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House of Commons Hansard
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Public Bill Committees
10 January 2017

Children and Social Work Bill [ Lords ] (Fifth 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 10 January 2017

(Morning)

[Mrs Anne Main in the Chair]

Children and Social Work Bill [Lords]

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I remind Members that we have dealt with clauses 1 to 57 and schedules 1 to 3. We now move on to new clauses, new schedules and, in due course, clauses 58 to 64.

New Clause 1

Placing children in secure accommodation elsewhere in Great Britain

“Schedule (Placing children in secure accommodation elsewhere in Great Britain) contains amendments relating to—

(a) the placement by local authorities in England and Wales of children in secure accommodation in Scotland, and

(b) the placement by local authorities in Scotland of children in secure accommodation in England and Wales.”—(Edward Timpson.)

This new clause would introduce NS1, which amends legislation to allow local authorities in England and Wales to place children in secure accommodation in Scotland, and makes provision relating to the placement by local authorities in Scotland of children in secure accommodation in England and Wales.

Brought up, and read the First time.

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I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

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With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Government amendments 9 to 15.

New clause 27—Placing children in secure accommodation elsewhere in Great Britain

“(1) Schedule (Placing children in secure accommodation elsewhere in Great Britain) ends at the end of the period of two years beginning with the day on which this Act is passed.”

This new clause would revoke provisions in the Bill that enable local authorities in England and Wales to place children in secure accommodation in Scotland, and vice versa, two years after the Act comes into force.

Government new schedule 1—Placing children in secure accommodation elsewhere in Great Britain.

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Happy new year to you, Mrs Main, and the rest of the Committee. It is wonderful to be back and to see everyone looking bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and ready for what we hope will be a constructive last few days in Committee.

The Government amendments in this group, introduced via new clause 1 and new schedule 1, are necessary to fill a legislative gap relating to looked-after children being placed in secure children’s homes in Scotland by English and Welsh local authorities. The new clause and new schedule make various amendments, some of them technical, to various pieces of primary and secondary legislation, with the aim of making clear the ability of local authorities in England and Wales to place looked-after children in secure accommodation in Scotland.

Reciprocal provisions already exist that allow Scottish local authorities to place children in England or Wales under compulsory supervision orders, so this is not a new or even emerging position. Placements in Scottish secure homes have happened commonly over time, with the option to place children in Scotland increasing the diversity of specialist secure provision available to local authorities in England and Wales, which is in the best interests of our most vulnerable children.

Government amendments 9 to 15 will make the relevant changes to the Bill’s extent provisions to reflect new clause 1 and new schedule 1 and provide for them to come into effect when the Bill is passed.

It is right to say that extensive discussions have taken place with officials in the Scottish and Welsh Governments, and Ministers from both those Administrations have indicated their support for the Government amendments as drafted. Scotland is currently progressing its own legislative consent motion to that effect.

The hon. Member for South Shields will want to speak to her new clause, and I will no doubt want to respond to the points that she makes, but I urge the Committee to see the Government amendments for what they are: a technical solution to a gap in the law to allow the continuation of a well-established practice.

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It is a pleasure to be back in Committee, Mrs Main. I, too, wish everyone a happy new year.

I rise to speak to new clause 27, which is in my name. It was with a mix of anger and sadness that I tabled the new clause, which would give Ministers two years to sort out a situation that has arisen on their watch: the intolerable lack of secure places for our country’s most vulnerable children. Those are children who are looked after by the state and who the courts have found to be at risk of significant harm and injury or a risk to others by their being looked after by local authorities. They are our responsibility.

I will briefly share with the Committee a small example from the Department for Education’s own research of a child who was placed in secure accommodation:

“Marie was referred as a very young child because of sexual abuse and severe neglect. She was removed and placed for adoption aged four with two younger siblings but went on to experience three adoption breakdowns. This was partly due to the children’s sexualised behaviour but also events that couldn’t have been predicted—including the death of two adoptive parents. She returned to the care system for the last time aged nine with a severe attachment disorder.”

We owe it to children like her to ensure that when they are in crisis, the best possible support is available to meet their needs.

Two years is enough time for the Government to fix this problem if there is sufficient political will. New clause 27 is a pragmatic response to a situation that should never have been allowed to happen. I have decided reluctantly that seeking to block the Minister’s amendments would not be in the immediate interests of children who are desperately in need of secure care. Children have been sent from England to Scotland because of a lack of provision close to their families, local services and communities. The legal cases that I understand led to the Minister tabling his amendments concern children from Blackpool, Cumbria and Stockport being detained in Scotland. Those are looked-after children who are attempting suicide and self-harm, and who are in acute states of distress. Courts have made orders for them to be detained because they are not safe in ordinary children’s homes or in foster care.

We should not routinely send those children to another country, where they will have to adapt to a different education system and risk disruption to their mental healthcare. We are talking about placing children hundreds of miles away from their families, social workers, independent reviewing officers, independent advocates, visitors and lawyers. Will the Minister explain how we can be sure that their detention will be effectively monitored—particularly as he has not extended the duty on local authorities to establish secure accommodation reviews with independent input?

The legal situation of children looked after by English councils but detained in Scotland must be remedied as a matter of urgency—I totally accept that—but I do not support the Minister’s new clause because I do not believe it is a good policy decision. Let us be clear: the new clause, which will allow for the lawful detention in Scotland of looked-after children from our country, has not come about because social workers, researchers and young people have told the Department for Education that authorising the use of secure units in Scotland for looked-after children from England and Wales would be in their best interests, or that sending those children hundreds of miles from home would make them feel safer and more secure.

The changes are the result of the courts being put in the invidious position of deciding that a looked-after child fits the criteria for a secure accommodation order, but being then informed by the local authority applying for such an order that there is no secure place for that child in England. Orders have been made by the High Court that have bypassed the Children Act 1989, because that legislation does not allow for looked-after children to be detained on welfare grounds in Scotland. The Act does not allow any looked-after child to be placed outside England and Wales without the consent of the child or his or her parent—although that can be overruled in certain circumstances. That provision has been law since, I believe, 1980. Without any consultation with young people or professionals who work with them, the Minister’s new clause strikes out the need for the child’s consent and for parental consent. We are talking about vulnerable teenagers whose lives have spiralled out of control. How can we expect to help them to regain and build up their self-esteem and show they are valued if we send them to another country without asking for their permission?

The research I mentioned earlier found that local authorities viewed detaining a child on welfare grounds as necessary for a small number of children, but all of those authorities agree that that is often a draconian step—and that it is more draconian to send a child to a different country to be locked up. It is a well-established social work principle that looked-after children fare better when they are close to their families, friends, schools and the health professionals supporting them. That principle is well-enshrined in the Children Act 1989.

Since 2011, the number of children placed in secure accommodation for welfare reasons has increased. In March 2011, 62 children in England and Wales were placed in secure accommodation on welfare grounds, while in March 2016, 105 looked-after children in England and Wales were detained in secure accommodation on welfare grounds.

The Government have clearly not been paying attention. This situation needs a national strategy and national leadership—especially when we take into account that The Scotsman reported just last year that children from Scotland may have to be placed south of the border owing to a lack of spaces there. I took a quick look at the availability of secure places in Scotland, and the latest information, as of 6 and 8 January, is that only one of the five secure homes in Scotland has any vacancies; the rest are entirely full. St Mary’s Kenmure centre, on the outskirts of Glasgow, has only three places available, yet serves the whole of Scotland. What assurances can the Minister give that Scotland’s secure centres have room for children from England and Wales? What research has his Department done to establish the capacity of Scotland’s secure care provision? If there has been any research, will he please share it with the Committee?

I fear that if we leave the Minister’s amendments as they are, and do not exert any pressure on the Government to sort out this mess, children may suffer greatly. I am not aware of any consultation, policy document or impact assessment published by the Department about these legislative changes. The amendments are not minor formalities; they fundamentally alter the legal protection given to our most vulnerable looked-after children. The Minister’s exemption clauses could lead to the removal of even more safeguards from that cohort of children; we are talking about legal protections that have been in place for decades. I hope that Members will support my pragmatic new clause.

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It is a pleasure to return to the Committee, Mrs Main. I wish all Committee members a happy new year. I strongly support what my hon. Friend says. I am dismayed that our response to an absence of suitable secure accommodation close to children’s families and homes is leading us to reach for the solution of sending them, effectively, to another country—certainly to another jurisdiction in relation to law and, as my hon. Friend pointed out, education. I particularly want to press the Minister on that point.

The education system in Scotland is different from that of England and Wales, and it is not clear to me what, if any, thinking the Government have done about the impact on young people’s education of moving them to a different country with a different school system. Many young people in secure accommodation will be teenagers approaching the age of 16 when they should be taking examinations, planning their futures, and receiving careers advice and support. It would be helpful to the Committee to understand what thinking the Minister has done and what planning there has been to address those children’s educational needs.

Is the arrangement really seen as some kind of stopgap in which the children would be moved back as quickly as possible to secure accommodation closer to home; or does the Minister believe its purpose is for a child posted to secure accommodation in Scotland to spend the entire period there? I can understand the wish, having found suitable accommodation for a child, not to disrupt it; but equally it seems to me that if we are dealing with a shortage of suitable spaces in England it would be helpful to know whether the Minister intends children placed for a period in Scotland to be brought back home as quickly as possible.

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It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mrs Main; I also wish you a happy new year.

I want to put three or four quick points to the Minister in relation to the measure. Could he give us an idea of how many children he thinks will be transferred north of the border, or, indeed, the other way? It would be interesting to have some context, and to know the scale of the problem and perhaps when he first became aware that there was a problem in need of such a resolution. I am particularly interested in how many children from England are likely to move to Scotland, and would like an indication of which local authorities are under the most severe pressure, so that they must look north of the border.

Whether or not the Minister accepts new clause 27, does he accept that if there is not some kind of time limit on the proposal the danger is that we will be legislating to export a problem? That seems a strange way to deal with children who are often very damaged and difficult. I am not sure that in the long run it is in the best interest of the care system in this country that we should end up simply exporting the problem.

Finally, I have on previous occasions heard the Minister say he does not support the idea that children should be moved far from home; I think that particularly in relation to Rotherham he had some strong opinions on that, which I agree with. While I accept that awareness of an impending problem or crisis may have brought him to introduce legislation, I wonder how he would reconcile the notion of sending children north of the border with his strongly held view that it is not in children’s best interests to move them too far from their home base for care provision.

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I begin by thanking hon. Members for their contributions to this debate and for raising important issues about not only this new clause but, more widely, the secure children’s homes available to our most vulnerable children and young people in England, Wales and Scotland.

I will address some of the specific points raised. The latest information I have is that there are currently 17 children who have moved from England to secure children’s homes in Scotland. We first became aware of the issue that the new clause tries to fix on the back of a judgment of the family division of the High Court on 12 September last year that children could not be placed by English or Welsh authorities in secure accommodation in Scotland under section 25 of the Children Act 1989. This is a long-established practice, hence the legislative issue we are seeking to resolve was a surprise to everybody.

No child has been placed by an English or Welsh local authority in secure accommodation in Scotland without the authority of the courts in England and Wales. That is an important point. Every case where a child is moved to a different part of the United Kingdom on the basis of a request to place them in a secure children’s home outside their original area will be subject to court approval. The court has to decide on the usual basis under the Children Act of it being in the child’s best interest.

I will write to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak about which local authorities currently have children placed north of the border. The hon. Member for South Shields alluded to some of those, but I will endeavour to provide the hon. Gentleman with a comprehensive list.

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In writing, will the Minister also tell us how long those children have spent in children’s homes north of the border? As there are only 17 children, I hope he will be able to give us that information for each child.

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I will endeavour to provide as much detail as possible.

This is not about exporting a problem. It is a two-way street, because of course, children from Scotland and Wales are placed in England, and vice versa. This is about trying to improve the diversity of choice for very specialist placements, which starts to address the other point that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak rightly raised about the presumption that children, where possible, should be placed as close to home as they can. I agree with that.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have done a lot of work on residential care, looking at how we can improve the commissioning of places and the decision making, so that it is higher up the process when making a choice about the most appropriate placement for children, where residential care is the right type of placement. However, I think we all agree that for very specialist placements—particularly knowing the numbers in secure children’s homes—it would be impossible to have that type of specialist provision on the doorstep of every local authority, so we need to look in the round at what is available in the wider area, to try to meet those specific needs.

I accept the point made by the hon. Member for South Shields that there is more work to do on ensuring we have a functioning secure children’s home system that meets the demands placed on it. We have not been sitting idle, waiting for a problem to bubble to the surface. We have been working hard to establish, for the first time, a co-ordinated approach, to understand where the pressures on the system are, the availability of particular types of provision and how we can better match children and young people with the right placement for them as quickly as possible. That is why we set up the National Secure Welfare Commissioning Unit in May last year.

I wrote to the Local Government Association and the Association of Directors of Children’s Services with a strong commitment to work with them to find the long-term system change we need, so that we can address some of the issues that the hon. Member for South Shields raised. I am not saying that we have the perfect system—we are not at that point by any stretch of the imagination—but we are working hard to ensure that we have a better way of providing the right sort of care for the children who need it, whether on welfare grounds or on other grounds that form part of the background of some children who need secure placements.

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The Minister is telling me that he is proposing a reciprocal arrangement and that there will be a transfer of children from Scotland to secure accommodation in England as well. If he has the numbers will he give them to us now? If not, perhaps he will write to us. I am curious to know how many children from Scotland are in secure accommodation in England. I am also curious to know how a country with such a small population compared with England can have an excess of secure accommodation. Can he say more about the particulars, without identifying individuals, although I realise that 17 is a small number? Is there something special about the accommodation available in Scotland which differs from accommodation in England, making it necessary to have that transfer? I am curious to understand what that is. If it is not simply a question of numbers, I am curious to know the particular circumstances that necessitate that sort of shift.

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I may come back to the hon. Gentleman with further information, but I can tell him that in Scotland there are 89 welfare places in secure children’s homes. They are available to children both in Scotland and in England and Wales, as has been the case for a considerable time. On the range of provision in Scotland, every decision made for each individual child is based on what is in their best interests. Clearly, therefore, some specialist provision in Scotland is deemed suitable as the best for a child in England with their particular needs.

I cannot give the hon. Gentleman chapter and verse on exactly what each secure children’s home offers, but I undertake to provide further detail, so that he is reassured that the decisions made by the courts are such that those very vulnerable children and young people are getting the best possible care and support. Furthermore, all those children and young people who have been placed in Scotland will still have placement visits from their social worker and regular reviews of the quality of that placement, even when they have been placed in Scotland or Wales.

Part of the care plan for a child or young person is about how their educational needs will be met. It will have to be set out and approved by the court before the placement is allowed to go ahead. However, I will look carefully at what the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston said, because I wholeheartedly agree with her that, wherever a young person is placed, it is important that they need to have opportunity—to advance themselves as an individual and in what they are capable of achieving academically and in getting into the workplace—and some stability in their life. That placement must meet all those requirements. I will look carefully at what she says and perhaps have a further conversation with her about how we ensure that children and young people in those circumstances are not missing out on the benefits of the education that is vital to their life chances.

Although I understand the points that have been made—I hope I have shown that I appreciate what hon. Members have said—I go back to where I started: the amendments do not seek to change existing policy or the practical circumstances in the system of secure children’s homes. They provide a technical fix to clarify the legal position of a long-standing and mutually beneficial arrangement that works for and should continue to work for our children.

We need to look carefully at how to continue to co-ordinate across England, Scotland and Wales and at how to improve provision in England. That is what the co-ordination unit is trying to do and why we are working hard with the LGA and the ADCS to see how we can make sure that the provision meets the future needs of this small but important and group of vulnerable children and young people who deserve the best possible support. I hope that on that basis the Committee will support the Government’s amendments and that the hon. Member for South Shields will be sufficiently reassured not to press her new clause.

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I am concerned that without acceptance of the new clause the practice the Minister is proposing may become the norm. I have not heard anything from him today about whether the Government are working to increase capacity throughout England, Scotland and Wales. What will happen when Scotland runs out of capacity, if it is being used as the overspill, for want of a better word, for children from England and Wales? I highlighted in my opening comments the fact that Scotland is running out of capacity. What will then happen to these children? The Minister has not given any assurances on where we are going with this. He has agreed that my new clause needs to be looked at and to have conversations with me, but ultimately, if my new clause is agreed, it will holds the Minister to account and will make sure that within two years he has found a solution. I would like to push my new clause to a vote at the appropriate time.

Question put and agreed to.

New clause 1 accordingly read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

New Clause 2

Power to test different ways of working

‘(1) The purpose of this section is to enable a local authority in England to test different ways of working under children’s social care legislation with a view to—

(a) promoting the physical and mental health and well-being of children, young people or their families,

(b) encouraging children or young people to express their views, wishes and feelings,

(c) taking into account the views, wishes and feelings of children or young people,

(d) helping children, young people or their families gain access to, or make the best use of, services provided by the local authority or its relevant partners (within the meaning given by section 10(4) of the Children Act 1989),

(e) promoting high aspirations for children or young people,

(f) promoting stability in the home lives, relationships, education or work of children or young people, or

(g) preparing children or young people for adulthood and independent living.

(2) The Secretary of State may by regulations, for that purpose—

(a) exempt a local authority in England from a requirement imposed by children’s social care legislation;

(b) modify the way in which a requirement imposed by children’s social care legislation applies in relation to a local authority in England.

(3) Regulations under this section may not be used so as to remove any prohibition on a local authority in England arranging for functions to be carried out by a body whose activities are carried on for profit.

(4) Regulations under this section may not be used to exempt a local authority in England from, or modify, its duties under—

(a) section 17 of the Children Act 1989 and Part 1 of Schedule 2 to that Act (duty to provide appropriate services to children in need);

(b) section 20 of that Act (provision of accommodation for children who appear to require it for certain reasons);

(c) section 22 of that Act (duty to safeguard and promote welfare of looked after children etc);

(d) section 47 of that Act (duty to make enquiries and take action to safeguard or promote welfare of children at risk);

(e) section 10 of the Children Act 2004 (duty to make arrangements for promoting co-operation to improve well-being of children);

(f) section 11 of that Act (duty to make arrangements to ensure that regard is had to the need to safeguard and promote the welfare of children).

(5) The Secretary of State may make regulations under this section relating to a local authority in England only on an application by that authority.

(6) Subsection (5) does not apply to regulations under this section that only revoke earlier regulations under this section.

(7) Regulations under this section may be made in relation to one or more local authorities in England.

(8) Regulations under this section may include consequential modifications of children’s social care legislation.”

This new clause would give the Secretary of State a power to enable local authorities in England to test different ways of working under children’s social care legislation for one of the purposes mentioned in subsection (1). Subsections (3) and (4) include safeguards on the use of the power. The power may only be exercised on an application by a local authority. See also the following, which are related: NC3, NC4, NC5, NC6, NC7, NC8 and NC9.(Edward Timpson.)

Brought up, and read the First time.

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I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

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With this it will be convenient to discuss Government new clause 3—Duration—

Government new clause 4—Parliamentary procedure

Government new clause 5—Consultation by local authority—

Government new clause 6—Consultation by Secretary of State—

Government new clause 7—Guidance—

Government new clause 8—Annual report—

Government new clause 9—Interpretation.

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I will speak to new clause 2 and the other new clauses in this group which deal with the power to pilot different ways of working. The purpose of the new clauses is to enable a local authority to test the extent to which changes to the complex legislative framework surrounding children’s social care might achieve better outcomes for children.

I will begin by briefly outlining the purpose of the clauses before I turn to the improvements that have been made since they were debated in the other place. The Government believe that the legislative framework is the bedrock of children’s social care services. However, that does not mean that it is perfect. In 2011, the Munro review showed us that over-regulation can be a barrier to good social work practice and can prevent social workers from putting the needs and wishes of children first.

Too frequently, legislation sets out not just what local authorities need to do, but exactly how they must do it. However, when it comes to changing the law, especially where those changes are about prescribing less process and leaving more to professional judgment, we often fail to act. That is because we do not have evidence of how a change would work in practice. Without evidence, it is simply unclear what applying a change to all local authorities would mean.

The power would enable an individual local authority to test new ways of supporting children and young people. That would be done in a carefully controlled way, for a limited period of time with the sole purpose of achieving better outcomes for children. The evidence from each pilot will allow us to assess the need for changes to legislation across the country.

Local government supports this power. Local authorities want to do their best for the children in their care and to be trusted to try new approaches to do just that. However, we also heard concerns expressed in the other place and by those organisations that we consulted about the risk to children. Clearly, that is not something that would ever be on my agenda. The Government have listened and I will outline the changes we are making which I believe address the concerns that have been raised.

Government new clause 2 introduces the power to test different ways of working. It outlines the purpose of pilots that could be granted and the scope of the power. A pilot can be granted only if the application has demonstrated clearly how it will benefit children or young people in at least one of the following ways: promote their physical health and wellbeing; encourage them to express their views, wishes and feelings and take them into account; help them gain access to or make the best use of services provided by the local authority or its partners; promote high aspirations; promote stability in their home lives, relationships and educational work; or prepare them for adulthood and independent living.

The new clause makes it clear that the local authority must use the power with a view to achieving those aims. Efficiency and cost considerations are not a sufficient basis for a pilot. It makes it absolutely clear that pilots can be conducted only for the purposes of promoting children’s best interests and for no other reason.

Another important aspect of the new clause is that it sets out areas of legislation that the power cannot be used to revisit. That should remove any lingering concerns that some hon. Members expressed on Second Reading that pilots may be undertaken for the wrong reasons. In particular, it makes it clear that the power cannot be used to allow local authorities to contract out functions to profit-making organisations. While I confess to being puzzled by some of the debate that characterised the power wholly inaccurately as a means to privatisation, subsection (3) puts the issue beyond doubt.

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Will the Minister clarify something? Unless I have misunderstood something, the new clause does not refer to pilots at all. What we are legislating for is the power for the Minister to make regulations to change the way in which local authorities deliver some services or meet some requirements. I do notice, however, that subsection (5) says that local authorities must apply to use the power. When they apply, will they have to propose a clear pilot that expresses what the innovation is, what the changes are and what they are designed to achieve, or will they simply have to say, “I’d like to change this regulation as it applies to us at the present time”?

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To address the two points the hon. Gentleman made, we are introducing pilots because we are testing, in very controlled circumstances, a different way of carrying out the functions of a local authority: what they have to do and how they propose to do it in a different way. We will then be in a position to consider that in the controlled way that I will set out regarding both the process and the safeguards that follow, so that we have the evidence that, as I said at the start, we need to have—I think every hon. Member would agree—before we consider making any change more profound than simply piloting something that a local authority wanted to test as a way of establishing a new way of working.

I will come on to explain what that process is, because it is tightly controlled and heavily safeguarded which, in many respects, is unprecedented when compared with, for instance, the pilots under the previous Labour Government in relation to social work practices. I commend the Labour Government on setting those up, because they tried to find new ways of working within social work and they have led to some different ways of delivering those types of services—in Stafford, for example. That was done in a similar way by setting up pilots, testing ideas, seeing whether they would be successful and were something with which others might want to proceed.

I want to make it clear that I do not believe that changes to the duties would ever have been the subject of a successful application for the use of the power. Under the process and safeguards put in place, the case simply could not have been made that modifying one of the duties could result in better outcomes for children. However, by excluding them from the power, that point is put beyond doubt. The power to innovate is about testing changes to how local authorities deliver services, not questioning their fundamental responsibilities to children and young people.

Government new clause 5 sets out the consultation requirements on local authorities before they apply for a pilot. Thorough consultation is an integral part of any application to use the power. We have heard from some quarters about the need to strengthen this provision so we have extended the consultation requirement for all local authorities to include not only safeguarding partners but any other person who is relevant to the application, particularly children and young people affected by the pilot. We will then be able to set out further details of our expectations on local authority consultation, but we can say now that it is likely to include, in addition to affected children and young people, staff working with them as well as voluntary sector partners. The summary of the consultation will be provided to the expert panel, which I will discuss in a moment, and will be published as part of its advice.

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Does the Minister agree that it is important for local authorities to consult the child’s school on the impact of new ways of working on education?

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The hon. Lady makes a strong point. We are talking about others who are relevant to that child and need to be consulted, and I concur with her that it will be important for the school to be involved in the consultation to make sure that there is a full and rounded view of what the impact may be on children in that area.

When the local authority has completed its consultation, it will make an application to the Secretary of State, and Government new clause 6 provides that if she decides to take the application forward, she should consult the expert advisory panel, which will provide significant independent scrutiny of any application. The panel will consist of two standing members, the Children’s Commissioner and Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector. The Secretary of State will also appoint other individuals who hold expertise relevant to the subject matter of an application, including representation from local government, social work practice, the voluntary sector and experts in the evaluation of pilots. The panel will be able to comment in full on an application.

In answer to the question from the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak, the panel, which is independent and has relevant expertise, will be able to comment fully on any application by a local authority under this provision. It will be asked particularly to provide advice on three key areas: first, the impact of a pilot on children; secondly, the capability of the authority to achieve the purpose of the application; and, thirdly, the adequacy of the monitoring arrangements. The panel’s advice will be published to ensure the process is transparent. When the Secretary of State has considered the panel’s advice, she will decide whether to continue with the process and, if so, she must gain Parliament’s approval. Government new clause 4 sets out the parliamentary scrutiny that each application to use the power must undergo before it is granted.

We have already sought to strengthen scrutiny in the other place to increase the types of application that would go through the affirmative resolution procedure. Changes to both primary and secondary legislation that originally passed through the affirmative procedure will follow that affirmative procedure. Only secondary legislation passed through the negative procedure and applications by the Secretary of State to end a pilot by revoking regulations will be subject to the negative procedure.

In addition, the Secretary of State must lay before Parliament a report containing an explanation of how the purpose is expected to be achieved and an assessment of the impact on children. That, alongside the panel’s advice, will provide a critical means for Members to scrutinise the pilot before agreeing that it can proceed or be rejected. I contend that this very comprehensive process will ensure that full and proper safeguards are in place.

Government new clause 3 makes it clear that all pilots should be time limited to a maximum of three years, after which they will automatically come to an end. There is provision for the pilot period to be extended only once for an additional three years. Such an extension could be used when a pilot is successful but the Government need further time to make provision to roll it out across the country. Before a pilot can be extended, the Secretary of State must lay a report before Parliament that clearly identifies the extent to which the pilot has achieved its specified purpose up to that point.

To ensure that the monitoring and evaluation of pilots is transparent and learning is shared, Government new clause 8 requires the Secretary of State to provide an annual report for each year a pilot has been in place. This report will provide a central source of information on the progress of pilots and bring together resulting learning. Government new clause 7 sets out a provision for the Government to issue statutory guidance to local authorities that will include how the power should be used, or not used, in particular circumstances; how it should be monitored and evaluated; and the qualities local authorities will be expected to demonstrate in applying for the power. The guidance will ensure that there are clear standards and expectations of local authorities in applying for the power. We will consult publicly on the statutory guidance so that all interested parties have a say in how the power works.

I appreciate that this is a new approach, so it is understandable that some colleagues have raised questions and have sought additional safeguards. We have listened to such concerns very carefully and the new clauses before the Committee are substantially different from those that were discussed in the other place. The scope of what could now be allowed is much tighter and the safeguards, consultation and transparency are even more robust. That has allowed some leading members of the children’s services voluntary sector to lend their weight to our ambition and comment positively on the new clauses.

For example, the Children’s Society, one of the country’s leading children’s charities, feels that changes we have made enable it to support the new clauses. It says:

“The Children’s Society welcome the Government’s commitment to innovation in children’s social care and are supportive of their intention to allow local authorities to test new ways of working in a time-limited, safe, transparent and well-evaluated way. We are of the view that the Government have listened to the concerns raised by the sector and have taken significant steps to ensure that the intention behind the power is clear, and that robust safeguards have been put in place.”

Similarly, Barnardo’s supports the power and the changes that we have made. It says:

“During the passage of this Bill, the Government has taken on board a number of our concerns, and we believe that the current proposed system for testing innovation will be safer and more transparent than what the Government originally sought to introduce. We particularly welcome the provisions which ensure that local authorities will not be permitted to question the fundamentals of what they do to support children whilst allowing scope for piloting new ways of working. Stronger safeguards have also been put in place to improve consultation and accountability.”

Those are strong endorsements of the approach the Government have taken from those who have a strong interest in ensuring that children get a better deal from the community and the services that they require.

Before I ask hon. Members to support the new clauses, I want to end by saying that I would not be doing this or asking the Government, as they have, to support these new clauses in the their entirety, if I did not have a strong view that their sole purpose—and the motivation behind them—is to improve outcomes for vulnerable children.

If I thought there was a better way to deal with the current system, where too many children are still being failed, I would welcome it. We are working to ensure that where children’s services are inadequate we tackle that. Since 2010, we have turned around 34 local authority children’s services that were deemed to be failing children in their areas.

What I am not prepared to do is just accept the status quo, when I have local authorities telling me that they could do a better job for children if they were given the opportunity to do so. The new clauses seek to provide them with that opportunity whilst ensuring that their responsibilities for those children remain as strong as ever. I do not intend to do anything for children other than try to make their lives better, and I hope hon. Members will agree.

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I apologise at the outset that my comments are rather long but they are entirely relevant to the Government’s new clauses. As I listened to the Minister, I hoped he would offer some clarity on a number of key issues that have rightly plagued these Government plans to allow councils to opt out of primary and secondary protective legislation for vulnerable children and young people. I want that sentence to sink in with the Committee for a moment.

The Minister is asking us to approve a power that threatens vast swathes of hard-fought legislation that was carefully crafted in the proper way, rooted in robust evidence and consultation with the sector, children and families, often in the wake of tragedies and failures that should not have occurred, and that had cross-party commitment to better protect and provide for children and young people.

Of course, not all children’s social care legislation has evolved because things have gone desperately wrong. Many statutory requirements in the care system, in leaving care and in support for families have emerged through creative practice and innovation, but I fear that after the Bill, innovation will be forever associated with the removal of legal protection. That does a terrible disservice to all the excellent projects, pilots and world-leading practice that have developed in children’s social care across the decades.

The Minister is asking us to hand the Secretary of State unprecedented power to dispense with primary and secondary legislation without any prior Green or White Paper consultation, any public evidence sessions, as there should have been for such a radical change, or any evidence that any of the endangered legislation works against children’s welfare. Once an exemption or modification to the law has been authorised, the trials could last up to six years—that is a long time for a child reliant on the state for his or her care and protection.

Our most vulnerable children are being used as guinea pigs. That is no exaggeration. Look at the transcript of the Lords debate that led to the first incarnation of these awful clauses being kicked out. These so-called innovation clauses were described several times by noble Lords, even those on the Government side, as an experiment. Do we really want to give consent to such high-risk experiments when local authorities are facing extreme funding pressures and increased demand? Nagalro warned in its evidence to the Committee:

“Anything which helps spread the budget further is going to be greeted”

with great enthusiasm in County Hall. It also warned that the Bill risks introducing perverse incentives into a system already buckling under great strain.

To say that I am deeply disappointed that the Government have chosen to reinsert the measures in new clauses despite their blistering defeat in the Lords is a total understatement. The fact that the Lords succeeded in deleting a whole set of clauses—a rarity in either House—should have been a red-flag warning that the proposals are dangerous. Yet here they are again, with further amendments, none of which allay the serious and substantial concerns raised in the Lords and elsewhere. The Committee has received extensive evidence from concerned organisations and individuals about the grave risk to children and young people. We have been warned that the new clauses give the Government a blank cheque to remove legal protection. We are being asked to agree a job lot of measures where virtually every requirement made for all vulnerable children and young people could be axed for some at a future date.

The Minister claims that he has listened to the views expressed by peers and other stakeholders and that he has made substantial changes to the clauses, but he has not, and the risks to children and young people have not gone away.

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The hon. Lady says that we have not made any substantial changes, so what has she to say about the quotes that I gave from the Children’s Society and the Barnardo’s, which say that we have done precisely that? The Children’s Society said that

“the government have listened to the concerns raised by the sector and have taken significant steps to ensure that the intention behind the power is clear, and that robust safeguards have been put in place.”

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The Minister, like me, will be well aware that while the charities may have expressed support in their submissions to the Committee, they have also expressed concern. The fact is that there are only three organisations, so far as I am aware, that support the new clauses.

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I am happy for the hon. Lady to make her case. The purpose of having this Committee and the debate is for the House to make a decision, but I am afraid that what she says is simply not the case. Among those who support the new clauses are Anthony Douglas from the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, Mark Costello from Foster Care Associates, the Children’s Society, Barnado’s, SOLACE, which is the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and Senior Managers, and Chris Wright, chief executive of Catch22. Debbie Glassbrook from the National Independent Reviewing Officers Managers Partnership, a whole host of local authorities and associated bodies—including Achieving for Children, Leeds City Council and others—and the ADCS and the LGA also support the new clauses.

The hon. Lady has to be careful that she does not characterise the debate as all being on one side of the equation. There are those who have listened carefully to the arguments, including Barnado’s and the Children’s Society, and who have always supported innovation. They are clear that they are happy that the changes we have made reassure them enough to support the measures.

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I thank the Minister for that intervention. He mentioned approximately 10 or so organisations that he feels are in support.

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Non-exhaustive.

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However, there are nigh-on 50, if not more that are against this. I will discuss this later in my comments.

The Secretary of State will be able to cancel duties in Acts of Parliament and subordinate legislation in a particular area simply because a local authority wants to test different ways of working. This would be to an amended version of the corporate parenting principles. The Committee will recall that the Government are refusing to bind local authorities to these principles; they only have to have regard to them. In short, the statutory purpose of legal exemptions and modifications is simply to test different ways of working to a set of non-binding principles: not better outcomes, not even the same outcomes, just a different way of working.

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I invite the hon. Lady, either now or later in her remarks, to set out what she has, in principle, against professional local authority officers and elected local councillors seeking to serve their communities to tailor services to meet local need and demand, compared with the man in Whitehall with the bowler hat and the umbrella, who seems, in her mindset, to know best. What has she got against the localism agenda in respect to tailored local solutions?

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I will come on to that later in my comments. To clarify, I have nothing against local authorities knowing what is right for them and making decisions. [Interruption.] However, this is a slightly different case and if the hon. Gentleman keeps calm and listens, I will get to my point.

Another change concerns statutory requirements selected by the Government for special treatment. There are six sections of the Children Act 1989 and the Children Act 2004 and one part of one schedule to the Children Act 1989 that cannot be touched by this new power. I am sure I am not alone in wondering how the Minister came to select this list of core legal duties. Can he explain how he decided that the many remaining duties in the Children Act 1989 and the Children Act 2004 and their associated statutory instruments could, in principle, be disapplied? How did he decide that none of the children’s social service functions in any of the following Acts of Parliament are worth saving: the Children and Young Persons Act 1933, the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970, the Mental Health Act 1983, the Housing Act 1996, the Adoption (Intercountry Aspects) Act 1999, the Adoption and Children Act 2002, the Mental Capacity Act 2005, the Children and Young Persons Act 2008, the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, and the Care Act 2014?

Are we really being shown a glimpse of a brave new world where all that will be left of children’s social care legislation could be these six saved sections of two Acts of Parliament? I point the Committee to some of the frightening scenarios sent to us by Dr Ray Jones. We cannot say that we have not been warned how dangerous these new clauses are.

Children’s rights charity Article 39 has listed a number of statutory requirements that could be removed. These include—although this is not exhaustive—a local authority’s duty to provide accommodation to children it is looking after, assess the support needs of disabled children as they approach adulthood, allow children in its care to have reasonable contact with their parents and visit children it looks after. Is the Minister really convinced that none of these duties are fundamental to promoting and safeguarding the welfare of vulnerable children and young people? Why is there such resistance to undertaking a public consultation prior to the introduction of these clauses? Does the Minister not want to ensure that he and his Government have got this 100% right?

Let us also remember that part of this Bill will also be under threat of exemption once—and if—it receives Royal Assent. In fact, every single future children’s social services function that this House introduces will have a fragile and uncertain existence if we allow these new clauses to go ahead.

The Minister has written to the concerned parties, claiming these new clauses are about empowering the frontline. The frontline does not want these powers. The vast and varied range of organisations that have submitted evidence to the Committee want us to reject these new clauses. In fact, 47 organisations have come together specifically with the goal of opposing these new clauses.

The Government set out their stall on this radical new power in their strategy “Putting children first”, which was published in July last year, two months after the Bill appeared. It said that exemption trials would offer

“a controlled environment in which we could enable local authorities to test deregulatory approaches that are not currently possible, before taking a decision to make substantial changes to existing legislation that would apply across the board.”

Any proposed full repeal of legislation would have to come back to Parliament—I understand that—but for trials to have any credible and reliable influence on future legislation, they must be ethical and robust. Nagalro has correctly told us that if a local authority obtains an exemption, all the children in its jurisdiction will be subject to it whether they agree with it or not. They will have no individual say in the matter. What on earth does the Minister envisage happening if some children who do not agree come back to a future Government and claim that they were treated wrongly compared with those in neighbouring authorities?

In “Putting children first, the chief social worker for children and families asserted:

“We must be enabled to use our professional judgment in flexible and creative ways, rather than having to follow a procedural path”

or a set of “legal rules.” The chief social worker avoiding having to follow legal rules is concerning and not a positive message for social workers or those considering joining the profession. Who would choose to work in a local authority that has fewer duties to vulnerable children and young people than its neighbouring councils?

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I am grateful to hon. Lady for giving way again—she is being generous. I want to probe her point about legal rules and people working in children’s services not wanting to be more expansive in using their professional judgement around those rules. Does she think that the opportunity that some local authorities have taken of pulling together their initial and core assessments to have a single continuum of assessment, and not having to comply with the strict timescales set out in regulation, is a good idea? We must bear in mind that the evidence suggests not only that the quality of those assessments has improved as a consequence, but that the timescales have improved as well, because not working to a 40-day or any other time limit has resulted in more timely assessment.

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The Minister will correct me if I am wrong, but I think that was in secondary legislation, not primary legislation. These new clauses are about changing primary legislation. He has said that 34 local authorities have been turned around, and that was without changes to primary legislation. What prohibits social workers from doing their job—they see this time and again—is not primary legislation but guidance that varies from authority to authority, such as local authorities prescribing that children under two have to be visited every other day. We do not need primary legislation to change such things.

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Once again, I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way. Those were indeed regulations that I was referring to, but I was trying to tease out from her whether she disagrees as a matter of principle with what the chief social worker was trying to say—that religiously following rules does not always lead to the best service being provided to children, and that local authorities that are more innovative and find different ways to provide services can be successful on the back of such changes. I wanted to find out whether she objected to that approach, or whether there was some other reason why she feels that something that happens under secondary legislation would not be appropriate for primary legislation.

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I have a problem with the chief social worker wanting to opt out of legal rules that have been in place and protected children in this country for decades and that are in primary legislation. That is our argument today.

Children England says that the exemption clauses would represent an unprecedented constitutional challenge to the principle of universal application of primary legislation everywhere and at all times throughout the land, and an equally fundamental challenge to the primacy of Parliament. At most, an exemption would require an affirmative resolution in Parliament, and such motions are almost never opposed. Historically, Parliament has passed 9,999 of 10,000 resolutions since 1965. What is the emergency that causes such far-reaching legislation? No evidence has been presented to explain why we are being asked to agree to the undoing of decades of protection. The fact is that it is not legislation that hinders effective children’s social care.

Professor June Thoburn, who received a prestigious award last year for her outstanding contribution to social work, said that none of the substantial body of research—some Government-funded and some independently funded—on the workings of the Children Act 1989, as amended, points to the need for any specific sections of the legislation to be suspended on the grounds that they are impeding flexible and good-quality practice. Action for Children and the NSPCC briefed the Commons in December, stating:

“Despite numerous conversations with ministers and officials, ?the evidence for the need for this power remains unconvincing and does not justify the potential risks of suspending primary legislation.”

The Department’s own factsheet accompanying the amendments states that local authorities have raised some ideas on how this power could be used, such as removing the requirement for an independent reviewing officer to be present at all reviews because some—only some—children say they do not want IROs present or to chair their reviews. That wrongly suggests that reviews are nothing more than a meeting or that the law prevents children from chairing review meetings. As the National Association of Independent Reviewing Officers has explained, IROs have a great deal of discretion in how they manage reviews for children and young people and are guided by the young person as to how they wish to make arrangements for their own reviews.

In 2015, the care planning regulations were amended by the DFE to allow children in recognised long-term foster placements to have increased flexibility in how their care plans are reviewed, and in particular to reduce the number of meetings if they wish. It is therefore a concern that there is so little understanding of the IRO role among those who seek to reduce or remove it.

IROs were created in response to judicial concerns that care plans agreed in care proceedings were not being followed. They are completely independent from day-to-day decisions. Without that independent oversight, a child may well be very unhappy in their placement, with no one to turn to. What if that child’s situation changes? Worse still, what if they are abused and have no relationship with their social worker and no IRO, and their carers are complicit in that abuse? We remove safeguards such as this at our peril.

Besides bringing an end to universal IROs, the factsheet includes four more examples affecting disabled children, adoption and fostering assessments, and care leavers. There are five examples in all in the Minister’s factsheet, with fewer than two pages of information, that could extinguish swathes of our legislation.

The Committee has been presented with more evidence against these amendments in a single month than the Government have managed to produce in favour of them in eight months. We have received detailed submissions from distinguished academics such as Professor Mike Stein, who has been researching the problems and challenges faced by care leavers for more than 40 years. He warns of the risk of returning to the failures of a discretionary system that resulted in both territorial and service injustices.

For robust critiques of each of the examples in the factsheet, I recommend that Members look at the submission from CoramBAAF. It says that removing legal protection from children on the basis of geography legally entrenches a postcode lottery, which the Minister has acknowledged and referred to as some small-scale variations in the past. He should be focusing on ending variation in children’s social care provision, not legitimising and increasing it.

I will repeat a line I have quoted before in this Committee from the NAO report “Children in need of help or protection”:

“Nationally the quality of help and protection for children is unsatisfactory and inconsistent, suggesting systemic rather than just local failure.”

The amendments do nothing to remedy that—indeed, experts tell us that they are likely to make matters a whole lot worse. Children and families living close by but across local authority boundaries could have different rights, and councils could have different statutory responsibilities. Courts would cover local authority areas where the law, as amended by the Secretary of State, was not uniform and not consistent. That could create a dangerous patchwork of legal protection.

Nagalro has told us that the welfare of individual children would still be the paramount statutory consideration for guardians and courts. Therefore applying different rules for different children and criteria for local authority practice in different areas could put children’s guardians in breach of their statutory duties and would provide fertile grounds for multiple appeals.

The new clauses also have the potential to breach rights under the Human Rights Act 1998 and the convention on the rights of the child, both of which require the enjoyment of rights without any form of discrimination. There is also the potential to breach the common law principle of equal treatment. Local authorities would be likely to retain their common law duty of care towards children where such a duty currently exists, so the new clauses would be creating a legal minefield for local authorities and making the law fragile, unpredictable and unstable for children and young people.

We should not be perpetuating in our legislation the instability, uncertainty and inequity that children and young people have already suffered in their lives. All the examples held up by the Government are about cutting out and withdrawing statutory entitlements, giving local authorities freedom to work outside the law. They are not about resourcing and doing something new and additional; they are not about strengthening or improving legal protection. Some local authorities have been referred to as supporting these amendments. It is no coincidence that a number of those authorities have been bequeathed innovation monies by the Spring consortium investment board, which advises Ministers on which projects to fund.

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I ask the hon. Lady to be very careful. I would like to know what she is insinuating.

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I thank the Minister; I will get to what I am insinuating very soon.

Some local authorities are being placed in an impossible situation. If they do not back the Government, is it fair to assume that they will not receive funding—especially given that, last October, many of them received a rather threatening letter from the chief social worker stating that if they did not back the new clauses they could never again complain about bureaucracy and grandly suggesting that this was a once-in-a-lifetime chance for them all to do the right thing? If she is so certain that this policy is in the interests of young people and children, why has she not shared her thinking with the Committee? It is telling that the Committee has received no evidence from her.

The fact is that the Local Government Association is being placed under immense pressure to back the new clauses. Is it not the case that only a small number of local authorities, if any, back them? Can the Minister tell the Committee that the Secretary of State’s intervention powers will never be used to coerce local authorities into applying for exemptions?

My final comments concern the Minister being well aware that much of the anxiety about the new clauses comes from the fear that they pave the way for the privatisation of child protection services. Despite new clause 2(3), those fears legitimately remain. If the Government are so resoundingly against profit in child protection, why, in the explanatory memorandum attached to the 2014 regulations, do they advise companies that subsidiaries of profit-making companies are not banned from running such services?

The Deregulation Act 2015 now means that social work services to individual looked-after children and care leavers operating outside local authorities are no longer required to register with Ofsted. Add to that the LaingBuisson review, commissioned by the Department at the behest of the chief social worker and two others, which gives advice on how the market could flourish in children’s social work and says that independent providers are happy to play the long game on a journey to whole-system outsourcing.

Companies such as G4S, Serco and Virgin Care have all attended meetings with the Department to consider how they can play a role in delivering and shaping statutory children’s social care services. It is little wonder that very few trusted the motivation behind the original clauses or that fears persist that behind this power is an insatiable appetite for breaking up children’s social care. The Minister has tried to distance himself from this report for which his Department wrote the terms of reference and which it funded, yet refused to release for a considerable time. Perhaps it is waiting until the Bill has passed through both Houses.

If the Minister really means what he says about profit and child protection, he should be seeking to prohibit subsidiaries of profit-making companies from delivering social care functions. Getting legislation right in children’s social care is extremely important. Our legal duties are vital in protecting those most in need. We should always approach change in this area with great care and caution, to ensure that children and young people are not put in any jeopardy.

The new clauses have no place at all in the Bill. I implore hon. Members to reject them and to bring an end to the enormous fear and concern that have built up outside the walls of this place. The Minister has not fully responded to the comprehensive critique from the Lords, and there remains a gaping black hole as to which legislation the sector is crying out to be exempted from, and who on earth is crying out for the exemption.

The Government should withdraw the new clauses as a matter of honour and out of respect for the vulnerable children and young people who depend on the legal protections that Parliament has given them over decades. The Minister may then undertake some robust and meaningful consultation, and could return to the House later if he wished.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. We should be grateful to the hon. Member for South Shields for sharing with us her Momentum-commissioned essay; possibly the instruction was “Write an essay about what you think a wicked Tory Government might want to do with regard to children’s social services”—that is, without actually having seen any of the new clauses that the Minister has tabled.

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I assure the Committee that I have read the new clauses, thank you very much.

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It is an enormous shame that having read them the hon. Lady did not include them, or edit her speech having reflected on them. I am not entirely sure—[Interruption.]

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Order. The hon. Gentleman is speaking.

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Thank you, Mrs Main. I have great respect for the hon. Member for South Shields, and it is with great respect that I say that I do not think she has read the clauses. She seemed to conjure up a picture in which the current rules and regulations are perfect and the best practice and statutory requirements set out for local authorities to follow are so beyond any form of change or improvement that there should be no scope for innovation. [Interruption.] I do not want to detain the Committee too long.

One might almost think that the cases of Baby P and Victoria Climbié, for example, had never taken place. I am in no way suggesting that the new clauses tabled by my hon. Friend the Minister will guarantee that such atrocities do not happen again, but there may well be benefits from the use of local professional expertise and from local authorities’ designing of innovative proposals for better care of vulnerable young people.

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rose—

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rose

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I give way to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak, who looks as if he may burst a blood vessel unless I do.

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My blood vessels are in good shape, I am happy to say. Given the hon. Gentleman’s extensive understanding of the subject, would he care to say which specific item of legislation he would like local authorities to be exempted from at the moment, to advance innovation in child social work?

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The hon. Gentleman has fallen into the trap of misreading or misconstruing, accidentally or otherwise, the purpose of the new clauses. We can all read them, but the Opposition Front Bencher has characterised—

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Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

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No. The way the hon. Lady has characterised the proposals in her remarks is—I conjure up a scenario—that someone from some town or city hall knocks on the door of the Secretary of State and says, “I have a whizzy idea: we are going to do this,” and the Secretary of State says, “Oh, that sounds quite interesting—go ahead and do it,” in some secret smoke-filled-room deal.

Let us look at new clause 2: it talks about the purpose of helping to promote physical and mental health. Contrary to what the hon. Lady said, it is also about

“taking into account the views, wishes and feelings of children or young people”.

That is in subsection (1)(c). As to the idea that there is carte blanche for the private sector, I suggest that she look at subsection (3), which specifies a different set of criteria. The hon. Lady talked about six years as a de facto, but if she looks at the new clauses she will see that the period can be up to three years with one further three-year extension, which makes six years—not six years from the outset, as the hon. Lady said. The Secretary of State will also need to be persuaded of the need for an extension.

It is not only the Secretary of State. We are very lucky to have a Minister who, owing to his personal family experience, is recognised for his interest in and understanding of this subject. However, my hon. Friend will not always be the Minister in charge. The Bill is not couched or tabled in a way that purely relies on the bespoke integrity of my hon. Friend. New clause 6 clearly tells us of the new obligations on the Secretary of State. They

“must invite an expert panel to give advice about…the capability of the authority”,

because it is absolutely key that the authority should have the wherewithal, financial skills and so on to be able to deliver the innovation. That advice must also assess “the likely impact” and

“the adequacy of any measures that will be in place to monitor the impact”.

The idea that the hon. Lady did her best to present to the Committee as the root of her opposition to the new clauses—that finger in the air, pie in the sky, blue-sky thinking ideas would merely require the sign-off of a Secretary of State—is, I think, a gross distortion of what the new clauses intend. If the hon. Lady and her Opposition colleagues have no faith in the independent veracity of, for example, the Children’s Commissioner or the chief inspector of education, children’s services and skills, who are stipulated in new clause 6(2)(a) and (b) to provide advice to the Secretary of State, I think that is a poor state of affairs.

On the consultation, new clause 6(4) and (5) clearly state the timetable and the trigger for action that the Secretary of State must follow. I do not see the new clauses as a way for local authorities to duck out of their obligations. I served on a Local Government Association panel for several years, and I must tell the hon. Lady that the LGA is unbeatable and incoercible; if it thinks a Government of whatever stripe are doing something wrong, it will always tell the Government that that is the case.

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The fact is that local government is split on this issue; there is not a consensus. In relation to all of the times the hon. Gentleman refused to give way, he should go back and read Hansard; he has misquoted everything I have said and I look forward to his apology.

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I will certainly be reading Hansard; I do not quite follow William Hague’s example of reading it under the bedclothes at 2 o’clock in the morning, but I shall look at what the hon. Lady said; if I have misconstrued her, I will of course apologise unreservedly. However, I took from what she said and how she presented her arguments that this will give carte blanche to a Secretary of State, in cahoots with a chief executive or a head of children’s services in a local authority, to find a way to deliver below-the-radar financial savings and to deliver some sort of third or fourth-rate children’s protection, and that there is a whole cadre of local authority professionals who are desperate to be freed from the shackles of statute, regulation and guidance.

I was not quite sure what the hon. Lady was moving us towards in her thinking—whether those people will turn around and say, “Gosh, we are now free of all of that, we are saving ourselves a huge amount of money; we can sit around and have a cup of tea and a biscuit and talk about things in a rather ideological or theoretical way”, or whether they are going to pilot things that are so conspicuously dangerous and ill-advised for young people that there would be an enormous rise in the amount of terrible cases. That is the impression with which the hon. Lady left me and, I suggest, other Government Committee members.

I spent 12 years in local government and I was lucky to serve with quality councillors and quality officers. Many of us have had that experience. It is certainly my experience that we should be harnessing the ability to think innovatively and to tailor a solution to meet a pressing local need way above what could be comprehended, devised or tailored by officials and Ministers in Whitehall.

I take the hon. Lady’s point that this should not be a sort of carte blanche—a laissez-faire free-for-all—for people to duck obligations. This is merely allowing them to say, “This is what we are trying to do. It is all about child protection. We have found a different way of doing it that we would like to trial. What do you think, Secretary of State?” The Secretary of State does not take his or her own view; the proposal has to go to the experts to test the robustness of the ability to deliver and make sure that there are sound arguments.

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Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

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rose—

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I give way to the hon. Member for—

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Stretford and Urmston.

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I was going to say “Stratford”.

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It is not quite the same. What concerns me is that as a result of these proposals we will see the risk that currently good joint working across agencies may become fragmented. That particularly troubles me in relation to children within the ambit of the criminal justice system, who are very under-addressed in this legislation. The hon. Gentleman has just said that, as a local councillor himself, he thought that there were really good opportunities to work with officers to devise good quality, flexible local solutions. Can he give me an example of that kind of achievement in the local authority of which he is a member—or indeed any other local authority?

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I certainly defer to the hon. Lady, who has a wealth of experience in this area, far greater and wider than I have. I will leave the point she makes about young people in the criminal justice system for the Minister to comment on, because I am not entirely sure about that. I think it is best to say that.

On the opportunity for joint working, if the hon. Lady looks at local government she will see shared services and joint chief executives and joint directors of this, that and the other, and councils coming together in order to safeguard frontline services, often across geographical boundaries. I was a councillor in Oxfordshire, where we hooked up with three councils in Gloucestershire to do all sorts of things.

The order of general competence contained in the 2011 Localism Act allows for that to continue and flourish, where there is joined-up working between local authorities and statutory partners and others, under these new clauses. All it will mean is a discussion between two, three or four parties to see if they want to buy into an innovative idea which they will then take to the Secretary of State.

To conclude, I think the new clauses are absolutely right. The tone and the tenor of the debate in the other place was a gross distortion of what the Government wish to do. That was certainly echoed in the remarks of my noble friend Lord True, leader of Richmond Council. Chris Wright, the Chief Executive of Catch22 said:

“Rather than restricting social workers to box ticking”—

that is not saying we are taking away all the boxes, there will still be boxes to tick, of course—

“we should give them the power to build interventions based upon their professional expertise”.

This clause moves us closer to the goal of more human services that work for children and their families. The phrase “human services” certainly struck a chord with me. These new clauses should be supported. The argument deployed by the hon. Lady should be resisted most strongly.

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I agree with the Minister in welcoming innovation in our approach to children’s services. It is something he and I have in common. We both have a history of working with children in this area, and I welcome measures designed to free up social workers to do better for children.

When a Government embark on a radical change of this nature, we normally have some kind of preparation for that change. There might be a Green Paper or a White Paper, or extensive consultation to allow us to shape what will happen. What seems to be happening—I do not know whether this is what the Minister intends—is that we are legislating without any real sense of what the pilots are designed to do and without any real description of them. In fact, the Bill does not refer to pilots at all, and for all anyone knows, they could be an exercise in exempting local authorities from long-standing primary legislation.

I accept that the notion of pilots exists in the Minister’s mind and that that is his intention, but it is not clear from what we are debating or from what we are being asked to vote on, and will not be the result of the legislative changes. I do not want to restrict or inhibit any effort at innovation, but it would be useful if he could give the Committee an explanation of why he is departing so radically from the normal approach to these changes in the way he has decided to proceed.

I have some specific questions about what will happen. We debated the three-year limit with the potential extension of a further three years, but what will happen at the end of six years? Let us suppose that a pilot is an outstanding success. Will the Minister then legislate for the change to be applied across the entire country, or will the exemption simply lapse at the end of that period? As the hon. Member for North Dorset reminded us, the Minister might not be in post forever. Let us suppose there is a change. What will happen to the policy then?

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I agree that we need to know what the intention is if these pilots roll out successfully, but do we not also need to know what will happen if they roll out unsuccessfully and whether there is any scope for early cancellation of an experiment if it is harming children?

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I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. It would be helpful if the Minister could make his intention clear to the Committee. It would be horrific if people were trapped in a failing system for three years because the legislation was passed in such haste that no one had envisaged what should be done if something went wrong. We seem to have had enough examples of that in legislation for children over the years.

I am genuinely curious to know what will happen if the pilots are successful. How will the Minister ensure that, if there is a change in the occupancy the post, what he seeks to do will continue beyond the six-year period? He mentioned the Labour pilots as an example of this not being particularly new, and that is the case, but if I remember correctly, those pilots were tied to sunset clauses that had to be renewed in legislation. I seem to recall being in this very Committee Room when he proposed a statutory instrument to enable one of the Labour pilot provisions to be converted into law.

Will the Minister say a little more about research into the pilots? I have no problem with his panel of experts. They look like people we should be able to rely on; I hope we can. As I understand it, their role will be to assess the initial offer and proposal. We need to know about the thorough examination of the pilot.

How will we know that it is a success? Presumably, we are not going to rely simply on the local authority saying, “Hey, this has worked. Isn’t it good?” Will the Minister tell us whether there will be a requirement, when the local authority introduces the measure, for it to describe exactly how the proposals are to be assessed and measured, so that the expert panel can take that into consideration? Will he also tell us whether this innovation will cover only a single local authority introducing a pilot, or is it likely that two or three local authorities in partnership could come to him with a specific proposal?

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Does my hon. Friend agree that that is a particularly important question in the context of Greater Manchester, for example, where children’s services are the responsibility of each of the 10 local authorities? There may well be a wish to look across the footprint of the whole Greater Manchester conurbation when we move forward with the Government’s devolution plans.

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I am grateful to my hon. Friend because she anticipates what I was going to ask. This proposal comes at a time when a lot of other innovation is taking place in local government. We have the proposals in Greater Manchester, Merseyside and the West Midlands Combined Authority. I am not clear how this measure would fit with a proposal from one of those authorities. I am not trying to be clever; I assume the Minister has discussed this with colleagues and some thought has been given to it. It is part of the question about what happens after three or six years. I am interested to know how the proposal would make progress. I do not want to dwell on this matter.

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I am sure the Minister will respond to my hon. Friend’s points but I asked the Minister in written questions what would happen after the six-year period. The response was that it would not be possible for a trial to be extended beyond six years. So, even if this measure works, it will be totally pointless because it will not be extended beyond six years.

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I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I assumed that it could not be the case that we would spend hours in Committee legislating for something that could be a success but would simply end after six years. It is important, since we are being asked to make decisive changes to primary legislation, that the Minister provides answers not just for the Opposition but for his own Back Benchers, as they may have to explain this in their constituencies. That would be very helpful.

I want to deal with the question of who is or is not supporting the Minister’s proposals. It is always difficult when a Minister starts reading a list. The rule of thumb is that his officials find a list of supporting organisations and give it to the Minister so he can read it out. That is standard and happens in every Government. What the Minister never mentions are the people who do not share his view.

The Minister pointed out, quite reasonably, that the Children’s Society and Barnardo’s are supportive of what he says. He did not bother to point out that the NSPCC, which most of us would accept is a pretty respectable organisation dealing with childcare and children’s issues, is still opposed to the Minister’s proposals and has some doubts. The Family Rights Group still opposes what the Minister says. Liberty has concerns about this approach to statute and whether there is a risk to children’s rights. Action for Children, which my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields mentioned, and at least 40 other organisations have registered their objections as well. It would therefore be wrong and misleading to give the Committee the impression that organisations are lining up to support the Minister. I think that he would accept that although he has been able to win some support for this radical set of proposals, he still has to win over quite a number of people and organisations. That would be a more reasonable description of the current state of affairs.

Would the Minister like to comment specifically on this point when he sums up? One reason why the NSPCC is still not happy with what he says is that it fears that his proposals risk undermining children’s legislation at a time when, it says, there is a geographical imbalance in the provision of children’s services. We spent the first part of the sitting hearing about that imbalance and the fact that we have to export children to different parts of the United Kingdom because we cannot guarantee proper provision in certain places. The NSPCC indicated in the briefings that I think it sent to the Minister’s hon. Friends as well as to me that it is still open to talks and consultation with the Minister. Has he had an opportunity to discuss with it that concern about geographical imbalance?

I ask that question partly because I would be interested to know what early indications the Minister has had from local authorities that they have proposals that they would like to bring forward. It would be much easier to understand what is driving these innovative ideas if we knew the local authorities involved. If they are successful local authorities, whose performance the Minister is already impressed by and that are already meeting most of their targets and indicators and doing a good job, I would certainly want to hear from them. I would want to hear from people such as that, who want to innovate. However, if they are not successful, if they are local authorities about which we have concerns and where there is a shortage of provision and of social workers, their motives for wanting to depart from some of their statutory responsibilities could be slightly different.

I accept that the Minister’s panel of experts will almost certainly want to take that into account when they come to assess specific proposals, but it would be helpful if the Minister could give us the information to which I have referred. He said that he had a list—well, to be fair, he did not say “a list”. He said that a number of local authorities had approached him asking for specific exemptions. It would be useful to have an idea of the local authorities that he expects to come forward and perhaps some idea of the timescale in which they will do so and the kind of proposals that he expects them to make. That would at least give us some idea of the geographical area.

In that context, I was slightly surprised by something in the Minister’s speech. I realise that he is probably under time pressure, but in extolling the virtues of the change, he did not cite a single example of the kind of exemption that he expects to be ruling on. He did not give the Committee a single example of how local authorities are currently being inhibited and how they will be freed up by the proposed changes. It would be really helpful if we had some examples. Certainly I, in terms of my conscience, would find it much easier to vote for something if I knew what I was voting for, so it would be useful if the Minister took the time to give us some examples.

I pressed the hon. Member for North Dorset on that very point. I think that he was at the time suggesting that my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields was not sufficiently conversant with the proposals, but he told us that he was confident in his mind that they were the way to innovation and that rafts of existing social work legislation and requirements were restricting progress. I asked him in an intervention to give an example and of course he declined to take the opportunity.

I simply say to Conservative Members that it would be useful before they vote on the new clauses to have some idea of what is to be put right, and which requirements local authorities will be given the power to opt out of. That is what we are being asked to do, and at the moment it appears that we do not know exactly what the requirements in question are.

I want to put a couple of minor points to the Minister. When a local authority or perhaps a consortium comes forward with a proposal, will there be any opportunity for public consultation on it before it is determined—or recommended or otherwise—by the expert panel? I believe that the Secretary of State will have powers to consult as she sees fit. I am asking the question because my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston asked about the situation in Greater Manchester. In such a circumstance a proposal might suit one local authority but not the people in a neighbouring one, and there might be significant contention in a small geographical area. Does the Minister have any plans to test those possibilities, or will the exercise be solely one for Government and experts, from which the public will be excluded altogether?

I have a very simple question for the Minister: why is improving outcomes no longer included in the Bill? If that is the fundamental object of the exercise, one might have thought that the opportunity to enshrine it in legislation would have been taken. I see that the Minister has decided against that, and perhaps he would tell us why.

Will the Minister confirm something in relation to a specific example? Is it the case, as I understand it is, that the proposals extend to section 2 of the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970? That Act places a duty on local authorities to meet the needs of children with disabilities. Is it conceivable that a local authority could—perhaps with a well-founded proposal for doing things differently—ask to be exempted from that legislation, under the Minister’s proposals? I ask because there has been no specific reference to children with disabilities in the debate, but I know that it is a subject that the Minister treats very seriously. In fact, in the previous Parliament, he brought in extensive legislation on the issue, so I wonder if that is what he now has in mind.

I would find it helpful—and it may not be too late for the Committee—to have an opportunity to compare examples of what the Government see as core and non-core duties. The hon. Member for North Dorset clearly did not want the people in Whitehall making decisions when there are people with well-founded expertise working locally, who he feels could make a better contribution. I am inclined to agree with that, but what has happened is that the people in Whitehall are determining what are core duties and non-core duties. I find it slightly difficult to understand.

An example passed to me related to section 20 of the Children Act 1989. As far as the Government are concerned it is a core duty. It includes the duty on local authorities under section 20(1), which means that every local authority shall provide accommodation for any child in need within its area who appears to require accommodation, whether that is because they have been abandoned, no one has parental responsibility for them or the person caring for them has been prevented temporarily or permanently from providing for them. There is an obligation on local authorities there.

Section 22 of the 1989 Act, which is identified in the new clause as a non-duty, covers exactly the same provisions as section 20(1) in relation to accommodating children. Is it possible at this stage for us to have, for comparison purposes, a description of what are core and non-core duties and how that decision was arrived at?

My concluding point is this: normally in this House, decisions to remove statutory protections are made by Parliament on a case-by-case basis. That is what we are paid to do. What we are being asked to do with the new clauses is write a blank cheque for the Minister to remove statutory protections on the say-so of local authority bureaucrats, with that removal tested solely by his chosen panel of experts, and where we will know after we have legislated which powers we have taken away to protect children. That strikes me as peculiar. It is certainly innovative in a legislative sense, but it is a remarkably peculiar way of doing it.

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I want to reassure the hon. Gentleman—I am sure this issue is something he will follow through—that the process I set out earlier is very clear. Every application that goes through that very rigorous process, which includes the application going through the expert panel and the Secretary of State then deciding whether to go ahead with a pilot, has to be put before Parliament so that it can decide whether that pilot should go ahead. It is a time-limited pilot; it does not change any legislation on the statute book in relation to children’s social care. There is rightly an opportunity for Parliament to have its say and express its view.

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I am grateful to the Minister. It is absolutely fair that by negative or affirmative resolution there will be an opportunity for a small weighted Committee of Members of Parliament—like all Committees, its membership will be determined by the parliamentary majority—to determine that outcome. I would not want to mislead the Committee by pretending otherwise. None the less, the crucial decision about giving the Minister a blank cheque to remove protections will be taken today by this Committee. We will find out the consequences of that decision further down the line. That is the point I am seeking to make. In my view, that is innovative, but I am not sure it is the kind of innovation I want to be associated with.

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I had not planned to speak at this point, but a number of points that have come up in the past hour have raised further questions in my mind, and I hope that the Minister will allow me to explore a few of them a little more. It is important to say to all Members that no Labour Member is against innovation or the notion that we should take seriously a lot of the ideas and suggestions of local experts around local circumstances, but when it comes to child protection, we have a long history in this country of learning from when things go wrong, and it is important that we protect that learning. Much of the range of child safeguarding legislation that we have today has been a result of very dire consequences for very vulnerable children.

It is therefore important that we are mindful of what we could be unpicking, particularly given that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak, pointed out, we have got a permission in advance that says, “Go off and do what you like, and then come back and tell us how it went.” That causes some concern for Opposition Members. May I ask the Minister specifically whom he sees as being accountable for the outcome of a pilot authorised by him or the Secretary of State, particularly if it has caused harm to an individual child? It is really important that the public understand who is responsible and ultimately accountable in those circumstances. As he knows, those are the most difficult, public, contentious and distressing cases; it is very important that we know where the buck stops.

As a Greater Manchester MP, I would like to explore a little further something that has opened up in the course of this debate: the implications of this legislation sitting alongside the direction of travel we are pursuing in relation to Greater Manchester devolution. Local authority children’s services currently sit with each of the 10 local authorities in Greater Manchester. However, the Minister will be aware that health and social care together will be a responsibility of the Mayor of the combined authority. Moves to integrate health and social care provision—presumably including children’s services—across the Greater Manchester footprint may mean that, over time, we begin to see arrangements that cross the 10 local authority boundaries, in terms of local authorities’ responsibilities for children.

Has the Minister explored with colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government, or with the combined authorities and shadow mayors, how the direction of travel of those devolved footprints might be impacted by or be helpful to the legislation he proposes? If he thinks there is an opportunity for innovation across local authority boundaries within the combined authority, who is accountable? Accountability in relation to devolution is very uncertain. It is not at all clear that there are good transparency and scrutiny arrangements across the Greater Manchester governance structures being introduced.

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I do not want to get too bogged down in detail. The Minister may need time to answer this, but I am curious: if the circumstances he just described led to a court case over a care outcome, with one local authority arguing that it had never supported the exemption and the other having argued for it, how does he think that might affect the outcome of the judgment?

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I am afraid I have no idea. The Minister might be able to offer his reflections on that—if not immediately, perhaps he could come back to the Committee in due course.

As well as social care, the other area where there is real interest in Greater Manchester in moving forward with a combined authority footprint is the justice system—both the criminal and family justice system. I declare an interest: I am a life member of the Magistrates Association, which has raised particular concerns and submitted written evidence to the Committee. I am very unclear what the intentions are in Greater Manchester in terms of reshaping the justice system on that combined conurbation footprint.

The Magistrates Association has rightly pointed to the useful work of Lord Laming, which highlighted the need for a much more integrated approach to young people in the youth justice system. There are concerns that such integration could be impacted if the proposed pilots do not specifically engage with the justice agencies with which those young children might come into contact. It is unclear what impact the proposals will have on the family courts and on young people in the criminal justice system.

This is my final question to the Minister. In Greater Manchester and more generally, how does he see relationships between local authorities making suggestions for innovation sitting alongside the relationships that need to exist with a whole range of other non-local authority services with which children and families come into contact? It is not clear to me what happens if a local authority says that it wants to innovate in a particular way and take advantage of exemptions from current statutory positions if other public authorities say that that really is not acceptable to them or may conflict with their statutory obligations. Will the Minister explain to the Committee how such potential conflicts would be handled?

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I am grateful for hon. Members’ contributions to this important debate, which have, understandably, provoked a lot of discussion on the attempt in these clauses to enable local authorities to try new ways of working with the sole purpose of improving children’s outcomes. We have had an opportunity to explore not only some of the detail around the process, which is a crucial part of this House’s scrutiny, but what we are seeking to achieve, and for me, that is ultimately the main driver behind these clauses.

I should say at the outset that the principle behind this approach is not necessarily new. I spoke earlier about the social work practices under the last Labour Government, and of course there are also the provisions that were brought in in 2002 by the last Labour Government to allow for innovation in education. In many ways, the proposals before us are closely modelled on those provisions. It is helpful to have that context when discussing how we try to do in children’s services what the last Labour Government tried to do in education.

I will do my best to address the many points made by hon. Members, and apologise in advance if I am unable to remember all of them, or to scribble quickly enough to ensure that I answer every question, but I will do my best. I want to start by talking about the question around the Secretary of State’s intervention in this process. I assure the House that it is absolutely not the Government’s intention to direct a local authority to use the power against its wishes. It is really crucial that the House understands that this is a grassroots power, designed for those working most closely for children; it is for them to decide how to use it. This is not a top-down policy. It is a bottom-up policy that enables local authorities, under their own steam, to come forward with their own ways of trying to improve outcomes for local children, which will then be closely scrutinised, as has already been set out. The Secretary of State’s powers of direction arise where a local authority is not discharging any of its children’s social care functions to an adequate standard. That is where it would apply.

Hon. Members have asked why we have chosen to exclude specific duties. I want to be clear that by excluding certain duties from the scope of the power, we are not signalling the wholesale disapplication of other duties that apply. The chief determinant of whether a pilot will be granted is whether it can promote one of the outcomes that I have outlined.

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I think I must have misheard the Minister there. Did he say that it would apply where a local authority is not adequately discharging its duties?

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What I said was that the Secretary of State only uses her powers of direction when they arise where a local authority is not discharging any of its children’s social care functions to an adequate standard. I apologise if I did not speak with enough eloquence, or provided one less word than necessary in that sentence to make it acceptable to the hon. Gentleman.

There are many aspects of legislation where I expect local authorities would find it extremely difficult to demonstrate how a change would be in the best interests of children. We are seeking to remove a small number of specific duties because they reflect the core responsibilities of local authorities to protect the wellbeing of children. We have taken extensive legal advice on exactly what those core duties would be, based on the legislative framework, and we have also worked with local authorities to make sure that we have the right aspects and duties in place to ensure that they are out of scope. We aim to put that beyond doubt, so that these core duties cannot be revisited. [Interruption.] I can see that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak is itching to get up.

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indicated dissent.

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No, he is just listening intently. That is good to see. I should also reassure the hon. Member for South Shields that the principles that are set out—

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 ] (Sixth 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 10 January 2017

(Afternoon)

[Phil Wilson in the Chair]

Children and Social Work Bill [Lords]

New Clause 2

Power to test different ways of working

‘(1) The purpose of this section is to enable a local authority in England to test different ways of working under children’s social care legislation with a view to—

(a) promoting the physical and mental health and well-being of children, young people or their families,

(b) encouraging children or young people to express their views, wishes and feelings,

(c) taking into account the views, wishes and feelings of children or young people,

(d) helping children, young people or their families gain access to, or make the best use of, services provided by the local authority or its relevant partners (within the meaning given by section 10(4) of the Children Act 1989),

(e) promoting high aspirations for children or young people,

(f) promoting stability in the home lives, relationships, education or work of children or young people, or

(g) preparing children or young people for adulthood and independent living.

(2) The Secretary of State may by regulations, for that purpose—

(a) exempt a local authority in England from a requirement imposed by children’s social care legislation;

(b) modify the way in which a requirement imposed by children’s social care legislation applies in relation to a local authority in England.

(3) Regulations under this section may not be used so as to remove any prohibition on a local authority in England arranging for functions to be carried out by a body whose activities are carried on for profit.

(4) Regulations under this section may not be used to exempt a local authority in England from, or modify, its duties under—

(a) section 17 of the Children Act 1989 and Part 1 of Schedule 2 to that Act (duty to provide appropriate services to children in need);

(b) section 20 of that Act (provision of accommodation for children who appear to require it for certain reasons);

(c) section 22 of that Act (duty to safeguard and promote welfare of looked after children etc);

(d) section 47 of that Act (duty to make enquiries and take action to safeguard or promote welfare of children at risk);

(e) section 10 of the Children Act 2004 (duty to make arrangements for promoting co-operation to improve well-being of children);

(f) section 11 of that Act (duty to make arrangements to ensure that regard is had to the need to safeguard and promote the welfare of children).

(5) The Secretary of State may make regulations under this section relating to a local authority in England only on an application by that authority.

(6) Subsection (5) does not apply to regulations under this section that only revoke earlier regulations under this section.

(7) Regulations under this section may be made in relation to one or more local authorities in England.

(8) Regulations under this section may include consequential modifications of children’s social care legislation.’—(Edward Timpson.)

This new clause would give the Secretary of State a power to enable local authorities in England to test different ways of working under children’s social care legislation for one of the purposes mentioned in subsection (1). Subsections (3) and (4) include safeguards on the use of the power. The power may only be exercised on an application by a local authority. See also the following, which are related: NC3, NC4, NC5, NC6, NC7, NC8 and NC9.

Brought up, read the First time, and Question proposed (this day), That the clause be read a Second time.

Question again proposed.

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I remind the Committee that with this we are discussing the following: Government new clause 3 —Duration.

Government new clause 4—Parliamentary procedure.

Government new clause 5—Consultation by local authority.

Government new clause 6—Consultation by Secretary of State.

Government new clause 7—Guidance.

Government new clause 8—Annual report.

Government new clause 9—Interpretation.

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It is a pleasure to have you in the Chair this afternoon, Mr Wilson. I am sure that Committee members have been spending their lunchtimes thinking carefully about what we spoke about this morning, and wondering what more I would say this afternoon. To ensure that we make good progress, I will address the specific points made before our break.

If I understood the hon. Member for South Shields correctly, she was questioning, as part of her response, whether the principles set out in the new clause were binding. I reassure her that any use of the power may be only for the purposes set out in the new clause, and for no other reason. That will also be clear in the statutory guidance. She also raised the issue of the Human Rights Act 1998; as with all legislation, new regulations would need to be compatible with the Act. The House also scrutinises all legislation.

Other hon. Members asked about situations in which a pilot was successful—as they will be in every case, we hope—or not successful. I will take a few moments to explain those two situations. All successful pilots will be evaluated so that we understand the impact and whether there is a case for permanent changes to the legislative framework. Such evaluation will be ongoing through the process, with a full review after three years.

If seeking to extend an exemption for a further three-year term, the Government would be required to report to Parliament. That would happen where the pilot has clearly demonstrated benefits, but the Government need additional time to decide whether it would work across the country. If, following a successful pilot, the Government decide that they would like to make the change for all local authorities, all the usual process would apply, including consultation and full parliamentary scrutiny. The pilot, however, is only the first step towards helping us build the evidence base on which we may want to make further changes in future.

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Will the Minister clarify whether the evaluation would be independent? A concern expressed this morning by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak was that local authorities might be evaluating their own pilots—marking their own homework.

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Part of the evaluation is through the expert panel, which is involved in ensuring some independent oversight of the pilot, but it would need to be evaluated locally, as well as nationally. In addition to local government, the Department will keep a close eye on the development of the pilot; I will say a little more about that later.

If a pilot is not successful, it will be monitored locally, as well as nationally by the Department, to ensure that there are no adverse impacts on children. For example, we can track the relevant performance metrics, and random case audits are a helpful tool as well. As I mentioned in answer to the question from the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston, the expert panel will scrutinise the proposed monitoring arrangements locally and by the Department to ensure that they are robust in what they are evaluating. If the Department gains intelligence through those processes that a pilot is not working in the best interests of children, that would be investigated and acted on immediately.

All regulations can be revoked through the negative procedure at any point. To answer a question posed earlier about whether a pilot can be terminated within the three-year period, I should say that it can be revoked at any point, should that be deemed necessary. That is clear in regulation. We will also want assurance in the application from a local authority that it will end a pilot immediately if there is evidence of an adverse impact on children.

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I am not sure whether the Minister will include this in his comments, but is not putting in the provision that a pilot can be revoked at any point if it is causing harm to children a backward way of doing things? Will he not accept the comments made by me and my hon. Friends that there should be robust consultation? The Bill should be built on the evidence now—not after the fact, to remedy mistakes once they have been made.

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I understand what the hon. Lady says and take it in good spirit, but it misses the point of what these clauses are about: building an evidence base. We cannot future-proof all of children’s social care on the basis that we are already seeing failure—I will come to the geographical spread of success and failure across the country—irrespective of the fact that we have a very rigid and complex legislative framework within which all these local authorities have to work. In itself, that framework is providing the inconsistencies that it is meant to prevent. What we are trying to do in the Bill, in a careful and controlled way, is enable different ways of working that are not about what local authorities have to do but about how they do it. That is the purpose of the new clauses.

Hon. Members also asked what would happen if there was a situation where more than one local authority was in a pilot. New clause 9 makes provision for combined authorities to apply for use of the power set out in it. The hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston asked in particular about the Greater Manchester combined authority, which I think involves 10 local authorities that are currently working on their own devolution settlement. Of course, that may involve children’s services, because I understand that such services are part of their agenda. Where there is a combined authority, we will want to see any application made under these provisions, just as we would for any individual local authority.

Similarly, if a local authority was running a pilot and subsequently became a combined authority, it would need to reapply for any change or extension of the pilot. We will make sure that that is set out in statutory guidance, because that would clearly be a change in circumstances in respect of what would have been approved originally by Parliament. As a consequence, the authority would need to seek further approval.

The hon. Member for South Shields also returned to the issue of profit making. As I have said before and will say again now, the power to innovate has absolutely nothing to do with profit making in children’s social care. The clauses make it clear that it cannot be used to revisit the established position on profit, and we have also been clear that pilots are granted on the basis of achieving better outcomes for children and not on efficiencies. I do not see any evidence that this process could be linked to profit making and we will make it clear in statutory guidance that the local authority will be expected to use the financial impact assessment as part of its application, detailing the expected costs and benefits of a pilot. That information will also be available to the expert panel when it scrutinises applications.

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I have a point that I want to clarify quickly. The Minister said that new clause 9 refers to the situation of a combined authority, as established under section 103 of the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act 2009. Would it be possible for local authorities that do not fall within that state of affairs to come together? We have examples in London of local authorities that are already working jointly. Is there provision in what he is proposing for that kind of combination to exist? Also, regarding a specific combined authority, would it be possible for a Mayor to override his view about what provisions should apply?

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The answer to the hon. Gentleman’s first point is yes, but of course the authority still has to comply with all the elements put in the applications and the process that follows in respect of the scrutiny of the application, and whether it is approved. There need to be very clear lines of responsibility and accountability within that, because ultimately it is the local authority that is responsible for providing those services; it holds that function.

As for the hon. Gentleman’s question about the Mayor, it is not one that I have been asked directly before; I know that it is becoming more relevant in some parts of the country. My initial view—I will clarify it later; if he does not mind, I will take some time to do that—would be that this is something approved by Parliament, which cannot be superseded by a Mayor or their powers. However, I will certainly seek to ensure that the hon. Gentleman gets chapter and verse on that point.

I also wish to consider the issue around consultation, which hon. Members have raised. The Department has had a period of very open consultation about the power and it has spoken with a wide range of organisations, including representative bodies of social work, local government, the voluntary sector, children’s organisations and others. Those meetings have been instrumental—indeed, critical—in forming our thinking on the new clauses, but we will of course continue to consult as we develop the detail of the process. We have committed to consult publicly on the statutory guidance to accompany the clauses and, as I have said before, there will also be consultation on each individual use of the power.

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Does the Minister not accept the information I shared with the Committee earlier: that there are far more organisations, practitioners and experts who are against the new clauses than are for them? More than 100,000 people have signed a petition against the measures. If the Minister really wanted to listen to the sector and the public, would he not be going back and deeply re-thinking the new clauses? Even the NSPCC has said:

“Despite numerous conversations with ministers and officials, the evidence for the need for this power remains unconvincing and does not justify the potential risks of suspending primary legislation.”

More than 50 organisations in this country who are experts in the field share that view. Why is the Minister not listening to them?

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Of course I respect all the views expressed about the Government’s view on any policy. I am not somebody who will not listen; in fact, I dare suggest that I have a good track record of listening to those who have views on matters that fall within my portfolio. The truth is that no legislation under her party’s Government or this one has ever passed where people have expressed only one side of the argument. Can the hon. Lady tell me any different?

It is my job to listen to both sides of the argument but to come to a considered and informed view as a decision-maker in a position of responsibility to make legislation. I have already alluded to the many representations I have had that I cannot ignore, from the likes of the Local Government Association and the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service. I also mention the support from the Children’s Commissioner for the new clause, which I did not mention before. There is a balance to be struck. I accept that this is not an uncontroversial piece of legislation. It has provoked strong views, but is one on which, on balance, I think we have come to the right conclusion.

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Unless I am misreading new clause 2 and onwards, it would provide a power to enable local authorities to explore an innovative way of working: there is no compulsion. If they decide not to do that—if they do not want to do innovative, blue-sky work or whatever we wish to call it—there is no obligation for them so to do. It is an enabling power; it is not an enforcing power.

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My hon. Friend is right: the whole purpose is to ensure that this is a grassroots movement from a local level. There is no direction from Government about how local authorities decide they would like to provide the services they are responsible for. If no local authority applies, that is the end of the matter. The reason we are debating the clause is that local authorities have come forward and said that they want to be able to do that. It is important that we listen to those who are on the frontline, charged with making decisions and bringing policy into action, when they come to Government with a very clear view about what they think needs to be done.

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I take the Minister’s point about consultation; there are always two sides to the argument, but the balance is heavily weighted against him on this measure. Other colleagues may correct me if I am wrong, but I have always held the belief that there is a history in this House of making child protection legislation—legislation that protects our most vulnerable children—on more of a cross-party consensus, as was the case with Children Act 1989, which is the flank of legislation used by all practitioners and all agencies when discharging functions in relation to protecting children.

The Minister said that local authorities are coming forward. I do not want to embarrass anyone, but when I asked one local authority that he had cited before as coming forward what power it wanted to be exempt from, it could not say. Is it not the case that there is just not enough support out there for these measures at all? The new clauses should be scrapped.

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No. I fundamentally disagree with the hon. Lady. To answer the earlier question from the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak, the likes of Leeds City Council—one of our flagship children’s services councils—North Yorkshire, Lincolnshire County Council and the tri-borough, are all local authorities that have a strong track record in delivering high quality children’s social care. They understand the huge benefit that innovation in their services can make and has brought and they are at the front of the queue among those who want to trial many of these new ways of working. The tri-borough has said that it is

“excited about the ‘power to innovate’ clauses within the Children and Social Work bill. We believe this builds on the Munro Review of Child Protection in helping us to reduce unnecessary bureaucracy and to enable social workers on the front line to spend more time working with families and less time sitting in front of their computers and filling in forms.”

North Yorkshire says that it

“welcomes the opportunity…On behalf of the wider LA sector we are keen to safely explore whether there are freedoms from current national requirements which could be used to enhance local practice.”

I am not prepared to ignore the views of those who I know are at the front of children’s social work, delivering excellent services, who are still looking to improve and can help others to do likewise.

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The Minister is being generous. I am also grateful for the information he has provided about the authorities looking for the opportunity to innovate. Can he tell us what kind of exemptions they are seeking? What are the powers that they feel are currently restricting their innovating practice and which they are seeking to be freed from?

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I am sure that the hon. Gentleman took the time to read the letter that I sent round to all Committee members, which set out a number of examples of how local authorities think the power can be used. There is no presumption that those would be granted, of course: any application would need to go through robust scrutiny before it was agreed, as I have set out.

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Will the Minister give way?

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I am just answering the question from the hon. Gentleman, if the hon. Lady could be patient for a few moments. If the hon. Gentleman rereads the letter, he will remember that it talks about testing changes to the planning processes, trialling new approaches to the independent reviewing officer, more agile approaches to adoption and fostering assessments, and looking at different approaches to assessing friends and family carers.

Of course, the whole point of the new clauses is that it is not me telling local authorities, “This is what you must do”; it is for them, over time, to come up with their own ideas about how they think they can improve their services. It is not what they have to do, but how they do it. If that is a concept that some struggle with—not necessarily the hon. Gentleman, but perhaps some in his party—I am afraid we are never going to have a meeting of minds; we are not going to find the consensus that, I agree, we are able to reach in the majority of cases on child protection.

There is a fundamental disagreement about what we are trying to achieve and the way we go about it. I am absolutely sure that the approach we are taking will do what local authorities want and what Eileen Munro set out in her report almost six years ago.

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Will the Minister give way?

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I will now give way.

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The Minister is being extremely generous. I read his letter in depth and the fact sheet that went with it. As I said in my opening comments, there are four examples that would get rid of vast swathes of legislation that protects children. Evidence from CoramBAAF to this Committee debunks every one of those four examples and highlights the extremely dangerous pitfalls there would be if that were to take place.

The Minister keeps quoting Eileen Munro, as if in her review in 2011 she recommended dispensing with primary legislation. She never did. That is what the Minister is trying to do, but Eileen Munro never recommended that.

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I am sorry that the hon. Lady takes that view, because I was under the impression that the review into child protection carried out by Professor Eileen Munro in 2011 was widely welcomed and respected across the political spectrum. That is exactly what is reflected in the many Hansard reports I have read from across the House, in which hon. Members all lauded a report that finally got down to the nuts and bolts of why we need to have a system that, as the tri-borough rightly expressed in relation to this clause, gets social workers out working directly with families and away from being in front of a computer at their desks.

The reason why I keep quoting Eileen Munro is that she was the person charged by Government to provide an independent review, which has been considered, scrutinised and generally approved by this House as the way to go. I am often held to account for how many of Eileen Munro’s recommendations we have implemented, so I place credence in what she has to say about what we are trying to do, because she has already considered it and come up with a solution for Government, in her independent capacity. She says:

“I welcome the introduction of the power to innovate set out in the Children and Social Work Bill. This is a critical part of the journey set out in my Independent Review of Child Protection towards a child welfare system that reflects the complexity and diversity of children’s needs.”

I cannot ignore that, because it demonstrates that her report is still relevant in many ways. I would like to know whether the hon. Member for South Shields agrees with the Munro report. If she does, but disagrees with what Eileen Munro is saying now, what has changed? What is different? I cannot see where the logic would take us.

That is why it is important to allow local authorities such as Hampshire, North Yorkshire, the tri-borough and others—such as Richmond and Kingston with their “Achieving for Children” in Richmond—to try out new ways of working. They might not know, at the moment, exactly what those will be, but they need the opportunity to try them in a controlled, safe way. The Bill provides that without removing swathes of legislation. It enables them to trial or pilot a new way of working, exactly as was done with social work practices under the last Labour Government. Then a decision can be made about whether to go forward with it.

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The Minister seems to be painting the picture that I disagreed with Eileen Munro’s recommendations. I certainly did not. In fact, I strongly supported recommendation 10 that councils should have a legal duty to provide enough early intervention services, which this Government rejected. He listened to my opening comments. He knows why I disagree with the new clauses, and he knows why thousands of people outside this House do as well.

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I am not sure what question the hon. Lady wants me to answer on the back of that, but I can reassure her that Eileen Munro said in her conclusion:

“A move from a compliance to a learning culture will require those working in child protection to be given more scope to exercise professional judgment in deciding how best to help children and their families.”

I still do not understand what there is in our clauses, according to the hon. Lady, that contradicts that approach.

There are a number of other issues that I want to cover before I conclude, because it is important that every question asked by an hon. Member receives a response. One question was about which of the measures would be within the scope in the Bill. IROs in particular have been mentioned as an example; it is only an example. There has been some debate about the possibility of relaxing IRO support. The local authorities interested in that approach are talking not about getting rid of the role in its entirety but about using it more flexibly; it is an important distinction to make.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak asked where improving outcomes is now in relation to the Bill. We have expanded the requirements that we set out in relation to new clause 2, replacing them with a more detailed set of requirements to ensure that the outcomes that we are seeking for the relevant children, whom I listed earlier, are much more clearly defined. We have also extended the consultation requirements on local authorities to go beyond safeguarding partners to include other relevant persons, particularly in relation to children and young people. The hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston mentioned schools, which are important and which we must ensure are part of the consultation where relevant.

Depending on the impact that the use of a power will have, it might be appropriate for local authorities to consult publicly, as they would in other circumstances. If the Secretary of State were dissatisfied with the extent of consultation, she could ask local authorities to widen it before agreeing to grant an application.

I risk of falling out a little further with the hon. Member for South Shields. She unhelpfully raised the link between funding and local Government support for these new clauses. I can categorically say there is no link between them and funding received by any local authority. The chief social worker was simply urging the profession to take this opportunity. I am sorry that the hon. Lady chose to try and suggest, or at least insinuate, otherwise and I hope she will disassociate herself from those comments.

In closing, I want to reiterate two points that must not be overlooked. First, this power is about grass-roots innovation. It is all about believing in and trusting professionals to test new approaches, and it is hard. The purpose of the power is to improve the services we deliver for children. If we look at who is calling for this power, it is not private companies or failing children’s services seeking to cut costs, but some of our country’s most inspirational leaders and innovative charities. To characterise this as something that is intended to take away support from children or even enable privatisation is to misrepresent our ambition and undermine the integrity and professionalism of staff who work with children on the frontline.

The new clauses being debated by the Committee today are significantly different from those debated in the other place, and I hope the Committee recognises that the Government have listened and taken substantial steps to put safeguards in place around the power. I remain ready at any time to discuss these new clauses further, but in the end, they are a genuine attempt to help local authorities test different approaches and better ways of working in the interests of children. I urge the Committee to support them.

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I want to make some brief concluding comments.

If Government Members want to vote for this, they should be able to articulate with total conviction and clarity which primary legislation—out of the lists provided by concerned organisations and individuals under threat— they are and are not comfortable with a local authority, even their own, opting out of. They must be able to articulate why they are happy to give local authorities the opportunity of opting out of supporting disabled children in their area or visiting vulnerable children in their area and why they are satisfied to do so against a groundswell of objection outside and inside the House, even among Government Members. What culpability are they prepared to accept when children in their area have been harmed as a result and claim redress from the state?

The Minister asked for support, but he has not articulated a case, built on strong evidence and stakeholder engagement, for why these clauses are needed. He has not offered any comfort or explanation to people who are seriously concerned about the threat that these clauses pose to vast swathes of legal protection, on which the most vulnerable children and young people rely. I have not been reassured that the endgame is not the marketisation of social work.

These clauses have been the main thrust of the Bill from the outset. They epitomise this ideologically driven Government at their very worst and set a precedent, as Liberty, CoramBAAF and others have said in their evidence, for changing the fundamental rules on how our country’s laws are made and how we are governed, which MPs on all sides of the House have always adhered to. I am deeply disappointed that this Minister, of all people, is going along with this. We on this side will never, ever go along with it.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time.

Division 11

10 January 2017

The Committee divided:

Ayes: 10
Noes: 5

Question accordingly agreed to.

View Details

New clause 2 read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

New Clause 3

duration

‘(1) Regulations under section (Power to test different ways of working) must specify a period at the end of which they lapse.

(2) The period must not be longer than 3 years beginning with the day on which the regulations come into force.

(3) But the Secretary of State may by further regulations under section (Power to test different ways of working) amend the specified period to extend it by up to 3 years.

(4) The specified period may be extended on one occasion only.

(5) Before extending the specified period the Secretary of State must lay a report before Parliament about the extent to which the regulations have achieved the purpose mentioned in section (Power to test different ways of working)(1).

(6) The Secretary of State may by regulations make transitional provision in connection with the lapsing of regulations under section (Power to test different ways of working).’—(Edward Timpson.)

This would ensure that exemptions or modifications under the power to test different ways of working in NC2 are of a temporary nature. The regulations may be made for up to 3 years and may be renewed for one further period of up to 3 years.

Brought up, and read the First time.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time.

Division 12

10 January 2017

The Committee divided:

Ayes: 10
Noes: 5

Question accordingly agreed to.

View Details

New clause 3 read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

New Clause 4

Parliamentary procedure

‘(1) Regulations under section (Power to test different ways of working) are subject to the negative resolution procedure if they only—

(a) relate to requirements imposed by subordinate legislation that was not subject to affirmative resolution procedure, or

(b) revoke earlier regulations under that section.

(2) Any other regulations under section (Power to test different ways of working) are subject to the affirmative resolution procedure.

(3) At the same time as laying a draft of a statutory instrument containing regulations under section (Power to test different ways of working) before Parliament, the Secretary of State must lay before Parliament a report—

(a) explaining how the purpose mentioned in subsection (1) of that section is expected to be achieved, and

(b) confirming that the regulations are not expected to have a detrimental effect on the welfare of any child and explaining any measures that have been put in place to ensure that is the case.

(4) If regulations under section (Power to test different ways of working) are subject to the affirmative resolution procedure and would, but for this subsection, be treated for the purposes of the standing orders of either House of Parliament as a hybrid instrument, they are to proceed in that House as if they were not a hybrid instrument.

(5) For the purposes of subsection (1)(a) subordinate legislation “was not subject to affirmative resolution procedure” if it was not subject to any requirement for a draft to be laid before, and approved by a resolution of, each House of Parliament.’—(Edward Timpson.)

This new clause would set out of the procedure for making regulations about testing different ways of working under NC2. Most regulations are subject to affirmative resolution procedure, with the two exceptions mentioned in subsection (1)(a) and (b) of the clause. The Secretary of State is also required to lay a report before Parliament dealing with the matters mentioned in subsection (3).

Brought up, and read the First time.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time.

Division 13

10 January 2017

The Committee divided:

Ayes: 10
Noes: 5

Question accordingly agreed to.

View Details

New clause 4 read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

New Clause 5

Consultation by local authority

‘(1) Before making an application for the Secretary of State to make regulations under section (Power to test different ways of working) a local authority in England must—

(a) consult such of the other safeguarding partners and relevant agencies in relation to its area as it considers appropriate, and

(b) any other person that the local authority considers appropriate.

(2) In deciding who to consult under subsection (1)(b) a local authority in England must, in particular, consider consulting any children or young people who might be affected by the regulations.’—(Edward Timpson.)

This would impose a consultation requirement on local authorities before making an application under NC2.

Brought up, read the First and Second time, and added to the Bill.

New Clause 6

Consultation by Secretary of State

‘(1) Where a local authority in England make an application for the Secretary of State to make regulations under section (Power to test different ways of working) the Secretary of State must invite an expert panel to give advice about—

(a) the capability of the authority to achieve the purpose mentioned in subsection (1) of that section if the regulations are made,

(b) the likely impact of the regulations on children and young people, and

(c) the adequacy of any measures that will be in place to monitor the impact of the regulations on children and young people.

(2) The expert panel is to consist of—

(a) the Children’s Commissioner,

(b) Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Education, Children’s Services and Skills, and

(c) one or more other persons appointed by the Secretary of State to consider the application.

(3) The Secretary of State may appoint a person under subsection (2)(c) to consider an application only if the Secretary of State thinks that the person has expertise relevant to the subject matter of the application.

(4) Having invited the expert panel to advise, the Secretary of State must wait at least 6 weeks before making regulations under section (Power to test different ways of working) in response to the application.

(5) Before making regulations under section (Power to test different ways of working) in response to the application, the Secretary of State must also publish any written advice given during that 6 week period by the expert panel.’—(Edward Timpson.)

This would impose consultation requirements on the Secretary of State before making regulations under NC2.

Brought up, read the First and Second time, and added to the Bill.

New Clause 7

Guidance

‘(1) The Secretary of State must give local authorities in England guidance about—

(a) factors that a local authority in England should take into account in deciding whether to make an application under (Power to test different ways of working),

(b) the form and content of applications under (Power to test different ways of working) and the process for making them,

(c) consultation under section (Consultation by local authorities),

(d) monitoring and evaluating the effect of the regulations under section (Power to test different ways of working), and

(e) the exercise of functions under, or in connection with, children’s social care legislation as modified by regulations under section (Power to test different ways of working).

(2) Before giving guidance under this section the Secretary of State must—

(a) consult such persons as the Secretary of State considers appropriate, and

(b) publish a summary of the consultation responses.’—(Edward Timpson.)

This would require the Secretary of State to give local authorities guidance on certain matters to do with NC2 and NC5.

Brought up, read the First and Second time, and added to the Bill.

New Clause 8

Annual report

‘If the Secretary of State makes regulations under (Power to test different ways of working) the Secretary of State must, in respect of each year in which they remain in force, publish a report about the extent to which the regulations have achieved the purpose mentioned in section (Power to test different ways of working)(1).’ —(Edward Timpson.)

This would require the Secretary of State to publish an annual report on any regulations under NC2.

Brought up, read the First and Second time, and added to the Bill.

New Clause 9

Interpretation

‘In sections (Power to test different ways of working), (Duration), (Parliamentary procedure), (Consultation by local authority), (Consultation by Secretary of State), (Guidance), (Annual report) and this section—

“child” means a person under the age of 18 (and “children” means people under the age of 18);

“children’s social care legislation” means—

(a) any legislation specified in Schedule 1 to the Local Authority Social Services Act 1970 so far as relating to those under the age of 18;

(b) sections 23C to 24D of the Children Act 1989, so far as not within paragraph (a);

(c) the Children Act 2004, so far as not within paragraph (a);

(d) any subordinate legislation under the legislation mentioned in paragraphs (a) to (c);

“local authority in England” means—

(a) a county council in England;

(b) a district council;

(c) a London Borough council;

(d) the Common Council of the City of London (in their capacity as a local authority);

(e) the Council of the Isles of Scilly;

(f) a combined authority established under section 103 of the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act 2009;

“relevant agency”, in relation to a local authority area, has the meaning given by section 16E(3) of the Children Act 2004;

“safeguarding partner”, in relation to a local authority area, has the meaning given by section 16E(3) of the Children Act 2004;

“subordinate legislation” has the same meaning as in the Interpretation Act 1978;

“young people” means people, other than children, under the age of 25.’—(Edward Timpson.)

This defines terms used in NC2, NC3, NC4, NC5, NC6, NC7, NC8 and this clause.

Brought up, read the First and Second time, and added to the Bill.

New Clause 10

Improvement standards

‘(1) The Secretary of State may—

(a) determine and publish improvement standards for social workers in England;

(b) carry out assessments of whether people meet improvement standards under paragraph (a).

(2) The Secretary of State may make arrangements for another person to do any or all of those things (and may make payments to that person).

(3) The Secretary of State must consult such persons as the Secretary of State considers appropriate before determining a standard under subsection (1)(a).

(4) In this section “improvement standard” means a professional standard the attainment of which demonstrates particular expertise or specialisation.

(5) Nothing in this section limits anything in section 38.’—(Edward Timpson.)

This new clause allows the Secretary of State to determine and publish improvement standards for social workers or arrange for someone else to do so. There is also a power to carry out assessments. The clause does not limit the regulator’s functions under clause 38.

Brought up, and read the First time.

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I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

This new clause supports our aim of establishing a new career pathway for social workers that recognises specialist, post-qualification expertise in child and family social work and will reinforce our focus on the quality of practice. It makes provision for the Secretary of State to determine and publish improvement standards for social workers in England, or to arrange for someone else to do so on her behalf. An improvement standard is a post-qualification professional standard which, if attained, demonstrates a particular expertise or specialisation. The Secretary of State will be required to consult before determining any improvement standards.

I would like to make it clear that these standards are distinct from the proficiency standards which the regulator, Social Work England, will set and which must be met by all social workers in order to register. The new clause is vital to enable the introduction of the national assessment and accreditation system which is a fundamental part of our national reform programme that seeks to ensure that all children and families get the support and protection they need.

We are all aware that child and family social workers do an incredibly important job under very trying circumstances, and we all thank them for it. They deal with complex and fraught situations that require great depth of skill, knowledge, understanding and empathy. To clearly set out what characterises effective work with children at their most vulnerable, the chief social worker for children and families, Isabelle Trowler, has published three statements on the knowledge and skills needed to operate at three levels of practice for child and family social workers. That includes frontline practice, supervisory roles and practice leaders. One of the Department’s priorities is supporting the workforce in consistently meeting these aspirations.

The knowledge and skills statements will form the basis of a national assessment and accreditation system for child and family social work, or NAAS. Child and family social workers will be accredited against these standards in order to recognise consistently the specialist knowledge and skills that child and family social workers, supervisors and leaders need in order to practise effectively. NAAS will provide, for the first time, a consistent way of recognising the specialist knowledge and skills needed by child and family social workers, supervisors and leaders to practise effectively. It will recognise progression through the child and family specialism, making clear what good practice looks like and what path a career in social work could take. Supporting social workers to improve their practice is vital when it comes to supporting the profession, and thus the children and families they work with.

We have carried out extensive work with the profession to establish what form assessment will take, and we have launched an open consultation to support our thinking on how the new system is to be rolled out. While there are no current plans for a NAAS for adult social work, this measure would enable the Secretary of State to determine and publish a similar set of improvement standards in relation to adult social workers in England. There is already a degree of specialisation in this area through the roles of approved mental health practitioner and best interest assessor. We intend to look closely at whether taking further steps in this direction for adult social work is desirable.

I trust that the Committee will support this important work to build the professional and public status of children and family social work and support the profession so that it can focus ever more closely on practice that delivers for vulnerable children. [Interruption.] I cannot conclude without hearing from the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak.

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As I have said before, the Minister is extremely generous. I wanted to ask him about people who have acquired higher-level awards and qualifications as part of previous accreditation exercises. He will be familiar with the old CCETSW post-qualification award in children services. I think I am right in saying that the NSPCC ran a similar award at one stage. There are therefore practitioners who have a previous higher-level qualification award. Is it the Minister’s intention that their awards will be accredited or in some way fitted into the new framework or will those people now be expected to acquire an additional higher-level qualification?

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This is a new form of accreditation and assessment. Over time, all practitioners who want to work in the field will need to be accredited against the new standards set out in the knowledge and skills statement. The difference now is that there are three different tiers. One of the things that has led to our bringing in this proposal is the strong feeling that there has not been a clear career pathway for children’s social workers. When they become experienced they may even become Members of Parliament or they end up in management, away from the frontline but still using their great expertise and knowledge about how to deliver good social work. They have an opportunity to supervise practitioners or to become a practice leader.

Those who are already accredited and have shown that they have relevant experience will be well placed to meet the new accreditation standards that are being set for supervisory and practice leader role. We hope that over time that will enable more of those very high-quality, well-versed and experienced social workers to remain active in social work, rather than our losing that precious commodity as they move into corporate roles within their organisation. I hope that explanation finds favour with the hon. Gentleman and that hon. Members will support the new clause.

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I have a few brief comments and questions for the Minister. I am a little concerned that we are seeing an attempt to put back into the Bill powers for the Secretary of State to determine professional standards and assess whether social worker practitioners meet them or not. It is right that Ministers should want to take action to improve standards, but will the Minister explain what those standards will be as they will be subject to secondary legislation and therefore not to intense parliamentary scrutiny? It is only right that the Committee is clear about the intention of the new clause and understands why the Secretary of State feels the need to determine professional social worker standards. It is also a little concerning that after the success in the Lords of the noble Lord Hunt as regards an arm’s length social worker regulatory body, new clause 10(1)(b) is now proposed. Will the Minister explain the rationale for the new clause and give assurances that there will not be Government interference, influence or Government-funded assessment activities of social workers against improvement standards?

The new clause attempts to reassert the role of the Secretary of State in setting standards and developing assessment benchmarks post-qualification. Could that not result in confusion and conflict with the role and functions of the proposed social worker regulatory body, or is the intention that the Secretary of State and persons appointed to assess improvement will be a de facto second regulator? I am sure the Minister agrees that that could have the adverse effect of creating confusion about who is setting and who is assessing standards. It could create more bureaucracy in an already highly complicated arena and would have an adverse effect on recruitment and retention—an area in which, as the Minister knows, the sector is already struggling.

After this morning’s debate, I cannot help thinking that there is an attempt to do something else with the new clause, especially as it has been introduced once again without any consultation or discussion with the social work sector. In answering my questions, can the Minister convince us otherwise?

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I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her reasoned and helpful questions to try to establish what the new clause proposes. I think I have set that out in some detail already, but I will try to address some of the specifics that she has raised.

I have already given a picture of what the consultation has involved to date. It is also worth reminding the Committee that more than 1,000 social workers have volunteered to test out the assessment accreditation process as it is rolled out so that we can be sure that what we have at the other end is fit for purpose. There has been widespread involvement of the social work profession. This is not a new phenomenon. It is being brought in very carefully as regards this important change for those working on the frontline.

The knowledge and skills statements are simply statements and they will not take on any formal status until the Secretary of State has powers to publish standards against which an assessment of skill and knowledge is made. That is not unusual; in other public service professions, such as doctors, nurses and midwives, there is a similar approach.

Social Work England will have a role as the regulator in approving post-qualifying courses, both those relating to the approved mental health professionals, which I mentioned before, and the training of the best interests assessors. In time, the new regulator will also be able take responsibility for the national assessment and accreditation system.

The system will be rolled out in the first instance by the Department for Education. Phase one of the roll-out will be in 2017-18 and phase two in 2019-20. Once the regulator is up and running, there is a clear logic for it to take on that role of approving post-qualifying courses, of which this would be one. That is an important distinction to make and is very much in line with what happens in other parts of the public service.

As I set out in my opening remarks, this system is very different from the clear remit of Social Work England and the regulation of the profession. This is about how to maintain standards post-qualification, how we support social workers as they move through the profession and gain experience, and how we can be confident that they have the requisite knowledge and skills to provide a first-class service for children in their area.

I will continue to discuss these points with the hon. Lady. If there are other specific questions that I have not covered, I will endeavour to do so in writing. This measure has not appeared suddenly overnight; it has been through a long process of development with the profession. It has been welcomed and constructively engaged with by social workers and local authorities, which are very interested in seeing how they can ensure that it improves not only the quality but the status of social work in their areas.

Question put and agreed to.

New clause 10 accordingly read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

New Clause 11

Safeguarding: provision of personal, social and health education

“(1) For the purpose of safeguarding and promoting the welfare of children a local authority in England must ensure that pupils educated in their area receive appropriate personal, social and health education.

(2) For the purposes of subsection (1) “personal, social and health education” must include but shall not be restricted to—

(a) sex and relationships education,

(b) same-sex relationships,

(c) sexual consent,

(d) sexual violence, and

(e) domestic violence.

(3) Targeted inspections carried out by the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted) under section 136 of the Education and Inspections Act 2006 shall include an assessment of the provision of personal, social and health education under subsection (1), including whether the information provided to pupils is—

(a) accurate and balanced,

(b) age-appropriate,

(c) inclusive, or

(d) religiously diverse.

(4) Assessments made under subsection (3) must include an evaluation of any arrangements for pupils of sufficient maturity to request to be wholly or partly excused from participating in personal, social and health education.

(5) For the purpose of subsection (4) “sufficient maturity” shall be defined in guidance by the Secretary of State.

(6) Withdrawal from personal, social and health education by pupils under subsection (4) shall not be considered a breach of the safeguarding duties of a local authority.

(7) This section comes into force at the end of the period of twelve months beginning with the day on which this Act is passed.”—(Stella Creasy.)

Brought up, and read the First time.

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I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

I hope the Committee will bear with me. As can be heard, I am not as well as I should be. I have to admit I probably would not have been here today were I not so passionate about this subject and the importance of providing sex and relationship education as a form of safeguarding for all children. With that in mind, I will probably not speak as loudly and clearly as I might do otherwise. I hope that does not dull the willingness of Government Members to listen to the case for the new clause.

I want to go through a number of elements of the new clause and explain why it would be a worthwhile addition to the Bill. First, this is a safeguarding issue and, as we know, the Bill covers safeguarding. On Second Reading, the Minister agreed that it should be part of the discussion of the Bill. Secondly, introducing this element of safeguarding needs specific legislation as it is clear from the evidence on the provision of relationship education to children that guidance will not cut it. Thirdly, we need to consider the status quo and the response of the public. Our role as politicians is to lead but also to listen. There is overwhelming public support for such an important measure.

Finally, I shall explain why we must see progress now and in this Bill on this issue, which has been debated in this House for as long as I have been a Member of Parliament. In 2010, as Members may recall, the previous Government made the first effort to legislate. We have had these discussions now for six years. Thinking back in time, though, is perhaps the point at which all of us will start with this discussion, perhaps remembering our own sex and relationship education. For me, 2017 is important, because it is the year in which I turn 40—a big statement birthday. Do not all shout at once that that could not possibly be so—[Interruption.] Too late!

This has already been one of those years in which I have had conversations with people that remind me that I am no longer a tender teenager—not least, having a conversation with my staff where they expressed incredulity about the fact that when I was at school we did not have Wikipedia. We did not have the internet—[Interruption.] Government members of the Committee are nodding their heads. The world in which our young people are growing up is very different from the one that we knew.

As a former youth worker I am always reminded of something we taught ourselves, which was, “Everybody has been a 15 year-old but not everybody has been a 15 year-old in the modern world.” When people first reflect on the idea of sex and relationship education, they think of the headlines, the concerns that many of us have about things such as Snapchat, sexting and online pornography—the normalisation of an extremely sexualised culture.

I know that some who have been concerned about these proposals have written to Members to say, “There are groups in our society who are not privy to this online forum and therefore should not be involved in this legislation,” but that makes me think about why this is not to do with the internet or the modern world, but with the timeless challenge that we face in our society of how we ensure that everybody has good, healthy and constructive relationships with other people, and with the importance of sex and relationship education in that, because it is a safeguard. If we are honest, when we look back to our childhood and to some of the things that all of us of my generation—or, indeed, those who are older—know, we are aware that exploitation, danger and risk to children have always been prevalent in our society.

When we think about the scandals that have been uncovered in the last couple of years, about how people used to talk and interact with young people, or about the treatment of young girls in our society, we can see that safeguarding children is not a question of the modern world but a question of a better world. New clause 11 is very much not about the internet; it is about the world we live in today and how we make sure that all our young people are given the right education and the right skills, not simply to identify risk but to prevent risk.

The new clause is also about recognising the range of issues that we need to deal with in our world today. I am extremely proud of a young woman called Hibo Wardere from Walthamstow, who has been a leading campaigner on female genital mutilation, and of the young woman from my community called Arifa Nasim, who set up Educate2Eradicate. They are going around schools in this country talking about issues with “honour-based violence”—I call it that, but there is no honour in it. We know that there are multiple issues within our society that we have to be able to talk to our young people about if we want to keep them safe.

Given how sensitive people are about the concept of sex and relationship education, it is very important to think about it in terms of the risks people might face and the importance of addressing them. It is easy for British people to laugh about sex, and to feel uncomfortable or awkward about it. I remember my first sex education lesson at school, where I fell asleep and was woken up by a teacher waving a female condom at me—nevermore do I think about a plastic bag in that way. However, this is not a comedy issue, because we know that millions of young people in this country are at risk. Some 47,000 sexual offences were recorded against children last year. I say “recorded” deliberately: these are just the ones we know about. Crucially, a third of those were perpetrated by children against children.

We know that 5,000 rapes have been reported in our schools in the past couple of years and that nearly 60% of young women aged 13 to 21 report facing sexual harassment in their school or their college. The place that we want all our children to go to, to be safe, and to be able to learn, grow and expand their minds, has become a place of danger and risk for too many in our society. The truth is that the world is different from the one that we grew up in. There has been a normalisation of extreme sexual imagery because of the accessibility of pornography. I remember people having magazines and books at school that would probably be considered pornographic. Now, it is on a phone or a computer. Only 18% of parents think that their children have accessed pornography; the reality is very different—it is closer to 40%. Indeed, 79% of young men and 62% of young women report it being part and parcel of their everyday life.

At the moment, sex education is mandatory in terms of the biology of sex. In the biology curriculum, we teach young people about reproduction, but we do not teach them about relationships. That is where the risk comes in and where the gap in our safeguarding procedures exists. At the moment, we only have sex and relationship education across our schools in a very patchy way. Some schools are doing amazing work, and we should recognise that, but safeguarding only works if every young child has access to information, training and support.

Ofsted found in 2013 that 40% of schools required improvement or were inadequate in their provision of sex and relationship education. That means millions of children in our schools right now are simply not getting the right sort of information about relationships, consent and sensitive issues such as their relationships with the other sex and with the same sex, domestic violence and abuse, female genital mutilation and forced marriage.

Critically, Ofsted also showed us that young people are crying out for this kind of information and support to keep themselves safe and that they were extremely disappointed in the quality and frequency of lessons. Inevitably, it is part and parcel of their lives to ask these questions. However old we are, we all remember the point when we first become aware of our own feelings of wanting guidance and the right kind of relationships with people.

It is fascinating that study after study shows the value, power and potency of good sex and relationship education to address many of those issues and to keep our young people safe. A study by Bristol University just last year found that while schools find it difficult to acknowledge that our young people might be sexually active, children do not. Young girls reported being harassed in school if they asked questions about sex and relationships, and young boys reported feeling inadequate and anxious if they revealed an ignorance about relationships. We cannot let that stand. Frankly, if we do not step into that void, the internet or the playground will. That is where the risk comes.

For avoidance of doubt, this is not about replacing parents. It is about supporting parents and recognising an environment in which sexual feelings and sexual imagery are so much a part of modern life. Even with the best parenting and the good advice that we know millions of parents across this country try to give their children, if the people who children come into contact with on the street, in the playground or in chatrooms do not have the same set of values and level of support, the risk remains.

Only one in seven children in our schools have had any form of sex and relationship education. That means six other children are missing out and therefore might have negative impressions about what a good, positive and healthy relationship looks like. We know that this is something children themselves have reported, with 46% of children saying they have not learned how to tell when a relationship is healthy. We should think about that for a moment. When children do not know that violence and intimidation should not be part of a close, loving relationship, and when 44% of children have not been taught what an abusive relationship is, that is not an environment in which we can consider our children to be safe.

It is about not only physical violence but intimidation and coercive control. We have now legislated on that for adults, but we have a gap when it comes to young people. Some 43% of children do not know they have a responsibility to seek consent and have a choice about whether to give it. That is startling. The children who have not had that education are crying out for us, as politicians, to get this right, which is what we are trying to do through the new clause.

We should create a safe environment in which children of any age get the right kind of education to make healthy relationships and to know not simply what sexual conduct is, but what it means to give their consent, to be with someone for love, and what an equal and loving relationship looks like. This is not only about having healthy relationships with peers. It is also about a young child recognising when they are at risk. One of the concerns we have and the reason the new clause discusses age-appropriate education is the importance of starting early with children. One of the most shocking cases I dealt with as an MP in my constituency was not one, but two instances of children under the age of 13 engaging in sexual behaviour in local parks, involving children who did not want to be involved—that is the best way I can put it.

Think about that for a moment: children under 13. That means we need to start with children under 10, if not younger, giving them the right words to be able to say no and describe what is happening to them, and what they do and do not like. Yet, again, we are finding in the Ofsted studies that too many children are not being taught the proper words for their own organs and how to talk about what might be happening to them. This becomes a safeguarding issue, because we know that when children are given the right information in an age-appropriate fashion they are much more likely to report abuse or be able to report something happening to them.

It is too risky to us and this Bill’s ethos about keeping children safe not to address this omission. We know we need to address it because of the cases that have come out. Both the Jay report into child sexual exploitation in Rotherham and the Children’s Commissioner inquiry into gangs identified the provision of sex and relationship education as a crucial way to stop harm and said that the lack of information about healthy relationships and consent was a contributing factor in the vulnerability of those involved in the cases.

I know that when we talk about sex and relationship education people are frightened about the headlines they might see in the Daily Mail and other publications of equal value and note to our society. [Interruption.] I have no idea why Conservative Members are laughing. We also know parents want to see this happen: 78% of parents said they wanted to see good sex and relationship education in schools as a way to support them and to bridge the gap, so they could be confident that when they gave their kids the best values in life, the kids they were meeting would be equally well trained. We also know the new clause has the backing of a wide range of children’s charities—that is, the people who deal with safeguarding issues day in, day out: Barnardo’s, the Terrence Higgins Trust, the NSPCC, the Scout Association, the Family Planning Association and the National Children’s Bureau.

There is widespread support for the importance of doing this and, if we are honest, that support has been there for some time. While we can all recognise the concerns of a small minority of organisations, I believe there are ways in which we can bring in this legislation to reflect those concerns while not letting them get in the way of safeguarding and recognising this as an important part of safeguarding. I certainly do not share the concerns of the former Education Minister, who believed we should not legislate to make relationship education mandatory in schools because it was about giving schools the freedom to set their curriculum. When we have seen such a failure, frankly, to provide this sort of education, it is simply not good enough to leave things to chance, and nor do I believe that this is something that can be kicked into the long grass and continually pushed back.

I think the Minister and the Education Secretary recognise this as something we need to do. The trouble is we keep recognising it as something we need to do and never get round to doing it. We know children are at risk as a result. I hear the Education Secretary saying that this is in her in-tray. I also think it is worth referring back to what the Minister said on Second Reading:

“This matter is a priority for the Secretary of State, so I have already asked officials to advise me further on it, but I will ask them to accelerate that work so that I can report on our conclusions at a later point in the Bill’s passage, when everyone in the House will be able to look at them and have their say.”—[Official Report, 5 December 2016; Vol. 618, c. 84.]

The challenge we face today is that we are almost at the end of consideration in Committee in the House of Commons for this legislation. We are running out of time for this to become part of the legislation, and the elephant in the room that will define politics for us for this year, and perhaps for years to come, that of Brexit, means it is hard to see when there might be other such legislative opportunities. One reason for tabling the new clause is to ask the Minister to make the commitment today for a piece of legislation, because we know this is going to have to be part of law for it to happen. We know this is going to have to be part of law to make sure every school—not just maintained schools, but academies —provides this form of education. We agree on its value, but we also recognise the urgency of acting. If not in this legislation—we are at a very late stage—it is difficult to see when there might be alternative time for progress to be made.

The risk is that we will spend another year telling our young people that we hear their message that they want this form of support and telling parents that we get it. They want to know that other kids have had good education, too. We will listen to teachers saying, “Unless it is part of the curriculum and we are given support to be able to provide this, we can’t teach it.” It needs to be part of the national curriculum. If not now, when? That is the question for us.

I want to hear what the Minister has to say, because I heard him on Second Reading.

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Before my hon. Friend concludes, I want to say that I am more than happy to support her new clause, although the Minister may be about to tell us that he has an alternative or additional proposal.

Since we have spent so much time talking about the value of innovation, would my hon. Friend be open to a proposal in which the Minister encouraged schools to innovate? We could make a start right away by finding the best models for my hon. Friend’s proposals and some of the wider issues referred to by other organisations, including online safety, tobacco, alcohol, drug abuse and broader health issues. Would she be open to a proposal that said, “Let’s invite schools to innovate. Let’s ask Ofsted to report on the success of that innovation. Let’s encourage schools that are doing the right thing, so that the Minister can free the others from the constraints and encumbrances that current legislation imposes on them.”?

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My hon. Friend will be aware of previous conversations about straying from the point. We were very mindful in drafting this new clause that we should focus on relationship education as part of PSHE, which has been declining in schools. I believe there has been a 21% decrease in the number of PSHE lessons in the past couple of years because it is not valued. We recognised that it had a particular role to play in safeguarding because of the widespread evidence of sexual harassment of children.

I completely agree with my hon. Friend about the value of other forms of lessons. I will give a shout-out to Kris Hallenga and the CoppaFeel! team who have been looking at how to provide cancer education within PSHE. There is clearly a broader debate, but we do not know if there is going to be any alternative education legislation that might allow such proposals to be included.

The point about innovation and safeguarding is apposite. One reason Opposition Members were concerned about other parts of this legislation is that we want to give schools a clear framework about what should be included. Within that, we could work in a way that works for pupils and their location. That is why the new clause specifies a framework for sex and relationship education as part of safeguarding, recognising that it needs to be age appropriate.

The way in which a five, six- or seven-year-old would be taught about their body and how to ensure that, if anything happened that they were not happy or comfortable with, they could speak out, would be very different from the conversations that might be had with 13, 14 or 15-year-olds about some of the things that were going on in their lives. It would also be done in a way that was inclusive. I am particularly mindful of the evidence of young people who are gay and lesbian who said they were not given good sex and relationships education, which caused them huge amounts of harm at a young age, so it is important to ensure it is inclusive.

Finally, we need to recognise different religious perspectives. That is an important element, and I do not underplay that. Concerns have been expressed by religious organisations. We need to reflect and respect religious perspectives without using that to stop the important provision of relationships education.

The new clause is drafted in such a way that it is very much about the role of Ofsted, which I am sure would be involved in any form of safeguarding and monitoring of sex and relationships education in schools, however the Government choose to do this—if they do want to. There is a clear role for Ofsted to look at this as a form of safeguarding. Schools that were not providing sex and relationship education would be judged inadequate on safeguarding, which is a very serious matter, but it would reflect the importance of the topic.

Crucially, the new clause would give young people the opportunity to say whether they wanted to take part in this education. Some 90% of young people surveyed said they wanted this education, so it is important to give them the power to opt out, rather than that being led by their parents. The Secretary of State would have the role of setting the age at which they would be of sufficient maturity to do that. I am thinking particularly of young people who might be at college or in further education who would be covered by the new clause: we want to ensure that they have the right to take part in lessons if they choose to do so.

Finally, returning to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak made in saying, “Let’s just get on and do it”, the new clause sets out a clear timetable. That is the message I want to give to the Minister. I heard his words on Second Reading and I have seen the briefings from the Education Secretary. There has clearly been a sea change in the Government’s perspective on the issue over the past year, which is welcome.

I recognise that there is cross-party support for sex and relationships education. Five Select Committee Chairs said they wanted to see it happen. All of us who have been campaigning on the issue for some time want to see action, because we are all acutely aware that we have lost previous opportunities to make progress. The guidance that covers sex and relationships education for our young people was produced in 2000, before the era of Snapchat, Facebook and even Twitter, which feels as old as the hills. We need to move with the times, but most importantly we need to move. If the Minister will not accept new clause 11 and work with us to make it work, I want to hear him make a commitment to legislation. I tell him plainly: another consultation, another review and a generalised commitment will not do any more. Young people in this country need and deserve better from us.

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It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Walthamstow. I find it strange to say—she perhaps will find it strange to hear—but I am critical of the new clause because it is not ambitious enough. Rather than just talking about safeguarding and listing aspects of personal, social and health education under subsections (a) to (e)— aspects, in reality, of sex education and relationships management—I would like be bolder and enlighten and empower all our pupils in the whole sphere of personal, social, health and, indeed, economic education. In that sense, my call to the Minister is to be more ambitious and go further than the hon. Lady set out.

The hon. Lady referred to 90% of pupils wanting this form of education. I think it is 92% of pupils who want it, and they are not just referring to the limited form of education that she talked about. They want a sphere that would include economic education too. That is hugely important. Within schools, we are focusing more on mental health issues, wellbeing and preparing our pupils not only to cope with the challenges and pressures of their school surroundings, but with the challenges of the workplace and life in general. To pick up on the hon. Lady’s theme, I would like to see legislation that covers all those parameters. There is great support for that—some 92% of parents and 88% of teachers support it.

Legislation has to be properly thought about within this sphere, however, because 12% of teachers are not positive about such provision. That may be because they are concerned about their workload and want some reassurance about what may be taken out of the curriculum if this particular provision put in. I would prefer to take a thoughtful approach. I have no issue with a consultation, because it gives us the opportunity to feed in on how legislation should be formed.

I do not wish to speak further, because I am pleased and keen to hear what the Minister has to say. I reassure the hon. Lady that while I will not be voting for a new clause that is restrictive and could go much further, I am certainly behind the general thrust of ensuring that we enlighten all our schoolchildren on the wider area—an area that does not just cover sex education and relationships management, but all the challenges of daily life.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Wilson. I support the new clause tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow. I am sure she welcomed the enthusiasm that the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle displayed for a broad-based PSHE offer for young people, I am afraid I was rather chilled by his final words that the intention was enough. As my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow pointed out very eloquently, as long as she and I have been in Parliament—and no doubt for many years before that—that is what we have heard: the intentions are good, but nothing materialises. In the meantime, our young people are crying out for this kind of education offer.

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Perhaps it is the lawyer in me, but I think it is important to note that the new clause says that personal social and health education

“must include but shall not be restricted”

to certain subjects. There is also a danger that this is not the greatest piece of legislation. Anyone looking at the new clause will think that they are required to teach all the things that I have added, perhaps with the exception of the economic aspect. It is not entirely clear what provision the hon. Member for Walthamstow is trying to restrict—or widen.

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I find the whole sentiment behind this discussion rather disappointing. I think it is very clear what the concerns of young people, parents and teachers are and why my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow has tabled the new clause. She, of course, can speak for herself. Of all my colleagues, I think it is fair to say that, but may I say on her behalf that if this proposal is not perfect, we are amenable if the Minister wishes to produce something better, but we want it now. We have waited too long for something to happen, as opposed to warm words and expressions of enthusiasm.

The hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle is absolutely right to point to the importance of the debate in the context of all the attention the Government are giving to mental health and wellbeing. If we look at the record of previous Governments, including the coalition Government and the present Government, on a whole lot of related issues, it seems a great shame that we are not supporting those steps forward, which have been made with cross-party support in relation, for example, to female genital mutilation; in relation to stalking, which will be the subject of amendments in Committee later this afternoon; and in relation to coercive control, mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow; in relation to same-sex marriages; and in relation to the very good follow-up which has been put in place following some of the appalling child sex scandals of recent years. It is tragic that the Government and previous Governments, having made great social steps forward in all those areas, are unwilling to underpin them with really good education for our young people so that they can understand their rights under that legislation.

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I always stop my hon. Friend when she gets going at my peril because she is such a powerful advocate. Can I give reassurance to the hon. Member for the constituency which I cannot think in my head right now but I am sure is a wonderful place?

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Bexhill and Battle.

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That’s it—a lovely place. Personal and social education is already part of the curriculum, but what we have seen over the past couple of years is a diminution in time allocated to it. The new clause would make the provision of lessons on these particular issues part of the safeguarding element that is inspected, and so prompt schools to ensure that these issues are covered. That does not preclude any of the points that have been made and the wider debate we can all have.

There is cross-party consensus about the value of PSHE and concern about the diminution in its delivery over the past couple of years. However, the measure would ensure that these subjects were part of the framework on which schools were inspected. If they were not providing lessons and guidance on these issues, that would be a matter for failing by Ofsted.

Ofsted looks at the provision of sex and relationships education, as we have seen, and has shown that it is of poor quality in many schools right now. However, at the moment it is not part of the safeguarding duty that they inspect. By making it part of the safeguarding duty, the measure gives Ofsted stronger powers to push schools to do it. It is not about PSHE being restrictive—the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle is reading the proposal in quite a literal way—it is about Ofsted’s powers. If the hon. Gentleman wants to have a conversation about Ofsted, I would be happy to talk to him, but I suspect it is beyond the scope of today’s debate. I hope that reassures all my colleagues as to why we want to make sure that these particular topics are covered.

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I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I want to pick up the point that the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle made about teachers’ confidence in dealing with this subject. As my hon. Friend has explained, in embedding in the inspection regime an expectation that safeguarding standards are part of the way in which the curriculum is delivered, we create a need to ensure that teachers are properly equipped to teach that curriculum. That will have an effect on what is taught in teacher training colleges and on teaching practice. It will have an effect on the way in which schools organise, manage, support, mentor and develop their staff and on the way in which staff time is allocated, to ensure that teachers are able to teach the subject properly.

From talking to teachers, I do not think that their worry about this subject is so much about whether or not they have time to do it—they think it is important and want to make the time—as about a fear that they do not know how to do it. It requires proper attention to equip and educate them to deliver top-quality teaching.

We know that quality is an issue. My hon. Friend pointed out that one in seven children are receiving no sex and relationships education at all. Of those children who are receiving such education, half told the Terrence Higgins Trust in research it carried out that the teaching they received was poor or even terrible. There is little point in offering a poor or terrible education to our children. We have to raise the quality. That is not an excuse for doing nothing. It is an excuse for embedding firmly an expectation and an obligation on schools, along with an inspection regime to ensure that they meet it.

I am troubled that despite all the social progress we have made in my adult lifetime, and particularly the immense progress in relation to equality between women and men, young people’s attitudes to relationships between the sexes remain primitive in so many ways. We have seen shocking research in recent years, which has shown that young men and young women—teenagers—believe it is acceptable, for example, for a boy to hit his girlfriend if he sees her talking to another bloke or for a man to expect the woman in a partnership to put food on the table when he wants it.

The fact that those attitudes should still be pervasive among young people shows that there is a very real need to educate them in relation to not only in the biology of sexual relationships, as my hon. Friend said, but on the much broader dimensions of respect and equality. We have delivered those things in so many other ways—in legislation and social practice—but they need to be underpinned in our education system.

I want to conclude by saying, on my behalf if not on behalf of my hon. Friends, that if the Minister thinks the new clause is deficient, I insist he introduces something else as a matter of urgency. We would be happy to consider that. As my hon. Friend said, time is running out. If such a proposal is not available in Committee or on Report, there is no further chance to achieve the intention that is constantly expressed in this House and which is the will of the House and the wider public: to do so much better than we do now. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say. Without strong assurances that things will now change, I am pleased to support my hon. Friend’s new clause.

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I am the father of three young daughters of eight, six and four. The moment I am dreading is when they start asking what we used to call “those questions”. I am rather hoping my wife will be on hand. I am sure she will then promise to give me some sex education after she has dealt with the children.

This is such a complex and complicated issue, as the hon. Member for Walthamstow set out. I rise to make a few remarks against the backdrop of having attended a faith school and as a practising Roman Catholic. My wife is a member of the Church of England, but my children are Catholics. I very much support what lies behind the hon. Lady’s new clause. I see nothing contradictory in being a practising Christian and wanting to ensure our next generation is equipped with as much resource and education as possible for the challenges that face modern youth—challenges that I, as a 47-year-old, could never have envisaged when I was 14, 15 or 16.

I remember the acute embarrassment—teenagers like to do this to their teachers—when we had a spinster nonconformist Methodist biology teacher in a Catholic state school who was asked by a friend of mine during this biology lesson—one where we had those pictures that were never quite clear anatomically—“Miss, what does a man do if he wants to have sex, but they do not want to have a child?” He knew full well what the Catholic teaching was on artificial contraception, but it threw this nonconformist spinster into an absolute tailspin and her answer was, “I think you should go to talk to the school chaplain”—she did not know how to answer. So it is as much about educating the educators as it is educating those who need the information.

The hon. Member for Walthamstow has been in this place longer than I, and I am reluctant to give her any advice about it—the new clause, that is, not anything else—[Laughter.] Before my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent chips in with anything slightly “Carry On Laughing” or whatever, I think there are some omissions between 2 (a) and (e). For example, it is important to have something about transgender. Likewise, while the hon. Lady said at the start of her remarks that this was not solely about digital, given its huge impact on perception, the curriculum should include an element on digital and the internet.

We have all bandied statistics around, but I remember reading that today most teenage boys that have accessed pornographic websites, just out of interest and teenage curiosity, actually believe that most women do not have pubic hair. That is a direct bit of education from the internet that affects the mindset and changes how we think about ourselves and our potential partners in a relationship.

I also notice—and it slightly belies what has actually been support from my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle and I hope, certainly in theory, from the Minister—that the new clause is tabled solely in the name of Labour Members of Parliament who all happen to be women. This is an issue that should command cross-party support and certainly representation from both sexes. A father, a husband and a boyfriend have as much interest in ensuring a high quality of PSHE as women do. The hon. Member for Walthamstow might want to think about that point, which is why I hope that she will not press this new clause to a vote today but instead think about some proactive cross-party working on Report. That is not to kick the issue into the long grass; it would just help to create a better base.

Some wording—some form of protection—is needed for those who run faith schools, all faiths, to make the position absolutely clear. I have little or no doubt that I will receive emails from constituents who happen to read my remarks. They will say that this is all about promotion, and this or that religion thinks that homosexuality—or another element—is not right. So to provide a legislative comfort blanket, for want of a better phrase, the new clause needs to include a clear statement that we are talking not about promotion, but about education, and where sex education is delivered in a faith school environment, those providing the education should not feel inhibited about answering questions such as “What is the thinking of our faith on this particular aspect of sexuality?”

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The hon. Gentleman has touched on an incredibly sensitive issue. I do not want to misinterpret his remarks, but he should be aware that many of us are concerned about children who are same-sex attracted in faith schools. One of the things that is important about getting this right is making sure that every school is acknowledging those children. Can he just clarify what he means by inhibition?

We did try to work in a cross-party way on this, and I continue to do so—and cross-gender, as well. I agree with him that this is not an issue for women; it is an issue for all of us. We are where we are with the new clause, but it would be helpful if the hon. Gentleman could spell out what he is talking about. Specifying religious inclusiveness and recognition of different religious perspectives is not the same as allowing a religious perspective to inhibit what we might teach young people. We need to give every young person, whether they have relationships with the same sex or different sex, the right education and support to have healthy relationships and to feel good about themselves as well.

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I take the hon. Lady’s point but I think we are looking through different ends of the same telescope. I do not think it would be sensible, or maximise the benefit of the thrust of the new clause, if faith schools were able to say “This aspect of human sexuality is contrary to”—I use that term in its broadest sense—“our religious doctrine, and we will not teach it.” The point I am making is that it should be taught because it is part of human nature—people are born straight or gay, or whatever phraseology one cares to use—but the school would not be in breach of any regulation or legislation to say to the class “We are a Muslim”—or Catholic, Jewish or Methodist—“school: this happens in human life, but the religious teaching of our majority faith in this classroom is that we don’t promote it”, or “That is not what we think.”

That is in part why this sort of debate is not best suited to the Committee. These discussions should take place across the genders and across the parties in preparation for Report. I am conscious that in trying to answer a legitimate point, fairly raised by the hon. Lady, I may have used terms that a 47-year-old white Catholic would use, which some people might find slightly old-fashioned and out of date, or perhaps not as politically correct as they should be. The thrust of what the hon. Lady is talking about is absolutely right, and germane to the whole of the Bill. However, if we are to command support from the religious as much as the secular, the sensitivities and anxieties that people often jump to—“This is all about promotion and trying to convince children at six that they should be gay, and if they are not there is something wrong with them, etc.”—need to be clearly and sensitively identified, so that those particular hares do not start running.

That is why I urge the hon. Lady, if she and her colleagues are serious about the new clause getting a fair crack of the whip, not to press it to a vote this afternoon but to work in a cross-party way to see what can be achieved, hopefully with the support of the Minister—we shall listen with interest to his remarks in a moment—on Report.

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It is a pleasure to speak in support of the new clause tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow, which would ensure that all local authorities would provide accurate, age-appropriate personal, social and health education, including age-appropriate sex and relationship education. I believe that we speak for most of the hon. Members in the Committee Room, and in the House more broadly, in saying that steps in such a direction are necessary and important to ensure that children can stay safe, happy and healthy in the 21st century. The current guidance in the area, as my hon. Friends have said, is out of date, and therefore woefully unable to address the challenges and possible dangers they outlined. The education system must respond to change in society to provide young people with the skills and knowledge they need to be safe. While guidance in PSHE and particularly in sex and relationships education is not able to do that, the dangers are clear, as is the case for acting.

I welcome the fact that the Minister and the Education Secretary seem to be coming round to the cross-party consensus on the issue, with suggestions in the media that the Education Secretary is planning a change of policy in that area. The issue is not about politics or partisan point scoring, but about protecting the best interests and the health of children. I am sure all Members in this room will agree that that must be one of our highest priorities.

The Bill offers an ideal opportunity for the Government to make the changes in our education system that are so badly needed. I hope the Minister will support the new clause tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow.

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May I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Walthamstow on a stoic effort when she is clearly under the weather? I wholeheartedly agree with the hon. Members who have spoken in what has been a helpful debate in teasing out the issues that surround these sensitive subjects. Now is the time to make sure that every child has access to effective, factually accurate, age-appropriate sex and relationships education and PSHE. That is why we are responding positively and strongly to calls for further action. I am grateful to the hon. Members for tabling this new clause.

Perhaps surprisingly, we have ended up with a greater level of consensus on this new clause than we have had on previous new clauses. As I have said in previous debates on the Bill, we hear the call for further action on PSHE and we have committed to exploring all the options to improve delivery of SRE and PSHE. We are actively looking at how best to address both the quality of delivery, rightly raised by the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston, and accessibility to ensure that all children can be supported to develop positive, healthy relationships and to thrive in modern Britain today. We welcome the support in delivering this in a timely and considered manner.

The Secretary of State herself has made this a personal priority, as we have heard, and we will be able to say more at a later stage in the Bill about how the Government intend to secure provision that is fit for purpose, inclusive and supports all young people growing up in our country today. It therefore seems to me that we are all pursuing similar aims. We all welcomed the excellent report published on 13 September by the Women and Equalities Committee and the considered recommendations within it. We are unanimous that sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools in any form is unacceptable and should not be tolerated. We are much more alive to that and need to make sure that that is properly reflected in the way that we equip children in future.

As part of our response, published on 9 November, the Government have committed to work with other interested parties over the coming months to produce a framework to support schools to produce their own new codes of practice, setting out the principles for a whole-school approach to inclusion and tolerance to combat bullying, harassment and abuse of any kind. Alongside that we have also committed to building our evidence base to better understand the scale and scope of the problem, as well as providing best-practice examples of effective ways to work with boys and girls to promote gender equality and both prevent and respond to incidents of sexual harassment and sexual violence. We will also set up an advisory group to look at how the issues and recommendations from the Committee’s report can be best reflected within existing Department for Education guidance for schools, including the statutory guidance, “Keeping children safe in education” and our behaviour and bullying guidance.

Clearly, there is more that we need to do, which is why the Secretary of State is prioritising progress on the quality and availability of PSHE and SRE. In doing so, we must of course, as the hon. Member for Walthamstow said, look at the excellent work that many schools already do as the basis for any new support and requirements. As we know, sex education is already compulsory in all maintained secondary schools. Academies and free schools are also required by their funding agreement to teach a broad and balanced curriculum, and we encourage them to teach sex and relationships education within that. For example, many schools cover issues of consent within SRE, and schools draw on guidance and specialist materials from external expert agencies such as the PSHE Association, which produced the “Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) for the 21st Century” guidance in 2014. This supplementary guidance was developed by the PSHE Association, Brook, and the Sex Education Forum. It provides specific advice on what are sadly all too modern issues, including online pornography, sexting and staying safe online. The guidance equips teachers to support pupils on those challenging issues, developing their resilience and ability to manage risk.

In addition, Ofsted publishes case studies on its website that highlight effective practice in schools, including examples of how SRE is taught within PSHE. Examples include a girls’ Catholic secondary school that has used pupil feedback to enhance its programme to equip students to learn about healthy relationships and issues of abuse and consent. I do not dismiss out of hand the suggestion by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak that innovation might have a place in this arena. There is much to commend his suggestion, and I will take it away and give it further thought.

We are also actively considering calls to update the guidance on SRE. As hon. Members have said, the guidance is out of date, and attempts since 2000 to update it have not come to fruition. The guidance is already clear that young people should learn about what a healthy relationship looks like, but it does not necessarily equip children with the skills and knowledge that they need in the world as it is today or ensure that the timeless nature of SRE that the hon. Member for Walthamstow spoke about is properly reflected.

Whatever we do, as hon. Members have said—including my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset, in relation to faith schools—we must attempt to allow everybody with a view a chance to make their case. It is a sensitive issue, as everyone is aware, but we want to ensure that we bring as many people with us as possible. The broader the consensus, the greater the prospect that any change will be successful. As the hon. Member for Walthamstow is aware, I have already said that work is in train and we will return to these issues later, at a stage of the Bill when the whole House will have an opportunity to debate them.

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It is great to hear that the Government are now working on this. My challenge to them is that I need some specific responses. The Minister talked about a framework. Will it be statutory? Over the last couple of years, we have seen clear evidence that because SRE is not a statutory part of the curriculum, it is not happening in too many schools. Some 60% of schools in this country are now academies; the measures that he is discussing cover maintained schools. Will his framework be statutory in all schools, including academies? When will it be introduced, and when will we see the difference?

I said to the Minister in my initial remarks that I would like him to address the question of when we will see the change. A consultation, a framework and guidance are great, but if there are no teeth—if SRE is not statutory and schools are not inspected on it—nothing will change on the timescale that we want. I say to him gently that all of us recognise the difficulties and sensitivities involved in the religious issues—that is why these matters are part of the new clause—but I am not sure that I know of any other policy area that has such overwhelming public support. The risk is that if we keep finding long grass, we can stay in it. Can he give us an explicit commitment now about what the framework will actually do legislatively?

The Minister talked about the Bill coming back at a later stage. We are at the end of Committee stage, so he was talking only about Report. That is not much time for all of us to consider it and ensure, if legislation is involved, that it will be effective. If legislation is not involved, the clear evidence is that any measures will not make a difference.

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Just to be clear, when I talked about the framework, I was doing so in the context of the response to the report of the Women and Equalities Committee on sexual harassment in schools. It is a framework to support schools to produce their own new codes of practice on issues of inclusion, tolerance and combating bullying, harassment and abuse of any kind. It is not a catch-all framework for PSHE or SRE; it is specifically to deal with those issues raised by the Committee. It illustrates the seriousness with which the Government take those issues and the fact that we are prepared to do something about it, rather than just thanking the Committee for its work.

There is a balance—I know that the hon. Lady is trying hard to strike it—between giving the Government constructive assistance in finding a way forward and appreciating that this issue cannot be resolved with a new Secretary of State in a short period of time. There are lots of repercussions that need to be thought through. The last time that legislation was attempted in 2008-09—I think the then Minister was Jim, now Lord, Knight—that was played out for all to see. We therefore need to be careful about the process we set up and how we ensure that we bring people with us.

The hon. Lady should be reassured, and I hope she is, that we have a commonality in trying to establish how we ensure that by the time children growing up in Britain today reach adulthood—we hope it will be much earlier than that—and are moving away from the environment of their families and schools and into the big, wide world, they have resilience, knowledge and understanding of what they are capable of doing and what people are capable of doing to them. We want them to know where those lines can be drawn, so that they can react and ensure that they make good decisions as they go through their lives. That is the clear intention behind what we are all seeking to achieve.

I am afraid that the hon. Lady will have to be a bit more patient so that we can ensure that we make the right response that can come to fruition—unlike the attempt by the Labour Government, laudable though it was, in 2008-09. As she rightly identified, there will be a whole range of views, and people will want the opportunity to have oxygen to express them in. We need to be mindful of that, because we do not want to set up anything to fail: that would be the worst thing we could do for children, whom we are seeking to help and support.

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This is difficult. I thank the Minister for what he has said; I appreciate that it feels a bit as if every amendment and new clause I am involved in is a sticky wicket for him. I asked him some very specific questions about legislation and the need for legislative action on the issue, on which I think we all agree. He referred to 2008-09. There was an attempt in 2013 to make legislation, and that was pushed back by the previous Government for the same reasons that he is talking about. We have proposals and there is support for them.

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There is an important distinction. The parallel I am drawing is with 2008, when there was an attempt by the Government to lead an independent review and to look at making changes. In 2013, the attempt was not by Government. We are talking about the Government coming forward with proposals. That is the parallel I am trying to draw, rather than looking at 2013.

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The difference is that there was legislation in 2008-09, and the Minister will recall that it was caught up in the wash-up ahead of the general election. There is not legislation here, and that is what we are looking for now.

The parallel for me is with what my mother calls “eat the frog” moments. If a person has to eat a frog, there is no nice way of doing it, so they might as well just get on and eat the frog. There will be people who oppose whatever we try to do on this issue, and the Government cannot keep saying “at a later date” and not specifying anything.

Are we going to see a legislative proposal on Report? If we will not, then continuing to press the new clause is the best way we have of pushing to make progress. Members from all parts of the House agree that we need progress and a recognition that while we will never get it perfect, we can get good legislation. The failure to make progress over the past six years has let our children down. Unless the Minister wants to intervene and say, “We will commit to bring forward a legislative opportunity on Report”, however late in the day, I will press the new clause to a vote. It is important to set a marker.

I appreciate that Government Committee members are shaking their heads. I am sorry, but frameworks and guidance are what we have had for the past six years, and we are not making progress. As the Minister does not want to intervene, I will press the new clause to a vote.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time.

Division 14

10 January 2017

The Committee divided:

Ayes: 5
Noes: 10

Question accordingly negatived.

View Details

New Clause 12

Arrangements for remaining in a residential children’s home after reaching adulthood

‘(1) The Children Act 1989 is amended as follows.

(2) In section 23CZA (arrangements for certain former relevant children to live with former foster parents)—

(a) in subsection (2)(b)—

(i) after “person” insert “or residential children’s home”;

(ii) leave out “former foster parent” and insert “former care giver”;

(iii) after second “parent” insert “or residential children’s home”;

(b) in the second sentence of subsection (2) after “together” insert “, or at the residential children’s home”;

(c) for all references to “former foster parent” substitute “former care giver”.

(3) In paragraph 19BA in Part 2 of Schedule 2 (local authority support for looked after children)—

(a) in sub-paragraph (1), after “parent” insert “or in a residential children’s home”;

(b) in sub-paragraph (3)(b), after “parent” insert “or residential children’s home”.’ —(Steve McCabe.)

This new clause would extend the “staying put” arrangements that currently exist for young people placed with foster parents to those living in a residential children’s home.

Brought up, and read the First time.

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I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

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With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 20—Former relevant children: provision of sufficient suitable accommodation

‘(1) In the Children Act 1989, after section 23C insert—

“23CA Duty on local authorities to secure sufficient accommodation for former relevant children

(1) It is the general duty of a local authority to take steps that secure, so far as reasonably practicable, the outcome in subsection (2).

(2) The outcome is that the local authority secures sufficient suitable accommodation (whether or not provided by them) within their area to meet the needs of former relevant children, where “former relevant children” has the same meaning as in section 23C(1) of this Act.

(3) In taking steps to secure the outcome in subsection (2), the local authority must—

(a) produce, and make available to all former relevant children, information about the providers of accommodation and the types of accommodation they provide,

(b) be aware of the current and expected future demand for such accommodation and consider how providers might meet that demand, and

(c) have regard to—

(i) the need to ensure the sustainability of the market, and

(ii) the need to encourage providers to innovate and continuously improve the quality of such accommodation and the efficiency and effectiveness with which it is provided.”’

This new clause would establish a clear statutory duty on local authorities to secure sufficient, suitable accommodation for all care leavers up to age 21. Local authorities already have a duty to ensure sufficient accommodation for looked after children in their area.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Wilson. Hopefully this will not take too long and will not be terribly contentious. The Minister and I might not necessarily agree on the nature of my new clause, but I hope that there is not too much between us on this issue. As far as I can see, the new clause follows a very welcome decision that he took in the last Parliament about children in foster care staying put. I believe that was the right thing to do and he deserves credit for it. I should say in passing that the idea flows from a previous Labour pilot; we did not have to exempt a single local authority from a single bit of legislation to implement that pilot, but there you go.

Anyway, the new clause comes from a decision taken by the Minister. I always thought at the time that people would inevitably say, “Well, if you are making this provision for children in care who happen to live in a foster home, what about other children in care who have different arrangements?” In fact, I am slightly surprised that we have not reached a stage where this has been tested out in court. It always occurred to me that someone would inevitably seek to challenge and test the legality of a situation whereby we can have rather different sets of rules for children who are subject to the same care provision but are living in slightly different arrangements.

What I seek to do with the new clause is simple: I am trying to mirror the arrangements that the Minister made for children being able to remain in foster care for other children who might want to remain in the children’s home where they live. There are two aspects to consider. First, there is a moral issue. For children who are subject to care orders, we are their parents. They are our responsibility. That is what we sign up to when we receive such children into care.

I listened to the hon. Member for North Dorset talking about being a father and about his children. I assume that all of us who are parents are not the sort of people who are likely to kick our kids out at 18. Maybe some of us will be quite glad to see them go off to university, so that we get a bit of a break and a breather from time to time, but generally I would not think most of us, and most parents, are like that.

The truth is that parenthood is one of those things that people buy into probably for their entire life. There will always be times when children will come back, and there is no golden rule saying that at 18 or 21, they are capable of standing on their own two feet and can be cut adrift. If that is how we would behave towards our own children, it is not unreasonable to say that we should behave like that towards all children, and certainly children for whom we have become the parents.

The situation with foster care is more clear cut. I know that the Minister has a great deal of personal experience of this. The children are living in a semi-permanent arrangement with a particular parent or set of parents and have often been there for a very long time. It makes perfect sense for someone such as the Minister to say, “Well, it is ridiculous to have an artificial cut-off point—I am going to seek to extend that.”

The issue is much more tricky when it comes to children’s homes, because that provision has developed at different times under different frameworks: some local authority—although there is probably much less of that now—some private or in charity or not-for-profit organisations. The nature of the buildings and the homes is different. Although the new clause is designed to try to mirror the provision for foster care arrangements, I am reluctant to say that I want the Minister to legislate to say that everyone can remain in a children’s home, come what may. I do not personally think that is sensible.

As a consequence, I went back and had a look at a proposal drawn up a couple of years ago by a consortium of organisations, many of which the Minister has a lot of contact with: the National Children’s Bureau, the Who Cares? Trust, Action for Children, Barnardo’s and the Centre for Child and Family Research at Loughborough University. I am sure the Minister is familiar with the work they engaged in, which was a scoping exercise, “Staying put for young people in residential care”. The consortium came up with four options that it suggested we might want to consider.

The first option is for care leavers to continue to live in the same children’s home that they were living in when in care, as this is obviously about what we do with children after they pass the cut-off point of 18. My own hunch is that that may work in some circumstances and not in others.

A second option was that the care leaver lives in a separate building but in the same grounds as the children’s home they were living in when in care. Again, that might work in some situations. There may not be scope for that sort of provision in all situations so it may not work and there may not be funding or finance to deal with it.

The third option is that a care leaver might live in a different house from the one they were living in when in the children’s home, but that they would continue to have support—something akin to supported lodgings. The fourth option, which I think is more commonly referred to as “stay close”, is for the young person to live independently but with regular access to their former home—for example, being invited back for tea on a regular basis.

That strikes me as broadly what happens with our own children. They may continue to live with us beyond the age of 18 or they may come back periodically; they may at times live near us and come back. One would hope that we are always available when they need help and support. That is what I am asking the Minister about in the new clause.

Depending on his response, I am not sure that I will want to press the clause to a vote. I am making the point that we cannot have a situation where we have decided that someone who has the good fortune to be in foster care gets extended provision and we recognise their needs beyond the age of 18, but if someone lives in a different kind of care provision, they do not get the same consideration. I do not hold the Minister responsible, but we hear horror stories of care leavers ending up in bed-and-breakfast accommodation, virtually doss-houses in some cases, where they are required to live alongside people with serious alcohol and drug problems, with prostitution on the premises.

What happens to youngsters when they leave care is pretty important in my book, which is why I tabled the new clause. Its purpose is to explore with the Minister how he intends to mirror the very good staying-put provision that he introduced for those in foster care and extend it to other children in care. I want to remind the Committee that the biggest danger with such provision for young folk is that it becomes part of a very bureaucratic local government exercise, although the Minister was telling us earlier about why he wants to loosen some things up. The one thing that a 19 or 20-year-old in a crisis does not need to be told is to come back when the office is open at 9 or 10 o’clock in the morning. What we need is the same thing we offer our children when we say, “I’m here when you need me, because it is my responsibility to care about you and I love you. I am going to make sure that you get the possible help that I can provide for you.” We would do that for our kids, and we should do it for any child we take into care.

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I shall speak in support of new clause 12, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak, and my new clause 20.

As it stands, there is a clear inconsistency in the law, where children in stable foster placements can stay with their foster families until the age of 21 under the terms of staying-put arrangements introduced by the Children and Families Act 2014, but similar provisions do not exist for those in residential care. I am sure that the Minister agrees that that is simply unacceptable. We cannot have a two-tier system under which those in foster care receive more comprehensive support from the state, their corporate parents, than those in residential care.

I know that the Department for Education is in discussion with key organisations on this matter, and that the Minister is aware that children in residential care often have complex needs and require an immense amount of support. I have no doubt that he is also aware that safe and secure housing is key to improving life chances, especially for some of our most vulnerable children, yet more than often that is not the case. Care leavers have disproportionately poorer outcomes compared with other young people; 40% of care leavers are not in education, employment or training compared with 14% of their peers. The Government’s own figures show that nearly one in five care leavers aged 19 to 21 were in accommodation that was considered either unsuitable or that suitability was not even known. I am sure that the Minister would want to use the Bill to take every opportunity to improve life chances and outcomes for those care leavers, and whenever he did so, he would have the support of all us in this room, because safe and stable accommodation is a basic human need and the starting point for providing young people with absolutely the best beginning in life.

The statistics on the number of care leavers who come into contact with the criminal justice system in comparison with those in the general population are heart-breaking. According to recent figures, the offending rates for looked-after children in England are now four times those for of all other children. For those who end up in prison, a recent study by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons found that 27% of young people in the young offender institutions it surveyed had previously been in care. When female young offenders were looked at, that figure was up to 45%. It is clear from those figures alone that the current legislation is failing care leavers. One of the factors that is known to give them a better chance in life is to ensure that they all have suitable and stable accommodation.

Local authorities have a duty to ensure that there is sufficient accommodation for looked-after children in their area. New clause 20 would introduce a similar duty to ensure

“sufficient…accommodation for all care leavers up to age 21.”

The Bill requires local authorities to consult on, and publish details of, their local offer to care leavers, setting out the support available for areas such as education, health, employment and accommodation. However, the local offer, as currently drafted, does not go far enough. It requires only that local authorities state publicly what they already provide, and there is no duty on them to ensure that the provision in their area meets local need. There is also no evidence, as we discussed earlier—that the local offer for SEN introduced in the Children and Families Act 2014 has made it more likely that relevant needs are met.

Many care leavers have had to deal with enormous trauma, instability and disruption in their young lives before they have learned the coping skills to deal with the impact of their experiences. That is why so many children growing up and leaving care have related mental health issues. It is absolutely vital that we support these young adults by offering them the stability of safe and secure accommodation. I want the Minister to explain to the Committee what he is going to do to remedy the inequality between children in foster care and children in residential care, and to ensure that the accommodation needs of every single one of our children leaving care are met, and met appropriately.

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I just want to say briefly that I support both new clauses tabled by my hon. Friends. In introducing the Staying Put legislation for young people in foster families, the Minister took a big step forward. I have seen the benefit of that in my constituency, including the fact that it has put pressure on the whole system to facilitate keeping those young people in the families that have been providing the foster care, including ensuring that the financial arrangements to support housing costs are consistent with the Staying Put legislation. I have had casework where a foster parent has come to me to say that she faced a cut in the household housing benefit, and we were able to push back on that to enable the young person to stay in the foster home post-18.

That is a really important lesson, if I may say so, in relation to young people leaving residential accommodation. We know that there have been very difficult conversations going on over the last year or so relating to financial support for supported accommodation, as referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak. The Government have delayed, on two occasions, changes to housing benefit as they would apply to supported accommodation, but delay is not a long-term answer to what is putting huge uncertainty into the circumstances in which housing providers of that particular kind of accommodation are able to plan for the future. We could send a really good, useful signal in this legislation about the need for proper, strategic underpinning of accommodation for young people whether they leave foster care or residential care. We need to provide continuing housing support for them as young adults. This legislation is an important opportunity to reinforce that as our starting priority, which is the best interests of those young people.

I hope that the Minister will respond favourably to both new clauses. I think that he did a very good thing with the Staying Put legislation and it would be good to see that extended to the benefit of all looked-after, and formerly looked-after, young people so that we can really do everything. As my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak said, we should, as corporate parents, do what parents would do for their own children.

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I am grateful to hon. Members for tabling these new clauses. They would place a duty on local authorities to secure sufficient accommodation for care leavers up until the age of 21 and would extend the existing Staying Put duty to those children leaving residential children’s homes. I understand the purpose behind both the new clauses and agree that care leavers should be supported to access the accommodation they need.

As a backdrop, it is worth going to the start of these Committee sittings and remembering some of the other aspects in the Bill in respect of corporate parenting principles, the care leaver offer and the extension of the personal adviser to every care leaver up to the age of 25 when requested. This is not an area where we have been neglectful. On the contrary: we are the first Government I am aware of who have managed to pull together a comprehensive cross-Government strategy on care leavers and get commitment from a whole range of Departments in areas where we know care leavers particularly require help and support.

I remind the Committee that local authorities are already responsible for providing suitable accommodation to all care leavers aged 16 to 17. When care leavers reach age 18, local authority leaving care teams are responsible for helping care leavers access suitable accommodation. Their new home must be suitable for their needs and linked to their wider plans and aspirations—for example, living close to work or college.

The tapered support offer that already exists for care leavers, which clause 3 will strengthen, is designed to help move young people away from dependence. The corporate parenting principles we are introducing in clause 1 will also ensure that local authorities remain focused on providing appropriate support as care leavers move to independence.

When a care leaver is homeless or at risk of homelessness, the homelessness legislation provides strong protection for them. Local housing authorities have a statutory duty to house care leavers under the age of 21 if they become homeless and people over 21 who are vulnerable as a result of being in care. Statutory guidance for councils also makes clear that those leaving care should be treated as a priority group for social housing.

The Government recognise the importance of improving practice and are funding the homeless charity St Basils to work with local authorities to improve joint working between children’s and housing services, to help them develop accommodation pathways for care leavers that provide a range of options, reflecting care leavers’ readiness to live independently. The Government are also supporting the private Member’s Homelessness Reduction Bill, which will place duties on local housing authorities to provide targeted information and advice for care leavers on preventing homelessness.

Another accommodation option for young people leaving foster care—it has already been mentioned—is Staying Put, which we introduced in 2014. That enables young people to stay living with their former foster carers where that is what they both want. The latest data show that, encouragingly, more than half of 18-year-olds who were eligible for Staying Put are now choosing to do so.

New clause 20 would extend Staying Put to young people leaving residential care. I completely agree with the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak that those young people should have the same opportunity as those in foster care to maintain relationships with their former care givers. That is why earlier this year, after the research that the hon. Gentleman mentioned from the NCB and others, we asked Sir Martin Narey to conduct a review of residential care. Like the hon. Gentleman, Sir Martin believed that simply extending the Staying Put duty to those leaving residential children’s homes was not the right answer and that the Government should test variations of Staying Close—I am afraid we are back into innovation territory—as an alternative to Staying Put for those leaving residential care. In July, we accepted his recommendations and committed to introducing Staying Close for all those leaving care through that route.

We are not biding our time. On 21 December, we invited local authorities to bid to run pilots, through which we will learn what works to deliver Staying Close, as recommended by Sir Martin Narey. We will use that information to make sure that the future roll-out is fully effective and properly targeted.

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Will there be an option in Staying Close for children in residential care to remain in their residential placement if they wish to, or not? Mr Wilson, I should probably have declared at the outset that I am a patron of Every Child Leaving Care Matters, which campaigns on this issue.

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The hon. Lady will be pleased to know that we have been working very closely with the Every Child Leaving Care Matters team, so that it is able to positively contribute to the work and look at the different models that we need to test out through the piloting of Staying Close. In that way, the needs of each individual young person can be met by the range of models available. Some of the early innovation that has already taken place through the children’s social care innovation programme has shown, interestingly, that there are different types of arrangements that work for different young people.

For example, in North Yorkshire we have the No Wrong Door project, which is centred around having a consistent keyworker throughout not only the young person’s time in care but also their time leaving care, irrespective of the place that they are then in. That is built around the concept, which has come through the care inquiry and other routes, that helping maintain those important relationships through that transition can be as beneficial as anything else that we do to support them.

The House Project in Stoke has set up a housing co-operative run by care leavers, who are responsible for managing their tenancy. They have formed their own community, have a good social network and continue to be well supported, but they are starting to gain a sense of independence. I think that the answer to the hon. Lady’s good question is that we want to ensure, through the piloting, that we allow the opportunity to try all the different options available for young people leaving residential care. There are already some residential care settings that keep on young people beyond 18. We need to discover through the pilot what level of demand there is for that and where it is right for that to be done.

We must also not look at the issue in isolation but consider it across the piece, including alongside the fostering stocktake that is now ongoing. Specialist fostering placements could also play a role in some of the work that might be needed to transition out of residential care.

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Just to clarify the option to remain in some of the models that the Minister has said are being explored, will there be an option for children who want to remain in residential care to do so, or will there not? I am not clear from his response so far.

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We have accepted the recommendations of Sir Martin Narey that there should not be a duty to provide that for every young person leaving residential care. Through the piloting of Staying Close, we want to consider the different opportunities to find not just the right accommodation solution but the right relationships and pathway into independence for each of those young people.

I think that that is the right approach, and a sensible and proportionate way to respond to the consistent view of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak on staying in residential care. Having now understood the basis for his new clause, I hope that I have given him a sense that we are travelling in a direction that accords with where he hopes to go. However, there is still some work to do, and we have committed in our response to Sir Martin Narey’s report to rolling the measure out across the country, so that every young person leaving residential care will have the opportunity to continue with the support received by those in foster care.

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That was a helpful response from the Minister, and I would like the chance to reflect on what he has said. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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

Adjourned till Thursday 12 January at half-past Eleven o’clock.

Written evidence to be reported to the House

CSWB 15 Jay Williams

CSWB 16 Article 39

CSWB 17 John Dawson, Senior Social Work Practitioner

CSWB 18 Alice Barker Trust

CSWB 19 Sonia Mainstone-Cotton

CSWB 20 Dr Judith King

CSWB 21 Kirsty Walker

CSWB 22 CLIC Sargent

CSWB 23 British Association of Social Workers England

CSWB 24 Jon Blend

CSWB 25 Yorkshire & Humberside Independent Panel Chairs forum

CSWB 26 Michael Shaw

CSWB 27 Dr Steve Rogowski

CSWB 28 Dr Peter Whitaker

CSWB 29 CoramBAAF

CSWB 30 Children England

CSWB 31 Alan Kennelly

CSWB 32 Louise O’Sullivan IRO

CSWB 33 John Kemmis

CSWB 34 Lisa Bailey

CSWB 35 Helen Macfarlane

CSWB 36 John Plummer

CSWB 37 Patrick Wilkings

CSWB 38 Ms Roisin Sweeny

CSWB 39 Rachel Olaoye

CSWB 40 Lana Gayle

CSWB 41 Alderman Mark Fittock

CSWB 42 Unicef UK and the Children’s Rights Alliance for England

CSWB 43 Bolanle Kayode

CSWB 44 Association of Independent LSCB Chairs

CSWB 45 Nagalro

CSWB 46 Action for Children

CSWB 47 Professor Mike Stein

CSWB 48 Anne Jackson

CSWB 49 London and South East regional Foster Panel Chairs forum

CSWB 50 PSHE Association and NAHT

CSWB 51 Royal College of Nursing

CSWB 52 Pete Bentley

CSWB 52A Pete Bentley (supplementary)

CSWB 53 Local Government Association

CSWB 54 David Hersh, Chairman of Governors, Tiferes High School

CSWB 55 Young Futures

CSWB 56 Mrs Judith Nemeth, Executive Director of NAJOS, the National Association of Jewish Orthodox Schools

CSWB 57 Association of Professors of Social Work

CSWB 58 Article 39 - further submission

CSWB 59 Dr Ray Jones, Emeritus Professor of Social Work, Kingston University and St George’s, University of London

CSWB 60 Coram Children’s Legal Centre

CSWB 62 Oliver Mills

CSWB 63 Ateres High School, Gateshead

CSWB 64 Dr Anna Gupta

CSWB 65 National Association of Reviewing Officers (NAIRO)

CSWB 66 Emeritus Professor June Thoburn

CSWB 67 Maria Stanley

CSWB 68 Menorah Grammar School (London)

CSWB 69 Jewish Community Council of Gateshead

CSWB 70 Keser Girls' School, Gateshead

CSWB 71 Nagalro - further submission

CSWB 72 Dr F H Mikdadi

CSWB 73 Liberty

CSWB 74 The Adolescent and Children’s Trust (TACT)

CSWB 75 Mrs Alex Bemrose