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Vulnerable Teenagers

Volume 827: debated on Thursday 26 January 2023

Motion to Take Note

Moved by

That this House takes note of the report by the Commission on Young Lives, Hidden in Plain Sight, published on 4 November 2022, and the life chances and educational prospects of vulnerable teenagers.

My Lords, at the end of last year, the Commission on Young Lives, chaired by the former Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield, published its final report. The commission and Anne are to be congratulated on this important piece of work, which challenges us all. The commission was launched in 2021 to devise a new and affordable national system of support to prevent crisis and improve the life chances of young people at risk of criminal exploitation, serious violence or getting into trouble with the law. The panel of commissioners included experts in the education system, children’s mental health, youth work, policing and crime, charities and organisations that work closely with children at risk of harm. They were people who know about these things and know how to get things done.

Many thousands of children in our country are falling through gaps in the education, care and mental health systems. They are then exploited by gangs, organised criminals or abusers. These children are at risk of unthinkable violence and harm, are being groomed into crime and have hugely reduced life chances as a result. As the commission’s report sets out very clearly, our response as a country to helping these children avoid this fate is often so inadequate. We are poor at identifying who they are, at sharing information and at communication, and we are almost always unco-ordinated.

And as the Lords Public Services Committee argued in our report published last year, the investment we have put into protecting and supporting vulnerable young people has fallen dramatically since 2010. At the same time, the organised criminals and groomers who exploit vulnerable teenagers are well co-ordinated. Their business model relies on young people, and they will use coercion, control and manipulation to push them into criminal activity. They are highly skilled at identifying and entrapping young people, who often become too scared to walk away.

The commission’s final report is called Hidden in Plain Sight for a reason. This is a national problem that is hidden by the nature of its ties to criminal activity, but, in many ways, it goes on in plain sight. It is an open secret among professionals who work with vulnerable children, and our public services also know that this is going on. Police spend a huge amount of time and resource stepping in to cover for other, struggling services, by finding vulnerable children who have gone missing from the care system, for example, or dealing with safeguarding issues. Schools are having to do so much more beyond simply teaching. Some feel that they are almost becoming a branch of social services. NHS staff working in trauma units tell stories of treating teenagers arriving with knife or gunshot wounds. Social workers and others working in children’s social care often work with children who are taken into care for their own protection from serious violence, but who are then placed in accommodation miles from home with little support, only leaving them even more vulnerable to the exploiters who go looking for them.

We see the gruesome headlines of young people around the country being knifed and killed. The report opens with a story of a gang on a housing state. The gang members were involved in delivering drugs 80 miles away, using scooters and cars stolen from takeaway food delivery drivers. The boys in the gang were all around 14 years old, and all of them had been excluded from school and sent to a local pupil referral unit, although none of them seemed to attend.

Local families were terrified. Those teenagers carry knives and other weapons, which, in turn, was encouraging other young people in the area to carry knives for protection. Younger children were now starting to follow the group around and mimic their behaviour. As the commission’s final report says, this sounds

“like an extreme example, but it is far from unique.”

The report warns:

“There are parts of our country where the state is completely failing in its duty to protect vulnerable children … often these are … the most marginalised”

and poorest families, and, disproportionately, they are from black and minority-ethnic communities. However, it is not a problem that is

“limited to the most deprived parts of inner-city Britain”,

as I know from the small town in the west of Durham that I called home for a long time. Young people from ordinary, decent families were groomed by predators working somewhere where nobody expected them and where agencies were slow to react. These problems stretch right across the country, from our biggest cities to small rural villages. We know that organised criminal networks are exporting illegal drugs into different areas using dedicated mobile phone lines, social media and so on. We also know that their success relies on finding and exploiting children through coercion, intimidation and violence.

As the commission sets out,

“there are hundreds of thousands of young people in England who are growing up in very vulnerable situations”

who become easy pickings. Some are living in very challenging families; many will have poor mental health; and many will have special education needs. Others encounter risks outside the family. Some will have fallen through the gaps in the different systems: they will be excluded or missing from school, or in vulnerable care settings, not receiving support for their special educational needs or not meeting the very high thresholds for current mental health services.

The numbers are not small. In 2021-22, there were over 16,000 instances in England where child sexual exploitation was identified by local authorities as a factor in assessments by social workers. There were 11,600 instances where gangs were a factor and 10,140 instances where child criminal exploitation was a factor. We know that this is just the tip of the iceberg, because those involved in gang activity and criminal exploitation are disproportionately young, vulnerable and often unknown to services. It has been estimated that there could be as many as 200,000 children aged 11 to 17 in England who are vulnerable to serious violence due to levels of crime and/or income deprivation in their community. A recent report by the Youth Endowment Fund revealed almost four in 10 children said they had been

“directly affected by violence in the last 12 months (either as victims or witnesses).”

We should view the failure to keep at-risk teenagers safe, and to support them to succeed, as a threat to our country’s prosperity and security. It is a waste of talent and potential, and it is costing us billions in social and economic failure, through the criminal justice system, poor educational outcomes and poor health in adulthood. As the commission argues, government is not yet rising to those challenges with the scale of urgency required. We are spending billions, but so often on sticking plasters and far more than we ever spend on helping vulnerable children avoid harm in the first place through early intervention.

A recent NAO study concludes that government has still not developed a full understanding of the challenges involved in supporting vulnerable adolescents. It argues that the lack of a strategic approach means that government cannot yet say whether its current spending plans will effectively address the needs of families, vulnerable adolescents and children in the most effective way. I know that the Government are trying much more to collaborate across departments to keep better information on programmes and initiatives, but there is still no strategic purpose, goal or assessment of whether vulnerable adolescents’ needs are being addressed.

The Commission on Young Lives’ final report makes the same case. Too often the report finds systems and services that are not trusted, overstretched and simply unable to meet the needs of many vulnerable children and to stop them falling through the gaps and into danger. Many of our schools are not inclusive, exclusions are not always a last resort, and not every child with SEND gets the help they need to succeed. Added to all this are the impacts of Covid: an increased lack of readiness for school; speech and language development problems; a rise in child mental health conditions; and increased poverty.

But the commission’s final report is a call to action. It acknowledges that the Government have taken some positive steps. For example, the serious violence duty is important. There has also been some progress over the past few years to tackle child criminal exploitation and serious violence, including through the violence reduction units. There is also some funding for improving youth clubs in a “youth promise”. It recognises too that committed people and organisations are already making an enormous difference, turning around young people’s lives. Often that is through local charities, but too often they are surviving on short-term funding and have no confidence in their ability to survive the financial pressure.

The report proposes a new, joined-up, national programme to protect and support teenagers at risk, as well as their families. It also makes the case for changes that boost the life chances and educational prospects of vulnerable teenagers. At the heart of its recommendations is a call to identify and stick with vulnerable children by building long-term, trusted, culturally sensitive, sustainable and impactful relationships with them and their families. The commission identifies four key areas for reform, as part of a joined-up government plan: the education system, children’s social care, family support, and children’s mental health services. It does more in calling on the Government really to recognise this as a national threat and for the Prime Minister to take it seriously. There was a serious violence task force under Theresa May, but it never met after she resigned.

The commission argues that the Department for Education should reflect the central importance of thriving children and families as part of delivering a world-class education system and should be responsible for the co-ordination of all issues impacting on vulnerable children across Whitehall. The commission calls for a new Sure Start-plus programme—Sure Start for teenagers—with a network of intervention and support that reduces the risks that vulnerable young people face and encourages them to thrive. The commission calls for a drive to eliminate child poverty and to stop exclusions from school, so that children are not put somewhere where the predators know where they are and know how to find them.

There is lots more which I do not have time to talk about, but I served along with another colleague as part of a parliamentary advisory group to the commission. The recommendations and action plan really would make a difference, if only the Government would take it on. It will need all the engines of government fully behind it. The commission asks a pointed question: why are gangs and criminals so much better than our systems and services at identifying and scooping up vulnerable children? The report also puts forward a plan to turn the tables. I urge the Government to look at it carefully and, importantly, to implement it.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate. I work part-time for Business in the Community where, as director of place and levelling up, I aim to facilitate long-term and transformational change in some of the UK’s most deprived neighbourhoods. I cannot pretend to be an expert, so will focus my remarks on conversations with a range of experienced individuals who I admire.

First, they all welcome the report, and its focus and interesting proposals. Several remarked that it was good to see a report focusing on funding as well as what needs to be done. They liked the idea of long-term funding sourced from crime and orchestrated by a group of charities. Indeed, Scotland already uses a version of this approach. While they all welcomed the concept behind Sure Start-plus, they flagged two hazards. The first was that it needed to be partnered with reintroducing the original Sure Start to pick up children earlier in their development and throughout. Rashid Bhayat at the Positive Youth Foundation said that problems often start at six or seven; schools are underresourced to deal with them and it is often after years of working with a teenager that Positive Youth Foundation finally builds enough trust to find the root of their trauma.

Many said that more important than new approaches was long-term funding. Programmes and funding that are short term lead to stop-start behaviour and to people being parachuted in who disrupt the local support network and sometimes do more harm than good. The funder Esmée Fairbairn was mentioned as an example of good practice.

The overarching theme was the need for a long-term approach that aligns multiple service provision and is really grounded in the community. It is almost too obvious to need saying but, when dealing with vulnerable teenagers, one needs to build trust, they need to be supported as early as possible in their lives, and we need to stick with them for as long as it takes. Many solutions do not satisfy these criteria. For instance, in many local authorities there is a significant drop in the amount of support available to children in care once they turn 18 and become care leavers. From that point on, the statutory requirement is only that they are seen once every eight weeks by their personal adviser. This is often the most critical period in their development and when support is most needed as, we hope, they enter the world of work or go on to further and higher education.

Conversely, in north Birkenhead, children and family services, health, the youth sector and education are being brought together in the Cradle to Career programme supported by Right to Succeed. Interestingly, because of the siloed nature of these services, at the beginning they cannot even agree on the teenager’s address. In Keighley, in Bradford, and a few other wards with high deprivation levels, an Alliance for Life Chances programme is being rolled out to provide a child-centred and seamless service provision from a young age.

I was struck by the strong contribution that the voluntary sector makes. I used to support a charity called Aspired Futures, in Blackpool, which welcomed children who had experienced extensive trauma and began by providing four-on-one support. The children could then continue to visit the centre for as long as they liked, and several ended up as mentors themselves. This approach of alumni mentors is also supported by the Positive Youth Foundation. Sadly, during Covid, Aspired Futures ran out of funding and closed its doors.

The good news is that the staff transferred to Boathouse and the Magic Club, which, although they have a less intensive approach, both do excellent work supporting teenagers. Magic Club points to supporting extracurricular activity, such as the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award or art work, as being important for those who do not settle at school. This approach is shared by Element, a social enterprise supporting care leavers. It combines non-judgmental creative courses with a long-term network of support, including opportunities for paid employment. Both organisations comment on the resulting increase in self-confidence.

In the same vein is the support given by businesses to schools and community centres on preparing for work, such as CV writing and interview skills. The Positive Youth Foundation is supported by the local McDonald’s franchise, after its owner decided to do something more constructive than tell a load of layabout teenagers to get out. Coventry Building Society spends millions around the country, but in particular has a deep focus on three schools in Foleshill and Longford, a deprived area of Coventry, with measurable improvements in confidence and aspiration. It would say that work experience and placements are invaluable for those whose families are distant from the workplace.

Many commented on the dearth of talent in youth provision. With the closure of youth clubs during austerity and unreliable funding, many have migrated to jobs elsewhere in the sector. This is good for the sector as a whole but, as recommended in the report,

“The recruitment of an army of Youth Practitioners to inspire, support and guide young people in their community”

would be welcome.

It is essential that young people have a voice in the solutions provided for them. For many, grinding poverty is daily life and can be one of the main drivers of exploitation. The trauma they experience, giving rise to what we would call mental health challenges, is their norm. They are remarkably resilient, but we owe it to them to provide hope and aspiration.

Lastly, I have a question for the Minister about NEETs. I am unclear where responsibility for NEETs now sits within government. I am aware that it has, at times, sat with opportunity areas and the DfE, and at others with levelling up. Please will the Minister clarify which department now has responsibility for them?

My Lords, as a young teacher in Tullibody, in Clackmannanshire, in the 1980s, I had a bit of a reputation for being tough in the classroom, only because I wanted to make sure that the kids from the deprived communities locally had the same chances as the kids at the perceived to be much better school down the road. One of my big things was to make sure that the kids would do their homework; I would pursue them relentlessly to make sure that they brought it in on time.

One year, there were two girls in a class who consistently did not manage to meet the homework target. One day in the class, when I was being particularly heavy with them about this failure, they broke down into tears, and I asked them to wait behind afterwards in the classroom. It became clear in the discussion I had with them that the reason they could not do their homework was not that they did not want to do it, and not that they were not enjoying the subject or did not want to make things better for themselves, but that the children’s home they lived in in the local town was absolutely chaotic. Not only was there no table or place for them to do their homework or study at night but the noise and chaos in the environment meant that, even if there had been a table, it would not have been possible. I resolved that day to work to try to change that situation in any elected or public position that I held.

I partly kept that going, when, at the same time, in Stirling, as a local councillor, I came across a group of young break-dancers. There had been complaints from the local community in St Ninians that the local boys were causing so much trouble and noise that it was really disruptive to the community and the police or somebody had to do something about it. It became obvious in talking to the community, and then to the boys, that the core of this was about an area where the boys would start break-dancing, which would then break out into trouble in the local area.

They wanted to dance. At the council we hired a guy called Royston Maldoom who was a community contemporary dance consultant. He set up a group called Stirling Youth Dance. Some of these boys went on to practice professionally; one of them trained at the Ballet Rambert in Paris. These were boys who just needed an opportunity and a channel through which to seize that opportunity. In one year, in Stirling back in the 1980s, I saw on one side the despair of failure for kids who were looking for hope; and, on the other side, hope for kids who were staring failure in the face. That is one of the reasons why I absolutely welcome and congratulate my noble friend Lady Armstrong on securing this debate this afternoon and congratulate the remarkable Anne Longfield and her team for this outstanding report.

I should declare a number of interests in the register and elsewhere. I am an ambassador for Action for Children, a vice-president of UNICEF UK, a trustee of a mentoring charity, MCR Pathways, I was a member of the same Parliamentary advisory group as my noble friend Lady Armstrong on this report, my own foundation, the McConnell International Foundation, is active in this field and I am a patron of the Diana Award. There are so many great organisations working in this field, and they work not just in one country but across the UK, so although this report refers specifically to England, I want to make my remarks in the context of what I think should become a more united and comprehensive effort across the whole of the UK.

There were issues that were the core of my work as Education Minister and First Minister that I have always felt needed a long-term perspective and consistency to make a difference. One issue was knife crime, and we have debated in this Chamber before the work of the Scottish Violence Reduction Unit in Glasgow, which had cross-party support and survived all the political ups and downs in Scotland over the years to be a big success because it was a long-term project. Another was child protection reform. A number of children had died through neglect back around 2000, and child protection changes that were made then, again with cross-party support, were sustained over a long period and have made a real difference in Scotland on that front too.

However, I think that over the years we have failed to do this with looked-after children and vulnerable teenagers. It is partly because all the initiatives, the policies and the funding for looked-after children and vulnerable teenagers are subject to the whim of individual Ministers, and they change and move around, and they go up and down as a result of changes in Governments and leaders. In my view that is the key thing that we have to stop, and I welcome the fact that this report calls for consistency.

The situation facing these teenagers should shame all of us in public life and all of us in the professions that serve them, as I was once. The kids in the care of the state in this country have the worst outcomes. In many cases, they have the worst expectations. They certainly have the worst experiences and, ultimately, they have the worst lives. In the 21st century, the lack of consistent, cross-party focus, policy and priority for these kids has gone on for far too long. Sadly, these kids with chaotic lives face chaotic services and chaotic support. They fall into a spiral of neglect and abuse. There is a lack of support for special needs. They also face condemnation rather than second chances. They damage themselves, they damage our society and they go on to damage their own kids as well. It goes on from generation to generation. Some of them fall into aggression. They perhaps choose the perceived safety of gang to help them survive. Some of them simply fail in education or to find fulfilling work, they fail to find a stable family which they can head in the future and they certainly fail to be happy and, sadly, some of them take their own lives. We should take this seriously.

Anne Longfield is a remarkable individual. Her voice on behalf of these kids is powerful, relentless and consistent, and her commission has done a remarkable job in producing this report. I will briefly highlight three of its recommendations. The first is opening schools —and other buildings, I would add—outside school hours and during school holidays. As chair of the charity Cash for Kids in Scotland, I saw the benefits in turning our funding programme for vulnerable kids in the west of Scotland away from taking place just at Christmas each year to supporting them in school holiday periods and the difference that that made on the streets of Glasgow and other towns and cities in the west of Scotland. Providing for kids outside the school environment is just as important as providing for them inside it.

The proposal for massive investment in mental health programming is all the more acutely needed after the disaster of the past three years and the way in which children’s needs were ignored, with school closures and a lack of support during the Covid pandemic. That situation was particularly bad in Scotland; it was even worse than it was in England. I would include in the idea of an army of youth practitioners not just professionals and charity workers but volunteer mentors working with these youngsters and helping them through that difficult teenage transition. Teenagers in the most comfortable homes, with the best chances in life and the most resources find that transition difficult, so it is no wonder that teenagers who live these chaotic lives find it particularly difficult. We also need a genuine partnership, with children coming first and education for all.

I urge not just the Government but all the political parties in the UK—in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland—to unite and adopt these recommendations and I urge leaders to work together across the UK and inside the individual nations and local regions of these countries and to use what my old boss, our headteacher back in that school in the 1980s, used to call “stickability” for the kids. The key thing he wanted them to have was stickability; he thought that was the thing that would give them a chance. The thing that might give them a real chance is if leaders, politicians and public agencies have stickability, so let us practice what we preach. I think that a 20-year strategy, passing over more than a generation, with consistency, education and parenting at its core would help to provide and support fulfilling lives and a better life for all.

One of the reasons these kids are left behind is that they do not have a voice. Nobody speaks for them; they cannot speak for themselves. They know what they want to say and what they need, but they are not heard. It is vital that we find a way of embedding in the system the changes that are required so that, even without that voice, they are still heard and supported. I suggest that rather than a triple lock on pensions for those of us who are nearing that age—there are many in the Chamber who might already be over that age—why do we not have a triple lock for vulnerable teenagers? Why do we not say that we will make sure that each of them will finish their education, that each of them will have a mentor to help them through those difficult teenage years and that we will not only invest in them as children but invest in that transition from childhood to adulthood, which is difficult for everybody and almost impossible for them?

My Lords, it is a real pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord McConnell; I associate myself with everything he said, particularly about adopting the recommendations. He also reminded us that this is no new problem. He talked about his experience in the 1980s; I could do the same from when I was doing youth work. You can also quote Greek writers and philosophers about the problems of young people in the era of the Greeks, so this is something we have always lived with.

I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, for securing this debate. It is always lovely to share something with someone else from this part of the north-east of England. I congratulate Anne Longfield on the report, Hidden in Plain Sight. As the Commission on Young Lives’ report demonstrates, young people falling vulnerable to violence and exploitation and entering the criminal justice system is not an issue that is shrinking, nor one that could possibly be ignored. The effects of this problem are widespread, impacting not only the lives and futures of the young people themselves but the prosperity and security of our whole country. Such an issue cannot be resolved through sticking plasters or short-term solutions; it is instead vital that we examine and address the root causes and respond with long-term solutions.

As the report states,

“it is impossible to overestimate how important poverty is as a driver for so many of the social problems ruining and holding back lives.”

Almost 70% of young people receiving custodial sentences have received free school meals at some point, illustrating the connection between those in the criminal justice system and poverty. It is therefore essential that reducing and eliminating child poverty is made one of the priorities. Today, there are approximately 4 million children living in poverty in the UK, and only this week, a report published by the Child of the North All-Party Parliamentary Group revealed that child poverty in the north-east of England is now the highest it has been since 2000-01.

These statistics are staggering, but we must remember that behind these statistics are individual young lives, each with worth and potential. Will the Government look at the recommendations of the reports—both the Young Lives report and the Child of the North report—to reduce child poverty and consequently address this significant cause of young people falling into violence and exploitation, through abolishing the two-child benefit limit, extending free school meals to all families receiving universal credit, and making eliminating child poverty a priority in their levelling-up agenda, as the noble Baronesses, Lady Lister, Lady Stroud, and myself are proposing in an amendment to the levelling-up Bill?

In addition to child poverty, reforms to our education system must be made. It was horrible to read that still almost one in five children leaves school with no GCSEs. That is almost one in five children leaving school with no basic qualification, limiting their future opportunities. We must take urgent action to change this, and I believe that this has to start with a change in the curriculum. Having a curriculum that not only provides children with essential knowledge and skills but is also interesting, fulfilling and applicable to those who learn it should be a priority. Literacy and numeracy are utterly essential, but too many young people see them as utterly irrelevant because they do not see the connection with their lives and their skills. We need to change the curriculum to be child focused, so that, in exploring their gifts and their skills, they come to realise why it matters to be literate and why numeracy matters.

I have two very quick stories. Very recently, I met a man now in his 60s who left school with no qualifications and who became the lead adviser on the environment to the last Labour Government. His words to me were, “School was utterly irrelevant. It was only when I could link it with the values of wanting to serve the world better that I realised learning mattered”. The other story is from a recent presentation to the Youth Futures Foundation from a young man in his 20s who came out with no qualifications. He said, “Thankfully, someone recognised that I had skills in building relationships with people, bringing about reconciliation with people who could not get on with each other. They saw that I had done that in school. I got no qualifications, but they recognised my skills and my gifts and said, ‘We’ll work with you on those’”. In his early 20s, he is now a significant supplier of mentoring and support to other young people, because someone realised what education was appropriate for him.

Furthermore, the exclusion culture existing in schools throughout our country, as highlighted by the report, must come to an end. The fact that 59% of children who have been permanently excluded had also been cautioned or sentenced for an offence demonstrates how exclusion can push children towards harm and exploitation, and indicates the need to keep children in education. Exclusion provokes feelings of being cast aside, of being forgotten, and of being unimportant. If children do not feel valued, how will they ever see their own value that they can bring to society? Here we have to note the dreadful statistics that show that those with autism and special educational needs, and those from ethnic-minority backgrounds—particularly young black males—are being disproportionately excluded. That has to be tackled.

Of course, children must learn that we must all face the consequences of our actions, but, whether it be in the context of school exclusions or the criminal justice system, our society is often too quick to forget that they are children who have the rest of their lives ahead of them—lives that each have value, worth and potential. We need to reform our systems to prioritise supporting young people, not punishing them. We must prioritise guidance, investment and education, so that no young person in this country falls vulnerable to violence and exploitation.

Often, this is done best by locally based organisations. I would like to name some specific ones that I have links with. They are not formal links; these are just organisations that I have had the privilege of spending time with and that are utterly wonderful. Spark2Life is based in Walthamstow but now offers services in many places. Power the Fight is led by Ben Lindsay, who was given an award in the New Year Honours List for his work. There is First Class Foundation in Birmingham. Then, there are national ones such as the Children’s Society. The learning from their work is what needs to shape future policy. Will the Minister agree to meet me and some of the leaders of these locally based organisations to explore these matters further?

I want to comment on the Sure Start-plus proposals. This needs to be linked with the rollout of family hubs, which are meant to cover the whole of childhood. Having two systems would, I think, be unhelpful. So, rather than having a separate scheme, we need to link the proposals around Sure Start-plus in this report with the proper development of family hubs, and work with the charity and voluntary sectors on delivery. You cannot deliver some of what this report suggests in exactly the same location, but you can do so from the same hub using a hub-and-spoke model.

I will end with some theology, if I may; I say, “If I may”, but noble Lords are not going to be able to shut me up. Every child is a gift. They are a gift from God to their parents, to their wider family and to society as a whole. They are to be welcomed as one made in God’s image and loved by God, as seen in Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ himself welcomed children. He treated them as of great worth and noted that they teach adults things about God’s ways that adults miss or forget. He gave a grave warning to those who damage and harm children. Our response must always be that young lives are precious and valuable. They are to be nurtured for their own sake, not simply for what each person might become in future. They are not economic contributors of the future; they are people of value in their own right now. However, what they might become does have to be held high, because we want them to be the very best human beings that they can be. We want them to reach their full potential and be gifts for the good of all and society as a whole. The heart of this will be to love them and thus nurture them. When young people know they are loved, they really flourish.

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the right reverend Prelate. I absolutely congratulate my noble friend Lady Armstrong both on securing this debate and on her opening speech. Indeed, I also congratulate my noble friend Lord McConnell, who has many brilliant anecdotes from having been a teacher; that is one of the great things about having been a teacher.

I will focus on the issues to do with schools. I absolutely applaud the recommendation that schools should be a whole-community asset. When I began teaching in 1973 in London, this was much more the case than it is now. A combination of the fragmentation of the governance structures in schools and the dreaded PFI has made school buildings, including all their resources and facilities, much less available to communities. This should be remedied. Although I acknowledge what the right reverend Prelate has just said, and the Sure Start-plus hubs do seem an attractive way of doing this, critical to this is sufficient funding to ensure the maintenance of buildings, the additional workforce necessary to provide the programmes, and youth practitioners trained and qualified to build back better the youth services that we have lost over the last decade. That seems to be a very good way forward.

Turning to the culture of inclusion recommended in the report, in my own career I worked in a team at local authority level, one of the specific objectives of which was to prevent primary exclusion. It was a successful team. However, much of that expertise has been lost over time due to education cuts. Now, as many children continue to face much harder lives and have unrecognised and unaddressed social and emotional needs, we need those additional people in schools more than ever. Even primary-age children have mental health difficulties. Teachers, who now are often trained just in one school, without the advantage of learning about child development, do not necessarily have the skills and competences to identify, much less diagnose, the difficulties with which young children present.

Yesterday, in the APPG on psychology, there was a discussion, which included the voices of young people, about the lack of support for children with anxiety and all manner of other problems that need to be addressed. In my experience, schools sometimes feel that the only way to seek help for a child or young person whose needs are not being met in the school is to exclude them in the hope that the local authority will pick them up and provide something better. I believe that they are wrong. However, I understand how hard it is for teachers, confronted sometimes with a multiplicity of difficulties, to find a way forward in the absence of appropriate services being available and accessible to every child. So a new transitional fund to reduce and eliminate exclusion, as recommended in the report, is essential.

There is much good work being done in schools to address mental health issues and other psychological problems. I know from the APPG yesterday and from teachers that an educational charity, Place2Be, does excellent work supporting children and young people in schools through its resources and mental health workers. However, we have close to 25,000 schools, and Place2Be and other charities simply do not work in enough of them. Place2Be works in 500 schools. So there are lots of gaps. As we heard throughout Covid, vulnerable children were even more at risk, as were children from financially disadvantaged backgrounds, who will now be facing even greater pressure, given the cost of living crisis.

I firmly believe that it is an appropriate aspiration to eliminate exclusion from primary schools, but it requires resources. Similarly, we can address the current level of exclusion from secondary schools, particularly the racialised aspect. But, again, it requires planning and resources. We recruit too few teachers in total at present, as government statistics show. We particularly fail to attract enough black and minority-ethnic students into teaching. We must have a teaching force that can represent the breadth of our communities, as is recommended in this report.

We also need an anti-racist education, as well as a national, local and school-level laser-like focus on equality, diversity and inclusion. But what we do not need, I am sorry to say, is to further extend the remit of Ofsted, whose reputation is tarnished among teachers, head teachers and very many parents. The exposé this week of the utter and abject failure of Ofsted in the case of the Doncaster school and children’s home—for which Amanda Spielman, the head of Ofsted, has not apologised anything like enough, in my view—should give us pause for thought, after which we should seek a root and branch reform of the way in which the inspection of schools operates.

There are now many voices—including that of the right reverend Prelate—calling for significant reform of both the current curriculum and assessment, evidencing that much about them is causing stress and disaffection. There are many international examples of how schooling can work better than what we are doing here at the moment.

In conclusion, I obviously welcome the report and almost all of the recommendations, which for the most part chime with positions taken by my own union, the NEU. It has an excellent document, Preventing and Reducing Exclusions, which opens with the sentence:

“Exclusions, and who is excluded, tell a story about the inequalities in our education system.”

We want and need to tell a different story.

Finally, the NEU has done research on belonging in schools: why it matters and what it looks like. It concluded that, where school leaders, the teams around them and all the teachers develop an intentional approach to look beyond sanctions-driven approaches in lessons and to work on social and emotional learning and student well-being, the experience of students themselves is enhanced—and frankly, so is the experience of teachers, and it is much more likely to lead to the retention of teachers. Schools will improve and, with the addition of the wonderful range of opportunities beyond the school day talked about in this report, so will the lives of all of our young people. It is urgent that the Government respond positively to this well-researched and costed report.

My Lords, I join with previous speakers in expressing my gratitude to my noble friend Lady Armstrong of Hill Top for initiating this timely debate on an important subject, and also, serendipitously, securing time for us to develop our arguments adequately. Too often we have three-minute speeches; the 12-minute speeches that we have had so far have illustrated the importance of giving people time to talk and develop their ideas.

Now, there is no doubt, given the strength of the report, that the Government need to respond positively to its recommendations. I look forward to the response from the Minister, and I hope that we are not too disappointed. I support strongly the approach of the commission, and its specific recommendations. There is one point that I think could be developed, which I will come to in a moment, but I trust that that is not in any way taken to suggest a lack of support for the measures it proposes. Other speakers have highlighted particular issues; the background to many of the problems we face is poverty, and I am glad to see the report’s recommendation 4:

“Help young people and their families out of poverty”—

as was stressed by the right reverend Prelate.

To mention another, more specific issue, I very much agreed with the contribution of my noble friend Lady Blower on school exclusions. I support the recommendation in the report for the Government to promote a new era of inclusive education, ending the culture of exclusion and helping all children to succeed in their education. I hope therefore that we get a positive response from the Government to the call for a new era of inclusive education. It has to be acknowledged that it comes with a cost: it is not cost-free, it is not a change of attitudes, it is actually putting the resources in to enable schools to deal with all their children.

The main issue I want to address is the mental health of children, of young children in particular. The report is subtitled:

“A national plan of action to support vulnerable teenagers to succeed and to protect them from adversity, exploitation, and harm”,

so, reasonably, it focuses explicitly and implicitly on teenagers and what happens in secondary schools. But the simple point I wish to make is that it is so much better for the individual children concerned, the education system and society in general to help children who are at risk of problems with their mental health in primary schools. It is an unfortunate truth that too often it is too late or, at best, much harder to resolve problems by the time children have become teenagers. The report points out:

“The transition to secondary school can often escalate difficulties and be a trigger to greater risks”,

but this acknowledges that the problems are already there. They should be addressed at that age and not left to escalate.

The report’s findings demonstrate the need for a collaborative approach to children’s mental health services between schools, health services, local authorities and the police. In addition to this interorganisational approach for at-risk children, we need legislation to make access to early intervention for children and young people a statutory requirement. By providing early intervention and support when young children show signs of mental distress, or children are at risk, we can not only help break the cycles of exploitation and suffering for individuals but reduce the overall impact—indeed, the cost—to the economy.

I am sure I do not need to spend much time making the case for more action on improving mental health. More than £2 billion is spent annually on social care for people with mental health problems, with the wider cost being estimated at over £118 billion across the UK through lost productivity and informal care costs. As the report explains, mental health problems also add considerably to the workloads of our education, criminal and justice systems.

Therefore, it is crucial to understand that half of lifetime mental health problems start before the age of 14. It is therefore unfortunate that spending by local authorities on early intervention services for children and young people was cut by half between 2010 and 2020, when it is a growing problem. The Good Childhood Report 2022 shows that

“children’s happiness continues to decline. Young people are on average less happy with their life … than ten years ago.”

That is from the Children’s Society. NHS figures show that more than 700,000 children and young people were in contact with mental health services in the 2021-22 financial year, compared with a little over half of that only four years ago. The number of referrals to child and adolescent mental health services—CAMHS—has more than doubled since 2019, with resulting long waiting lists and, unfortunately, one in five referrals being turned away with no signposting to alternative sources of support.

The outcome of all this is that seven out of 10 children who experience mental health problems do not receive appropriate help early enough. Alarmingly, we are told that there is an average 10-year delay between young people first experiencing their symptoms and receiving the help they need.

It is unfortunate that the Government do not appear to understand the scale of the crisis. The Secretary of State for Health and Social Care was asked recently about plans to bring forward legislative proposals on early intervention measures to help safeguard the mental health and well-being of young people. The response was that there are no plans to do so.

There must be concern that currently there are no statutory measures in place to guarantee essential early intervention for children and young people who are developing mental health problems. The forthcoming mental health Bill will be an opportunity to change this, but so far the draft Bill focuses almost exclusively on crisis intervention.

Rather than developing strategies for early intervention, we have gone backwards over the past decade. Expenditure on late intervention increased over the 10 years from 2010 to 2020, from £5.7 billion to £8 billion. But how much of that increase was because expenditure on early intervention more than halved, from £3.8 billion to only £1.8 billion?

A 2014 report by the LSE and Rethink Mental Illness found that early intervention could equal a net saving of almost £8,000 per person over four years. Over a 10-year period, £15 in costs could be saved for every £1 invested in early intervention. There is therefore overwhelming evidence that early intervention is effective for society and for the individual and produces the greatest impact, leading to happier, more productive and more fulfilled lives. When we come to teenagers, the subject of this report, early intervention means when they are of primary school age.

It is so distressing how often we hear now of extremely dangerous and harmful behaviours exhibited by teenagers as young as 13 or 14, who mere months before were children and who had perhaps already been moved out of mainstream education and were already known to local police. The report describes excellently how the younger children in these communities are

“starting to follow the group around and mimic their behaviour.”

It is more important than ever that we have a workforce delivering professional psychological support to these groups earlier, when they are children. They should get the care they need when they first exhibit risky behaviour or first start mimicking older children in their communities who are behaving dangerously.

To conclude, I hope that we can continue to push for expert mental health support before the teenage years to be taken seriously as a preventive measure, instead of allowing issues to escalate and entrench, casting long shadows from childhood into young adulthood.

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, on securing this debate. I associate myself with all the wonderful, powerful speeches that your Lordships have made.

On New Year’s Day 2003, Charlene Ellis and Letisha Shakespeare were shot dead by members of a gang. A huge rally at Aston Villa’s football ground was called. They cried out, “Enough is enough. Not another drop of blood.” Out of that rally a movement was born in Birmingham: Bringing Hope. Reverend Carver Anderson, the pastor, and many members of the movement have done sterling work. As its former patron, I commend its work. It has many lessons to teach us about the changes and educational prospects of teenagers whose lives are at risk.

Let us put into action the recommendations of the Hidden in Plain Sight report. Children are not our future leaders, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham said; they are our leaders today. May we listen to them and welcome them.

My Lords, this is one of those debates—and I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong for tabling it—where, as you listen to it, you think, “Yep, we’ve been here before. We’ve done this before and heard it before.” What you have not heard is the current context. County lines and the emphasis on knife crime are the new twist. Anyone surprised that gangs are full of 14 year-olds has not been paying attention. If you go into any prison, you will find that the scholars are the ones who stayed in the education system until the age of 14; most were out of the system way before that. That has been a depressing fact for a long time.

I do not think there is anything radical in the report, but bringing it all together is the important point. A tick-box culture of support—saying, “Yes, we’ve done this”, “Is this the job of the education sector or should it be somewhere else?” or “Which bit of the education sector system has done what at what time?”—leads to the discovery that the person we excluded from school has decided they do not like the alternative provision at the pupil referral unit and has disappeared, and now our criminals have realised that that person is an excellent delivery system for narcotics. That is not too far off the Artful Dodger, for God’s sake.

We have to try to have a more coherent attitude to this issue. We as the political class have to say that the current Government seem to have acknowledged that the problem is there and are moving away from “Let’s be tough”. Every time that anyone in any department says, “We’re going to be tough and do something about this”, I get a cold shudder down my back because they usually then create a new problem. If you send people to prison, as the current Government have realised, either you end up having several bouts of offending before they come get of it, usually because they are getting too old and it tends to be a younger person’s game, or they stay in because they have committed more serious offences. Unless we can start to break that cycle by having a more coherent attitude across the piece, we are going to continue having the same problems.

I do not know if society is incapable of removing the problem altogether but we can certainly reduce it. There are a variety of actions that have been identified that help here. By supporting and helping voluntary organisations and activities—youth clubs and so on—the state can create the right environment. I must declare one of my little interests here: sport is the ultimate voluntary activity. When someone starts participating in a particular sport, they join a tribe, not a gang, which will embrace them with its own ways and bizarre rituals. I must declare that I am a Rugby Union player, but all sports have that element.

True enough. The parliamentary team is playing again soon so the physiotherapist may well benefit.

These are groups that thrive on activity. Dance, music and so on all have a variation on this. When it comes to support—I have said this before so I might as well do so again—Governments here are very lucky because most sports clubs have a tradition of not being that involved with the state. We tend to do it ourselves, unlike in France where you would play at the stade municipal, or in Germany where, as I have said many times, when the FA says to its German colleagues, “How much do you spend on supporting pitches?”, the response is, “Oh, we don’t do that; it’s a local government job.”

As we got there first, sporting structures in Great Britain tend to have acquired grounds, status and the ability to maintain themselves, but I hope we will hear something in the near future about how the Government will support these structures because all sports have a problem with retention. They need to get people to play not just as children but as adults because there is always a problem with that: people tell me, “We have lots of children joining”, and I say, “Great, but unless you get them to play as adults then you have no coaches, no long-term interaction and no investment back into society.” I hope that the Minister will let us know what the Government’s strategy is for maintaining these ultimately volunteer groups.

The same strategy that works for them, by the way, will also be very helpful to all the other creative things—arts and drama, et cetera. If the Minister were prepared to tell us how they are prepared to do something really useful, such as teaching somebody how to be a treasurer or secretary of a voluntary group, they would help all these groups and every small branch of a charity. That is the last of my little rant on that subject.

There are the educational problems. The noble Baroness must have been expecting this, but how are we going to spot those who are failing earlier and intervene better? We have heard about the special educational needs review, which we have been expecting since September. We will now not have it in January, which was the last thing we heard, but “early in this year”. I have got a fiver on March. I do not know whether I will win that bet—I am quite prepared to lose it, if we have it slightly earlier—but we have been waiting a long time. The 20% failure rate to achieve anything really measurable at school is not a surprise. It is also a consistent figure. The social factor or the fact that these people do not find acquiring knowledge that easy must be the consistent things here.

As president of the British Dyslexia Association—I am dyslexic myself—I say that some people cannot learn to do something that most people, let us face it, pick up comparatively easily. You can argue about what the best system is for reading, which the support system is best for reading, learning et cetera. Most people pick that up fairly easily and we have designed the systems to be fairly easy to pick up, which is why we use them. If you are not doing that, you need other interventions. These problems are combined with poverty and the lack of support because when it comes to special educational needs, guess what? The people who get the help are those who have the type of parents who go out there and drag it out of the system. Once again, I must declare an interest as having had, shall we say, one of those behind me.

Unless we get a better idea of how early you should intervene to identify and support somebody, that person, while in the school system—that huge, dominant chunk of your early life—will be told they are failing. It is quite a logical process to remove yourself from something you are failing at and get out of it. It might even be a sign of intelligence to get out of there, so I hope the Minister will give us some more hints about how this review is going to take place or at least some assurances about the amount of effort that will go behind it because that 20% failure rate will still be there.

Another interest of mine is that everybody’s standard computer will read a document to you. It also has a software package so that you can talk to it and it will write for you. Every one of your Lordships has that: every mobile phone has it as well. How are we working that into the system? How are we helping someone to get through if they have trouble sitting down and studying in the classroom? How are we identifying the person who does not? The male of the species is the bigger offender here. Girls in classrooms tend to try to hide and disappear; boys kick off and get excluded. That rule of thumb is one reason why we did not identify as many girls as boys in the past. We all thought there was an imbalance between the two in frequency; we are now discovering that they are much more even.

I hope that the Minister will comment on consistency of approach and that the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, will talk on behalf of a group who regard themselves, shall we say, as the Government in waiting. If I were looking at the polls, I would think that it would not be an unreasonable expectation—though it ain’t over yet, as we all know—so, between the two of them, perhaps they could say what consistencies they would take from each other. It is about getting some consistency in these approaches. Wonderful schemes do not often work if it is about being tough, or being new or different. Usually, it is about a consensus of approach being maintained over a few years so that we stand a chance of making a real impression on these problems.

As I said, this may be a new manifestation of them, but all the problems are consistent. We have heard all these things before about ethnic diversity and how certain groups are not being reached for cultural reasons. We need some form of consistency because otherwise we will be back here in a decade having the same sort of debate again with the same sort of report—but having a slightly new thing to latch it on to, which the papers have been telling us is the end of society. It is not. It is just another group of people with their lives ruined.

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Addington. I really enjoyed his speech. He made some very important points and I think—if I can interpret it this way—almost threw down the gauntlet. It is one that I would be only too willing to reach for.

I also commend my noble friend Lady Armstrong not just for securing this important debate but for her leadership on this issue over many years. I hope she knows that she has been an inspiration to me and many others, particularly in the north-east but not only there. The way that she champions these issues, and has done so consistently when they have been in and out of fashion over the years, is the reason we respect her so much. I am going to stop because she is probably blushing—or I am going to.

I also echo her thanks to Anne Longfield for this report. The findings are utterly damning. To draw out a couple of things, 80% of kids who get a custodial sentence have had special educational needs at some point and presumably many opportunities to intervene were missed. Almost 70% of these young people have received free school meals as well. This is not new, as many speakers have said, but things have got worse. Young people are being attacked, knifed, killed and involved in serious crime. There is a glamorising of gang activities, grooming, coercion. Very vulnerable young people are being exploited by criminals and are not in touch with the services that ought to be there to see them. They are too often invisible.

My noble friend Lord Davies of Brixton made a very powerful point about intervening early. It is one that we are familiar with, and I have heard it many times in this Chamber in the short number of years I have been here. He called for a collaborative approach. His call for legislation to support this is a wise one, which we should consider further and develop if we want that long-lasting impact.

Looked-after children are currently being failed. It is worse now than ever. We need a holistic joined-up approach even to begin to have an impact on the challenges that they face.

The plea of the noble Lord, Lord Addington, for support for sports clubs is worth heeding. I was struck too by the account of the noble Baroness, Lady Valentine, of how much the voluntary sector can bring to this agenda. I echo completely—I could not support it more—what my noble friend Lady Blower said about Place2Be. It is doing remarkable work in the schools where it is present.

The private sector can play a vital role too in providing work opportunities, encouraging their workforces to volunteer and providing some services. However, as Josh MacAlister was quite right to point out in The Independent Review of Children’s Social Care that those children’s care must be only in the child’s interests and never in the interests of shareholders. I would appreciate an update from the Minister on whether the Government are doing any work on that. We have debated it before, and I will not go into it all again today. Some of the provision is not as it should be for those most vulnerable children and the Minister knows this so I will not hammer it home yet again.

My noble friend Lord McConnell’s account of a community coming together to inspire and divert young people from crime was instructive. I observe, as he did, that the magic that these kids need is not available consistently across the country. The local leadership he described is now strained beyond purpose, and the services are too often unable to cope even with their core functions, never mind leading the innovation and creativity that we need to see in every community.

Young people are still suffering while being housed in unregulated settings. So when will the Minister finally end the utter scandal of children being abandoned in unregulated placements? This challenge is way too big for the Department for Education; it needs a cross-government partnership approach. My noble friend Lord McConnell used a really good word that we should think about: “stickability”. I know exactly what he means—I think we all do—and it is the right word to apply to this issue. To answer the challenge of the noble Lord, Lord Addington, if the Government took this approach, we on these Benches would not just support the Government but champion it, help to embed it and deliver it in government. I do not know what more I can say by way of encouragement and support for action from the position of Opposition.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham spoke specifically about children in the north-east, and so he should, not just because that is where he is based but because child poverty rates have risen to the highest level for over 20 years there. This is not the legacy of the last Labour Government; this is all about political choices. If we are not here to tackle these issues, what on earth are we doing? I know that we are not particularly party political in this House, but the situation we face today, especially in the north-east, is a direct consequence of decisions made by the Government since 2010. The only way we will have any chance of addressing this is if we make different decisions and choices.

Anne Longfield’s Hidden in Plain Sight takes a thoroughly deep dive—that is the beauty of it—into the experience of children with special educational needs and that of their parents, laying down the gauntlet to the Government with several proposals. Yet it too often feels like the Government have nothing of substance to say. The SEND review consultation response is perpetually delayed, and these children are being constantly let down during this delay. When can we and these children across the country finally expect the response?

The report also recommends that

“The Government leads a national mission”—

missions are very fashionable right now; I get what they are, so this is not a bad description and it works for me—

“to identify and remove racial bias in the systems that are currently failing”

too many black and minority ethic children, which is so starkly evidenced in the report’s findings. The Minister probably knows that we on these Benches have already committed to bringing forward specific race equality legislation to tackle this issue. Do the Government intend to do anything similar, even on just this narrow point in the report?

The failure to act early to prevent children and young people falling through the cracks is utterly devasting for the families concerned—of course it is—but, more widely, it exhausts communities. It is a waste of talent and potential, and the institutional safety net, the job of which has always been to help, has worn far too thin: youth services are gone and there is a hollowing out of local government and a lack of strategy. Police are inappropriately getting involved when they are not the best service to be in contact with young people, and schools are fragmented and unaccountable to their communities and to one another. Sure Start is decimated beyond recognition, and the skills and experience that have been lost from that workforce is shattering to think about.

We do not need just another initiative; there has been “initiative-itis” on this agenda, none of which has had an impact. What is really needed, as so many speakers have said, is a long-term strategy devised, ideally, alongside practitioners and service users—and we need it soon. I do not expect the Minister to be able to commit to that this afternoon, but would she at least accept the point we are making again and again, today and in earlier debates, that it is the Government’s job to lead on this and to act?

My Lords, I too express my thanks—and, although I do not come from the north-east, I join the north-east admiration and respect club—to the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong of Hill Top, for securing the debate and for her knowledgeable and insightful comments, and to Anne Longfield and her team for the work they have done on the Commission on Young Lives.

Tackling challenges such as criminal exploitation, gangs and serious violence underpins the Government’s commitment to improve the educational prospects and life chances of vulnerable teenagers. Today, I will highlight the ongoing work and planned reforms the Government are undertaking to address some of the challenges rightly identified in the report. I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, will find that I have something substantive to say, not just today but, as she knows, when we publish our response to The Independent Review of Children’s Social Care—including the national panel reviews of the terrible murders of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and Star Hobson and the CMA report into children’s homes—and our response to the consultation for children with special educational needs and alternative provision. I will also try to paint a slightly different and, I hope, less bleak picture, without in any way diminishing the problems that your Lordships have highlighted. I can absolutely reassure the noble Baroness that all our policy is made in consultation with practitioners, with those with experience of using services and with those who have experienced some of the issues raised in the report but perhaps have not had access to services.

I would also like to respond to the challenge from the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Sentamu, about keeping children front and centre. That is what we are all striving to do, not just those in central government but those working throughout local government, our schools, the voluntary sector and beyond.

The report talks about the importance of recognising serious violence and criminal exploitation as a national threat. Tackling serious violence is an important priority for the Government. To help prevent criminal exploitation of vulnerable children, we have focused on early intervention—something I heard about from many noble Lords—to steer young people away from crime, investing £64 million in violence reduction units, £300 million in the Youth Endowment Fund and a further £5 million through our county lines programme. I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong, acknowledged this, but she talked about a lack of co-ordination. The Government absolutely recognise the need for co-ordination; we believe that the violence reduction units and the Grip hotspot policing programme —only the police can give names like that—have prevented an estimated 49,000 violent offences in the first two years of their activity.

In addition to tough enforcement to get dangerous weapons off the street, in education specifically we have announced a £45 million investment in funding specialist support in areas where serious violence most impacts on the lives of young people. This will enable professionals, including mental health therapists and family workers, to provide support to vulnerable children in alternative provision schools. In mainstream schools, the SAFE taskforces are investing in support such as mentoring to improve attendance and behaviour. Your Lordships talked a lot about exclusions, and I shall address some of those remarks; we know that school is an incredibly important protective factor for children, which is why attendance is so critical and we are so focused on it for all children.

The report talks about reforming the youth justice system to move towards a welfare-based, trauma-informed, child-first approach. In addition to our focus on prevention, where young people end up entering the youth justice system, we ensure that the welfare of those offenders is not overlooked. Much of the work of the justice system’s arm’s-length bodies is trauma-informed and child-focused. The Youth Justice Board, which has oversight of local youth offending teams, has adopted a child-first approach.

I absolutely echo the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Valentine, on the importance of the work of charities in this space. I could be a little biased, having been involved with a few in a former life. I absolutely recognise Esmée Fairbairn and other funders who really provide incredibly valuable, flexible and long-term support to the sector. I also echo the recognition of the work of Place2Be, which I know well. In response to the invitation from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham to meet some of the charities he works with, I would be delighted to—but I would also be delighted to liaise with colleagues in DCMS. I just want to be sure that they meet the right Minister. I am happy to work with him on that.

The Government are committed to supporting the delivery of the most effective and holistic care to these especially vulnerable children, wherever they are in the system, to give them the best chance to get on in life, while of course protecting communities and reducing reoffending. That is why we are investing £36.5 million in a pilot of a new form of youth custody, which is secure schools. The aim is that it will be a school first, with security, rather than a prison first, with education, and take a trauma-informed approach to rehabilitating children who offend. The Oasis Charitable Trust will run the first secure school in Medway.

The noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, addressed some of the issues around racial bias and race equity. I know that the noble Baroness talked about it in a broader sense. The Government are very sensitive to this, whether it is in the criminal justice system or our mental health services. We are absolutely clear that everyone within the criminal justice system in particular should be treated equally, regardless of their ethnicity or race, which is why we have safeguards in place. As the Inclusive Britain report set out in March 2022, we intend to enhance these safeguards through the development of a national framework for scrutiny of stop and search by local communities, and consideration of any barriers to increased use of body-worn video. We are also working at all stages of the youth justice system to address disparities, including tightening the tests that courts must satisfy to remand a child to custody to ensure such remands are used only when absolutely necessary.

A number of your Lordships talked about the implementation of the recommendations from the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care. Our manifesto committed to reviewing the social care system and providing better outcomes for children. As I mentioned already, three important reviews were published last year, including the independent review. The Government are committed to providing a robust response to these reviews. As I said earlier today, our response to the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care will be coming very soon.

I know that your Lordships are rightly concerned about early intervention, which was a key theme of the review. The noble Lord, Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale, highlighted the vulnerability of children where the local authority is acting in the capacity of their parent. We absolutely recognise that. Our response will set out a detailed and ambitious strategy to respond to the key issues outlined in the report, including the better use of family networks; ensuring more young people who need care can live in foster care; and improving how we plan, commission and deliver care.

The noble Lord, Lord Davies of Brixton, focused his remarks on young people’s mental health. We are investing a further £2.3 billion a year into mental health services by 2023-24, with funding for children’s and young people’s mental health services growing faster than overall funding. We estimate that this will allow a further 345,000 children and young people to access mental health support. I think that the noble Lord will agree with me that we need targeted mental health intervention but we also, as he eloquently explained, need the earliest possible intervention. That is why we have our Start for Life programme. We have a dedicated £100 million for infant and perinatal mental health services and are putting a further £50 million into parenting programmes, all of which can help to create that resilience for parents and their children which is so badly needed. We are also increasing the rollout of mental health support teams to schools and colleges; they currently cover just over a quarter of pupils but that will increase to around 35% by April.

The noble Baroness, Lady Valentine, and other noble Lords talked about the importance of joined-up services. As the House knows, the Government are a strong supporter of family hubs, which we believe will be the one-stop shops that make it easier for families with children of all ages to get the support that they need and to access the professionals and partners in a local area. That will make it easier for them to work together, with a focus on supporting and strengthening the family relationships that carry us through life. We are committed to investing £300 million, enabling 75 local authorities to create these hubs, the first of which will be opening later this year.

On child poverty, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham asked me to reassure him that we will be considering both reports that he referred to in his speech. Of course, we will. I think the House knows that the Government believe that the best way of tackling child poverty is by supporting parents to move into work and then progress in work wherever possible. The latest data shows that children in households where all adults work were six times less likely to be in absolute poverty than children where no one worked. With more than 1.18 million vacancies across the UK, our focus remains on supporting people to find work and improve their earnings. We will also continue to work across government, both at ministerial and at official level, to ensure a co-ordinated approach to helping young people out of poverty.

The noble Lord, Lord McConnell, raised the issue of extending school hours. We absolutely acknowledge that extracurricular activities and wraparound childcare play a crucial role in providing a safe, enriching environment for children which supports their well-being and educational development. The House will be aware that looking at our options to strengthen our childcare offer remains a priority for the Government, but we also encourage all schools to take an active part in their communities. So, for example, the funding agreement for all academy trusts includes a specific clause stating that academy trusts must ensure that the academy

“is at the heart of its community, promoting community cohesion and sharing facilities with other schools and the wider community.”

Many schools already do this and make their facilities available to local community groups and sports teams—including, potentially, rugby union teams, to reassure the noble Lord, Lord Addington—in the evening, at weekends or during the school holidays.

Our youth investment fund aims to create and expand facilities for young people, giving them access to thousands of new positive activities each year. We welcome bids that can show how different groups working with a variety of young people can share the spaces we are creating.

A number of noble Lords rightly raised the issue of exclusions. The Government support head teachers in using exclusion as a sanction where it is warranted, but clearly the priority is to create environments where all pupils and staff can thrive and reach their potential. We are absolutely clear that permanent exclusion should be used only where absolutely necessary as a last resort, and this should not mean exclusion from education. We absolutely accept that being excluded from school does not mean that you should not be kept safe. We are prioritising support to those at risk of permanent exclusion and are determined to eliminate the poor and, indeed, at times illegal practice of off-rolling children.

The special educational needs and disabilities and alternative provision Green Paper set out our national vision and delivery model for the alternative provision system to improve children’s and young people’s well-being and outcomes. As the House knows, we will be publishing our response to that shortly. I think I must let the noble Lord, Lord Addington, judge the level of commitment when he hears those proposals. I absolutely reassure the House that all Ministers, but particularly the Minister for Children and Families, are working tirelessly to make sure that these important reforms are effective and implemented well.

The noble Baroness, Lady Blower, talked about a lack of youth workers and how those numbers had reduced. She will be aware that the Government are supporting youth practitioners in a number of ways. We have developed bursaries for youth work qualifications and funded more than 600 places since 2019. At a national level, the national youth guarantee gives a really clear commitment to young people, backed by more than £500 million investment in youth services, including the youth investment fund, which is building up to 300 new youth centres in levelling up areas.

We absolutely accept the range and value of many different youth services, including the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award and the impact that can have on a young person’s physical and mental health, and we have invested £7 million to expand access to the D of E in community organisations to make sure that every mainstream school in the country is able to access it.

The noble Baroness, Lady Valentine, asked where the responsibility for NEET sits. It sits between the Department for Education, largely in relation to children aged 16 to 18, or up to 25 if they have special educational needs and disabilities—I can write with the details of our responsibilities—and the Department for Work and Pensions when young people become of working age, over the age of 18.

If your Lordships will bear with me for a few seconds more, I would like to finish with an anecdote relating to the stickability idea that the noble Lord, Lord McConnell, raised. I recently visited a school in Sefton that had been in special measures and a new trust had come in to support the school. I was talking to one of the children and I said, “Tell me what it’s like here now”. She said, “Well, at this school we climb mountains.” I looked at her. She said, “Life is about climbing mountains and I am just working out which one I am going to excel at”. So stickability lives on in the minds and spirits of our young people.

I look forward very much to working with your Lordships to make sure that, as we bring forward further proposals to support vulnerable adolescents and make sure they grow up in safe and nurturing environments, we can make that the success that we need it to be. I thank the noble Baroness opposite for the spirit of her comments and, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham said, every child is precious, and we absolutely agree that every child deserves and needs to feel loved.

Before the Minister sits down, I wonder whether I might pick up one point that the Minister made. Mental health support in schools reaches a quarter of the children who need it at present and the aim is to increase that percentage—

My Lords, I am sorry, the noble Baroness was not here at the beginning of the debate, so it is not appropriate for her to intervene. She can certainly write to the Minister, who will respond in writing. Thank you.

My Lords, I want to thank everyone for their contribution today. I am sort of feeling guilty, because I somehow manage to get a slot each time at the end of the business of the week, and people are not able to get back to where they want to get back to—so I apologise for that. I think it has been a really interesting debate. My noble friend Lord McConnell reminded us that this has been going on a long time. I was working with adolescents well over 50 years ago, and working professionally with them for a significant amount of time, too. But we are in different times, as the noble Lord, Lord Addington, acknowledged. There are specific things going on now which I never had to deal with when I was doing detached youth work, or even before then working as a social worker.

This commission was set up at the end of Covid. We know that many children had been very lonely and stuck in their rooms on social media, which was corrosive and damaging, and through which predators were able to reach out to them. Some of them did not have any opportunity to engage in things such as the sports the noble Lord, Lord Addington, talked about. For those nobody had noticed as a potential problem, they and their families were suddenly facing problems they had never imagined. We still do not know what has happened to thousands of the children who went missing because they were not in school or accounted for anywhere. When I was working, in those days, we did not have to worry about what they were seeing and what was being organised on social media.

Yes, there are problems that adolescents have always faced. My social work tutor used to say to me that the problem was that I had a very peaceful and happy adolescence, and maybe it would have been better if I had had a few more of the problems of the young people I was trying to work with. I was always quite grateful that I had not. We know that young people have always faced problems, but at the moment there are problems we really do not know how properly to tackle. Not being at school and not getting the resilience support and training—which, for me, is how we end up with real losses in terms of mental health—they do not know where to go or who to get it from. When I was starting, there were lots of people around who could be their youth worker, their mentor or their friend, but that has been hollowed out.

I know that this Minister thinks about and works on these things very carefully. The reality is that we all need to do that across the board and look for ways we can identify what is going on in our communities. We never thought there would be this sort of problem in many communities, and there is. As the report says, very often these young people are hidden in plain sight, and these problems are there. We have a responsibility not to give up on these kids and to make sure they have a future, and that their future family have a future in which the care and the relationship is there for as long as it takes.

Motion agreed.

House adjourned at 5.33 pm.