
The final part of the amendment is on the shared accommodation rate. That rate sets maximum local housing allowance entitlements for most single people under the age of 35 in line with the reasonable rent in their local area for a room in shared accommodation. Currently care leavers are exempt from this until the age of 22. The amendment seeks to extend this exemption up to the age of 25. Until the age of 22, care leavers receive the single bedroom rate, providing them with sufficient support to rent a single-bedroom flat rather than a room in shared accommodation. This should be extended until the age of 25.
With the current situation, care leavers receive a significant cut in their local housing allowance at the age of 23 as they transition from single-bedroom rates to the shared-accommodation rate. At this point, leavers may find that they fall into rent arrears, leaving their home to live in shared accommodation, which may put them at risk. Those in foster care leaving care under staying put arrangements of the age of 22 may find themselves transitioning immediately into shared accommodation. These are serious problems that the amendments would address, so I hope the Minister will consider a favourable response.
I turn to the next two amendments. I have spoken for far too long so I will not say anything more, but I strongly support them and I look forward to the Minister’s reply.
I thank the noble Earl. I thought briefly that he was going to make my speech for me, and I was having a doubtful moment.
These are probing amendments, looking at how other agencies could benefit the long-term care of young people. These are crucial areas. It is difficult to see this from the way in which the groupings list is put together, but these amendments are linked to Amendment 38, which I know we will come to but I need to make a comment about it before moving on because it is all about financial knowledge and education. The Government can be given credit for the general progress that has been made in financial education, but it is not enough, certainly not for children in the care system.
Schools have a mandate to include financial education lessons as part of mathematics and citizenship at key stages 3 and 4. Academies, free schools and independent schools have no obligation to teach it, although many do, but many schools do not have it high on the curriculum so children could miss out on this essential life skill. At a time of taking on more financial responsibility and having to make long-term financial decisions, only 28% of 17 to 18 year-olds received lessons on money management before joining university or the world of work. How much more difficult is it for the population of young people who are moving on from care who have very little backing from their own families for this? I am really probing this amendment because currently a paradox exists between a local authority’s duty of care to care leavers and its enforcement methods on council tax arrears. This paradox does not level with the corporate parenting principles set out in Clause 1 as it exposes care leavers to the risk of debt and potential court summons, does not promote their well-being, act in their best interests or seek to find the best outcomes for them.
Links between debt and poor emotional well-being are becoming increasingly clear and links between poor mental health and emotional well-being and future life chances have been well established. We are very grateful to the Children’s Society which has done a great deal of work on this and has shown that debt can influence a young person’s willingness to start university education due to the worry about the debt they may further accrue. One care leaver living independently told the Children’s Society that council tax arrears severely impacted on her well-being. She said:
“I was late making a payment and they sent me a reminder letter and they said if they had to send me any more reminder letters then I have to go to court and they stopped my instalments. I got really worried and really panicky because I didn’t understand, I didn’t want to go to court”.
Another speaking with reference to the reactive chasing debts and emergency support as opposed to proactive financial education and council tax exemption focus of local authorities said:
“They’re setting you up to fail”.
This is not the approach that any parent should take, especially a corporate parent. There are good areas of practice and I think the Minister knows about Cheshire East Council which has set the precedent in recognising its role as a corporate parent by introducing a full exemption from council tax for care leavers until the age of 25. This will cost about £17,000 per year, including out-of-area care leavers. Cheshire East anticipates this will reduce the number of emergency payments it will be required to pay to care leavers who are in financial crisis, as well as further reducing the dependency of these young people on other services. This is to be welcomed. However, we must take the opportunity presented to us with this amendment to make sure that all care leavers receive the full exemption from council tax until they are 25; otherwise we are back with a postcode lottery again, with some children getting it and others not.
It would be good if the Government could show leadership on this issue and make sure that as a corporate parent central government departments work with local authorities to extend the best practice as seen in Cheshire East across the country. The Minister may see this as an issue for local areas but the precedent is a national government one as the authority applies blanket exemptions to certain groups such as students through tax legislation. Does the Minister agree that as a corporate parent the Government have a duty to support care leavers in their transition into adulthood, and that council tax exemption is a tangible and meaningful way of doing this?
My Lords, I support what the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, has said about council tax exemption. The point she made was absolutely right. I would like to add that the report The Wolf at the Door, again by the Children’s Society, showed just how quickly care leavers could get into financial difficulties, and often the trigger is the council tax that they are required to pay. One young person quoted by the Children’s Society said:
“I kept on being charged for council tax”—
I guess we all feel like that—
“I couldn’t pay it. I was just falling further and further behind … I tried telling them that I couldn’t pay that per month, they weren’t having none of it … and then I ended up just leaving it. Even though I didn’t have any money, they weren’t willing to do anything”.
Care leavers need a better package of financial support so that they do not get into the situation where they fail to pay their council tax, and then obviously there are legal consequences from that. The point that the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, made was right, but on behalf of myself and my noble friend Lady Bakewell I would like to add that we should not leave this to the discretion of local authorities. Given the circumstances at their end, it is much less likely that that would be implemented. We would like to see a requirement on local authorities to do what a good corporate parent would do, which is to ensure that a young person’s council tax is paid up to the age of 25.
My Lords, I will speak briefly. Amendment 27 seems to underpin the other amendments with regard to protection against poverty and destitution. This is pivotal to the life chances of this particularly vulnerable group of young people. The Government’s own Care Leavers Strategy points out that when you do not have a supportive family to fall back on, particularly when having to meet the challenge of independent living at a much younger age than your peers, having access to timely financial help is crucial. Care leavers have told us that they often find it difficult to navigate services and work out what financial support they are entitled to, and we have heard how sometimes the financial support is not very much. I am not going to restate the case—and anyway the Minister may well have been briefed on this.
Amendment 48, which refers to income support and working tax credit, will be overtaken by events with the introduction of universal credit. For example, with regard to sanctions, the Children’s Society has suggested that under universal credit this group should be made subject to the work preparation requirement under Section 21 of the Welfare Reform Act 2012. That seems very reasonable to me.
The Minister himself referred earlier to one or two local authorities that provide exemption from council tax, when he was giving an example of how local authorities can support care leavers. I can only reiterate what has been said: this is so important that it cannot be left to the vagaries of local authority discretion. It has to be looked at again.
I hope that the Minister will be able to take away these practical suggestions for how local authorities and central government can support local authorities in their corporate parenting responsibilities. I realise that they sit in other government departments, so what would be helpful would be to have a commitment from the Minister today to take away these ideas and discuss them with his colleagues in the relevant departments, so that he can come back on Report. Possibly he could even hold informal discussions before then so that we might be able to make some progress on this set of eminently sensible suggestions.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baronesses, Lady Bakewell and Lady Howarth, the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, and the noble Lords, Lord Watson and Lord Hunt, for their amendments in this group, which focus on improving the life chances of children in care and care leavers and helping them to avoid poverty and debt. I share the concerns raised by noble Lords and can confirm that reducing poverty and debt will be one of the key themes in our forthcoming Care Leavers Strategy, which we plan to publish shortly.
Amendment 26, tabled by the noble Lords, Lord Watson and Lord Hunt, seeks to add a new corporate parenting principle to Clause 1 requiring local authorities to promote early intervention. I agree with the noble Lords that we should support measures that enable professionals to identify and intervene in cases where children are at risk of poor outcomes. We have launched a number of initiatives to encourage early intervention and have backed this up with increased funding, with government spending on early years and child care rising from £5 billion in 2015-16 to over £6 billion by 2019-20. Early intervention and support should benefit all children, not only looked-after children or those on the edge of care. Our plans for the early years demonstrate our clear commitment to universal services such as free childcare, alongside targeted support for the most vulnerable.
Amendment 27, tabled by the noble Baroness, also seeks to add an additional corporate parenting principle to Clause 1 which would require local authorities to have regard to the need to protect children in care and care leavers from poverty and destitution. We know that care leavers often face challenges with debt. We have heard from them that they worry about how they will be able to pay their rent and that they often feel they lack the relevant budgeting skills to be able to manage their money effectively. We have heard several examples of that today.
I recognise the importance of the issues raised by the noble Baroness. Care leavers already receive support to help them to manage their finances but all young people should receive financial education. I am pleased to confirm that we will include further information in the guidance that we plan to publish under Clause 1 on how, by working within the spirit of the corporate parenting principles, local authorities can help care leavers to avoid poverty and debt. We should cover in the local offers the importance of financial education and we will cover this in our guidance.
During the last Parliament we introduced junior ISAs and encouraged all local authorities to increase the leaving care grant, which care leavers can use to furnish their first home, to £2,000 or more, but we need to back that up with educating them on how to manage those monies. We also provide financial support to enable care leavers to access and participate in education, to which I referred earlier.
Turning to the amendment of the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, I understand that its effect would be to extend the category of persons eligible for income support to all care leavers up to the age of 25 and to extend the exemption to the local housing allowance shared accommodation rate from 22 to 25, when their entitlement to housing benefit is assessed. I have consulted with honourable and noble Members elsewhere in government about the noble Earl’s amendment to relax entitlement conditions for receipt of working tax credit for care leavers working at least 30 hours per week. It has been a condition of entitlement to the working tax credit since its introduction in April 2003 but, other than for individuals, including care leavers, who are responsible for a child or who are disabled, a person claiming working tax credit must be aged 25 or over and work at least 30 hours per week. There are already a number of existing provisions within the benefits system aimed at helping care leavers, and I would be happy to write to the noble Earl setting these out in more detail.
On the noble Earl’s suggested change to housing benefit, it is right to say that the rate of housing benefit to which care leavers are entitled changes when they reach the age of 22 and they move to the shared accommodation rate. However, as he will be aware, discretionary housing payments continue to be available via local authorities if additional financial help with housing costs is needed. The Government have already committed £870 million in discretionary housing payment funding over the next five years. Noble Lords will appreciate that this is a significant sum of money to help those who are vulnerable and require additional help with their housing costs.
The amendment tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, supported by the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, would amend the Local Government Finance Act 1992 so as to disregard care leavers from liability for council tax up to the age of 25, ensuring that dwellings occupied solely by care leavers are exempt from council tax. This amendment would provide a blanket exemption for all care leavers under the age of 25 irrespective of their personal circumstances or their ability to pay. If we did so without taking their ability to pay into account, we could find that a lower income tax payer could be supporting a care leaver with a higher income. I am sure that is not the intention behind the amendment.
The Government have been clear that such decisions are much better taken at local level instead of mandating exemptions or discounts from the centre. We have given local councils wide powers to design council tax support schemes, including scope for discounts for particular groups of people. It is therefore a matter for local authorities, which must consult with local communities on their proposals. Concerning the corporate parenting principles, they would impact on all local authority functions, including those relating to council tax or housing, and the guidance will set out how local authorities must ensure that they take holistic decisions in relation to looked-after children and care leavers.
I turn now to Amendment 50, tabled by the noble Lords, Lord Watson and Lord Hunt, which would place a new duty on local authorities to provide suitable accommodation for all care leavers in their local authority area until the age of 21. There are already a range of measures in place that help young people secure suitable accommodation when they leave care. The government’s statutory guidance states that when a young person leaves their care placement the local authority must ensure that their new home is suitable for their needs and linked to their wider plans and aspirations.
I would expect a local authority’s leaving care team to work closely with housing services to help care leavers access supported lodgings or semi-independent accommodation—or, if they are ready, secure and maintain an independent tenancy. Where care leavers struggle to find and maintain accommodation, they have a priority need within the homelessness legislation until age 22, and they are also a priority group within statutory guidance on the allocation of social housing.
We have also introduced, as the noble Earl will be aware, Staying Put to enable young people to remain living with their foster carers where that is what they both want. This provides both suitable accommodation and the sort of gradual transition to adulthood that is enjoyed by the majority of young people. We want to maximise the number of young people who can stay put with their former foster carers and I am delighted—and I am sure that the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, will be pleased to hear—that for the year ending March 2015, almost half of those who were eligible to stay put did so.
The noble Lord, Lord Watson, raised the issue of Staying Put for those care leavers who have been placed in residential care. We are committed to helping all young people successfully move to adulthood but we would need strong evidence before introducing Staying Put on any alternative residential care. Sir Martin Narey’s independent review into children’s homes will set a direction for how we improve children’s experience of residential care, including transition to adulthood. We will publish this report shortly. We have also been trialling innovative approaches to providing care leavers with suitable accommodation. We are also keen to test new ways of supporting those who leave residential care and will set out our plans on this in the forthcoming Care Leaver Strategy.
Finally in this group I will respond to Amendment 80 tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth. The amendment would place a new duty on local authorities to appoint a person to make advice and information available to previously looked-after children with a view to improving their life chances. This Government share the noble Baroness’s belief that society should do all it can to ensure that a difficult start to a child’s life does not set them on an inevitable path to poor educational outcomes, homelessness or imprisonment. However, we do not consider that it is necessary or desirable to place a new burden on local authorities to appoint officers to support these children and young people.
There is a clear difference between this group of children and looked-after children or care leavers for whom the local authority is their corporate parent. These previously looked-after children will have parents or persons with parental responsibility who can provide a stable and loving family, support them to do well at school and provide extra help through the transition into adulthood and living independently. Most local authorities also already provide specific ongoing support for those who leave care under an adoption, special guardianship or child arrangement order. To help them in this role, we have already extended the adoption support fund to children who leave care under a special guardianship order. This is helping to ensure that their parents and local authorities are able to provide them with the therapeutic services they need to overcome their early disadvantage.
The noble Baroness, Lady Lister, asked me to take back these points and discuss them with my colleagues across government, which I will do, and, in view of the points that I have made, I hope that the noble Lords will feel sufficiently reassured to enable them to withdraw their amendment.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his helpful replies. They give us plenty of food for thought. I am clear that he has given very careful thought to these issues and I am grateful to him for that. It was very encouraging to hear that half of those young people eligible for Staying Put have taken up the offer. Of course, we both want it to go further, but it is encouraging. Staying Put is a very important step forward. I am glad that the Minister is listening to young people in care. We talked about that earlier. Listening to young people with experience of Staying Put is a very salutary, encouraging experience.
There is a concern about ISAs. The Minister may correct me, but I think that they represent a large sum of money being given to very young people. There is a risk that they may not use it well and that they will not be supported in using it. There is also a concern about the sums given by local authorities to care leavers. Some social workers will insist on receipts and manage the money carefully while others will just give them the money. At best the young people may waste that money, but some may use it to their own detriment. Perhaps the Minister could write to me to clarify what support there is for young people leaving care to manage those sums well. I would much appreciate that. I also thank him for his response.
My Lords, I do not share the enthusiasm of the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, for the Minister’s response, because he seemed to say that this is all down to councils. These are the same organisations which have had their resources cut and cut and that are going to face more cuts. There would be no concerns if councils were able to deal with the problems, but that is not the case. I am sure that we will return to these issues on other days, but for the moment I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 26 withdrawn.
Amendments 27 to 28A not moved.
Committee adjourned at 8.01 pm