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Public Bill Committees

Debated on Tuesday 13 December 2016

Children and Social Work Bill [ Lords ] (First sitting)

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairs: Mrs Anne Main, † Phil Wilson

† Caulfield, Maria (Lewes) (Con)

† Creasy, Stella (Walthamstow) (Lab/Co-op)

† Debbonaire, Thangam (Bristol West) (Lab)

† Fellows, Marion (Motherwell and Wishaw) (SNP)

† Fernandes, Suella (Fareham) (Con)

Green, Kate (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab)

† Hoare, Simon (North Dorset) (Con)

† Kennedy, Seema (South Ribble) (Con)

† Lewell-Buck, Mrs Emma (South Shields) (Lab)

† McCabe, Steve (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab)

† Merriman, Huw (Bexhill and Battle) (Con)

Milling, Amanda (Cannock Chase) (Con)

† Siddiq, Tulip (Hampstead and Kilburn) (Lab)

† Syms, Mr Robert (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)

† Timpson, Edward (Minister for Vulnerable Children and Families)

† Tomlinson, Michael (Mid Dorset and North Poole) (Con)

† Whately, Helen (Faversham and Mid Kent) (Con)

Farrah Bhatti, Katy Stout Committee Clerks

† attended the Committee

Public Bill Committee

Tuesday 13 December 2016


[Phil Wilson in the Chair]

Children and Social Work Bill [Lords]

Before we begin line-by-line consideration, I have a few preliminary announcements. Please switch all electronic devices to silent. Tea and coffee are not allowed during sittings.

We will first consider the programme motion on the amendment paper. We will then consider a motion to enable the recording of written evidence for publication. In view of the time available, I hope that we can take those matters formally, without debate.



(1) the Committee shall (in addition to its first meeting at 8.55 am on Tuesday 13 December) meet—

(a) at 2.00 pm on Tuesday 13 December;

(b) at 11.30 am and 2.00 pm on Thursday 15 December;

(c) at 9.25 am and 2.00 pm on Tuesday 10 January;

(d) at 11.30 am and 2.00 pm on Thursday 12 January;

(e) at 9.25 am and 2.00 pm on Tuesday 17 January;

(2) the proceedings shall be taken in the following order: Clauses 1 to 32; Schedule 1; Clause 33; Schedule 2; Clauses 34 to 50; Schedule 3; Clauses 51 and 57; new Clauses; new Schedules; Clauses 58 to 64; and remaining proceedings on the Bill; and

(3) the proceedings shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at 5.00 pm on Tuesday 17 January.—(Edward Timpson.)

The deadline for amendments to be considered at Thursday’s sitting of the Committee was rise of the House yesterday. The next deadline will be 4.30 pm on Thursday 5 January, for the Committee’s first sitting after Christmas, on Tuesday 10 January. The Clerks will circulate an email about arrangements for tabling amendments during the recess.


That, subject to the discretion of the Chair, any written evidence received by the Committee shall be reported to the House for publication.—(Edward Timpson.)

Copies of written evidence that the Committee receives will be made available in the Committee Room.

We now begin line-by-line consideration of the Bill. As a general rule, my fellow Chair and I do not intend to call starred amendments. The required notice period in Public Bill Committees is three working days, so amendments should have been tabled by rise of the House yesterday for consideration on Thursday. The selection list for today’s sittings is available in the room and on the website. It shows how the selected amendments have been grouped for debate. Grouped amendments are generally on the same or similar issues. A Member who has put their name to the lead amendment in a group is called first; other Members are then free to catch my eye to speak on all or any of the amendments in that group. A Member may speak more than once in a single debate.

At the end of the debate on a group of amendments, I shall call again the Member who moved the lead amendment. Before the Member sits down, they need to indicate whether they wish to withdraw the amendment or seek a decision on it. If a Member wishes to press any other amendment or new clause in a group to a vote, they need to let me know. I shall work on the assumption that the Minister wishes the Committee to reach a decision on all Government amendments that are tabled.

Please note that decisions on amendments do not take place in the order in which they are debated but in the order in which they appear on the amendment paper; in other words, debate occurs according to the selection and grouping list. Decisions are taken when we come to the clause affected by the amendment.

In line with the resolution of the Programming Sub-Committee, new clauses will be decided after we have finished with clause 57 and before we move on to clause 58 and subsequent clauses. I shall use my discretion to decide whether to allow a separate stand part debate on individual clauses and schedules following the debate on the relevant amendments. I hope that that explanation is helpful.

Clause 1

Corporate parenting principles

I beg to move amendment 18, in clause 1, page 1, line 8, leave out “have regard to the need”.

Amendments 18 to 25 impose a duty on a local authority in respect of how it carries out functions in relation to children and young people.

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment 19, in clause 1, page 1, line 10, at beginning leave out “to”.

See amendment 18.

Amendment 20, in clause 1, page 1, line 12, at beginning leave out “to”.

See amendment 18.

Amendment 21, in clause 1, page 1, line 14, at beginning leave out “to”.

See amendment 18.

Amendment 22, in clause 1, page 1, line 16, at beginning leave out “to”.

See amendment 18.

Amendment 23, in clause 1, page 1, line 19, at beginning leave out “to”.

See amendment 18.

Amendment 24, in clause 1, page 2, line 1, at beginning insert “have regard”.

See amendment 18.

Amendment 25, in clause 1, page 2, line 3, at beginning leave out “to”.

See amendment 18.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Wilson. I welcome all Committee members to this sitting. As this is my first time on the Front Bench in a Bill Committee, I ask everyone to bear with me. I am happy to take any guidance from those in the room who are more experienced than I am.

First, I would like briefly to echo some comments made in the other place about the rushed pace and hurried nature of the Bill. Noble Lords expressed concern that the Bill had not been carefully thought out; they were right, of course, because thanks to their diligent work the Bill before us is markedly different from the one that was introduced. The legislation appears not to have been made in response to any particular burning issues or needs—nor, despite its being a Bill about children and social workers, does it appear to be built on extensive consultation with children or social workers.

My hon. Friend commented on how extensively the Bill has changed; my understanding is that we are on more or less the fourth version. If there was extensive consultation, how come the Minister brought the Bill before Parliament in a condition so inadequate that it needed to be changed so substantially before it got here?

That is a question that the Minister might answer. I hope that the Bill will be changed again after our deliberations in Committee—so there may well be a sixth or seventh version.

Does the hon. Lady acknowledge that part of the reason for a Bill Committee, whether in the Lords or the Commons, is scrutiny, and that if that results in change it shows the strength of the system, rather than weakness?

It shows strength on the part of the Lords who made the amendments, but weakness in the Government who introduced a Bill in need of so many changes.

Since Second Reading last week, I have been inundated with expressions of concern that the Bill has progressed so rapidly to Committee without any sittings to take evidence from the sector or agencies that work closely with vulnerable children. Neither the Opposition nor the sector and the agencies working in the field feel particularly comfortable about the Bill’s passage through Parliament. My amendments would strengthen the wording, in expectation of the local authority’s having an active duty to make the provision in question, and remove the weaker, passive expression, “have regard to”.

Of course, when Labour was last in government, it introduced the first ever statutory framework for care leavers, the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000, and followed that with the Children and Young Persons Act 2008. It is clear that the party is committed to children who are leaving care. We welcome any measures that make improvements for the thousands of care leavers, whose numbers are due to grow—bearing in mind that the March figures for looked-after children were the highest since 1985, at 70,440. It is more vital than ever to get support for care leavers right.

We also welcome the spirit of the corporate parenting principles, with the clear definition of expectations about how the local authority should fulfil its role in relation to looked-after children and care leavers. We feel, however, that the principles are totally undermined by the fact that the provision will require local authorities only to “have regard” to them rather than have a duty to fulfil them, as is the case in Scotland, for example.

In another place, Lord Nash said the principles are

“about changing and spreading good practice, and making sure that the local authorities’ task in loco parentis does not burden them with a tick-box approach and extra duties.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 29 June 2016; Vol. 773, c. 1558.]

I have sympathy with that approach, but I fear that, as it stands, it is too woolly and open to interpretation. There is a clear need for the emphasis to shift from the reactive to the proactive. Unless the principles are worded more robustly, local authorities, which may strive to do their best as corporate parents, may nevertheless be obliged to cut corners, especially in these times of stretched budgets. We cannot just rely on culture change or assume that, if there is no duty, new principles will be put into practice just because they exist in theory.

There is already far too much variation in levels of care, because different local authorities have different numbers of looked-after children and children leaving care. All too often, because of the Government’s disproportionate approach to local government cuts, it is the local authorities in the most deprived areas whose budgets have been cut the most. The Government’s misguided idea that they can deliver the outcomes they seek through culture change, without looking at any of the underlying challenges that face councils around the country, is absurd.

Will the hon. Lady take it from me that reductions in local government expenditure have happened across the country? This myth that it is the more deprived, northern towns that have been hit hardest is just that—a myth.

Unfortunately, I completely disagree with the hon. Gentleman. The most deprived local authorities have received the biggest cuts.

If the hon. Member for North Dorset is right, perhaps he can tell us how it is that some Tory-controlled authorities up and down the country have seen an 8% increase in their funding, while other parts of the country have seen an 8% reduction.

The fact is that local authority budgets have faced swingeing cuts since the Tories first took office in 2010. The Bill simply passes more roles on to local authorities without ensuring that they have the necessary resources. That reflects the very worst of this Government’s approach to local government: to cut budgets first and to devolve power and responsibility later, without ensuring that the local authorities can properly deliver the services.

I do not wish local authorities to take on their corporate parenting responsibilities as a tick-box exercise. If they did, I fear that that would indicate that they had fallen at the very first hurdle in terms of good practice. I do think, however, that it is important to give the principles the weight that they deserve by ensuring that they are as robust as possible.

Flexibility in practice is important, but strengthening the wording in no way prohibits local authorities from carrying out their functions as they see fit. If a new system is to become embedded in a nationally uniform way and not to become another postcode lottery, it is crucial that local authorities know from the outset that the corporate parenting principles are a priority and not an option. Too often, the services that children most in need of state help receive are reduced to a postcode lottery. That can be seen in the funding for children in need of help and protection: the local authority with the highest funding has available more than 13 times the funding per child than the most poorly funded authority.

We are concerned that the corporate parenting principles as drafted will amount to another postcode lottery. Simply requiring local authorities to “have regard to” the principles of corporate parenting, rather than there being a statutory duty, will add to the risk. When local authorities must only have regard to principles, the serious risk is that only those local authorities with the resources that others do not have will be able to deliver. To address that, the Government should guarantee a legal duty to abide by the corporate parenting principles to deal with the underlying challenges facing local government—challenges of the Government’s own making.

Corporate parenting is one of the most important roles that a local authority has. Local councillors take the responsibility extremely seriously. It is important that the role is not diluted and remains closely linked to democratic accountability. However, the principle of corporate parenting cannot simply end with local authorities. All agencies working closely with looked-after children and care leavers, although they are not corporate parents, should co-operate in support.

Children who rely on the corporate parenting principles will often have complex needs. Local authorities alone will not always be able to meet those needs. A full range of agencies, despite not being corporate parents themselves, will need to work in co-operation to support those young people’s complex needs. In particular, health and education have a vital role in ensuring the best possible outcomes for children in care. Once again, however, the Government have not gone far enough with the principles to ensure that young people in the care of the state will get the support that they need.

We welcome and support the principles of corporate parenting, but the Government seem to be simply hoping that new responsibilities for local authorities “to have regard” will be enough. In reality, unless the principles are a duty, they will for some children remain meaningless—empty words in an Act of Parliament, without any real impact on their lives. Those children need actions and not words, and “having regard to” something rarely translates into real action.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Wilson, both this side of Christmas and in the new year. In the run-up to Christmas, I am looking forward to a cracker of a Committee, full of joy and, I hope, understanding.

I know the hon. Member for South Shields will be wondering what present I have brought for her this year, but I will wait to hear what she wants first. I apologise in advance if what she asks for is either out of stock or outside my budget range. I will listen carefully to the case she makes and do my best to try and fulfil her wishes.

I am also grateful to the hon. Lady for this opportunity to re-emphasise the importance of clause 1, which in many ways is the beating heart of this Bill. The intention behind amendments 18 to 25 is to ensure that the corporate parenting principles cannot be ignored and are meaningful. I am equally determined to ensure that. That is why the clause states that a local authority “must…have regard to” the needs identified in the clause as the corporate parenting principles, rather than simply “may” have regard to them. A local authority must take account of the needs articulated in subsection (1)(a) to (g) whenever they carry out any local authority function in relation to looked-after children and care leavers.

Framing the duty in terms of “having regard to” is the right approach. Local authorities already have a range of statutory duties in relation to looked-after children and care leavers that derive from the Children Act 1989 and its associated regulation, which set out a long list of statutory duties that underpin our current child protection system and also create a strong and robust system within which the corporate parenting principles may be operated.

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Wilson. If the principles are the beating heart of the Bill, will the Minister take some time to explain the major distinction between the seven principles and the duties in the 1989 Act? On the one hand we have clear duties imposed on the local authority, and on the other we have a new piece of legislation setting out new principles that local authorities must only “have regard to”. The implication is that one is an obligation and the other is simply something that they should have regard to. What is the distinction between the duties and the principles that made it necessary for the Minister to bring these principles forward?

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s question, because it is important that local authorities understand how this sits within their wider duties as the corporate parent for children in their care.

The principles do not sit in isolation. Clause 1 ensures that existing local authority duties and responsibilities for looked-after children and care leavers are carried out with these principles in mind. It requires local authorities to consider how they carry out all their functions in relation to looked-after children and care leavers. The principles sit above the local authority’s substantial current duties towards looked-after children and care leavers within existing legislation. Those duties remain unchanged; the corporate parenting principles are intended to inform how local authorities fulfil those duties and promote a culture in which all parts of the local authority contribute to their role as corporate parent.

The hon. Gentleman will know as well as I do from his period shadowing me and the time he has spent talking to local authorities and children in care that we are trying to ensure that the responsibility for children in a local authority’s care does not just sit at the door of social workers; it should be the responsibility of the whole council under the seven principles we have set out. The principles give lead members for children’s services and independent reviewing officers a lever to help to achieve just that, both at a strategic level and for individual young people. It is important that the Committee knows that statutory guidance—we have provided a draft—will underpin the principles to make them as clear as possible.

Local authorities also carry out a range of other provision functions, including housing, council tax and so on, which can have an impact on looked-after children and care leavers. Importantly, the principles do not duplicate or replace those duties; they are there to inform, in a proportionate and flexible way, how the existing duties should be carried out. In other words, when carrying out all existing local authority responsibilities, they must pay attention to the seven key needs in subsection (1)(a) to (g).

My hon. Friend mentioned local authorities on a number of occasions in relation to the clause. Subsection (3)(a) to (f) sets out what local authorities are, but are county borough councils, such as Cheltenham Borough Council, also included? It mentions district councils and London borough councils, but there is no reference to shire boroughs.

My understanding is that it is relevant to borough councils such as the one my hon. Friend mentions, but I will ensure that I have complete clarity on that point, because it is imperative that this proposal covers the whole of local government where it has responsibility for the children in its care.

Removing “have regard to” would constrain local authority discretion, which is not the outcome we are looking for. Instead, we want to achieve a culture change so that the corporate parenting principles genuinely inform how existing duties are carried out. For example, if the local authority is fulfilling a refuse collection function to a care leaver, the need to promote high aspirations may not be entirely relevant to that function—I think we can all see that. It is something that the authority must have regard to, but it can take the view that it is not possible to do anything towards meeting that need when exercising a particular function, hence the need for local discretion and proportionality. On the other hand, when fulfilling housing functions it may be relevant to have regard to the need to secure the best outcomes for care leavers. To that end, the needs identified in the clause must work in a way that is proportionate, meaningful and pragmatic.

The clause articulates for the first time the guiding principles that will change local authorities’ culture and practice when they discharge their responsibilities as corporate parents. That approach is supported by Dave Hill, the president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services. We want to encapsulate in the corporate parenting principles a set of clear and helpful priority needs for this group of children and young people. We want them to be reference points for the local authority to take into account across the discharge of all its functions. That means that everyone in the authority—not only front-line staff in children’s social care and leaving care services, but all local authority services—will have regard to those needs when carrying out functions in relation to care leavers and looked-after children.

My hon. Friend is talking about how the whole local authority must take responsibility for care leavers. Does he anticipate that the principles will mean that local authorities are far less likely to place children out of their local area and put them into care in other local authorities, and that they will place children outside their boundaries only in exceptional circumstances?

My hon. Friend is right to raise what is still an ongoing issue in many parts of the country. I know that many children, often from central London, are placed out of area in Kent, where her constituency is. Although in a small number of cases there is a clear justification for doing so relating to the young person’s needs, we hope that the corporate parenting principles will bind the local authority’s decision making together, so that when a final view is taken on where the child is best placed to meet their needs the local authority will look at how it can improve its local provision, set against the corporate parenting principles, which include housing and the wishes and feelings of the young person. I anticipate that the corporate parenting principles will provide a better mechanism for ensuring that those who are charged with the responsibility of finding the right path for those young people do so in a way that enables them to find a placement that is in keeping not just with their wishes but their needs, which more often than not means being much closer to home than in some cases currently.

Further to the point made by the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent, would not the receiving authority also be bound by the corporate principles, so that if a child were placed outside the borough, the receiving authority would be subject to all these principles in the way it looked after the young person in exactly the same way as if they were placed in borough?

That is a helpful clarification. For any child who is placed in a local authority’s area, the corporate parenting principles will apply to that local authority. That duty to act on their behalf in their best interests does not end or not start because the child is moving around the system.

One thing we want to get away from are the artificial boundaries that have been put up by virtue of local government lines that do not always serve children well, although it may be more comfortable for those who are carrying out those function not to think about what happens beyond their borders. That is an issue that is becoming more prevalent, with children being moved around the system, losing track of where they are living and their circumstances. We know that makes them extremely vulnerable. The strong message that comes out of this Committee, having heard both sides, is that these principles should be seen as a national cause, not just a local one, so that every local authority and all its officers ensure that they fulfil its responsibilities as a corporate parent.

I want to ensure that I have understood this. That was a very helpful contribution from the Minister and I understand exactly what he is trying to achieve, but I am curious about what would happen in a situation where a child is placed out of borough and the child or their advocate argues that one of the authorities is acting in accordance with some of the corporate principles but the other one is not and is therefore obstructing the quality of their care. How would that situation be resolved, given that the object of the exercise is to ensure the best care and to make this a national set of principles?

In some respects, in what I hope are very limited cases, that situation already arises, where a child or young person has been moved out of their host local authority and they are not content with the arrangements that have been set up in the new local authority. [Interruption.] Will the hon. Gentleman bear with me? They may want to pursue that through the advocacy that they are entitled to. We are seeking to ensure that when that situation arises, though we hope it does not in the vast majority of cases, if at all, there is whole local authority ownership of that issue and that transcends local authority boundaries. That would ensure greater consistency of approach, not just from social workers but those who are responsible for housing and other functions of that local authority.

If the hon. Gentleman looks at some of the changes that we have already made to the residential care system for children, if a child moves out of area, that has to be signed off by the director of children’s services of the host local authority and there has to be a proper level of consultation and agreement between the local authorities as to what the arrangements will be. The aim is to ensure a good and consistent level of service provided by both the local authorities, irrespective of where the child happens to be between the two of them—in some cases it is more than two.

It is important to recognise that these seven principles and the areas they cover are designed to touch every aspect of that child’s time in care. By having to have regard to those principles, we will end up in a situation in which local authorities more widely are taking account of their responsibilities more seriously, irrespective of the type of placement that child or young person is in, their age, their background, or the sort of placement that is best suited to their needs. The whole point of having statutory guidance is to try to assist local authorities in coming up with practical ways, as well as engendering the culture change we want to see, to make sure that we get the improvements that we want to be part of.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Wilson; this is my first Bill Committee, so please bear with me if I ask questions that seem obvious. I understand that someone could be moved out of their local host borough. If they move to another borough, who has the primary responsibility for the child and where is their assigned social worker: in the host borough or the new borough?

The original local authority where that child was taken into care continues to have overall responsibility for their care. That is why it is important that they co-ordinate very closely with the receiving local authority to ensure that the child is cared for as well as they possibly can be. When that breaks down, it is often a consequence of the host local authority not having that real sense of responsibility and, in a sense, passing that responsibility on to the receiving local authority. That should never be the case.

In my previous life as a family law barrister, I was involved in cases where local authorities were unaware of where a child was living in the local authority to which they had been transferred. That is unacceptable, and it is exactly the sort of issue that Ofsted would be interested in when inspecting a local authority. What we are really trying to push for with these principles is to ensure that we get that continued level of interest, responsibility and determination, with local authorities still seeing those children as a high priority when fulfilling their role as corporate parent. That should never be diluted because the child happens to be moving around the system geographically.

Having grown up with foster siblings, I also know how important it is to demonstrate consistently that someone cares for and supports these children and young people; that someone worries about their safety, their relationships and their aspirations, and that they will help them realise their ambitions. Most children and young people are fortunate to have families who do that for them, but I want that for looked-after children and care leavers, too. As the local authority stands in place of these children’s parents, it is important that they should seek to act as any good parent would, as I said a few moments ago. If we take an examination of Ofsted reports that tell us where that is done well—Trafford, Hackney, Hertfordshire and Lincolnshire—we see that that is where corporate parenting is at its strongest. That is what this clause is designed to do, and what I believe it will achieve.

As was the case in the other place, this group of amendments seeks to ensure that corporate parenting principles are meaningful and practical. I believe that they are. Ofsted already has corporate parenting firmly on its radar. The inspection framework refers to corporate parents nine times, and I have no doubt that inspectors will have these principles clearly in their sights when they assess how well a local authority fulfils its corporate parent role. I have already had the pleasure of discussing this clause with Ofsted’s lead on social care, Eleanor Schooling, and I am confident that they will understand and want to test how local authorities are responding to these new principles.

As well as the wording of the clause, local authorities and Ofsted will have the statutory guidance that will be made available under this clause. As I have alluded to, that will include more detail on how the principles will work in practice, and the importance of embedding them within the culture of the organisation, driven by strong leadership from the top, as well as examples of how each principle could be applied on the ground. We plan to consult formally on draft guidance in the new year.

Looked-after children deserve the best possible start. Local authorities, as their corporate parents, have a responsibility to ensure that they adopt an approach to facilitate that happening. That is why clause 1 is a pivotal clause in the Bill. I hope that all I have said provides the reassurance the hon. Member for South Shields is seeking, and that she will withdraw her amendment.

I do not want to take up too much of the Committee’s time. Having listened to the Minister, I am in no doubt about his aspirations. I also had the benefit of shadowing his post in the previous Parliament, and I have no doubt that his actions are well intentioned. However, I wonder whether he will be able to achieve his ambitions with this set of proposals, which is why the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields is of such significance. The danger here is that we have a set of words but no guarantee that they will translate into action.

I would have liked the Minister to explain to the Committee why there are seven principles in the first place. There were three others suggested in the House of Lords, but they were rejected out of hand. The Minister has made no reference to those whatsoever, and we have been left almost short-changed in terms of the information we have. The danger of not making this a duty is that although the Minister might think that this is the heartbeat of his legislation, to other people it looks like window dressing. The statute books are littered with children’s legislation that has been nothing more than window dressing.

That is why we should take advantage of this opportunity to probe exactly what these principles will do. If they are that important, why is the Minister not prepared to insist that local authorities should act on them? It is hard to find fault with their general wording, but I wonder whether in fact they give local authorities a great many opportunities to dance around the issues.

I note that the Minister spoke of his desire not to straitjacket local authorities, which was his reason for saying that they must “have regard to” the principles, rather than imposing them as duties. He took as his example clause 1(1)(e), about having high aspirations. I want to probe that a little further to see what he really has in mind. Are those aspirations governed by the local authority’s view of what might be high aspirations?

Once a child comes into care, their health is likely to deteriorate, particularly their mental health, which has a 50% greater chance of resulting in some kind of episode. Their education is likely to deteriorate, which is why we have created the post of virtual school head. That is why there was so much emphasis in what the Minister did in the previous Parliament on trying to raise children’s educational aspirations. Whose aspirations are we talking about: the local authority’s, the child’s, their natural parents’ or their advocate’s? Who will determine what is a high enough standard for that child? The rest of us would determine for our own children, and we would want the absolute best for them. But when the Minister talks about aspirations, whose decision will be the determining factor?

The Minister talks about not wanting to straitjacket the local authority. He gave an interesting example about refuse collection not necessarily being an area where one would want to tie the local authority into aspiration. On the surface, I would agree with him. He went on to say that in the case of housing that might be different. What about the quality of housing that a young person is placed in? Does that not affect aspiration? What about the level of the repair service they receive, if the place is in a difficult, high-rise block with mould and water running down the walls? What about the local environment that the young person is placed in? If the local authority deems it all right to put them in a run-down block of flats in a difficult part of town, where the walls are littered with graffiti and there are needles, syringes and broken bottles everywhere, does that not affect a young person’s aspiration? Should that not be something the Minister is telling us about?

Actually, clause 1(1)(e) has a huge impact on how that young person is affected. If these principles mean anything at all, should we not be leaving the Committee absolutely certain that the Minister for Children and Families is saying that the principle of aspiration, as defined in clause 1(1)(e), means that no longer will any local authority be allowed to place a child in the appalling environmental conditions that can do nothing but diminish their aspiration and affect their overall wellbeing and health?

I want to check on one other thing. In the other place, Lord Nash referred to the Minister for Vulnerable Children and Families. Has the Minister had a change of role? Has something been slightly altered? If these principles apply specifically to vulnerable young people, I wonder what that distinction is. We all know that many kinds of young people come into care, driven by many different factors, but often those who have suffered the worst neglect and abuse are the most vulnerable. If he is saying that an additional level of consideration should be applied to them, it would be good to know that.

I understand the Minister’s point—this was raised by the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent—about a young person received into care by one authority who then lives in another authority. He will know as well as I do the tragedy of that. It is probably best exemplified by events in Rotherham and Rochdale. When these children, often from the south of England, are transferred to authorities in the north of England, they are completely forgotten. That is why it was possible for some of the terrible things that happened there to take place and go unnoticed. The Minister said that both authorities would have responsibility. When I pursued him on the question of conflict between authorities, he assured us that the present system is designed to cater for that. I want to raise that question once more, in relation to the point his hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset made at the outset of the Committee about the different levels of cuts and finance available to local authorities.

If a child is received into care by one local authority and then sent to live in the care of a different local authority, and if there is a set of proposals for their welfare—their education, for example, or perhaps they need counselling because of trauma they have suffered, or particular needs that were identified through an assessment following their placement—and it is deemed that they should receive a particular kind of formal support, what would happen if the local authority that received them then refused on the basis that its budget situation had since changed substantially, to the extent that it could no longer afford that service? Who would be responsible for ensuring that these principles were applied? Would it be the local authority where the child is now residing, which would undoubtedly argue that the bill had to be picked up by the local authority that had received the child into care?

I raise that point because, as the Minister said at the outset, these principles are the heartbeat of his legislation. The principles are worthless unless we know exactly how they will be applied and how they will directly affect the interests of a particular child. If the Minister cannot give us a graphic description of how that would work, these are empty principles; they are not principles that underpin a better future for children. Otherwise, this is empty legislation and these are empty words on paper that will litter the walls and shelves of social work offices up and down the country and contribute nothing to the welfare of the young people we are concerned about.

The Minister should therefore consider once again whether his principles are so essential to his legislation that they should be applied as a duty to the local authority, which should have no wriggle room from addressing them. That is the only way he will ensure that he gets the outcomes that I am sure he wants to achieve.

I note what the Minister said about a holistic approach to looking after these children. He mentioned front-line staff and the council working together as a whole, which I agree with. I was a councillor for many years in a council that is rated in the top three boroughs in the country, and I was also a cabinet member. We faced a £80 million shortfall overall and I had to make a 30% cut to the services that I was in charge of. Although I appreciate the sentiment behind these principles and I think they are very timely and needed, will the Minister comment on the fact that councils are stretched? Front-line staff are disappearing because they cannot afford to keep them on, and councils are struggling to provide even the basic services because of the lack of funding.

This is not a political point. Councils across the country are struggling with what I saw first-hand. I appreciate the sentiment that there should be an holistic approach to looking after these children—and I agree that that should happen, because they are the most vulnerable in society—can we carry that out at a time when councils are struggling with their funding because of the cuts to local government budgets from national Government?

This debate has been helpful in teasing out a little more understanding of the purpose of the principles. I accept that the principles in themselves are not going to transform the life of every child in care. However, as I have set out, we seek to provide a strong and comprehensive set of principles that will apply to all local authority officers, irrespective of their role, and which will engender a shared sense of responsibility and push to the forefront of their mind the impact of their decisions on children in care and care leavers placed with them.

I want to reassure the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak, who thinks about these things very deeply and cares about making sure that we come up with an approach that will have a positive impact, that the principles are not set in isolation. All the underlying responsibilities of local authorities remain in place.

As we know, there are myriad clear statutory duties on local authorities. For example, section 22 of the Children Act 1989 sets out local authorities’ general duties in respect of looked-after children, such as safeguarding and promoting their welfare and educational achievement, and ascertaining and taking due consideration of their wishes and feelings. Section 10 of the Children Act 2004 places a duty on local authorities to make arrangements to co-operate with the relevant partners in their area to promote the wellbeing of children. Section 11 of the 2004 Act prescribes the bodies and people in England who must make arrangements to safeguard and promote the welfare of children. There are, of course, many more responsibilities, coupled with a raft of guidance and regulations that provide further detail as to exactly what local authorities must do to fulfil those responsibilities.

I do not want the hon. Gentleman to come away with the impression that the corporate parenting principles in themselves are what local authorities must ensure they have regard to. Those principles overlay what is a very clear structure of statutory responsibilities that have served well since they were introduced almost 30 years ago.

I am not sure whether I have misunderstood; perhaps the Minister can help me. He is quite right to identify all those duties, but am I not right in thinking that in later clauses that deal with innovation, he plans to allow local authorities to opt out of these very duties and responsibilities? He talks about safeguards being applied to children, but he will later tell us he plans to let local authorities give those responsibilities up.

I am afraid the hon. Gentleman is wrong. If he looks at the provisions we have introduced, he will see that the sections I referred to are explicitly removed from that ability in relation to the power to innovate. He will also want to familiarise himself with the guidance, which will set out in a more practical and meaningful way how we want local authorities to behave in relation to the principles. At present, many local authorities are fulfilling those duties in a way that is very much aligned with the principles. We do not want to overlay further legislation that puts additional duties on local authorities, when they are already able to do this within the framework that is in place. This is about a shift in approach, not creating new burdens on local authorities.

The hon. Gentleman talked about aspirations. All of us have the highest possible aspirations for any child growing up in the care system, and local authorities must have those high aspirations too. That is what the clause is all about. He gave an example of a young person being placed in housing in an area of deep deprivation, with syringes lying on the floor of alleyways and so on. That, in anyone’s reading, would be wholly inappropriate. I do not think anyone would dispute that someone placing a child in that area clearly does not have high aspirations for them. There is still, as seen in too many Ofsted reports, an acceptance of an unfulfilled level of aspiration for children and young people in that local authority’s care.

We want to put front and centre of the Bill a very clear message, backed up by the statutory guidance, to every local authority: “Whether you are a social worker, a housing officer or working in the finance department, you should have high aspirations for this young person. You shouldn’t accept second best for them, because you are fulfilling the role of corporate parent, and that should drive you on to ensure you do your very best.”

As I said, I have great respect for the Minister. There is nothing personal in what I am saying, but he knows as well as I do that there are young people around the country being put in bed-and-breakfast accommodation by local authorities, alongside alcoholics and junkies—it is happening now. If his aspiration is to put an end to that, why does not he legislate for it, rather than giving us principles that local authorities will be able to opt out of, as it suits them?

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman knows that we have already tightened the rules on the use of bed and breakfast—local government welcomed that—to try to get the right placement for each young person, depending on their circumstances. I do not want him to give the impression that the principles are the only thing the Government have introduced to try to improve experiences and outcomes for children in the care system.

I want to challenge the hon. Gentleman on his point about the health and education of children in care deteriorating during their time in care. That is not what the evidence suggests. He will have seen the report from the Rees centre, whose research showed that care has an overall positive impact on children. Those in care do better than children in need, in terms of educational improvement. There is no evidence that their health deteriorates, although of course there are individual cases where that does happen. They are more likely to have health checks while they are in care than when they are not.

I reassure the hon. Gentleman that my job title, Minister for Vulnerable Children and Families, does not affect my other responsibilities; in fact, I have even more responsibilities than I did when the name of my portfolio did not include the word “vulnerable”. Part of my mission involves the clear and consistent approach that the Government have set out in the “Putting Children First” policy paper, which the hon. Gentleman will have read. That sets out our ambition to improve services in every way, for children in care and for care leavers. [Interruption.] I see that the hon. Gentleman has the paper in front of him—he has made my Christmas.

The paper sets out a clear and comprehensive strategy for the period from now to 2020, across the system, for the people working in children’s social care, the practice system that they work in, and the governance and accountability that will ensure we know what works and what does not. As a consequence, we will have the opportunity to see more children, with the principles in place, being looked after by those charged with the responsibility. That is the right approach.

The hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn raised the issue of how local authorities will be able to do what we envisage, at a time when local government funding is falling overall. The amount that local authorities have been spending on child protection has risen in recent years. That is partly because the number of children in care has gone up, but also because local authorities are taking the responsibility seriously. I welcome her support for the principles, but as for the impact of funding on the quality of children’s social care services, she will have seen that there is no correlation that can be determined between the amount that a local authority spends on services, and their quality and the outcomes for children. Some of the lowest-spending authorities have the highest outcomes for children in their care, and some of the highest-spending have some of the worst outcomes.

I suggest that the hon. Lady look at Hackney, not all that far from her constituency, to see how it turned around children’s services to the extent of being able to bear down on the overall cost. The services there work earlier and better with families, reducing the number of children who come into care, which means they can spend the money they have on improving services for the children who are in their care. I challenge the presumption that if we spend more money we get better services. That is clearly not the case. Of course we need to ensure that local authorities have sufficient funding to carry out their functions, but there is also room for them to ensure that they get the best possible value for the children in their care.

The Minister has said that spend has increased and that is not related to quality in some local authorities. How does he explain that? Does he agree with the National Audit Office conclusion that that indicates that none of his Government’s reforms since 2010 have yielded the desired results?

The hon. Lady is right to reference the NAO report, because the NAO was the proponent of the suggestion that there was not a correlation between spend and quality of service. We need to understand better why some local authorities are able to deliver better services for less money. As she will appreciate, this is a complex area, and there is still work to do to get under the skin of why the looked-after population is still rising in some local authorities but falling in others. That is partly to do with greater awareness and earlier intervention in families. In the past, particularly in cases of neglect, children were left in the care of their parents for too long.

I am trying to give the hon. Lady a full explanation. Different circumstances in different local authorities drive decisions about funding and the outcomes that that funding achieves. We have recently signed a formal agreement with Ofsted so that we can more effectively share our data with one another—the NAO report asked for that—and have much more contemporaneous read-outs of how local authorities are performing, help them make better decisions about how to spend money and understand better as a Department what baseline funding local authorities need to carry out an efficient and effective service.

I thank the Minister for giving way again. He touched briefly on early intervention. Does he accept that one of the reasons why more children are coming into care is perhaps that his Government’s cuts have led to a lack of early intervention services, family support work and Sure Start centres? I know from practice that those things can keep families together and prevent children from going into care.

It will be no surprise to the hon. Lady that I do not accept that proposition. As I say, this arena is more complex than that. It is worth reminding the Committee that not every child who comes into contact with a children’s centre inevitably ends up in the care system. Only a small proportion do so and have some support off the back of that. We want to capture those children as early as possible—I agree with her about that—but we must also provide targeted support for children in need who are on the edge of care so that their families get the support they need to keep them together, as Hackney has done successfully, rather those children slipping into and sometimes bouncing in and out of the care system, which is often the worst of all worlds for them.

I pray in aid the work that we have done through the innovation programme to try to improve local authorities’ response to this difficult and complex issue. I accept that there is more work to be done, but the programme that we set out in the “Putting children first” policy paper is a good and strong response to that challenge. On that basis, I ask the hon. Lady to withdraw her amendment.

I have listened carefully to the Minister’s response. The key thing he said, which sticks in my mind, is that these principles should be those of all good parents. Any good parent would therefore see these principles as a duty, not something to “have regard to” or ignore at will. They would not do that, and neither should any of us. I will press the amendment to a vote.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 2

Local offer for care leavers

I beg to move amendment 27, in clause 2, page 3, line 10, at end insert—

‘(6A) The Secretary of State must publish a national minimum standard for a “local offer for care leavers”.

(6B) When developing a national minimum standard for the purpose of subsection 6A the Secretary of State must consult relevant agencies responsible for the provision of services under subsection (2).’

This amendment would introduce a national minimum standard for a local offer for care leavers, which is to be developed in consultation with relevant parties.

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment 26, in clause 2, page 3, line 20, at end insert—

‘(e) unaccompanied asylum seeking children up to the point that they leave the United Kingdom.’

This amendment introduces an additional definition for “care leavers”.

New clause 13—Review of access to education for care leavers

‘(1) The Secretary of State must carry out an annual review on access for care leavers to—

(a) apprenticeships,

(b) further education, and

(c) higher education.

(2) The first review must take place by the end of the period of one year beginning with the day on which this Act is passed.

(3) A report produced following a review under sub-section (1) must include, in particular, an assessment of the impact of—

(a) fee waivers,

(b) grants, and

(c) reduced costs of accommodation.

The report must be made publicly available.’

New clause 16—National offer for care leavers

‘(1) The Universal Credit Regulations 2013 are amended as follows—

(a) in regulation 102(2)—

(i) in paragraph (a) after “18 or over” insert “and paragraph (b) does not apply”;

(ii) in paragraph (b) after “16 or 17” insert “or is a care leaver within the meaning given by section 2 of the Children and Social Work Act 2016 and is under the age of 25”;

(b) in regulation 103(2)—

(i) in paragraph (a) after “18 or over” insert “and paragraph (b) does not apply”;

(ii) in paragraph (b) after “16 or 17” insert “or is a care leaver within the meaning given by section 2 of the Children and Social Work Act 2016 and is under the age of 25”;

(c) in regulation 104(2) after “18 or over” insert “and section (3) does not apply”.

(d) in regulation 104(3) after “16 or 17” insert “or is a care leaver within the meaning given by section 2 of the Children and Social Work Act 2016 and is under the age of 25”.

(2) The Working Tax Credit (Entitlement and Maximum Rate) Regulations 2002 are amended as follows—

(a) in regulation 4(1), Second Condition, after paragraph (b) insert—

“(c) is aged at least 18 and is a care leaver within the meaning given by section 2 of the Children and Social Work Act 2016, and is under the age of 25, and undertakes not less than 30 hours work per week.”

(3) The Housing Benefit Regulations 2009 are amended as follows—

(a) in regulation 2, in the definition of “young individual”, in each of paragraphs (b), (c), (d), (e) and (f), for “22 years” substitute “25 years”.

(4) The Local Government Finance Act 1992 is amended as follows—

(a) in section 6(4) (persons liable to pay council tax), after “etc)” insert “or 10A (care leavers)”;

(b) in Schedule 1 (persons disregarded for purposes of discount), after paragraph 10 insert—

“Care leavers

10A (1) A person shall be disregarded for the purposes of discount on a particular day if on the day the person is—

(a) a care leaver within the meaning given by section 2 of the Children and Social Work Act 2016; and

(b) under the age of 25.”

(5) The Council Tax (Exempt Dwellings) Order 1992 is amended as follows—

(a) in Article 3, Class N, after paragraph 1(b) insert—

“(c) occupied only by one or more care leavers within the meaning given by section 2 of the Children and Social Work Act 2016 who are under the age of 25.”

(6) A statutory instrument containing regulations under this section may not be made unless a draft of the instrument has been laid before, and approved by a resolution of, each House of Parliament.’

Amendment 26 and new clauses 13 and 16, which I shall speak to, also stand in my name.

A child’s transition from being in care to becoming a care leaver is a notoriously difficult process. Supporting care leavers by offering them the relevant information about services they can access is welcome. That, however, will not address the need for proactive support for all care leavers or ensure that they all have the advice and information they need. Without setting a national minimum standard for the local offer, the very real risk is of a patchwork of provision across the country, where children in one area are offered a different level of service from that offered in another.

The Minister knows what happened with his Department’s implementation of a local offer for children with special educational needs and disabilities, introduced under the Children and Families Act 2014; I hope he will tell us why he thinks that the offer for children leaving care will not develop in the same haphazard way. If an idea has failed once and is not working as it should, surely duplicating it is not the best way to proceed.

At the time, we welcomed the principle of the local offer for learners with special educational needs and disabilities. As we recognised, it is important that those learners and their families receive the information necessary to achieve the best possible outcomes. However, two years later we have seen the local offer in practice, and it has not achieved all that it should have. Frankly, because of the lack of a national framework, we have ended up with a postcode lottery—an inconsistent and sadly often inadequate provision has therefore developed across the country.

The fact that the Government have not looked at those issues and taken steps to ensure that the local offer for care leavers operates in a high-quality national framework simply suggests, perhaps, that they are willing to repeat the same old mistakes. I am in full agreement with the noble Lord Watson, who pushed for the amendment in another place. Having no common policy throughout the country is unacceptable. I argue again that the amendment is necessary. A minimum standard for the offer is needed, to serve as a framework, an undertaking, about the availability of services throughout the country.

The Minister will argue against the amendment, perhaps on the premise that the Government feel that they should not be deciding what is best for care leavers in their local area—that the local authorities and care leavers should decide themselves. That, however, is a straw-man argument. What we are asking for is simply a minimum standard so that whatever else is decided, there is a minimum level of protection for our most vulnerable children who are leaving care.

I apologise to the Committee; I am afraid the Victoria line was not my friend this morning. I arrived as the shadow Minister was talking about corporate parenting and how the Bill is about what we should want for our own children. Surely my hon. Friend’s argument for a national minimum standard is exactly that; it is about the very basics that we would want for every single child because we would want it for our own child.

The risk of the Government’s approach is that, although there may be examples of good practice, there are also examples of poor practice. A national minimum standard would guard against that and protect every child as we would wish our own child to be protected.

My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. We have seen that the implementation of the local offer for special educational needs and disabilities is just that: an inconsistent approach and a patchwork model across the country.

A minimum level would be a benchmark that could never be lowered but could always be built on and improved. Surely that is the gold standard that we would want for all our care leavers. There is no evidence that introducing a set of minimum standards limits innovation and creativity; it is a simply a failsafe level of care. It would give clarity to both the local authority and the care leaver on what they can and cannot expect.

Care leavers often say that they struggle with what they are or are not entitled to. This would give them absolute clarity and help them plan better for independence. In practice, I lost track of the number of times when I dealt with parents who were themselves former care leavers. I went through everything and told them what they had been entitled to and they did not have a clue. This would be a good way to avoid such situations at the outset. Children should know what they are entitled to. If there is a minimum standard, they will always know what to expect.

A minimum standard would ensure that services offered would not be withdrawn when budgets are further cut by central Government and would let the people we are discussing know that their local authority and other agencies in their area really do care about their future and are committed to it wholeheartedly. Leaving the local offer to each local authority would not achieve that. The Minister must agree that we cannot justify a single child leaving care failing to receive the information that they need.

Will the Minister explain how he will ensure that the local offer will be accessible to all care leavers, whatever their circumstances when they leave care? How will he ensure that every single local authority will provide a local offer that meets the standard necessary to ensure the best possible outcomes for care leavers? Will he be taking any additional steps to ensure that there is not simply another postcode lottery that will leave a vast number of vulnerable young people unable to access the resources and support that they need? We cannot allow discrepancies in the level of care of the scale that I spoke about earlier to continue. There is no other practical way to achieve that in a timely manner.

I move on to amendment 26. As I have said, leaving care is a difficult process. Care leavers are faced with a set of difficulties that other children their age simply do not face. Is that in part why the Government introduced the local offer for care leavers that I referred to?

It is astonishing that the Bill is devoid of any mention of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. There are more than 3,000 such children in the UK care system. According to analysis of Home Office data, nearly all unaccompanied asylum-seeking children under 16 are fostered at some point. I assume that the Committee and others would think that when those children leave care they are entitled to the same support and assistance with their transition to independence as their peers—but they are not, despite being the most vulnerable of care leavers, having fled conflicts and horrors that most us can hardly begin to imagine.

I thank my hon. Friend for her speech. I agree with her: when we talk about unaccompanied asylum seekers and children, we are talking about the most vulnerable in society. My local authorities, Camden and Brent, have taken in asylum seekers and are looking after children. Does she agree that putting a duty on local authorities across the country to do that would send a clear signal to the rest of the world that we are acting as a leading country and taking charge of a situation where we should be doing more?

I welcome what is happening in my hon. Friend’s area. I agree completely with her comments. Once children who are unaccompanied asylum seekers reach 18, they are treated differently from other care leavers.

I recall working with many children who had escaped from conflict. Like children who have suffered abuse, their skin was grey and their eyes were emotionless. There was a look of permanent fear etched on their faces and they had an intense wariness of adults around them, which was reflected in their every movement and word. I have seen children slowly lose that look after being in placement for a while. The terror and sadness lift from their overall demeanour, because that is what feeling safe and being fed, clothed, cared for and away from a traumatic and ever-changing volatile environment can do for a child.

My hon. Friend will be aware that the Home Office is conducting some inquiries into what happens to unaccompanied children who enter this country. The system has not been terribly well supervised over recent years. There is a lot of concern.

Topically, there is a lot of concern about what happens with unaccompanied children who enter this country to attend sports schools and sports colleges—whether those arrangements are properly supervised and whether they could lead to abuse. In view of that situation, is it reasonable to assume that we may see further activity to receive some of those children into care as those inquiries reach fruition? In those circumstances, would it not be wise of the Minister to prepare for that eventuality in the Bill?

I shall come on to the absolute hash that the Home Office has made of the situation later in my comments.

After the children have been settled in placement for however long they have been in the UK, the rug is ripped out from underneath them as they reach 18 years old, when they must apply for extended leave to remain in the UK. The majority are turned down, so the place they understood to be their home is no longer their home. Worse still, the Home Office often does not get its act together and remove them, despite turning them down, so they disappear and are off the radar. The Government do not know how many care leavers are in that situation or where they have disappeared to, but it does not take long to guess that if someone is here illegally and is facing the fear of returning to their country of origin, they will go underground and be susceptible to exploitation, whether emotional, financial or sexual.

In our discussions of the Bill, we are going to come on to a number of conversations about how we treat child refugees, but the point my hon. Friend is making is simple: at the stroke of midnight on someone’s 18th birthday, they do not stop being a vulnerable young person. These are young people who we have accepted are vulnerable and should be cared for. The idea that we simply cut off all support at 18 simply does not accord with the principles behind much of the Bill. I hope that the Minister will listen to the case and think again about how we treat these young people. Someone’s turning 18 does not stop them from being a vulnerable young person.

That is why a lot of support targeted at care leavers lasts until they are 25 years old. Someone does not stop being vulnerable simply because they have turned 18.

I was a member of the Immigration Bill Committee. I do not recall the experience with much fondness. In the consideration of that Bill, which is now an Act, those on the Labour Benches argued against what I am describing. We argued that the provisions in that Act that limit the support for care leavers subject to immigration control undermined children and leaving care legislation, and gave immigration control greater prominence over young people’s welfare.

Treating children in this way creates a two-tier system of support that discriminates against care leavers on the basis of their immigration status. Can the Minister really tell us today that he agrees with the Home Office that all children leaving care deserve to be supported, except those who are leaving care as former unaccompanied asylum seekers? This Government already have a shameful record, as regards their handling of unaccompanied children. After Lord Dubs’s intervention in discussion of the Immigration Bill, he secured a U-turn and a commitment that Britain would give homes to some of the estimated 88,000 child refugees who were at the time believed to be travelling through Europe. We saw a rare glimpse of humanity from the Government but, sadly, they have hummed and hawed since then and, in the words of Lord Dubs,

“done nothing discernible about it.”

The noble Lord withdrew amendments to this Bill after the Government promised to publish a strategy for the safeguarding of children by May 2017, but a few days later the Home Office introduced guidelines that seriously restrict which children would qualify under the Dubs amendment and again changed the goalposts for these children. I will not go into more detail about the Dubs amendment, because we will return to it when we discuss amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow.

Amendment 26 would ensure that unaccompanied asylum-seeking children had to be included in the local offer when leaving care. Currently, a young unaccompanied asylum seeker leaving care will not be entitled to stay put, or qualify for benefits or students loans, and if they go on to higher education, they will be treated as an overseas student and charged fees that are generally three times higher than for others. The amendment would, first and foremost, ensure parity of services, which would reduce prejudice and discrimination in the design and delivery of the offer for care leavers and promote positive outcomes for every care-leaving child. It would show the House at its best, and I hope that the Minister and his colleagues agree.

New clause 13 seeks to ensure that access to education for care leavers improves, and to overcome some of the barriers faced by young people leaving care in accessing apprenticeship opportunities and further and higher education in comparison. For many years, the figures for looked-after children in these areas have remained stubbornly lower than for non-care leavers. We all know that this is a problem; we now need to look at what action can be taken.

In March 2016, of 26,340 former care leavers aged 19, 20 or 21, 40% were not in work, education or training, compared with 14% of all 19 to 21-year-olds. Children who have been in care are just as capable—some are more capable—of achieving as those who have not been in care, but their academic success and the number of them in employment remains stubbornly lower. A recent report by the University of Oxford said that children in care are falling way behind their peers, even in their early years. Only 13.2% of children in care obtain five good GCSEs, compared with just under 60% of all other children. Only 6% of care leavers, compared with 30% of all other young children, go to university.

I am listening with interest to the figures that my hon. Friend is quoting. Was she as surprised as I was to hear the Minister tell us that we should not be that concerned about the educational attainment of young people in care, because they are doing quite well?

Dear oh dear, Mr Wilson; we were all getting on so well. I am afraid that what the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak, has said is not a fair representation of the point that I made. I ask the hon. Member for South Shields to take in good faith the point that I made, which is that children who are in care do better educationally, in terms of improvement, than children who are on the edge of care with child protection plans. It is wrong to suggest that being in care holds back the child’s education. If we compare children in care with the most closely aligned group—those on the edge of care—they do better. That was the point that I made, and I hope that is the point that the hon. Lady will take away.

I thank the Minister for that clarification. I am sure that Hansard will show us all exactly what he said.

Does the shadow Minister think that the situation that the Minister described in his comparison is one that we should strive for, or should we have different standards?

I think we should all have the highest possible standards for all our children, whether they are care leavers or not. That is something we should always strive towards.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for highlighting the unemployment statistics. I am chairman of the all-party group for youth employment. Each month we look at the statistics; we will have a new set of figures tomorrow. She is right to say that the figures are too high. In fact, they are too high across the board at just under 14%. Does she recognise that, under the clause, the local plan that points towards education and employment will help in that regard?

No, it is not; it is a “time will tell.”

I will not spend much longer on this new clause; it is quite straightforward. It asks that the Secretary of State carries out an annual review on access to apprenticeships and further and higher education, and takes into account some of the barriers that care leavers face around fees, grants and accommodation. We know that such problems have existed for care leavers for a very long time, so it is about time we got on, looked at that, and made policies around it.

New clause 16 seeks to improve care leavers’ transition to independence by proposing various changes to welfare and benefits that would offer much needed financial support at a critical juncture. Without financial support, it is likely that a lot of the Government’s intentions towards care leavers will not amount to any real tangible changes for children leaving care. The national offer for care leavers that I am proposing will ensure that the maximum sanction for care leavers under the age of 25 will be four weeks, in line with the current sanction regime for 16 and 17-year-olds. It will allow working care leavers under the age of 25 to claim working tax credit. It will extend the higher rate of the local housing allowance single room rate to care leavers up to the age of 25, delaying the transition to the lower shared accommodation rate that applies at 22 years. It will also amend the council tax regulations to exempt care leavers from that tax until the age of 25.

The Government’s document, “Keep On Caring”, which was published in July, states:

“Most care leavers who spoke to us talked about the problems they had making ends meet. Paying rent, Council Tax, household bills and transport costs meant that many care leavers had difficulty managing their finances and they had often experienced debt and arrears.”

Research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has shown that more than half of young people leaving care have difficulty managing their budgets and avoiding debt. Yet almost half of local authorities in England fail to offer adequate financial support and advice for care leavers. If local authorities are not able to help when a young care leaver needs help, where on earth are they supposed to go? Unlike many of us in this room, they have never had the option of turning to their parents, wider family, or family friends. Often, if the local authority does not help them, nobody does.

The way that the Government have applied sanctions has had a devastating effect on not only the sick and disabled, but care leavers. Between October 2013 and September 2015, 4,000 sanctions were imposed on care leavers. They are more likely to receive sanctions, and less likely to know where to go or how to appeal a decision made against them.

It is worth reflecting on that statistic in the context of my hon. Friend’s amendment. We are talking about care leavers being three times as likely to be sanctioned. If we go back to the principles she was talking about of corporate parenting and wanting the same—the best—for every child in care as we want for our own children, that suggests that those children are not getting the help that they need, and that they are also not getting financial education. There is clearly a particular issue about care leavers and the benefit system that we must address. The Bill is the ideal opportunity to do that and her amendment would fit into that metric. I hope that Government Members will think about that. Care leavers are three times more likely to be sanctioned, so clearly something is not working. We need to act.

My hon. Friend is right. When I have spoken to care leavers who have been sanctioned, often they have not known that they have been sanctioned. What they will say is, “My money has been stopped.” They do not know where to go and they do not know what to do for help. They will sometimes bury their head in the sand, not realising that they could appeal the decision. It is therefore vital that we get it right for them.

For those who were able to get help, 60% of sanctions were overturned, which means that a high proportion of care leavers are having sanctions misapplied. I note Lord Nash’s wish in the other place for sanctions to be reduced, but I was alarmed when he showed concern that a reduction is sanctions towards care leavers might “unintentionally lower our aspirations” for them. When a care leaver has sanctions imposed through no fault of their own—often those sanctions are misapplied—I assure the Minister that their aspirations will not be anything if they cannot afford to heat their home or feed themselves, or if they end up without a roof over their head.

We also wish to make an amendment to extend working tax credit to care leavers under the age of 25. It is right that care leavers should be encouraged to engage in high-quality employment and training opportunities. However, they must be given better support to get into work and to be able to afford to work. Under the current system, only those with children or those who are disabled under the age of 25 can claim working tax credit. An assumption is built into the system that those under 25 on low incomes will be living at home with their family, where they will have access to the extra financial support that they need.

As we are all acutely aware, for care leavers, that it not the situation. It appears that the system penalises—some would even say it discriminates against—care leavers under the age of 25. Currently, care leavers in their first year of an apprenticeship could be earning as little as £3.40 an hour. I am interested to know why the Minister thinks that a young care leaver can manage to pay rent, council tax contributions and utility bills—let alone clothe and feed themselves—on such a meagre income.

For non-care leavers, restricting higher levels of support until 25 has some rationale, as under-25s often have a support network to help them. However, care leavers do not have that support network. It is not right that, when they fall into financial hardship, they suffer a shortfall in support compared with equivalent older workers, especially considering their ineligibility to receive the national living wage until they are 25.

It is estimated that the extension of working tax credit to care leavers under the age of 25 would cost a total of £27.8 million a year. Does the Minister recognise the huge strain of being liable for the full cost of running a household at a young age and the pressure that imposes on the finances of young care leavers? The payment of working tax credit to care leavers under 25 would be a significant step in closing that gap in provision.

The Opposition wish to make an amendment that would extend the higher rate of local housing allowance single-room rate to care leavers up to the age of 25, which would delay their transition to the lower shared accommodation rate at 22. The Minister will be aware that affordable, single-person accommodation is one of the categories in shortest supply in many constituencies. However, that is the pool from which we often try to find accommodation for care leavers, which is why we end up with situations such as those referred to earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak.

Currently, until the age of 22, care leavers receive the single bedroom rate, which provides them with sufficient support to rent a single-bedroom property, rather than a room in shared accommodation. That should be extended up to the age of 25. The shared accommodation rate is significantly lower than the single bedroom rate. In 2015, the shared accommodation rate was £287 per month, compared with £423 per month for a single-bedroom property. Those living independently under the more generous system will no doubt find it increasingly difficult to pay their rent, and will become more likely to fall into the trap of debt, following a reduction in their local housing allowance after their 22nd birthday.

I acknowledge that the fact that the Departments for Education and for Work and Pensions have said that they will explore opportunities to extend the qualifying age for the shared accommodation rate of local housing allowance up to the age of 25. However, care leavers need a much stronger commitment. For how long do they have to cope and go on living with the threat of financial insecurity and the fear of losing their home?

As I have often stated, and will continue to do so, care leavers require much better financial support than non-care leavers. When most young people leave home for the very first time they are able to rely on others for support and advice. However, looked-after children have rarely experienced the best of childhoods, and it can be extremely difficult when leaving care to deal with the multiple challenges of living alone, let alone managing financially.

Sadly, we are seeing a growing number of rough sleepers across the country who have previously been in the care system. We should not allow that to continue. As part of the national offer for helping care leavers to avoid financial difficulty, the Opposition are seeking to amend council tax regulations to exempt care leavers from council tax until the age of 25. Council tax poses a particular issue for young care leavers, as recent benefit changes mean that, in most areas of the country, even those on very low incomes are liable for some council tax contribution—and local authorities are deploying a rapid escalation of enforcement methods to reclaim arrears.

I am pleased that several local authorities, such as Birmingham City Council, City of Wolverhampton Council and others have introduced a council tax exemption for care leavers. I hope that other local authorities will follow their lead, but it is no good the Government asking local authorities to consider or explore the possibility of exempting care leavers from council tax when those authorities face further cuts from central Government.

I have the privilege of serving on the Homelessness Reduction Bill Committee, which meets for the fourth time tomorrow. That measure is a private Member’s Bill, as the hon. Lady will know, but it has Government backing. Care leavers are a prescribed group within that Bill, and will be specifically looked after in relation to homelessness advice. The Bill states:

“The service must be designed to meet the needs of persons in the authority’s district including…care leavers.”

Surely the hon. Lady welcomes that, and the fact that the Government are supporting that Bill?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support for my amendment. I hope that he will vote with us. I am proposing a comprehensive package of support for care leavers, and this Bill is exactly the right measure for that. We should not have piecemeal legislation for care leavers; the package should be in this Bill.

I, too, welcome the comments of the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole. Has my hon. Friend seen the comments of the Birmingham Social Housing Partnership, which warned that very good ambitions of the Homelessness Reduction Bill are likely to be undermined by the wiping out of the supporting people revenue grant, which will mean that we will apply new duties to local authorities and give them fewer resources to manage this issue?

It is a classic tale of this Government: give with one hand, take with the other, and we still end up in a worse situation.

We all have to accept that local government budgets are under pressure, which presents challenges. Does the hon. Lady accept that she is striking at the heart of the Localism Act 2011 and, in particular, the general power of competence? If local authorities such as Birmingham and Wolverhampton decide to set those sorts of priorities, they can do so. That is what localism and local decision making is all about. We do not need the great dead hand of the state and central diktat to allow local authorities to do it.

I thank the hon. Member for North Dorset for his contribution and his support for the shadow Minister’s amendment. I spoke in the debates on the Homelessness Reduction Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman). I commend many of the suggestions in that Bill. Is the shadow Minister aware of the Barnardo’s report, which outlines that young people leaving the care system are particularly vulnerable to homelessness because they cannot find appropriate accommodation when they leave?

I am aware of that report, which makes heart-breaking reading. There are lots of reports out there about care leavers. Following up on the intervention by the hon. Member for North Dorset, I agree that some local authorities have done good things in this area, but there should not be a piecemeal approach; support should be offered to all care leavers across the board. Why should one care leaver in one authority have a different service from another one? Care leavers do not care about localism; they want their local authority to give them the same thing as their friends and other care leavers next door.

Dare I suggest that, if we are going to have a discussion about the core principles of our political movements, one of the core principles for me as a proud socialist is value for money? One of the concerns behind the amendment is exactly that. The hon. Member for North Dorset talks about localism, the cuts to local authorities budgets and the need to be parsimonious—some of us might use a different term—but we must recognise that if 60% of sanctions on care leavers are overturned on appeal, the system is not cost-effective. If we are looking at how we might make savings, treating those young people as we wish our own children to be treated, which is a common theme this morning and perhaps for the entire Bill, is not only the right thing to do morally but the most cost effective and therefore—dare I say it?—socialist thing to do.

I thank my hon. Friend for her excellent intervention. She touches on an important point: elsewhere, if we want to save money, we have to invest. Investing in care leavers prevents them from entering the justice system and from being homeless, which costs more in the long term.

I suspect that the Minister will reiterate what Government peers said in the other place: it is not for the Government to set in statute what local authorities should be doing, and I expect he will get a cheer from the hon. Member for North Dorset—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] We are not asking the Government to tell our local authorities what they should be doing; we are just asking for a minimum standard for care leavers. These amendments seek that new minimum. Care leavers surely deserve safe, secure, affordable accommodation, but under the current proposals I do not see how they can be expected to make their way in life and deal with the issues of having lived in care with the extra burden of financial difficulty. Does the Minister agree that council tax enforcement undertaken by local authorities completely undermines the principles in this Bill? Does he therefore agree that care leavers should be exempt from council tax until the age of 25?

The Minister is well versed regarding the many challenges that young care leavers face, particularly those of a financial nature. I am sure, deep down, he wants to make sure that the state plays a greater part in supporting care leavers, but the current plans just do not hit it. Last year, almost 11,000 left the care of their local authority and began the difficult process into adulthood. The Government have a duty to those 11,000 vulnerable young people to say that they are not forgotten and that they do not just become another poverty or homelessness statistic on our streets.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Wilson. I want to speak to new clause 16, which seeks to make provision for care leavers to help them avoid financial difficulty. We are grateful to the shadow Minister for bringing it forward. Although it would apply to Scotland only in part, I wish to put on the record the views of the Scottish National party.

The Children’s Society points out that young people leaving care struggle with their finances and are at an increased risk of falling into financial difficulty. Our First Minister in Scotland has already acknowledged that we have a duty to protect and help our young people most in need and that those who have experienced the care system will be the driving force of the recently announced independent review of how Scotland treats its looked-after children. Our First Minister has committed to listen to 1,000 people with experience of the care system over the next two years. I hope that some of these concerns will be raised during that review. In making that commitment, our First Minister said:

“If we are to live up to our ambition to be a truly inclusive country, we have a particular duty to those most in need. We have to get it right for every child.”

I think that should apply across the UK.

The part of new clause 16 that would apply to Scotland includes the limit to sanctions, the extension of the working tax credit benefit and the exemption from the shared accommodation rate of housing benefit. Given the barriers to employment for care leavers, providing adequate support and safeguards in the system via these changes would seem to be appropriate. As the Centre for Social Justice outlined in its report, “Survival of the Fittest”:

“Current labour market conditions, such as unreliable hours due to zero hour contracts and low pay for entry level jobs, mean that most 18-25 year olds rely financially, at least to some extent, on either their parents or the benefit system for support. As care leavers are unlikely to have substantial family support, they are much more likely to rely on the benefit system”.

As the shadow Minister outlined, the new clause will apply a limit to sanctions under universal credit, including a higher level, medium level and lower level of sanction. The Children’s Society found that 4,000 benefit sanctions were applied to care leavers between October 2013 and September 2015. As we found out with the National Audit Office report only a few weeks ago, sanctions are not rare and they are not working.

Protecting young care leavers from sanctions is a welcome move, particularly as they would lead to further hardship for those possibly already facing financial difficulty of the kind outlined by the shadow Minister. Although the new clause would not remove sanctioning from care leavers under 25, it would place them in the same regime as 16 and 17-year-olds, meaning that the maximum sanction period under these proposals would be four weeks. The second part of the new clause seeks to extend working tax credit eligibility to all care leavers in full-time work of more than 30 hours per week.

The risk of falling into debt due to the cost of living, which many of these people are unable to cover in full, is a bad and sad reflection on our society. The current system of working tax credit assumes that many of those under 25 and on low incomes live at home and are supported by a family. However, that does not apply to care leavers, so additional support should be given to help these young people face independent lives. Surely the whole purpose of the care system is to enable our most vulnerable young people to go out there and stand on their own two feet equitably with those children who are brought up in caring and loving homes.

The remaining part of the new clause, which would have an impact on Scotland, seeks to exempt people from the shared accommodation rate until they are 25. That would mean that care leavers would not have their housing benefit cut by approximately £31 a week, which is a huge sum for those young people. The Children’s Society advocates for this measure on the grounds that care leavers could be at an increased risk of falling into debt arrears or having to leave a home for a riskier environment, which means they could disappear completely off our system, as the shadow Minister has already said. That is not right.

Given the provisions that relate to Scotland and the intentions of the shadow Minister, I will support the new clause today, if only to hear the Government’s response to a probing amendment designed to see whether they are willing to move to assist care leavers. One of the many appalling intentions of the Tories’ welfare reform agenda has been the dismantling of the safety net for young adults, excluding them from the principle of universality that should apply to a welfare system based on dignity and respect. To do so for some of our most vulnerable young adults, who may have no family to support them, was callous and uncalled for. These amendments will go some way towards redressing that balance.

Although I look ahead to the role of the review in Scotland, given that 85% of welfare spending is still reserved, it is important that the UK Government also look at the role they play in the provision of financial support.

I support the core principles of the amendments that Labour Members have tabled this morning, and I recognise that some Government Members do share those principles; the difference is in how we achieve those outcomes. Let me be clear about the aspirations that I think we all share. They are, as I have already said: to treat all children in care as we would treat our own children, to do so in a fair and equitable manner, and to do so in a way that is possible to implement. The difference is in recognising how we get implementation right.

As the shadow Minister has said, it is the difference between having a minimum standard—a base below which we will allow nobody to fall—and recognising that there may be variation at a local level. The treatment of particular groups of care leavers, particularly young asylum seekers, is important, as is the recognition that there is a particular challenge when it comes to care leavers and financial management. It is right that we should seek to address those three core principles in a Bill such as this.

The amendments proposing a basic minimum standard are not intended to be restrictive; they are intended to help our young people know their rights. When dealing with care leavers in our casework, I think that we all recognise young people struggling to understand what will happen to them next. A national minimum standard is about being able to answer that question with certainty, without necessarily saying that the outcomes will therefore be the same universally, but recognising that there will be a basic standard and a basic principle about how we treat these young people. That does not mean that things cannot be personalised; it simply means that we can all be confident that every young vulnerable person is helped. As I have said before, just because someone turns 18 does not stop them being vulnerable; it simply means that they are moving into a new phase in their life. We must address that.

If the Minister is not minded to accept the amendments, he must tell us how he can have confidence that, across the country, those young children who we accept responsibility for through corporate parenting will get those services. I say that because I think that all of us have seen in our surgeries the consequences when there is not that support.

The shadow Minister talked about special educational needs. I think that all of us have dealt with cases of parents trying to argue for their children to have the rights that they should have. Even if there is a statement to that effect, it provides a basic standard for what that child should get. It does not mean that there is not then further work to be done about how things are enacted, but it does mean that the parents can be confident about what the child will receive. We are talking about the same principle here. It is about recognising that these young people need to know what will happen next. Having a national minimum standard would mean that we in this place could be confident that these policies will be implemented on the ground to a level that all of us would want as a starting point for those children.

On the second principle, particularly with regard to children who are asylum seekers, the discussion is a complicated and sensitive one to have in the UK right now. Other amendments, especially those that I have tabled—I am pleased that my hon. Friend the shadow Minister also has two—deal with how we would treat young children, the guidance and the principles to do with basic rights in the UN convention on the rights of the child. Those amendments continue in the same spirit, recognising that when we stand up as a country to support those young people, that support must be consistent with how we treat every young person.

That is the right thing to do morally, and legally internationally. I worry for the Minister—I am interested to hear his take on this—because if he has not included young asylum seekers in the principle, what are the legal ramifications, given that we treat them similarly under the age of 18? What might such a child have seen? Today we are having an emergency debate on Syria, where children will have seen horrors in their lifetime that many of us cannot even begin to contemplate.

How do such children end up here? One of the questions all of us have is about safe and legal routes. When children do end up here, however, and we take responsibility for them, in our hearts are we suggesting that at the age of 18 we stop caring about what happens to their outcomes? If we do not stop caring, we have to recognise that at the age of 18 they again need our help, just as we recognise that children born in the UK who come from troubled backgrounds might need our help past the age of 18. If children are to be excluded from the very provisions that we would like to see apply to other children we recognise as vulnerable, I ask Government Members to think about why they feel it is okay to discriminate on the basis of nationality—in essence, that is what excluding young refugees from the amendment will do.

The third issue is debt. Young people in care are disproportionately more likely to be in debt. Again, all of us recognise the myriad reasons for that, but the outcome is the same: a group of young people in our society for whom we have taken corporate responsibility have a particular problem, and one of the consequent problems manifests itself in how they deal with our benefits system. The amendments are designed to address that. All of us can see at first hand in our constituencies and when we deal with such children that they might not have backgrounds that give them the best understanding of budgeting. The hon. Member for a Scottish constituency, the name of which has completely slipped my mind—

It was on the tip of my tongue. The hon. Lady put it very well when she argued that our benefits system, especially when dealing with young people, is designed on the principle that even if they do not live at home, they probably have a home relationship on which they are able to draw; that they can draw not only on financial support, but on support to be able to budget and to manage at that point in life when we start to get our own rent and bills. That group of young people do not have such support as a background, so we have to make specific arrangements for them. That is what the amendment would do.

As I said to the hon. Member for North Dorset, in places we do not do that, which costs us more as a result, so again I ask the Minister to do something, even if not in this legislation. I completely take the point of the other hon. Gentleman for—I am doing terribly this morning at remembering constituency names—

How could I forget Mid Dorset! What a wonderful community. The hon. Gentleman will have seen even in Mid Dorset, as I see in Walthamstow, young people struggling to make sense of what rights and entitlements they have as they take that first step. They struggle even when they have their mum and dad with them to help, yet we are talking about young people who do not have that support. He is right to point to the Homelessness Reduction Bill as having such provision, but his case is to marry that with what we do in this Bill—that is exactly what the amendment would do. It simply states that we have to continue thinking about that group of young people needing a particular level of support because we can see their problems. The two are not contradictory; in fact, they are complementary.

I ask the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole to think about that. Perhaps in the lunch break he will make the case to the Minister that we should be looking at the financial support we give to our young people. The evidence tells us that our benefits system is not working for them, which is costing us money, and it is not joining up with other pieces of legislation. As a result, very vulnerable young people are being left at risk.

There are ways in which we can save money in the system and get a better outcome. The amendments are trying to get us there. I think that Government Members share the same objective. The question is this: if they will not accept the amendments on those three core principles, what would the standards be beyond which we will never let a young person fall? If we accept that a younger person is vulnerable, how do we ensure that we do not discriminate against them on the basis of nationality? How are we addressing the clear and obvious problems that our young people in care have with financial management, which manifests in how they deal with the benefits system, and comes from not having the safety net of mum and dad?

The Chair adjourned the Committee without Question put (Standing Order No. 88).

Adjourned till this day at Two o’clock.

Children and Social Work Bill [ Lords ] (Second sitting)

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairs: Mrs Anne Main, † Phil Wilson

† Caulfield, Maria (Lewes) (Con)

† Creasy, Stella (Walthamstow) (Lab/Co-op)

† Debbonaire, Thangam (Bristol West) (Lab)

† Fellows, Marion (Motherwell and Wishaw) (SNP)

† Fernandes, Suella (Fareham) (Con)

† Green, Kate (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab)

† Hoare, Simon (North Dorset) (Con)

† Kennedy, Seema (South Ribble) (Con)

† Lewell-Buck, Mrs Emma (South Shields) (Lab)

† McCabe, Steve (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab)

† Merriman, Huw (Bexhill and Battle) (Con)

† Milling, Amanda (Cannock Chase) (Con)

† Siddiq, Tulip (Hampstead and Kilburn) (Lab)

† Syms, Mr Robert (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)

† Timpson, Edward (Minister for Vulnerable Children and Families)

† Tomlinson, Michael (Mid Dorset and North Poole) (Con)

† Whately, Helen (Faversham and Mid Kent) (Con)

Farrah Bhatti, Katy Stout Committee Clerks

† attended the Committee

Public Bill Committee

Tuesday 13 December 2016


[Phil Wilson in the Chair]

Children and Social Work Bill [Lords]

Clause 2

Local offer for care leavers

Amendment proposed (this day): 27, in clause 2, page 3, line 10, at end insert—

“(6A) The Secretary of State must publish a national minimum standard for a “local offer for care leavers”.

(6B) When developing a national minimum standard for the purpose of subsection 6A the Secretary of State must consult relevant agencies responsible for the provision of services under subsection (2).” —(Mrs Lewell-Buck.)

This amendment would introduce a national minimum standard for a local offer for care leavers, which is to be developed in consultation with relevant parties.

Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.

I remind the Committee that with this we are discussing the following:

Amendment 26, in clause 2, page 3, line 20, at end insert—

“(e) unaccompanied asylum seeking children up to the point that they leave the United Kingdom”

This amendment introduces an additional definition for “care leavers”.

New clause 13—Review of access to education for care leavers

“(1) The Secretary of State must carry out an annual review on access for care leavers to—

(a) apprenticeships,

(b) further education, and

(c) higher education.

(2) The first review must take place by the end of the period of one year beginning with the day on which this Act is passed.

(3) A report produced following a review under sub-section (1) must include, in particular, an assessment of the impact of—

(a) fee waivers,

(b) grants, and

(c) reduced costs of accommodation.

The report must be made publicly available.”

New clause 16—National offer for care leavers

“(1) The Universal Credit Regulations 2013 are amended as follows—

(a) in regulation 102(2)—

(i) in paragraph (a) after “18 or over” insert “and paragraph (b) does not apply”;

(ii) in paragraph (b) after “16 or 17” insert “or is a care leaver within the meaning given by section 2 of the Children and Social Work Act 2016 and is under the age of 25”;

(b) in regulation 103(2)—

(i) in paragraph (a) after “18 or over” insert “and paragraph (b) does not apply”;

(ii) in paragraph (b) after “16 or 17” insert “or is a care leaver within the meaning given by section 2 of the Children and Social Work Act 2016 and is under the age of 25”;

(c) in regulation 104(2) after “18 or over” insert “and section (3) does not apply”.

(d) in regulation 104(3) after “16 or 17” insert “or is a care leaver within the meaning given by section 2 of the Children and Social Work Act 2016 and is under the age of 25”.

(2) The Working Tax Credit (Entitlement and Maximum Rate) Regulations 2002 are amended as follows—

(a) in regulation 4(1), Second Condition, after paragraph (b) insert—

“(c) is aged at least 18 and is a care leaver within the meaning given by section 2 of the Children and Social Work Act 2016, and is under the age of 25, and undertakes not less than 30 hours work per week.”

(3) The Housing Benefit Regulations 2009 are amended as follows—

(a) in regulation 2, in the definition of “young individual”, in each of paragraphs (b), (c), (d), (e) and (f), for “22 years” substitute “25 years”.

(4) The Local Government Finance Act 1992 is amended as follows—

(a) in section 6(4) (persons liable to pay council tax), after “etc)” insert “or 10A (care leavers)”;

(b) in Schedule 1 (persons disregarded for purposes of discount), after paragraph 10 insert—

“Care leavers

10A (1) A person shall be disregarded for the purposes of discount on a particular day if on the day the person is—

(a) a care leaver within the meaning given by section 2 of the Children and Social Work Act 2016; and

(b) under the age of 25.”

(5) The Council Tax (Exempt Dwellings) Order 1992 is amended as follows—

(a) in Article 3, Class N, after paragraph 1(b) insert—

“(c) occupied only by one or more care leavers within the meaning given by section 2 of the Children and Social Work Act 2016 who are under the age of 25.”

(6) A statutory instrument containing regulations under this section may not be made unless a draft of the instrument has been laid before, and approved by a resolution of, each House of Parliament.”

I will be brief; I am sure that over lunch Government Members have had a chance to contemplate the argument that I made. I am conscious that Opposition Members who have joined us might want to be reminded of them. There are three points that I want the Government to come back on if they are not going to accept our amendments. First, the idea of a basic minimum standard for care leavers. If we are not to have a minimum standard, how does the Minister intend to ensure that all care leavers are given a level of service that we can be proud of?

Secondly, on the Minister’s approach to dealing with young asylum seekers who are not part of this legislation at the moment, the amendment seeks to bring them in scope to make sure that they are given equal protection. As I said earlier, turning 18 does not stop someone being vulnerable overnight. Finally, how do we deal with the specific issue of financial management problems that many care leavers face, particularly the problems that are well documented in the benefits system? If the Minister does not intend to accept our amendments to support care leavers through the benefits system and to make sure that we recognise those problems and the cost to us of not recognising those problems, what plan does he have to address those issues? At this point, I shall let others take the debate forward.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow for her passionate speech. Even though she was interrupted mid-flow, she has summed up very well. It will not come as a surprise to the Committee that I wholeheartedly endorse her speech and the amendment on the national minimum standard for care leavers. I want to point out that we cannot just rely on local authorities to make specific decisions, because there are different standards across the country for different local authorities, as I saw as a councillor before entering Parliament.

Various policy concerns can be addressed by introducing a national minimum standard, but I want to focus specifically on people’s mental health, especially that of vulnerable people leaving the care system. One early study of care leavers in England that I found interesting found evidence of a range of mental health problems for care leavers. One in five care leavers reported long-term mental health problems. Everyone here will be aware of the stigma surrounding mental health. One in five is probably not a true reflection of how many mental health problems there really were among care leavers, because some of them would not want to report problems for fear of being stigmatised.

The mental health problems that the care leavers spoke about included eating disorders, bipolar issues, depression and serious phobias that haunted them later in life. In addition, there were shocking statistics: a quarter of care leavers reported heavy drinking on a regular basis and two thirds admitted that they used drugs regularly. It is no surprise that many of the care leavers who spoke about their experiences said that their mental health problems originated in the life that they led before they, in a sense, entered adulthood. They said that a lot of their mental health problems came from the poor housing that they had experienced and the lack of finance and intimate relationships in their life.

The NSPCC rightly pointed out in its 2014 report that leaving care is an extended process rather than a single event, which I wholeheartedly agree with and which speaks to our amendment. Care leavers face the significant challenge of psychologically moving forward towards adulthood, often trying to make sense of their past life experiences. With the withdrawal of care services, support services and care placements, they have to test out the reliability of their network of friends and family. The shadow Minister has made the point over and over again that we should not have a postcode lottery when it comes to care and the future of care leavers. Nor should we have a lottery of personal circumstances, where those who are lucky have a network of family and friends to rely on, but those who are not often fall into either depression or a life they would not have wanted to lead.

The Opposition acknowledge that multiple changes to someone’s living circumstances will affect them, but change cuts across every aspect of the lives of care leavers; we need to be aware of that, because we are dealing with the most vulnerable people in society. Those changes relate to their finances, access to housing and search for jobs, and care leavers confront those challenges while experiencing a withdrawal of care placements and social support services as they turn 18.

I point to a few stats from the Children’s Society that I thought were particularly striking: 63% of care leavers entered the care system because of abuse or neglect, which is a figure that should put us all to shame; 50% of children in care had emotional and behavioural health that was considered normal, while 13% were borderline and 37% gave cause for concern. I am sure that everyone agrees that those statistics are worrying. They should trouble us all, and they should compel us to act in the interests of the nation.

National minimum standards will allow for a fairer system overall, for which the cost will be wholly outweighed by the benefit of ensuring that the most vulnerable people across the country are treated equally. I trust that Members across the House and from different parties will agree with that after hearing some of the shocking statistics that I have outlined.

I will briefly comment on the part of clause 2 that relates to the local offer, before turning to the amendments and new clauses. I will try not to detain you for too long, Mr Wilson.

I am not really clear on the local offer. The Minister has a great deal of experience of the local offer; he pioneered the approach in the Children and Families Act 2014. I am not entirely sure how different what he proposes in the Bill is from the offer in that Act. I took the trouble during the lunch break to look at the rather helpful report from the Children’s Services Development Group entitled “The Local Offer, Children and Parental Rights”. It has a nice foreword by the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan), who is the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on autism. You will be delighted to know that I will not read the report to you, Mr Wilson, but there are some things in it that are worth noting.

The offer, as it exists in the Children and Families Act, was intended to help local authorities to identify gaps in provision and to make sure that they were addressed, and the report assesses how successful that has been. It found that there are significant variations in the offers made across the country, with some quite good examples in east midlands, Yorkshire and the Humber, and some very poor examples in the west midlands and the south-west. It also found that less than 4% of local authorities have a named person whom anyone trying to understand the local offer can contact, while less than half of all local authorities listed independent specialist schools on their website, despite that being a requirement that the Minister set out in the Act. There is also a significant variation in the information that is provided on those websites. The Children’s Services Development Group says that a best practice guide for local authorities and a mandated template for the local offer would be helpful.

I draw the Committee’s attention to that because the Opposition suggest that it would be helpful to the local offer in the Bill if there were minimum standards by which we could judge the progress of the Minister’s proposals. I asked him to look again at the experience of the local offer in the Children and Families Act and to check whether there is a risk that local authorities will simply seek to replicate that kind of approach in this piece of legislation. I am not saying that that approach is useless, but I am sure the Minister will share my disappointment that it has not been as successful as anticipated in its operation so far.

I turn to the question that my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn has just been tackling about the needs of children leaving care. The Minister and I obviously got into the wrong place before lunch when I thought that he was telling me that I should not be too concerned about the educational and mental health outcomes for children leaving care. If that is not what the Minister was saying, I am more than happy to accept that.

However, I took the trouble to go back and have a quick look over lunch at some of the things that we know. I looked at the report by Saunders and Broad which examined long-term mental health conditions—the very things that my hon. Friend has just been talking about—with a greater propensity among children in care and leaving care, who suffer from depression, eating disorders and phobias.

I looked at the mental health and wellbeing report produced by the Select Committee on Education in the fourth Session of Parliament. The first line of that report says:

“The mental health of looked-after children is significantly poorer than that of their peers, with almost half of children and young people in care meeting the criteria for a psychiatric disorder”.

That report, as the Minister knows, went on to recommend that child and adolescent mental health services should be made available for all looked-after young people up to the age of 25, in recognition of the distinct issues which this vulnerable group of young people experience as they attempt to leave the care system.

I also looked at the situation on employment. As I understand it, these are the Government’s figures: three-quarters of care leavers are inclined to leave schooling without any formal qualifications. Of the Government’s study of 26,340 former care leavers aged 19, 20 and 21, 40%—nearly 10,500 young people—were not in employment, education or training, compared with 14% of all 19 to 21-year-olds. The percentage of care leavers who could be described as NEETs has risen by 1% in the past two years.

To be fair to the Minister, I think he was talking about the improvements that he can show. It is fair to say that his own figures show that there has been a 1% rise in the number of care leavers who are able to access higher education, compared with the figures for 2014 and 2016. This is hardly a picture showing that things are okay and that we should feel relaxed about the progress that has been made. It tells me that things are far from okay; they are quite dire for some young people who enter the care system. They enter the care system expecting us, as their corporate parents, to do a better job for them. That is why we have taken them into care in the first place. They enter the care system with us saying that, as a result of making that order, we are going to make their life better. If at the end of that process their educational opportunities have not improved significantly, their mental health situation certainly has not improved and may in fact have deteriorated, it seems to me that we are failing these young people.

We are looking for a bit more beef and detail from the Minister. This is about an order that will actually make a difference for young people; from my point of view, it is certainly not about trying to score points. As I said earlier, I think we share the same broad ambition, but we have before us the replication of an approach that we saw in another piece of legislation for which he has a great deal of responsibility and that no one—I assume that includes the Minister—would describe as having been an outstanding success to date. Unless there is some attempt to learn from that experience in what we are doing now, all that is going to happen is that we are going to go round the same old loop. As I said this morning, the shelves of social work offices and establishments are littered with pieces of legislation that have the same impact. We are looking for something that will move things forward a significant step, so will the Minister give serious consideration to the amendments?

It is a pleasure to join the Committee, Mr Wilson; I was unable to attend the sitting this morning.

I shall speak particularly to new clause 16 and the proposals on social security support for young care leavers. I am sure that when my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields introduced the new clause this morning, the Committee discussed how the need for special arrangements for young care leavers arises from the likelihood that they will not have family resources to fall back on in the way that other young people leaving the family home would. It is particularly difficult for young care leavers to find appropriate accommodation in areas such as my own, where accommodation costs are especially high. I am keen to reinforce the points made about the need to review the application of housing benefit rules for such people.

First, it is important to recognise the need for stable accommodation for young care leavers as they move into adulthood. If they do not have the resources to be sure that they can undertake a secure tenancy arrangement, all the other attempts to route them into a secure future will be undermined.

Secondly, if such young people—who may have considerable emotional and interpersonal difficulties, and difficulties with relationships with others—have to share accommodation with people whom they do not know very well, perhaps with complete strangers, they may find that an exceptionally difficult situation in which to adapt to adult life. It is therefore of all the greater importance that they should be able to have their own accommodation or property: we should take this opportunity to exempt young care leavers from the more restricted housing support available to young people more generally. Such support requires them to share accommodation, which would not be appropriate for young care leavers.

Although progress has been made over recent years, in many local authorities it has been necessary to place care leavers outside their home borough. The new clause offers the opportunity to ensure that, when successful attempts have been made to bring young people back in-borough, as has been the case in Trafford, which I represent, and housing costs are high in that borough, which they most certainly are in mine, young people, having been brought back into their home borough, are financially able to sustain accommodation so that they can remain in a community where they have relationships and contacts.

We must also recognise the importance to both education and employment of ensuring an adequate source of income for young care leavers. As I said, they do not have access to family resources to bail them out from unexpected expenditure or debt, so it is right that we should have a social security system that is sufficiently generous to ensure that they are not put in a position in which financial unsustainability undermines the achievement of the social outcomes the Bill envisages promoting for young people.

If the Minister is not able to take our suggestions for a generous interpretation for social security on board in his answer today, I hope that Ministers from the Department will be willing to explore the issue further with colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions. Will the Minister give us an indication? We all know that these are not imagined problems for these young people; they are very real.

I thank the hon. Member for South Shields for her amendments on clause 2, particularly about the local offer and care leavers. I am also grateful to her and to the hon. Members for Walthamstow and for Birmingham, Selly Oak for being generous in their reading of the motivation and spirit behind the clause.

Far from being relaxed about the outcomes for care leavers, I am as determined today as I was the first moment I set foot in this place to do all I can to improve their prospects. That is reflected in the fact that we have the Bill before us, as a product of what can be a difficult bargaining arena, with many other Departments wanting to get legislation before Parliament. Through that renewed effort—as well as the cajoling and persuasion needed—we managed to make this a key priority for the Government, which is why it has now come before the House for the necessary scrutiny.

This group of amendments would seek to provide additional support to care leavers. I do not hesitate to agree that these young people do need help and support, but I do not consider the amendments to be the best way to provide that additional support. I will respond to each amendment in turn to explain why.

Amendment 26 would extend the definition of care leavers to cover all unaccompanied asylum-seeking children up to the point when they leave the UK, in the event that their asylum application is not granted. I recognise that the amendment seeks to safeguard a particularly vulnerable group of young people. I assure the Committee that I appreciate the sentiment and desire behind that. We know that local authorities are now looking after increasing numbers of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children and supporting more care leavers who were formerly asylum-seeking children.

Bearing those points in mind, I want to make an important clarification. Most care leavers who were formerly unaccompanied asylum-seeking children have refugee status, humanitarian protection or another form of leave to remain or an outstanding human rights application or appeal. That means that they qualify, like any other care leaver, for the support under the Children Act 2004 care leaver provisions, to assist their transition into adulthood. In addition, they will benefit in the same way as other care leavers from the improvements to the framework contained in the Bill, including the local offer for care leavers.

It is only those leaving care whom the courts have determined do not need humanitarian protection, who have exhausted all appeal routes and rights and subsequently have no lawful basis to remain in the UK, with the court having said there is no barrier to their removal, who will need, in those circumstances, to be supported to return to their home country, where they can embark on building their lives and futures, with assistance from the Home Office in the form of financial and practical support. The Government believe that that is the right approach for that specific and clearly defined group, whose long-term future is not in this country but who need support and assistance before they leave.

The hon. Member for Walthamstow wants to intervene. I know she will be disappointed that that is the Government’s position, as it was on the Immigration Act 2016, but it is important to set out the very clear difference between the much larger group of care leavers who have not exhausted their appeal rights and those who have.

I simply ask the Minister whether he can clarify the difference between the description that he has just given and that in amendment 26, which states

“unaccompanied asylum seeking children up to the point that they leave the United Kingdom”.

That is exactly the group he is talking about. He seems to be making the same case as we are—these young people should get the relevant support and help that we are talking about.

I am explaining the current situation. As the law stands, the local authority will continue to provide the same care-leaving service for those children and young people until all their appeal rights have been exhausted. There will be a period following a decision during which every effort will be made to repatriate them to their country of origin. Of course, that will not happen immediately after the courts have made a final decision.

The local authority can, of course, continue to provide ongoing and further support in such circumstances, which may include the continuation of a foster placement or continuing support from a personal adviser, where it considers that appropriate. The Department for Education and the Home Office will continue to work with local authorities and relevant non-governmental organisations on the development of the regulations and guidance required to implement the new arrangements for support set out in the Immigration Act 2016. Those regulations will be made under provisions that will be subject, in due course, to debate and approval in both Houses of Parliament under the affirmative procedure, which I suspect will be the forum for Opposition Members to continue pressing on the issue. I have set out the Government’s position and the rationale behind it.

New clause 13 would require the Secretary of State to undertake an annual review of care leavers’ access to education. I reassure the Committee that we already publish such information, and I will set out the measures we have already taken to better support care leavers into education, employment and training. As the hon. Member for South Shields said, the high proportion of care leavers who are not in education, employment or training is a long-standing problem.

Of course, there are many reasons for the NEET rate being higher for care leavers than for young people in the general population, not least the impact of pre-care experiences. That is why, earlier this year, we published “Keep on Caring,” our new cross-Government care leaver strategy. One of the five outcomes we set out in the strategy is to improve care leavers’

“access to education, training and employment”.

A number of new measures were announced in the strategy that are designed to turn that ambition into reality, including: a commitment to provide funding for a new approach to helping care leavers into education, employment and training by using social investments to fund “payment by results” contracts that reward providers only when care leavers achieve positive outcomes; and a pilot work placement programme to provide care leavers with opportunities to work in central Government Departments.

Care leavers have already been recruited to work in the Department for Education, the Department of Health and the Department for Work and Pensions. Indeed, a new member of my private office is a care leaver, and she has been a fantastic acquisition for the team. Through our new care leaver covenant, we are also encouraging organisations from across society to offer work opportunities to care leavers and to work specifically with FE and HE providers to set out a clear offer of support for care leavers studying in further and higher education.

Financial support is also already provided to care leavers in education. Where care leavers are in higher education, there is a duty on local authorities to provide a £2,000 bursary to help with the cost of studies and a requirement to provide accommodation during university holidays. Care leavers in further education can also receive financial support through the 16-to-19 bursary, for which care leavers are a priority group. The bursary provides up to £1,200 a year to support the cost of their studies. Through DWP’s second chance learning initiative, care leavers are able to claim benefits while studying full time up until the age of 21.

The Government also publish data on the activity of care leavers aged 17 to 21, which previously were not available. The data identify the proportion of care leavers at each age point who are in higher education, other non-advanced education, employment or training, and those who are NEET, which provides the information necessary to track progress over time and will be a key way of ensuring that we can tell whether our changes are having the desired impact.

The Minister is describing the various things that the Department is doing to try to improve the situation. Does he recognise that a problem that young people themselves regularly identify is the number of school changes they experience as a direct result of being received into care? The Barnardo’s study says that care leavers are saying that they have experienced five changes of school, which makes life difficult for them. Does he have any plans to encourage or persuade local authorities to seek to restrict those movements between schools, which is clearly impairing these young people’s education?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. About 11% of children in care still have three placements—that is placements, rather than schools—or more per year. We already have priority school admissions for children in care, so there is no excuse for their not getting the right school.

I want to ensure that as part of the fostering stocktake we are now undertaking, which is a fundamental review of how fostering is working, we also look at stability—an issue raised by Opposition Members—and, specifically, its impact on children’s ability to form close and strong attachments, to build a social network around themselves and to have a strong and stable education, so that they can achieve what they are capable of in that environment. Part of that will be being clearer about what local authorities can do better, so that they can enhance the prospects of creating the stability that we know is a core ingredient of successful time in care.

I encourage the hon. Gentleman to look at the direction of the fostering stocktake and at how we can better ingrain stability in decision making, particularly at the very start of when a child enters care. Often, that first decision on the school or placement has a consequential fall-out for the child or young person if turns out not to be the right one.

Amendment 27 would require the Secretary of State to develop and publish a national minimum standard for the local offer for care leavers. Although I fully appreciate the intention behind the amendment, I should point out that there is already a set of statutory duties in the Children Act 1989 that defines a minimum level of support for care leavers. Under those provisions, local authorities must provide a personal adviser for care leavers until the age of 21, and the Bill extends that support to the age of 25.

Local authorities must develop a pathway plan for their care leavers and provide assistance, both in general and specifically, to support them with education, training and employment. Care leavers are also entitled to request support from an advocate. The local offer is designed to include care leavers’ legal entitlements and additional discretionary services and support that the local authority may offer, with the legal entitlements being the minimum offer that must be provided. Beyond that—the hon. Member for South Shields will have anticipated my saying this—producing a prescribed local offer runs the risk of stifling creativity and creating a race to the bottom.

The issue gets to the nub of where we part company on the right approach. A prescribed local offer would not take account of local needs or circumstances—we want the opposite to happen, with local authorities actively providing the best possible offer and tailoring that to their local situation. We have already seen, in the likes of North Somerset and Trafford, that one outstanding care leaving service is a key beacon of good practice. To that end, local authorities will be required to consult care leavers, as well as other persons or bodies who represent care leavers, before publishing their local offer. That will ensure the offer is informed by the views of those who will use the services set out, as well as those providing the services and supporting implementation.

The risk with minimum standards is that everyone does the minimum and no more. To ensure local authorities are encouraged and helped to go beyond the minimum standards required by the law, officials at the Department have developed a prototype local offer that sets out the kinds of things local authorities can consider when designing their local offer, rather than specifying exactly what it should include. A copy of that prototype was sent to Committee members, and the intention is to publish it.

That in part answers the questions from the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak about practice guidance or a template from which local authorities can start to craft their own local offer. I am happy to share the prototype with him if he does not have a copy. It gives a clear direction of the areas local authorities need to cover, as a baseline for the development of their own local offer, but it does not prevent them from ensuring they provide one that meets the specific needs of their own population.

Some hon. Members asked how the SEND local offer may be different. I should say at the start that I disagree with the characterisation of the impact of the local offer for special educational needs and disabilities. That came out of a very substantial process involving young people and parents to identify what they were looking for from the new system. That was during the heady days of the coalition, when Sarah Teather was in this position, so it has a lot of history behind it. I do not know whether that reassures the Committee but, be that as it may, over the last two years of implementation we have seen the SEND local offer starting to embed and develop. We now have inspections of the new SEND system by Ofsted and the CQC. One example is a 2016 report on Enfield, in which Ofsted and CQC found:

“The local offer is informative and very helpful to parents and young people. It includes a wide range of information to help them identify where to get support and how to access available services. Over the last six months, increasing numbers of people have used the local offer to gather information.”

Representatives from parent-carer forums and SEND organisations

“are actively engaged in further improvements such as improving the local offer and making it more accessible to users.”

Brian Lamb, author of the 2010 Lamb inquiry, looking at parent-carer forums as the formal conduit for parents’ engagement, reported that around two-thirds of those surveyed were fully engaged in general strategic planning or in developing the local offer and that that was leading to significant changes in local authority practice in some areas. I accept that the measure has yet to achieve the desired effect right across the country, but the roots have been planted and we are getting evidence from those inspections of the difference that it is making in the engagement between families and services.

Finally, I turn to new clause 16. It seeks to introduce a national offer for care leavers that would include reducing the length of benefit sanctions under universal credit; making care leavers eligible for working tax credit; extending the exemption from the shared accommodation rate of housing benefit up to the age of 25; and exempting care leavers under the age of 25 from paying council tax.

I am familiar with the issues raised under the national offer and have had a number of meetings with the Earl of Listowel, who raised this issue in the other place. I have also had detailed conversations with the Minister for Employment, and I understand the concerns that have been raised around benefit sanctions.

Just last week, jobcentre staff were reminded about the challenges that care leavers can face. An article was featured on the DWP intranet, available to all staff, explaining the specific circumstances that care leavers can face and reminding work coaches—the interface between care leavers and the benefits system—to take account of any relevant circumstances and flexibilities when deciding whether a sanction was appropriate. What happens at that moment between the work coach and the care leaver could make the difference between that young person progressing towards employment and a retrograde step: it being more difficult for them to gain employment because of how a sanction has been applied.

The article also tells staff about the ambitions we have for care leavers as set out in “Keep On Caring”, the refreshed cross-government care leaver strategy, and clearly lists all the DWP support available to care leavers. I thank the Minister for Employment for taking this action. We will continue to work together to reassure the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston that we want to see what more we can do, so that the experience of the care leaver in that situation is much better.

At the heart of that is identification. If those who first see a care leaver coming into a jobcentre are blissfully unaware that they have come from the care system, inevitably, they will potentially miss taking a very different approach from the one they end up taking. Although we have a flagging system in the jobcentre computer network, it is based on self-identification. We want to do more work to see how we can ensure that, before a care leaver comes into contact with the benefits system, that is already flagged, so that we can get more consistency in the approach taken by jobcentres. Of course, we want to work towards no care leaver having to move straight into the benefits system. That is why the work to improve their opportunities for education and training and the expansion of the role of the personal adviser are all going to be important. However, these flexibilities can only be considered if Jobcentre Plus staff are made aware of a care leaver’s status in the first place. We will work hard to make sure that the situation improves on the ground.

On eligibility for working tax credit, I remind the Committee that we are currently rolling out universal credit—in case anyone had forgotten. That will replace the current system of means-tested working age benefits, including tax credits; it will replace tax credits for all new claims by October 2018. It is designed to simplify the benefit system and to provide in-work support and incentives to work for all claimants aged 18 or over. However, it is important to note that the requirement for workers to be aged 25 or over will not apply with universal credit. Care leavers aged 18 and over in low-paid work, who are currently unable to claim working tax credit, will be able to claim universal credit, subject to the normal rules on taking account of earnings. I have a case study, which I am happy to share outside the Committee, of a 19-year-old care leaver, which demonstrates the impact that will have. Those people will receive uplifts in the new system that they do not get in the system we have at present.

On the exemption from the shared accommodation rate, I have real sympathy with the hon. Lady’s arguments. I reassure her that this is something that we are looking at. As she said, we are exploring the evidence regarding the need for this change and have asked the Children’s Society to provide examples of how the current rules impact on care leavers, in the hope we can make some progress.

I want to return to what the Minister said about the different treatment, under universal credit, of care leavers under 25, compared with working tax credit. Can he say how many care leavers are currently in receipt of working tax credit? Presumably, as they come to adult age and as new claimants, they are predominantly being moved straight on to universal credit at the end of the benefits system. A small number may remain in the situation where they would be eligible only for working tax credit. Can the Minister say how quickly they can be migrated to universal credit?

I do not have those figures to hand. One of the issues I raised earlier is around identification and knowing who is accessing benefits and is also a care leaver. We need to improve that information, hence the additional data we are now collecting as a Department. That will give us a more granular understanding of who these young people are and how they have come into contact with the benefits system. I will write to the hon. Lady with more details about that, so she has as much information as we can give.

It is important we start to understand where this leads, what the destination inevitably is and what we could have done in the intervening period to make the direction in which a young person goes different. I am happy to give the hon. Lady further information about that.

This is a minor point on the same sort of area. As I understand universal credit, where that applies to the youth obligation, that obligation will be available to young people only in areas where universal credit is fully operational. In those circumstances, what will be the provision for youngsters leaving care? We could end up in a situation where youngsters leaving care in some parts of the country will be entitled to a different set of opportunities from those in areas where universal credit is fully operational. Has the Minister had an opportunity to look at that, or will he look at that and come back to us? It has not been presented quite like that, from my understanding.

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point. Any roll-out as wide and as significant as universal credit is going to have various knock-on effects, depending on what other initiatives fall off the back of those changes. I will take that away and talk to my colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions to see whether that has been factored in as part of the roll-out through to 2018.

I want to reiterate that care leavers cannot currently claim working tax credit. Anyone over 18 on universal credit will be able to claim in-work benefits. We want to ensure that care leavers are aware of that and that they get the necessary support that falls off the back of that change.

I turn to the issue of paying council tax. We believe, as a long-standing position, that local council tax support is and should be a matter for local authorities, hence the Government giving councils wide powers to design council tax support schemes that protect the most vulnerable. We know that authorities such as Birmingham and Wolverhampton have already taken the decision to exempt care leavers from council tax and I applaud them for doing so.

I want to highlight to councils the support already provided by other authorities around the country to exempt or discount council tax payments for care leavers, because that is a demonstration of what can be done with a bit of creative thinking and understanding of the economic benefits as well as the social and emotional benefits for that young person. I have, therefore, agreed with the Department for Communities and Local Government to write to each local authority, highlighting the local offer for care leavers that will be introduced through this clause, and the flexibility to use the council tax system to provide financial support to care leavers.

I hope that I have covered all the points raised by hon. Members and that the hon. Member for South Shields is reassured by what I have said about the extensive support already available to care leavers and the work that is under way to provide more. On that basis, I urge her to withdraw her amendment.

I will be brief in my closing comments. With regard to new clause 13, it appears that the Government are taking some steps in the correct direction with their “Keep On Caring” document. It looks like endeavours are in place to get some action on these long-standing issues, so I am happy not to press new clause 13. However, I would like to put the rest of my amendments to a vote.

With regard to amendment 27 and new clause 16, the fact remains that every care leaver deserves the same provision across the board. They deserve to know what that provision is and financial support is key to that. I acknowledge that the Minister has worked with the Department for Work and Pensions, but I have a strange feeling that the DWP perhaps does not share his sentiments or drive for these issues.

On amendment 26, on unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, I do not feel that the Minister has addressed or acknowledged that those children are being treated differently from other children. Therefore, I would like to press those three to a vote.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Amendment proposed: 26, in clause 2, page 3, line 20, at end insert—

“(e) unaccompanied asylum seeking children up to the point that they leave the United Kingdom”— (Mrs Lewell-Buck.)

This amendment introduces an additional definition for “care leavers”.

Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 3

Advice and support

I beg to move amendment 28, in clause 3, page 4, line 10, after “the” insert—

“physical and mental health, emotional well-being and”.

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment 30, in clause 3, page 4, line 11, after “child” insert—

“, including their needs as a young parent where applicable,”.

Amendment 29, in clause 3, page 4, line 16, at end insert—

“(5A) The assessment of the former relevant child’s mental health and emotional well-being under subsection (5) must be carried out by a qualified mental health professional.”

Amendment 31, in clause 3, page 4, line 26, at end insert—

“(9) In this section “young parent” means—

(a) an expectant parent,

(b) a parent who has their child or children in care, or

(c) a parent who had a child removed to kinship care, local authority care, or adoption.”

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Wilson.

Amendment 28 would extend the duty on local authorities set out in clause 3 to include access to a mental health assessment for care leavers. When a care leaver requests support from their local authority and the local authority conducts an assessment of their needs, it must include an assessment of mental health and emotional wellbeing that is carried out by a qualified mental health professional. The corporate parenting principles set out in clause 1 make it clear that local authorities should promote the mental health and wellbeing of care leavers. Currently, there is huge amount of unmet need in the area due to squeezed budgets, high thresholds and the lack of relevant specialism in adult mental health services.

Is my hon. Friend aware that there are now 5,000 fewer mental health nurses than there were in 2010, and 1,500 fewer mental health beds? The amendment is more important than ever to ensure that mental health does not slip even further down the agenda.

I was not aware of those statistics. I knew the situation was dire, but I did not realise how bad it had actually become.

Young people leaving care are much more likely to have mental health problems than other young people: they are five times more likely to attempt suicide; many have suffered abuse or neglect before coming into care; and they may have moved around several placements, making it hard to form stable relationships with carers, professionals or even friends.

The Government have committed to piloting mental health assessments for children in care, but there was no mention of young people over 18 who have left care. We all know that turning 18 does not mean that people stop being vulnerable and stop needing support. In fact, mental health problems often manifest at the challenging time of transition into adulthood. At 18, young people can no longer access child and adolescent mental health services; they have to rely on adult services—but only if they are lucky enough not to slip through the net in transition. The reality is that if young people with mental health needs are not getting help, it is unlikely that they will be able to make the most of other opportunities such as education, training or employment, because mental health problems can have a debilitating effect on all other areas of their life.

On Second Reading in the House of Lords, Lord Nash acknowledged that:

“All the evidence shows that care leavers are among the most vulnerable young people in our society. Many are still struggling to overcome the impact of the trauma they faced in childhood and, in most cases, they are expected to make the transition into adulthood without the unconditional love and support of a family or close circle of friends. As a consequence, they are far more likely to end up NEET, more likely to experience homelessness or mental health issues, and more likely to end up in the criminal justice system. However, with good, stable care and a more personalised and supported transition into adulthood, those stark facts need not be the culmination of their time in and leaving care.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 14 June 2016; Vol. 773, c. 112.]

Clearly the Government know what the problem is, yet they have still failed to provide a full solution.

If the mental health and emotional wellbeing of every child leaving care is not professionally assessed, how will we know whether they are ready to cope in the adult environment? We cannot just expect them to leave care and cope in a vacuum, without some appraisal of their wellbeing. We would not allow that for a physical problem so we should not allow it for a mental health one. We must put in place measures to prevent care leavers from falling off the cliff edge of care. Assessments would provide a basis for care leavers to address their future needs, albeit under a different system.

Given the vulnerability of the young people in question and the likelihood that they will face challenges relating to mental health or emotional wellbeing coupled with the difficulty of accessing those services, it would be good if the Minister took the opportunity to extend the duty in clause 3 to include mental health. Amendment 29 would extend the duty on local authorities to include access to a mental health assessment for care leavers; and it would ensure that if amendment 28 is agreed, the assessment will be carried out by a qualified mental health professional.

The Conservative-led Select Committee on Education rightly recommended that a dedicated mental health assessment by a qualified mental health professional be completed for all looked-after children, so healthcare professionals and local authorities have a solid and consistent foundation on which to plan the best care for a child. The recommendation was based on an extensive body of evidence from experts that clearly showed why more action and less talk are needed.

The Government’s response to the Select Committee report on mental health acknowledged the vulnerability of looked-after children and the need for timely and effective mental health diagnosis and treatment. The Chair of the Committee said of the Government’s response:

“We are pleased that the Government have set up an expert working group for looked-after children’s mental health and wellbeing; however, having conducted a lengthy and detailed inquiry on the issue, we are disappointed that so many of our recommendations have simply been referred to that group.”—[Official Report, 20 October 2016; Vol. 615, c. 496WH.]

I was similarly dismayed to observe that the Government’s response to the report deflected many answers to the new expert working group on the mental health of looked-after and care-leaving children. Although I make no criticism of the experts appointed to the group, both chairs of the expert panel had already submitted evidence to the Committee, so further consultation seems a somewhat unnecessary duplication. The consultation will serve only to cause further delays, meaning that more children will suffer unnecessarily.

Services are inconsistent across the country, and initial mental health assessments are highly variable. Many local authorities are not meeting their statutory requirements to ensure that all children are properly assessed even when they enter care, so it is important that we get the basics right. We can do so only with professional assessment as children enter and leave care.

It is astonishing that currently children entering care are asked to fill in strengths and difficulties questionnaires, from which it is decided by people who are most likely not medically trained whether the child qualifies for mental health intervention. Administration of the forms from local authority to local authority is patchy, with great variations in timeliness of completing the form. It is not uncommon for the questionnaire not to be completed at all. Only a trained mental health practitioner should be able to assess a patient’s needs; such needs cannot be determined simply from ticked boxes on a form.

It is not enough just to say that help is out there. There are difficulties with the availability of mental health provision for all children, including difficulties accessing and navigating the system. Accessing mental health care, asking for help and overcoming stigma are hard enough for any young person, even those with strong, supportive families; we must acknowledge that. A mental health assessment is one step in ensuring that children get the care and support they need for healing to take place and for them to be integrated into society and feel part of it. That is why they must be assessed on leaving care as well. The whole point is to ensure that care leavers are robust enough to leave care as independent adults who can go out and find work, start families and participate in society fully, like everyone else.

Amendments 30 and 31 strengthen support for care leavers who are also parents. Despite their extreme vulnerability, the particular needs and circumstances of young parents who are looked-after children or care leavers and whose own children are subject to child protection inquiries are not sufficiently identified, recognised or addressed in care planning regulations and guidance. These amendments seek to establish a duty on local authorities to ensure that advice, assistance and support are offered to all looked-after children and care leavers who are young parents. It will help ensure that important information is not overlooked when plans for such young people are made by expressly identifying critical sources of information which should be drawn upon in formulating plans to keep the young parent’s child safely in their care.

Some people leaving care do become young parents very quickly, but that is not always a recipe for problems for themselves or for their children—indeed, those young parents can be very enthusiastic and committed parents, determined to do the best for their child. However, many lack family support. Does my hon. Friend agree that they need help to be good parents, but also encouragement and family assistance of the kind that other parents perhaps draw from their own family members?

Many children who have left care go on to be fantastic parents, but those who need an extra bit of support should be recognised in the legislation. This amendment seeks to achieve that.

While the Government have suggested that existing statutory guidance makes some reference to young people who are young parents, we need to recognise and respond more robustly to the additional vulnerabilities of this group of care leavers in a way which is not presently provided for in primary or secondary legislation. Evidence from the Centre for Social Justice in 2015 based on data provided by 93 local authorities revealed that 22% of female care leavers became teenage mothers. That is three times the national average. The same report identified that one in 10 care leavers aged 16 to 21 have had their own children taken into care. Care leavers are particularly vulnerable to early pregnancy, early parenthood and losing their child to the care system.

A recent research project carried out by Professor Broadhurst based on national records from the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service between 2007 and 2014 examined cases relating to 43,541 birth mothers involved in care proceedings. The study estimated that around a quarter of these mothers who had a child subject to care proceedings will have sequential care proceedings about another of their children. The study found that young women aged 16 to 19 years were most at risk of experiencing repeat proceedings, with almost one in every three women in this age group estimated to reappear. Provisional results from the study’s further in-depth analysis of court files indicate that more than six out of 10 others who had children sequentially removed were teenagers when they had their first child. Of those mothers, 40% were in care or had been looked after in the care system for some of their own childhood.

Like most parents who are subject to the child protection system, young parents often feel lost, angry and scared. However, many of these young parents, particularly care leavers, also have multiple challenges. Some of them are alienated by prior negative experiences of state services in their childhood, making it difficult for them to engage with professionals. At times, this lack of parental co-operation can be a trigger for the issuing of care proceedings. Young parents often feel judged by their youth and background rather than by their parenting abilities. That is particularly the case for care leavers, who often feel that being in care itself counts as a negative against them. Previous childhood experiences including suffering abuse, mental health problems and exclusion from school may adversely impact on their resilience, their resources, their support networks and their ability to deal with both the challenges of transitioning to adulthood and being a parent. Young parents who are care leavers also identify that even where support has been provided to them in their capacity as young people leaving care, the support often ignores their role as parents or fails to assist them in safely raising and keeping their child.

As referred to in new clause 16, a national offer for care leavers would go some way to mitigate the financial challenges that care leavers face, which are only exacerbated when they become parents themselves. Our amendments would ensure that their needs as parents were fully taken into account.

I thank the hon. Lady for tabling amendments 28 to 31, which would provide that when a local authority assesses care leavers’ needs, they must take account of that young person’s requirements in relation to their physical and mental health, their emotional wellbeing and their needs as a young parent if that applies. Amendment 29 would require that any mental health assessment should be conducted by a qualified professional. I recognise that these issues are important, and that they could impact significantly on the lives of care leavers, whose health and wellbeing outcomes tend to be worse than for young people who have never been in care. The likelihood of care leavers becoming teenage parents is also much greater than for their peers, for the reasons set out by the hon. Lady in her speech.

There are, however, many other wider issues, such as health and development, education, training and employment, and financial and accommodation needs, which are also vital to care leavers’ transition to independent life and adulthood. All these issues— it would not be practical to list them all—are arguably of equal importance and will be different for every child, so I do not agree with giving some more weight than others. It is also unnecessary because these and other issues are already comprehensively covered in volume 3 of “The Children Act 1989 guidance and regulations”. The statutory guidance is clear that local authorities must produce for each care leaver a comprehensive pathway plan, which must be based on an up-to-date and thorough needs assessment taking into account how to support their health and development and their physical, emotional and mental health needs. I shall read a small extract from that guidance, which states that pathway plans must address the

“young person’s health and development building on the information included in the young person’s health plan established within their care plan when they were looked after”

and that personal advisers, who, under the clause, will cover all care leavers up to the age of 25,

“should work closely with doctors and nurses involved in health assessments and would benefit from training in how to promote both physical and mental health.”

I reiterate that the Government have established the expert group on the mental health of looked-after children and care leavers, and we have asked them to recommend the most appropriate way to deliver the care. The group have already met twice, and I have met them, and they are free to make recommendations during the period of their work. Their remit is substantial and wider than that which they had in relation to the Education Committee, albeit that that also had worth.

On the initial assessment when a child comes into care, it is not just a strengths and difficulties questionnaire, as regulations already require the responsible authority to ensure that all looked-after children have an initial health assessment by a registered medical practitioner, who should cover their emotional and mental health as well as their physical health needs. The reason we wanted the expert group to consider the matter is that there will be circumstances where it is not appropriate for a child coming into care to have a mental health assessment at that specific moment, either because they have suffered trauma at the moment of coming into care, or because they are a newborn baby, or because other elements in their circumstances might require it to be done in a more individually appropriate way. That will ensure that the right decisions are made about how to get to the bottom of what may be underlying issues due to pre-care experiences. We do not want to set a single process that restricts those who are charged with responsibilities to ensure that they take the appropriate action for that child.

I understand the Minister’s point about a relatively young child or a baby not necessarily having a mental health assessment, but who would make the decision whether it was appropriate for a child to have a mental health assessment? Would it be a qualified mental health practitioner who would have the ability to make that judgment, or would it be a member of the local authority, or a member of the residential home, or the social worker? There is clearly a temptation for people to say, “Well, it is not appropriate at the moment.” Given what we now know about the longer-term effect on the mental health of many of these children, who is the most appropriate person to make that judgment, and at what stage?

As I set out a few moments ago, the regulations make it clear that the health assessment is carried out by a registered medical practitioner.

The hon. Gentleman asked who makes the decision, and the regulations are clear about who carries out the assessment. He knows as well as I do that local authorities have a responsibility to triage cases according to the law and the regulations that apply. If he is suggesting that it should or should not be a certain person, I would be interested to hear his views.

That is not quite what I asked. It is all very well to say that, at the moment, a child coming into care has a regular health assessment, but the Minister then told us why it would not be appropriate at certain stages or certain ages for children to have a mental health assessment. He is making that judgment at the moment. I am asking who is entitled to make a judgment about a child’s mental health, given what we now know about the long-term consequences for many of these children.

I have already explained to the hon. Gentleman that the process is clearly set out in law. I am not making that judgment; I am reflecting on the evidence provided by others about the experience of children who are brought into the care system. The whole point of the expert group is to try to ensure that the care pathway that is created for each child coming into care will ensure that they get the right support based on the right diagnosis at the right time. We want to avoid ending up with a process at the inception of a child’s time in care that does not enable that pathway to be created in a way that meets their individual needs.

The hon. Member for South Shields spoke about the most vulnerable mothers who have had multiple children taken into care. As we know, that group includes a disproportionate number of care leavers. I draw the Committee’s attention to the Pause programme, which seeks to break the intergenerational cycle of care, which the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston mentioned. Pause has been operating in Hackney for some time and has now been extended to six other local authority areas, with funding from my Department’s innovation programme.

Last month, the Secretary of State announced funding to roll out the Pause programme in a further nine areas, bringing Government funding support to more than £6.4 million in the next four years. The programme works intensively with young women to prevent repeat pregnancies and the subsequent removal of their children into care. The initial findings are extremely encouraging and, by extending the programme, we want to reach out to more parts of the country so that more mothers who find themselves in that situation get the support they need so that they can make good life choices and have a future that is not just about turning up at court once every few years to fight for custody of their own child.

Notwithstanding the good work being done through the Pause programme, does the Minister accept that the work is rather piecemeal? It is not happening in every local authority. As I said earlier, we should be offering such services to everyone across the board, not just to some people who live in certain local authority areas. What happens when this innovation money runs out? Do we just go back to where we were?

I will answer that question in two parts. First, interested parties always ask for evidence when we try something new. Before we roll out a programme nationally, we want to be able to demonstrate that it will be effective in tackling the issue that it was set up to try to resolve.

Secondly, of course we want to ensure that we get uniformity right throughout the country, but the only way we can establish whether the care leaving services work well is by having a strong legal framework backed up by strong accountability. When services work well—we now have four or five councils with an outstanding care leaving service—we need to get better at spreading that good practice. The new What Works centre is going to be a good way of achieving that. We must ensure that we find out where local authorities are falling short. That may be in the transitional work they are doing on the care pathway that is put in place to plan for the young person’s future, including the need to secure their emotional and mental health needs.

I do not disagree with the hon. Member for South Shields about the concerns she has expressed, which is why we are trying to tackle the problem through the innovation programme and the extension of the role of the personal adviser, who has an important part to play in providing mentoring support and engaging young people in the services they need, pushing their elbows out on their behalf so that by the time they reach 25 they are in a much stronger emotional, mental, physical and financial state than would otherwise have been the case. I do not think the approach the hon. Lady is suggesting would help in the way that she would hope. For the reasons I have set out, the Government are taking this approach because we want to try to tackle the problem that we both acknowledge remains long-standing. We are determined to do more than ever to put it right.

The other part of my previous question was what happens in the areas we are discussing when the innovation money runs out? I am assuming that each programme is time-limited.

Every innovation programme, of which we have more than 50 throughout the country and in every region, is provided with funding for the duration of the programme only if it can show how it will be sustainable in the long term. That is done through an independent panel that makes decisions about which programmes should be supported and which should not. The panel will feed directly into the What Works centre so that other parts of the country can learn from projects that have already demonstrated a discernible impact in the area that they hoped to help through their initial proposal.

Take the example of North Yorkshire, where the No Wrong Door project to support care leavers has been hugely successful in improving support for care leavers. That model is now being shared and replicated—albeit crafted to meet individual need—based on the fact that it is showing benefits not only in North Yorkshire but in other parts of the country. The model is one of creating the evidence base, having the ability to spread best practice, and then ensuring that the sustainability proposed in the original programme is there. On that basis, I urge the hon. Lady to withdraw the amendment.

If I withdrew the amendments, would the Minister consider updating some of the guidance on mental health assessments? In the pathway plans I have seen in the past they are not given the prominence they should have.

I echo the shadow Minister’s comments on pathways. In the past three years, the number of female teenagers who have been admitted to hospital with eating disorders has more than doubled. That is particularly relevant for female care leavers who suffer eating disorders such as bulimia, anorexia and binge eating. A lot of these disorders were not reflected in the past and were not at the forefront of the minds of the people assessing not only care leavers but teenagers in general, especially female teenagers. The Mental Health Foundation clearly labels eating disorders as mental health problems. Will the shadow Minister comment on the fact that when we make legislation and take into account society’s problems, we need to be aware that things are changing? Things that did not previously have the prominence they have now must be acknowledged by authorities, especially with the rise of social media—

I will withdraw the amendment, but perhaps will return to the matter at a later date. However, I wish to press to a vote the amendments on recognising care-leaving parents, who have particular vulnerabilities. The Minister has not satisfied me that they are being provided for in a holistic way, as it seems to depend on which local authority area people live in. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment proposed: 30, in clause 3, page 4, line 11, after “child” insert “, including their needs as a young parent where applicable,”—(Mrs Lewell-Buck.)

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Amendment 31 is consequential upon amendment 30, which has just been defeated. It follows that it will not be called for a separate Division.

Clause 3 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 4

Duty of local authority in relation to previously looked after children

I beg to move amendment 1, in clause 4, page 5, line 35, leave out from beginning to end of line 4 on page 6 and insert—

‘(6) In this section—

“relevant child” means—

(a) a child who was looked after by the local authority or another local authority in England or Wales but ceased to be so looked after as a result of—

(b) a child who appears to the local authority—’

This amendment, together with amendment 2, would extend the duty of a local authority under clause 4 (duty to provide information and advice for promoting educational achievement) to children who were adopted from state care outside England and Wales.

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment 32, in clause 4, page 6, line 4, at end insert—

“(d) returning home to the care of a parent.”

This amendment, together with amendments 33 and 34, would ensure children returning home after a period in care are afforded the same promotion of their educational attainment as those children who have ceased to be in care as a result of adoption, special guardianship orders or child arrangements orders.

Government amendments 2 and 3.

Amendment 33, in clause 5, page 6, line 36, at end insert—

“(d) returning home to the care of a parent.”

See explanatory statement for amendment 32.

Government amendments 4 to 6.

Amendment 34, in clause 6, page 7, line 46, at end insert—

“(c) was looked after by a local authority but has ceased to be so looked after as a result of returning home to the care of a parent.”

See explanatory statement for amendment 32.

Government amendments 7 and 8.

Government amendments 1 to 8 would extend the remit of clauses 4 to 6 to include children adopted from the equivalent of state care in countries outside England and Wales. Clause 4 requires local authorities, through the virtual school head, to make advice and information available to parents and designated teachers in maintained schools and academies, for the purpose of promoting the educational achievement of children who ceased to be looked after by the local authority as a result of a permanence order. Clauses 5 and 6 place a duty on maintained schools and academies to appoint a designated teacher to promote the educational achievement of pupils. These amendments will extend these entitlements to children from other countries who are now in education in England and who were adopted from a form of care equivalent to being looked after by a local authority in England and Wales.

While it remains the Government’s top priority to continue to focus on support for children who are looked after by our care system, we understand that children adopted from similar circumstances in other countries are likely to face many of the same issues. In addition, they are living in a new country with a different culture and so they, too, are vulnerable. The Government acknowledged this earlier this year, when we opened up the Adoption Support Fund to these children and their families, giving them access to much-needed therapeutic services. So far there have been 40 applications to the fund from this group. The amendments acknowledge that, like children adopted in this country, children adopted overseas will often be coping with the emotional impact of trauma suffered in their early lives and that that can act as a barrier to their progress at school.

We know that there is an attainment gap for previously looked-after children in this country. It is, therefore, reasonable to deduce that that might also be the case for children adopted from elsewhere. There is, of course, much variation between the care systems in other countries so it is important that we ensure as much parity as possible with the eligibility criteria for children in this country who are eligible for the entitlements in clauses 4 to 6. I believe the amendments achieve just that.

A child who is cared for by a public authority, a religious organisation or charitable type of organisation before being adopted will now be able to access this support in school. The Government will set out in statutory guidance more detail on eligibility and the process for confirming such eligibility, so I hope hon. Members will support the amendments.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for South Shields for amendments 32 to 34, which would extend the duty of the virtual school head and designated teacher to promote the educational achievement of children who cease to be looked after because they returned home to the care of their birth parent or parents. I agree that children taken into care who later return to their birth parent or parents may also be vulnerable and need extra support in education. Many come from disadvantaged backgrounds and it is important that they and their families are given the support that they need.

Where a child ceases to be looked after because they return home, a 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. That should take into account the child’s needs, the parenting capacity of those with parental responsibility and the wider context of family and environmental factors reflecting the child’s changed status. That would include how the parents can support the child to attend and do well at school and the virtual school head would be involved in those transitional arrangements.

Like other children who are disadvantaged, these children’s needs should be met by mainstream education services. Many will be eligible for additional educational entitlement such as free early education from the age of two and the pupil premium, which provides extra help and support through additional funding for early years settings and schools. Most importantly, these children will continue to have their birth parent or parents who, with the encouragement of schools, should play a full part in their child’s education.

Children who are looked after who cannot return to their birth parents face very different challenges. They are among the most vulnerable in our society because of the neglect and abuse suffered in their early years but also because they have to build new relationships and attachments with new carers. Leaving care through, for example, adoption means children have to start again to begin a new life with new parents or carers. We owe it to the child and the child’s new parents or carers to continue to provide support, whether in education by retaining access to the virtual school head or in other areas to give them the best chance of building a new life that is happy and fulfilling.

We must take care not to dilute the virtual school head’s role as the corporate parent for looked-after children in education to the extent that they are spread so thinly that they have little impact. Virtual school heads want to build their capacity to ensure that they can do justice to their role and ensure that every child under their wing gets the support they need through the pupil premium plus and the work of the virtual school head. I hope, on that basis, that the hon. Lady will not press her amendments.

I welcome the Government amendments—something I hope to do again during the passage of the Bill. We welcome the fact that, when the Government see that the Bill is incomplete or that there are obvious or indefensible omissions, they take necessary steps to rectify them, and we will always support them in that. I hope that we will be able to support the Government at other points during the passage of the Bill.

Extending the provisions of clauses 4 and 5 to apply to children who were previously in state care outside England and Wales is a welcome move. I am sure that the Minister agrees with me that all children, whatever their background, who either need or are leaving care deserve the best opportunities available. Ensuring that those who were previously in care in other countries will receive some of the support outlined in the Bill is a good first step towards ensuring that all looked-after and previously looked-after children get the care that they need. I am sure that the Minister has seen that colleagues and I tabled a number of amendments to the Bill based on those principles, including amendments that would ensure that services provided were in keeping with the UN convention on the rights of the child, and that unaccompanied refugee children were given the support that they need.

If the Minister is serious about the principles that his welcome amendments to clauses 4 and 5 lay out, and wants to support all vulnerable children and give them the opportunities that they need, we will perhaps see him and his colleagues agreeing with us a lot more in Committee.

Let me turn to my amendments. Amendments 32 to 34 would amend clauses 4 to 6 to ensure that children returning home who have ceased to be looked after receive the same educational advice and information as those who cease to be looked after as a result of adoption, special guardianship orders or child arrangement orders. A lack of educational achievement is one of the biggest obstacles for children who have experienced the care system. Children who are or have been in care are one of the poorest-performing group in terms of educational outcomes. Research undertaken by the national pupil database found that children in need—a category that includes the children who have returned home—tend to require even more encouragement and support when it comes to educational attainment. Those children were found to be more likely to have special educational needs and poor attendance, and to have more exclusions and progressively poorer relative attainment as they went through school, than children actually in care.

In 2011, 39% of children leaving care in England returned home. There are more than 10,000 children in that situation. Children in need are also more likely to be permanently excluded than those in care. It is absolutely vital that children who have been previously in care and return home are properly supported to succeed at school. Children who may have moved into the care system and back out of it will have experienced changes of placement, and may have also changed schools.

Although we recognise the importance of making provisions to promote the educational attainment of those children who have ceased to be in care as a result of special guardianship, child arrangements or adoption, the Bill does not go far enough in meeting the needs of those children who have been in care and have returned home. It cannot be right that those children who have been adopted or have found permanence through special guardianship are afforded different rights from those children who have returned home. I will therefore press amendments 32, 33 and 34 to a vote.

Amendment 1 agreed to.

Amendment proposed: 32, in clause 4, page 6, line 4, at end insert—

“(d) returning home to the care of a parent.”.—(Mrs Lewell-Buck.)

This amendment, together with amendments 33 and 34, would ensure children returning home after a period in care are afforded the same promotion of their educational attainment as those children who have ceased to be in care as a result of adoption, special guardianship orders or child arrangements orders.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Amendment made: 2, in clause 4, page 6, line 13, at end insert—

“(8) For the purposes of this section a child is in “state care” if he or she is in the care of, or accommodated by—

(a) a public authority,

(b) a religious organisation, or

(c) any other organisation the sole or main purpose of which is to benefit society.”.—(Edward Timpson.)

See the explanatory statement for amendment 1.

Clause 4, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 5

Maintained schools: staff member for previously looked after pupils

Amendment made: 3, in clause 5, page 6, leave out lines 24 to 36 and insert—

“(2) A registered pupil is within this subsection if the pupil—

(a) was looked after by a local authority but ceased to be looked after by them as a result of—

(i) a child arrangements order (within the meaning given by section 8(1) of the 1989 Act) which includes arrangements relating to with whom the child is to live, or when the child is to live with any person,

(ii) a special guardianship order (within the meaning given by section 14A(1) of the 1989 Act), or

(iii) an adoption order (within the meaning given by section 72(1) of the Adoption Act 1976 or section 46(1) of the Adoption and Children Act 2002), or

(b) appears to the governing body—

(i) to have been in state care in a place outside England and Wales because he or she would not otherwise have been cared for adequately, and

(ii) to have ceased to be in that state care as a result of being adopted.” —(Edward Timpson.)

This amendment, together with amendment 5, would extend the duty of a governing body of a maintained school under clause 5 (duty to appoint staff member for promoting educational achievement) to children who were adopted from state care outside England and Wales.

Amendment proposed: 33, in clause 5, page 6, line 36, at end insert—

“(d) returning home to the care of a parent.”.(Mrs Lewell- Buck.)

See explanatory statement for amendment 32.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Amendments made: 4, in clause 5, page 6, line 43, leave out from “is” to end of line 45 and insert

““looked after by a local authority” if the person is looked after by a local authority for the purposes of the 1989 Act or Part 6 of the 2014 Act.”

This amendment and amendment 7 make changes to reflect the fact that provision about looked after children in Wales is now in Part 6 of the Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act 2014, instead of in the Children Act 1989.

Amendment 5, in clause 5, page 6, line 45, at end insert—

“(5A) For the purposes of this section a person is in “state care” if he or she is in the care of, or accommodated by—

(a) a public authority,

(b) a religious organisation, or

(c) any other organisation the sole or main purpose of which is to benefit society.”.—(Edward Timpson.)

See the explanatory statement for amendment 3.

Clause 5, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 6

Academies: staff member for looked after and previously looked after pupils

Amendment made: 6, in clause 6, page 7, line 46, at end insert


(c) appears to the proprietor of the Academy—

(i) to have been in state care in a place outside England and Wales because he or she would not otherwise have been cared for adequately, and

(ii) to have ceased to be in that state care as a result of being adopted;”.(Edward Timpson.)

This amendment, together with amendment 8, would extend the duty of an Academy proprietor included in an Academy agreement under clause 6 (duty to appoint staff member for promoting educational achievement) to children who were adopted from state care outside England and Wales.

Amendment proposed: 34, in clause 6, page 7, line 46, at end insert—

“(c) was looked after by a local authority but has ceased to be so looked after as a result of returning home to the care of a parent.”.(Mrs Lewell-Buck.)

See explanatory statement for amendment 32.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Amendments made: 7, in clause 6, page 8, line 11, leave out from “is” to end of line 13 and insert

““looked after by a local authority” if the person is looked after by a local authority for the purposes of the Children Act 1989 or Part 6 of the Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act 2014 (anaw 4).”

See the explanatory statement for amendment 4.

Amendment 8, in clause 6, page 8, line 13, at end insert—

“(5A) For the purposes of this section a person is in “state care” if he or she is in the care of, or accommodated by—

(a) a public authority,

(b) a religious organisation, or

(c) any other organisation the sole or main purpose of which is to benefit society.”.(Edward Timpson.)

See the explanatory statement for amendment 6.

Clause 6, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 7 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned. —(Mr Syms.)

Adjourned till Thursday 15 December at half-past Eleven o’clock.

Written evidence reported to the House

CSWB 01 A parent of a child in care with Asperger Syndrome/ASC

CSWB 03 Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists

CSWB 04 The Children's Society

CSWB 05 Professional Standards Authority for Health and Social Care

CSWB 06 Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health

CSWB 07 Terrence Higgins Trust

CSWB 08 Legal Action for Women