Children (Leaving Care) Bill [H.L.]
Lord Hunt of Kings Heath (Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of Health; Labour)
My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. Two years ago this Government published the Report of the Review of Safeguards for Children Living Away From Home. That review was conducted by Sir William Utting and revealed a picture of failure. Many children who had been taken into care to offer them protection and help had been neither protected nor helped. Some had actually suffered harm at the hands of those supposed to help them. Others had just been badly let down. They had been moved from placement to placement, from school to school, and then turned out to fend for themselves when they reached 16. This was a failure of the whole system.
I remind noble Lords of some of the statistics lying behind this drive to improve standards for children and young people in and leaving care. As many as 75 per cent of children leave care with no educational qualifications. As many as 50 per cent are unemployed. Twenty per cent experience homelessness within two years of leaving care. An increasing proportion of young people leave care at 16 to fend for themselves. In 1993, 33 per cent of those leaving care between 16 and 18 were aged 16. In 1998 that figure had risen to 46 per cent. Compare that with the average age at which young people leave home in this country, which is 22. Is it any wonder they struggle to cope?
There are complex underlying reasons, but one of the most powerful boils down to money. At 16, young people can claim state benefits so there is an incentive for local authorities to discharge them from care and on to someone else's budget. We need to tackle this sort of perverse incentive. This Bill does so.
In July this year we published a consultation document, Me, Survive Out There?, setting out all these issues and our proposals for dealing with them. We had a very encouraging response. More than 160 organisations, authorities and individuals replied. Eighty-three per cent of the responses supported our proposals. We are grateful to all those who replied. This Bill is the result. It follows closely the outline of the consultation document.
We believe that local authorities' responsibilities towards young people in and leaving care should correspond more closely to those of responsible parents. That means providing support and assistance for children beyond the age of 16. Young people in and leaving care should be able to expect this from their corporate parent. That is why Clauses 1 and 2 of the Bill place new responsibilities on local authorities to assess and meet the care and support needs of children aged 16 and 17 who are in their care or who have left care.
For those who have left care, the local authority that last looked after a child will be responsible for continuing support wherever the young person is living. Responsible local authorities will have a duty to keep in touch with these young people wherever they move to; a duty that will apply beyond 18 up to the age of 21. No longer will local authorities be able to forget their responsibilities to the young people who leave their care.
It is important that young people are helped to prepare and plan for their future to enable them to achieve their aspirations. That is why, from their sixteenth birthday or as soon as they become eligible under the new arrangements, young people in and leaving care will have a pathway plan. The plan will map out a clear pathway to independence and will cover education, training, career plans and the support to be provided by the local authority. Young people will be directly involved in drawing up the plans, as will other interested parties, and the plan will be reviewed regularly to develop with the changing circumstances and ambitions of the young person.
The first three clauses of the Bill introduce the duty to provide young people in and leaving care with pathway plans. The duty will apply to all eligible and relevant children aged 16 and 17 who are in care or who have left care and will continue up to the age of 21 (and beyond where the young person is in higher education). The same clauses also introduce a parallel duty to provide these young people with young person's advisers. Currently many young people are unaware of the services that are available to them or how to access them and it is essential that under the new arrangements young people receive the support and assistance they need in a co-ordinated and accessible way.
The young person's adviser will provide a single point of contact for the young person, easily contactable in times of crisis or whenever advice is needed and able to put the young person in contact with other specialists such as careers advisers. The adviser will also be responsible for overseeing the pathway plan and ensuring that the young person receives the advice and support to which he is entitled. For young people who have left care, the adviser will be expected to fulfil the local authority's new duty to keep in touch.
Education and training is one of the best ways to improve a young person's life chances, and we believe that local authorities should encourage and help care leavers continue in education. That is why Clause 4 of this Bill gives local authorities new responsibilities and powers to make support available for care leavers in higher education. Currently, local authorities can assist care leavers with the costs associated with education or training up to the age of 24 only if they start the course before the age of 21. Clause 4 will get rid of this restriction. Young people in this particular group are often ready for higher education later than their peers, so this provision allows local authorities to provide assistance whenever the young person starts the course.
One of the disadvantages faced by care leavers in higher education is having no family to return to for vacations. That is why Clause 4 of the Bill also places a new duty on local authorities to assist a care leaver in higher education with vacation accommodation where this is needed.
All these new arrangements for young people in and leaving care will be underpinned by a new financial regime, the foundations of which will be laid by Clause 6 of the Bill. Currently, too many children leave care before they are ready to do so. The proportion of 16 and 17-year olds leaving care at the age of 16 increased from one third in 1993 to a little under one half in 1998. This trend is alarming and we are determined to reverse it. We believe that one reason for this trend is the perverse financial incentive for local authorities to push children as young as 16 out of care and onto benefits. The new financial arrangements will remove this incentive and recognise that young people in and leaving care need proper support and guidance, not just cash.
The funds from income support, housing benefit and jobseeker's allowance to which these young people are currently eligible will, therefore, be transferred to a new budget, to be allocated to local authorities to support these young people properly. This budget will be based on local authorities' existing spend on this group, drawing in additional resources from the children's social services special grant, making extra money available to ensure that local authorities are able to fulfil their new duties to this vulnerable group. We want to see local authorities act more like responsible parents towards the children in and leaving their care.
We recognise that at present certain 16 and 17 year olds--such as disabled children and lone parents--are eligible for income support even if they live at home with their parents, recognising that they have special needs. The new financial arrangements will continue to recognise that these groups have special needs. Clause 6 contains provisions allowing the Secretary of State to exempt certain groups from the new financial arrangements and we intend to use this power to ensure that disabled children and lone parents keep their present entitlements to income support.
Taken together these measures add up to a substantial package of support, both personal and financial. We believe that it will make a significant difference to the life chances of these young people, helping them to grow into independence and a rewarding adulthood. But it would be naive to assume that it will always be sweetness and light. Inevitably there will be disagreements and failures.
We anticipate that the involving and empowering aspect of pathway planning will minimise disputes but nonetheless we have to have a robust, swift and sensitive means of dealing with complaints. The Bill provides for regulations to describe the complaints procedure for these young people. We anticipate using the existing machinery but building in additional sensitivity, such as an advocate for the young person. We shall also be monitoring closely how quickly complaints are resolved. Young people do not have the leisure to put their lives on hold while bureaucracies grind slowly through processes. Again, we hope that most complaints will be settled amicably and quickly, but, again, it would be naive to assume that this will always be the case.
There have always been troubled young people who run away from local authorities and it is wise to assume that there always will be. For these young people, we need to make sure that there is emergency provision to pick them up and a support system which is flexible enough to encourage them back on terms which they can accept. For emergencies, these young people will still be eligible for emergency help from any local authority in whose area they fetch up. As now, they may turn up at refuges such as Centrepoint, or at night shelters. Emergency provision will see them through the short time it takes to re-establish contact with their responsible authority.
Our new arrangements are designed to be as responsive as possible to young people disaffected with their local authority, for whatever reason. They can live wherever they choose in the country, and their authority will still be responsible for maintaining them. So there will be no more disputes between authorities about whose budget the young person belongs with. The main point of contact will be the young person's adviser. If the young person wishes, that contact can be minimal and it can be the only contact he or she need have with any local authority. And should that relationship be the root of the problem--even though the young person will have had a major hand in choosing the adviser in the first place--there will be scope for making changes. These measures are intended to ensure that no young person needs emergency support for long; and that where there are problems a solution can be reached as quickly as possible.
This Bill is mainly about provision for young people aged 16 and 17 in and leaving care. We know that there is a strong lobby to extend support as well to those aged 18 and over. In our response to the Utting report we said that the Government are minded to extend this duty until the young person reaches the age of 21. However we will first study the costs, limitations and affordability of doing so.
The Bill makes young persons' advisers and pathway plans available to care leavers up to the age of 21, or 24, as I said, if they are being supported in education or training. Authorities can provide support for education and must provide vacation accommodation for higher education if it is needed. The Bill places a duty on local authorities to keep in touch with these young people. Local authorities already have a power to assist, in kind or in cash, and we have made provision for the Secretary of State to make regulations about special groups in respect of whom that power would be converted to a duty. We are determined to maintain support for young people leaving care and to help them--not to push them--into fully independent adult lives.
In conclusion, we believe that young people in and leaving care have not been getting a fair deal; their life chances have been unacceptably restricted and too many end up socially excluded, without qualifications, without jobs and without homes. Too many are forced to leave care before they are ready. As the corporate parent of this vulnerable group, this Government recognise their special responsibilities and duties. All local authorities must act as responsible parents would towards their own children, supporting them in the transition from childhood to adulthood. They must ensure that, on leaving care, these young people are not isolated but participate socially and economically as citizens.
The Children (Leaving Care) Bill will provide the statutory framework through which the Government can change the local authority care and support system to give these young people the support that they need and deserve.
Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.--(Lord Hunt of Kings Heath.)
Earl Howe (Conservative)
My Lords, on behalf of noble Lords on these Benches I should like to express my thanks to the Minister for his very clear and helpful introduction to this Bill. It is a Bill that we greatly welcome. Ten years ago the passing of the Children Act represented a landmark in the level of legal protection afforded to young people. The Children (Leaving Care) Bill extends and brings up to date the provisions of that Act, as they apply to perhaps the most vulnerable group of children in our society; namely, children in care.
If we wanted a reason to justify the importance of this measure, we need look no further than the sobering statistics associated with care leavers; indeed, the Minister has already given us some of them. Of the 5,000 children who leave the care system each year, whether that care has been provided by foster parents, by a residential home or by others, more than three-quarters have absolutely no academic qualifications. Between 50 per cent and 80 per cent are unemployed. Some 30 per cent of single homeless young people have previously been in care, as have no fewer than 23 per cent of adult prisoners and 38 per cent of young prisoners. If these figures do not resonate with sufficient clarity, we should perhaps reflect on the statistical base line. Care leavers account for less than 1 per cent of their age group, yet they comprise a vastly greater proportion of those who are in some way disadvantaged. It should not surprise us that care leavers have been shown in recent studies to be an especially unhappy, vulnerable and dissatisfied group of young people who feel rejected by the system.
Yet the system ought to be looking after them. The statutory duties of local authorities to prepare children for leaving care and to support them afterwards were laid down in the Children Act 1989 and in associated regulations. These duties, combined with a number of discretionary powers, enable local authorities to provide for the well-being of young people who leave the care system. However, experience has shown a woeful degree of variation in the level and type of pre-care and post-care support given by local authorities around the country. Some authorities are models of excellence. But, all too often, budgetary constraints lead to the opposite result; for example, the amounts paid under leaving-care grants vary from £2,000 down to just a very few pounds. Similar differences are evident in the financial assistance provided for further education and training for employment.
What we are talking about here, of course, is that most important ingredient in the life and expectations of any young person; namely, opportunity. For those who begin their adult lives without the love and support of a family--or, indeed, without the love and support of anyone at all--the absence of a helping hand at that stage can very often mean the denial of such opportunity. Worse still: it can also lead directly to that damaging downward path that leads to homelessness, unemployment and crime.
The system, too, contains some perverse incentives. A local authority may be tempted to look for ways of discharging a young person from care early, because in doing so it will enable the burden of maintaining that individual to be shifted away from itself and onto the benefits budget. Increasingly the figures show that the average age at which young people are being discharged from care is coming down--in many cases to as low as 15. The Minister rightly alluded to that fact. This is an extremely worrying trend.
If we think of what happens in ordinary families where, quite typically, parents continue to provide support for a child until he or she reaches the age of 22, we can see better what kind of a deep end we are pushing these young people towards. That push, it must be said, often comes from the children themselves, who find the care system oppressive and cannot get out of it soon enough. But the world that they move into, frequently with high hopes, can be a world of disappointment, characterised by dependence on benefits, seedy accommodation and a lack of any kind of emotional support.
It is these difficult issues that this new measure sets out to address. I shall not go over the Bill's detailed provisions that have already been covered so well by the Minister. Let me say though, at the outset, that we believe them to represent in broad terms a very decided step forwards. In particular, we welcome the emphasis in the Bill on treating care and after-care as a continuum rather than as two discrete stages in a child's life. We welcome the attempt to remove any perverse incentive that a local authority may have to discharge children from care at too young an age. We very much support what I venture to say is the Bill's underlying theme, which is that each and every child leaving care is an individual whose wants and needs are different from those of the next child and who deserves the kind of support that he would receive had he been brought up in an ordinary family.
However, two things will make or break these proposals. The first of these is resources, sufficient to enable them to be delivered properly. The second requirement is that the whole process of needs assessments, pathway plans, personal advisers and ongoing support must be one that the children themselves can trust and take ownership of. One of the themes emerging from published research is that children do not feel sufficiently in control of what happens to them as they leave care. They want to feel as independent of social services as it is possible to be. The close involvement of the child in the preparation and review of pathway plans, and conveying the feeling that his or her wishes are taken account of, is absolutely essential if each plan is to work as it should.
I hope that the Government will take these concerns on board by the time the Bill comes into force. As regards resources, I understand why Ministers have been minded to consider ring-fencing the budget for care leavers. But I confess that I have considerable doubts about the wisdom of it. The problem with ring-fencing is that the more it occurs, the more pressure builds up on other local authority core services. It leaves absolutely no room at all for flexibility. Important as care leavers are, the ring-fencing of funds sends a message to local authorities that somehow they are not to be trusted and that all they are really good for is to act as agencies for delivering the Government's policies. I wonder whether the Government should look again at this aspect and find another way round the problem, perhaps by setting minimum standards.
As an aside to this, I have seen the concern expressed that the money from the "Quality Protects" initiative has already been allocated and will not, at least for the most part, be available for the purposes that the Government now intend for it under this Bill. What is the Minister's comment on that? Can he say how much money overall the Treasury is budgeting to fulfil the provisions of the Bill, and how much of this is new money?
Under the heading of "resources", I feel that I must express a concern over the ability of local authorities to deliver the sort of service that will be expected of them when, in manpower terms, many of them are already stretched to the limit. What role do the Government see for voluntary agencies in this field? Do not the Government envisage practical difficulties emerging for local authorities who find themselves having to discharge their duties at a considerable geographical distance from a young person? Will these difficulties be reflected in the funding formula?
Looking at the Bill as a whole, I think it is unfortunate to say the least that devolution has created some anomalous differences for care leavers north and south of the Border. Scottish care leavers who move to England will not be "eligible" or "relevant" children under this Bill and will, therefore, be treated differently from English and Welsh children. In my view, this can only complicate the lives of such children and place them even further apart from the benefits system than they are at present.
We are told in the Explanatory Notes that English children who move to live in Scotland will continue to be able to claim social security benefits. If a child is in such a situation, will the Minister confirm that it will make no difference whatever to the requirement for his or her local authority in England to continue discharging the various duties that the Bill places on it?
I turn briefly to other, more detailed topics. I think that we shall want to explore in Committee whether the definition of eligible children is as wide or as flexible as it ought to be. For example, there are some particularly vulnerable children who may not have been in care for long, but who nevertheless are deserving of ongoing support. I should also like to ask the Minister whether the Government intend that young people on remand and unaccompanied asylum-seeking children should be eligible for support, as was suggested in the original consultation document.
I should be grateful, too, if the Minister could say what special provisions will be put in place for disabled care leavers. Local authority statistics of 1998 indicated that up to a quarter of the looked-after population is disabled. Will the guidance that is issued reflect the specific needs and experiences of those young people?
We shall wish to look at the powers that the Bill gives to local authorities as distinct from duties. We shall wish to ensure that the balance between the two is the right one. Under that broad heading can the Minister say whether the Government intend to stipulate in regulations a minimum baseline rate of financial support for care leavers? It seems to me that unless that is done--whether or not the budget is ring-fenced--young people will find themselves subject to a similar sort of lottery from different local authorities, as exists at the moment.
I understand why the Government have chosen to remove care leavers from the scope of the social security system, but concerns arise from this. A blanket exclusion from benefits could leave the most vulnerable children without any source of financial support--for example, children who become estranged from their personal adviser and from the care system. Will the Government consider whether a discretionary right to claim severe hardship allowance could continue for the small minority who find themselves in need of a financial safety net? In that context we should remember that short of a 100 per cent robust and watertight system--which no system can be--there will always be some care leavers who are in danger of falling through the cracks.
The Government's consultation document proposed that an independent mediation and appeals mechanism should be established to cater for those children and young people who are in dispute with their social workers over their pathway plan. An independent review panel would allow care leavers access to independent representation at appeal, and also serve, by virtue of its very existence, as a guarantor of local authority obligations. Can the Minister say why these important proposals have not been incorporated in the Bill?
These are only some of the issues that we shall wish to explore in Committee. For now, let me say this. This is a Bill which addresses the needs of a special group of young people--special in that their ability to reach their full potential and then go on to lead fulfilling lives is dependent on their not being short-changed by society. The former Secretary of State, Mr Dobson, observed in the consultation document that the duty we owe to them is exactly the same duty as we owe to our own children, and that the support we provide should, as far as possible, be the same support as young people receive who have been looked after by their families. Let me add a wholehearted "Amen" to that. We look forward to playing our part in putting a Bill on the statute book that will bring a better and fairer system of support to those who have a right to expect exactly that.
Lord Clement-Jones (Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, I join the noble Earl, Lord Howe, in thanking the Minister for his clear exposition of the provisions of the Bill. The Bill is the result of a long campaign by the voluntary sector to improve life and life chances for care leavers.
I want in particular to pay a tribute to Tory Laughland, the founder of the Who Cares Trust, the caring organisation for young people in, and leaving, care. I first met her in the early 1990s when she was campaigning for young people in care and leaving care. I was sponsoring homeless projects through Kingfisher plc's community involvement programme. It was clear that a totally disproportionate number of young people leaving care became homeless and ended up sleeping rough, as indeed they still do. She inspired the company to work with caring organisations to try to develop independence training for young people leaving care, and linked to job opportunities.
However, it was an uphill battle getting politicians to wake up to the way in which society was failing these vulnerable young people who were effectively thrown out of care at the age of 16. I am just sad that Tory Laughland is not alive today to see her campaign come to fruition. The reason Tory was so effective in her campaign for and with young care leavers was because she applied the kind of tests to corporate parenthood that we do not think twice about in relation to our own children. Above all, she believed in listening to young people in and leaving care and asking them what they wanted.
What caring parents would want their own children to have to fend for themselves totally once they reach the age of 16? Yet it is a horrifying fact that even now half of all care leavers do so at 16, despite their lack of maturity and life skills to enable them to cope adequately. However, as has been pointed out by Utting's children's safeguards review, the government response and the subsequent consultation paper, the current care system gives a perverse financial incentive to local authorities and young people to terminate care early, as the Minister pointed out. That is why so many of us welcomed the tone of the consultation paper which stated:
"Some people leaving care have been let down badly. They have been expected to cope with independence too early and with too little support".
In the letter to councillors in September 1998, the former Secretary of State, Mr Dobson, stated that local authorities should,
"provide the kind of loyal support that any good parent would give their children".
I strongly support that statement. That is the yardstick by which the reforms set out in this Bill should be measured.
In that light, we on these Benches of course support a great deal of what is proposed in the Bill. We welcome the new duties imposed on local authorities to support care leavers from the ages of 16 to 18. In particular, we support the new duties as regards personal and financial support. We are concerned, however, that cash support should still be given so that money management skills can be learned. We also have worries about the total withdrawal of benefit for those young people who become estranged from their personal adviser. Should not severe hardship allowance be available in those circumstances?
In addition, although the Government appear unwilling to accept the point, we believe that consistency between local authorities as regards levels of financial support is vital, particularly with regard to the care-leaving grant, and that regulations should provide for that. At the end of the day, however, if these new duties are to operate properly, adequate government levels of funding need to be provided for local authorities. Can the Minister give an assurance that that will be the case?
We also welcome the duty to develop pathway plans for each eligible young person about to leave care. However, when will these start to be prepared? It should be well before potential care leavers reach the age of 16. The young person must also be closely involved, and consulted, in the process.
We also welcome the introduction of young persons' advisers. I hope in particular that the role of the voluntary sector--I agree with the comments of the noble Earl, Lord Howe, in this respect--in providing advisers will be a strong one. I welcome the Government's statement that young people will have a choice as regards who their adviser should be.
We also welcome the statement that grants to local authorities to support care leavers will be ring-fenced. We welcome the adoption of educational guidelines and the adoption of targets for the attainment of GCSEs and GNVQs for looked-after children and those leaving care in 2001 and 2003. I know that the equal chances programme has already had a major impact.
More generally, we on these Benches welcome the introduction of quality protects action plans in January 1999, but the Social Services Inspectorate showed in the document Someone Else's Children? that however good the policies and safeguards adopted, they will be a failure unless backed by proper checks to ensure that they are applied. But do we yet have evidence that these action plans are making a difference?
Along with a great many voluntary organisations in this field despite the Government's very best intentions, measured by the loyal support test to which I referred earlier, we have concluded that the contents of the Bill, as it currently stands, are not good enough.
First, there is the major issue of support for those aged 18 to 21 years. In their consultation document, the Government were "minded" to extend duties not only to 18, but beyond that to the age of 21. Did they receive a single response against that? Why is the proposal not in the Bill? Have the Government now decided that that is not now affordable? Is this not simply the dead hand of the Treasury at work? How much of a war chest do the Government actually need before they can agree to these proposals? What estimate of prospective cost have the Government actually made?
Secondly, there is the issue, already referred to by the noble Earl, Lord Howe, as regards the 13-week threshold for eligibility. As currently drafted, it may be too hard and fast. The major voluntary organisations say that local authorities should be bound to review the cases of those with less than 13 weeks eligibility since there are numbers of young people who have not formerly been in care but in residential schools, health service provisions and so on, who may need to be treated as though they were care leavers under the Bill. Understandably, local authorities have a rather different perspective. That needs to be resolved in debate on the Bill at Committee stage.
Thirdly, unlike the consultation paper, why does the Bill make no reference to unaccompanied asylum-seeking children? Are they not at great risk if they are not brought within the scope of this Bill?
Fourthly, I refer to the power to assist those between 21 and 24 years of age who have left care and are in higher education. If they have left care--irrespective of when they started--is not that power inadequate? One of the key areas where we must improve outcomes for care leavers is in the field of education. Should not that be a duty? There have been some extremely hard cases of local authorities denying responsibility even for loans, let alone grants, and as a result young people have been unable to take up the offer of a place in higher education.
Fifthly, there is the question of an independent review panel, either nationally or in each local authority area. It is vital that there is some route by which a young person can question the initial pathway plan and its subsequent review. On occasion, there may be differences with his or her personal adviser which need to be resolved. The young person may well need an independent source of advocacy. The question is asked in the consultation document but, sadly, the answer is ducked in the Bill. I hope that we can obtain clarification from the Minister on that.
Finally, we need to ask whether there will be explicit reference in regulations under the Bill to guidance on the specific needs and experience of disabled young people leaving care. That is an area which also needs urgent clarification. However, I welcome the Minister's clarification on the scope of Clause 6.
In principle, we on these Benches support this Bill. Outcomes for care leavers are a national scandal. But if we are going to change the Children Act for the first time since it was enacted in 1989, we need to get it right. We on these Benches will work at Committee stage to do just that. We need a system which will really meet the needs of all care leavers and where the duties of corporate parents are aligned with those of natural parents; a system where these young people can finally have the opportunities in life which have been denied them for so long and which the rest of us take for granted.
Lord Laming (Crossbench)
My Lords, perhaps I may also express my gratitude to the Minister for the helpful introduction to this important Bill. May I also say what a pleasure it is to follow the noble Earl, Lord Howe, and the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones? As I have the honour to be the president of the Who Cares Trust, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, for the warm tribute that he paid to that organisation which I believe does excellent work. I am grateful for his support of it.
Last night I had reason to express marked reservations about the Local Government Bill, so this afternoon it gives me particular pleasure to say how delighted I am to welcome the Children (Leaving Care) Bill. I believe it is great credit to the Government that they have demonstrated a priority to improve the protection and quality of care and life opportunities for young people in public care. The work of the interdepartmental ministerial group, the Quality Protects initiative and the consultation document are all clear indications of the Government's commitment and concern for these young people. In this Bill the Government have gone beyond that to set out a framework to support young people at a critical time in their lives when they leave public care. That is very important because for too long society has expected far too much from young people who have the least in every way in terms of resources, education, family support and social help.
Most of these young people have had traumatic experiences which have scarred their young lives. Many will have been let down by the very adults they had the right to look to for their care and protection. Many will have had severely disrupted education which leaves them ill equipped to take their place in society.
But all of them have the right to expect local authorities to be a "good parent". I support the points that have already been made about the standards that we should set to judge the notion of a good parent. Many authorities, ably supported by some excellent specialist voluntary bodies, try to achieve very high standards of care for the children for whom they have a particular responsibility. That should be acknowledged and praised where it occurs. But, alas, that is not always the case. Too often young people are encouraged or allowed to leave care at the earliest opportunity. For the reasons set out by the noble Earl, Lord Howe, it is no wonder that many of them finish up in bad company or in bad practice. Too many of them end up in young offender institutions.
The Minister said that the generality of young people in this country leave home at the average age of 22. That is so, but they do not leave home finally and for ever. They leave home but have the continued support of their parents. They can fall back at any time on their help and support; a word of encouragement or consolation. They can have that support in a continuing way for many years. Young people leaving care have no such security as they face an uncertain future.
It is for that reason that I would like to raise a number of points for consideration by the Minister and which he touched on his helpful opening statement. First, I so much welcome new Section 19B of the Children Act which places on local authorities the duty to assess the needs of 16 and 17 year-olds and to continue to provide a personal adviser for them until the age of 21. But would not it be better to make that a duty to assess and meet the needs of all young people up to the age of 21?
Secondly, can the Minister assure your Lordships that the resources exist to ensure that local authorities will not seek ways to avoid their responsibilities which are now set out in the Bill? It would be helpful if the Minister could give an assurance that the performance of local authorities will be monitored in that way.
Thirdly, would the Minister consider making it a duty to assist young people who are now in further education, or who may be, up to the age of 24 years? Being a good parent is about having ambitions for one's children and supporting them through higher education so they can live up to their full capacity, realise their full potential, take their place in society and become useful and fulfilled citizens.
As the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, indicated, we have had already experience of young people being denied the opportunity of further education or having it cut off at a most unwelcome time. So will the Minister consider making it a duty to assist young people in further education up to the age of 24?
Fourthly, will the Minister consider that as regards appeals the local authority should have a duty to give a young person access to an independent source of advice and advocacy? Many young people feel suspicious, to put it mildly, concerning the motivation of local authorities. Access to an independent source of advice and advocacy is an essential part in helping them to present their position and to achieve what they believe to be a reasonable outcome.
Fifthly, although I support entirely the requirement that a local authority must retain responsibility for each young person wherever that young person is living in England and Wales, is the Minister aware that some local authorities have dispersed young people in their care across many authorities and often at great distance from the home authority? Will the Minister ensure that this responsibility to be placed on local authorities will be rigorously monitored? In many instances I fear that there has been an element of out of sight, out of mind.
Finally, perhaps I may refer to the phrase "keep in touch" in new Section 23B. That phrase has a rather casual sound to it and could amount to no more than a Christmas card sent once a year. Does the Minister agree that it would be advisable to find a stronger form of words to ensure that contact is not only maintained but that it is effective, reliable and robust?
Having said that, I believe that the Bill is much needed and offers greater security, well-being and new life opportunities for young people leaving care. I hope that it will command the support of all parts of your Lordships' House.
Baroness David (Labour)
My Lords, I give a very warm welcome to the Bill and thank the Minister for his clear exposition of it. This Bill completes the unfinished business left by the Children Act 1989. As one who took an active part in the whole passage of that Bill, I am delighted that support for 16 to 18 year-olds, which a number of us--Lady Faithfull, that doughty campaigner for children, the noble Earl, Lord Russell, and I--fought, is now to be provided. These children will have the financial, educational and pastoral support and help we knew to be essential.
I would be grateful for clarification on a few points, which I hope the Minister will be able to give when he replies to the debate. The first is: exactly what defines an eligible child? The Explanatory Notes suggest that it means children who have been looked after for a prescribed period after their 14th birthday. This could exclude children who may have had a few episodes in care up to the age of 14, returned home for two years, then suffered the break-up of their family. They would still be subject to a care order, but ineligible for the support and assistance provided in the Bill. Others in the care of a local authority are those in residential special schools or local authority boarding schools. Will they be covered by the Bill? I believe that the noble Earl, Lord Howe, asked about that.
My next point is the definition of a "responsible authority" as the last one that looked after the child. It is good to pin down the responsibility, but there could be problems. A young person seeking either education or a job could move around the country quite a bit and it could be quite difficult to keep in touch with him or her. Suppose that a young person in pursuit of employment moves from Hull to London. The responsible authority will still have a duty to carry out the needs assessment, prepare a pathway plan and appoint a personal adviser--all at a distance. If the funding is to follow the child, will it be the case that in practice the London authority will assess the young person's needs, prepare the pathway plan, allocate appropriate accommodation and provide the personal adviser--all funded by Hull? One would have thought that the sensible thing was for the responsible authority to be the leaving care team of the social services department of the London authority. I hope that the Minister can clear this up.
Let us consider young adults between 18 and 21 who up to a point are covered by the Bill. Will local authority duties still include the provision of suitable accommodation even though they could be eligible for housing benefit? Perhaps that is covered by Clause 6. The requirement to provide vacation accommodation in new Section 24B for those up to the age of 24 applies only to those in higher education. Would the Government be willing to think again about that and include those undertaking further education and other educational training courses, in view of the often difficult educational history experienced by these young people--frequent changes of school, for example--and often the resultant gap between their schooling and later return to education or training? Could this assistance include those who join the Armed Forces but have no home to go to when they are on leave?
I very much like the idea of the personal adviser who will be the liaison between the local authority and the care leaver--a very important person in the child's life. Is this adviser to be a trained social worker from within the authority or someone from the voluntary sector, who may perhaps be more independent? He or she will be a very important ally for the young person who may be disillusioned by the care system. There must be a genuine partnership and trust between them. Will there be training for the social workers or advisers? Will there be necessary qualifications? What relationship will there be between them and the youth support service which is to be set up by the learning and skills Bill which will soon be with us?
I have mentioned the pathway plan. I have a few doubts about the exact plans proposed which are to start following a young person's 16th birthday. That seems a little late. I believe that another noble Lord made that point. Would it not be more sensible to start at 14, when a number of decisions are made at school about subjects to be followed leading up to GCSE and the sort of career or job that will suit the pupil? Also the plan should have clear links to the young person's care plan. What mechanisms will be in place to ensure that the services outlined within the plan--which could include a place on a further education course or the provision of continuing medical care--will be delivered? The Government may have good reasons for starting at 16, but I would like an explanation of the justification for that.
There is one class of young person not mentioned in the Bill--the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, referred to this--but it was in the consultative document, Me, Survive out there? on page 41. These are the unaccompanied refugee children. They are likely to fall within the responsibility of the local authority but may well not fill the eligible children requirements. Will the Government expand the eligibility requirements to include these young people who might otherwise be left without family, without employment, without accommodation, without financial support and possibly not even able to speak the language? So they really would suffer social exclusion. In April 1999 there were about 2,500 asylum seekers aged 16 and 17. Currently--I do not vouch for my figures: they came from the consultative document--there are about 400 such children being looked after by local authorities, sometimes placed in isolated bed-and-breakfast accommodation. They should be treated as "children in need", as described in the 1989 Act. A recent Amnesty International report states that,
"Central government clearly needs to give a lead in this area".
I hope that they will.
On finance, I can understand why Clause 6 was put into the Bill. There are good reasons for making funding the responsibility of one agency. But there must be adequate resources. This is essential if the Bill is going to work. This is going to be expensive, even though the benefits now paid out will be reduced. Can we have some reassurance on this matter?
My final point involves the Care Standards Bill, which is to have its Second Reading on Monday next. It is vital that that Bill works and I hope that it is implemented at the same time as this Bill, where one will be dependent upon the success of the other. We are all too aware of the crises and scandals that there have been in our children's homes. It is imperative that children should have a happy experience, loving relationships and a good education, even when they are in care. That has certainly not been the case up until now, or only in certain places. The plans for their future, making sure that they go on at 16 to further education or training for a job, in suitable accommodation, which this Bill provides, should make a far-reaching change to these very vulnerable children's future. I congratulate the Government on bringing the Bill forward. I hope that it will work well and that it will have the support of all Members of this House.
Lord Northbourne (Crossbench)
My Lords, I first became conscious of this problem about six or seven years ago when I was asked by the Who Cares Trust to take a group of young people to hand in a petition at 10 Downing Street. They were a selected group but I found them extremely convincing. They then came back to the Palace of Westminster and spoke very well about their problems.
I congratulate the Government on addressing this issue. It might well have been addressed before by previous administrations, but it was not. This Government have taken it on, and hats off to them for doing so. The Bill sets out, subject to one or two issues that were raised by earlier speakers, what needs to be done. I wish to speak for a few moments about my doubts that it will be done. It is easy to set out a list of things that need to be done but there are one or two things about which we ought to be concerned.
The first, your Lordships will not be surprised to hear, is the question of money, to which a number of speakers have already referred. I have the social services performance indicators 1998-99 for local authority expenditure on children in care. The gross weekly cost of placing a child in a children's home varies from a minimum of £163 to a maximum of £4,832 in another authority. I have to say that the figures are very odd. Greenwich spends £269 while Lambeth spends £1,815. Kingston-upon-Thames spends £335 while Waltham Forest spends £2,141. It would be interesting to know whether those figures have any meaning at all. If they do, they suggest that some local authorities take their responsibilities more seriously than others.
That leads me to a question. As local authorities already have discretionary powers to do most of these things, and as it is obvious that these things are desirable, why have all local authorities not been doing them? I have thought of two answers. The first is that they perceive themselves as not having enough money to do them; the second is that they perceive other things as having a higher political expediency--to put it crudely, kinds of expenditure that will attract more votes. I ask myself whether the position will be any different after the Bill becomes law. I accept that the Bill takes matters that have been discretionary and makes them mandatory. The reality is that the Government have never actually taken local authorities to court for not doing what they are supposed to do under the law, so why are we to suppose that local authorities will not "cock a snook" at the Government and not do what they are obliged to do under this Bill? The noble Lord may have a good answer to that question, but I do not understand the position.
Have the Government made an estimate of the gross costs of implementing the Bill? Will the Government provide all or part of that cash? The noble Lord indicated that they will provide part of it. Is it realistic to expect local authorities to provide the other part, given that they already appear to be unable to do what they are supposed to be doing? I support the necessity to ring-fence the cash because otherwise local authorities will spend it on lamp posts or kerbs--expenditure which attracts more votes.
The next issue is people. Who will implement the Bill? From where will the people come? I was told that in Tower Hamlets about seven or eight weeks ago 32 children were "at risk" who had not been appointed a social worker. One social worker, who has been known to us at Toynbee Hall for a very long time, has a case list of 80. One can imagine that a good many of those children will not be seen at all. A case list of 80 is absurd. I am asking the Government to be realistic about the situation and either help local authorities to find the money to implement the Bill or give them some more money to do it. It is no use making laws if nothing is going to happen.
On the question of people, in Tower Hamlets we found in regard to the Government's arrangements for learning mentors--I mentioned this point during the debate on the Queen's Speech--that the local schools had been advertising for learning mentors at some £3,000 to £4,000 a year above the salaries being paid to local youth workers, with a nine-to-five job and full school holidays. As youth workers are expected to work on a great deal less money all the hours that God made, youth workers are simply applying to become learning mentors. All the Government are doing is robbing Peter to pay Paul: leaving us with a greatly enfeebled youth service but a learning mentor service that will work. Will the same happen in this case? Will people to implement this Bill be taken from other services and thereby ensure that there is net additional benefit? The noble Baroness, Lady David, mentioned NVQs or diplomas in respect of training. I declare an interest as a trustee of the Caldecott Foundation and Caldecott College. Training is of fundamental importance.
The noble Earl, Lord Howe, said that the Bill treats care and aftercare as a continuum. That is good. But what no one has so far mentioned is that a child's life is a continuum before he or she was taken into care. It is in that critical period before he or she was taken into care that most of the trouble arose which caused him or her to be taken into care. To quote the outcomes for children who have been in care, in terms of crime and so on, is in a way unrealistic because it is a group of children who have been selected to go into care precisely because their life experiences have been so awful that they cannot stay with their families. We have to look at the continuum. I cannot help wondering whether the Government are looking sufficiently hard at trying to avoid the situations arising which put those children into care in the first place. I come back to my old point--more support for parents. I know that the Government are already doing a good deal in that field.
Another issue is care in the care homes. Again we come back to people. Are the Government aware that not quite 10 per cent of people working in care homes have any relevant qualification? Ninety per cent of people working in care homes have no relevant qualifications. Is it any wonder that these children are fairly lost by the time they reach the end of their experience in care? What about therapeutic care? These children have sometimes had frightful emotional experiences, abuse and so on. Is there provision for therapeutic care and for support while children are in the children's home?
Finally, I should like to refer to a subject which I raise as often as I can and shall continue to do so until I have nudged the Government into doing something about it. I refer to families without fathers. In saying this, I am not stigmatising single mothers--far from it. The problem is the fathers. I am not stigmatising fathers, because it is not the fathers' fault; it is our fault. We have evolved a society in which young men have never been taught that they have a responsibility to be a proper role model to their children. We have evolved a society in which our values are individualist. People want to develop their own lifestyle without a proper element of consideration of responsibility to others. In this context, I have looked at the Government's draft PSHE and citizenship curriculum, which is shortly to be published. I should like to ask whether this House will have an opportunity to debate that curriculum. What our children are taught in school about the values of our society is fundamental to the future of our country. The curriculum is quite good. It does not, however, make any reference to the parental responsibility of fathers. Bearing in mind that now 20 per cent of all families are families without fathers, we must look at why so many young men do not want to be, or are not capable of being, responsible fathers.
Baroness Hanham (Conservative)
My Lords, perhaps I can provide the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, with some reassurance that not all local authorities are dilatory as regards their responsibilities to these young people. I am council leader in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and am a former chairman of the social services committee. The council that I lead has been operating a service to help care leavers for the past 10 years. It is based on a clear philosophy of sound inter-agency partnerships and effective practical assistance to those children.
The service follows a good parent model. No child being looked after is discharged before 18 years old unless he or she returns to their family or there are other special circumstances. Each care leaver has an individual plan which is prepared during his or her time with the local authority. Just before age 16, those plans are hardened into future progress. The young people can live in supported places until they are 20, and are then given help to find independent housing--when they feel able to move, and not before. Once in independent housing, they are given help to furnish and look after their home and to budget and care for themselves. They also have a key worker or supporter until they are at least 21.
I hope that from this noble Lords will understand that there is at least one local authority that has taken very seriously its parental responsibility for the children who come into its care. With no parents, or no adequate parents, they need to be able to rely on the local authority to provide them with an affectionate and supportive home, practical guidance and advice.
Therefore, I welcome the tenor and purpose behind the Bill. However, one or two areas give me cause for concern. At the danger of being seriously repetitious given the comments of previous speakers, I shall touch on them briefly. I have received some briefing from the Action on After Care Consortium. So as not to bore the House and cover the same ground again, I shall raise only two matters which were put to me by that organisation.
We need to ensure that the recommendations in Sir William Utting's review on children safeguards and in the second report of the Health Select Committee are fulfilled. My council is presently working under discretionary powers in assessing and meeting the needs of these young children. New Section 19B introduces a new duty to do that, but only when the children reach the age of 16 or 17. In our experience, that does not take the situation far enough. Young people often leave home in their 20s. Most of them need our support and care until they are 21 or 22, or well into their 20s. Many need financial support until then.
Our experience is that young people need cash, not help in kind. Most young people need to learn to manage money. If they do not have to manage money and if people feed them in all kinds of other ways, they do not learn to manage a budget and to cope with what is probably not quite enough. Does any young person ever have enough money? They have to learn to cope with what they have. I hope that under the provisions of new Section 24A the Minister will reconsider whether cash should not be the normal way of providing financial assistance. I should welcome it if he would take that idea on board.
Finally, perhaps I may comment on a matter raised by the noble Earl, Lord Howe; namely, the ring-fencing of funding. As a council leader with a budget, my heart fails when I hear about anything being ring-fenced. Our social services budget is 22 per cent over SSA, so we are already supporting social services to a considerable extent. But ring-fencing is not usually helpful in the long run. I admit that some local authorities are less good at managing their budgets and in those cases ring-fenced funding may be better. But on the whole, if matters are left to the local authority's discretion it will ensure that money is provided in the proper way and in adequate amounts.
I welcome the Bill. It is long overdue. Children and young people in local authority care need more than proper and adequate care. They need as much care as we give to our own children.
Baroness Masham of Ilton (Crossbench)
My Lords, I hope that Hansard will correct my name as it appears on the list of speakers and identify me as a female. For some reason, the Whips' Office keeps putting me down on the list as Lord Masham! I expect that I am trapped in the computer as a Lord.
I am pleased to congratulate the Government on the introduction of this Bill. I agree with them that vulnerable young people need comprehensive personal support rather than cash alone. The Bill is the best measure that the Government have undertaken, and this House may be able to make it even better by adding more protection.
For years I was a member of the board of visitors of a young offender institution. The age group at a YOI is between 15 and 21 years. In recent years, the increase in 15 and 16 year-olds coming into the YOIs is of great concern. About 40 per cent of those young people come from care. One could tell which ones came from the care system. They were much more institutionalised. They were classed as homeless. I have always felt that young people who have not had a home of their own--even if the homes were uncaring and problematical--are more vulnerable than other young people. They must feel rejected and so often their self-esteem is understandably low, even though some put on a brave front. When those young people were discharged from the young offender institution, it was no surprise that many returned soon after, simply not having been able to cope.
A Catholic chaplain from the young offender institution at Deerbolt in County Durham and I felt strongly that the young people leaving without family support needed a befriending service in an attempt to keep them on the right road. We held a seminar with the boys, who agreed that that was necessary. It is not easy to get such a scheme working on a voluntary basis. The young, enthusiastic priest was dismayed when he did not receive support from the churches in the localities from which some of the most vulnerable young people came.
That is why I am pleased that what will be new Section 23B(2) will require the local authority to appoint a personal adviser for each relevant child. Should it not already have done so?
It will be interesting to see how the pathway plans develop. I shall not be surprised if local authorities find it necessary to set up some drug and alcohol treatment centres for young people. Drug and alcohol abuse has become a problem among children, but no one seems to realise that, like adults, they need treatment for addiction. Was it not the case that the only treatment centre for young people in London closed last year when the problem was getting worse?
Last year I attended a video screening by Barnado's of the terrible problems experienced by young girls in Leeds, Bradford and Halifax, many of whom had absconded from care and been sucked into a culture of drugs and prostitution. It showed the cunning cruelty of pimps. The care system has let down these youngsters. It has become part of the culture of the underworld to entice teenagers into prostitution--and the younger, the better. I hope that when this Bill becomes an Act of Parliament it will help to stop this degrading practice involving children.
The headlines of the Ripon Gazette on Friday 3rd December read:
"Ex-carer guilty of sexual abuse.
Former child care worker Malcolm Stride was yesterday found guilty of sexually abusing young boys over a period of nine years, while he was employed at Barnardo's Spring Hill School in Ripon".
These children are at risk both within a place that they should be able to trust and in the complex world outside. I ask the Minister what checks will be made on advisers. I hope that the whole House will support the Government in trying to help vulnerable children and young people who are at immense risk from sexual and drug abuse, or just loneliness, and are being left behind in a competitive society.
To protect the most vulnerable young people who leave care will need good co-operation and communication from all the care agencies, from the education and employment agencies and from the Police and Probation Services. Looking after damaged and difficult young people needs understanding, experience and dedication as well as adequate funds.
Lord Murray of Epping Forest (Labour)
My Lords, too often in the past we have had occasion in your Lordships' House to draw attention to the tragedy and scandal of what happens to young people who leave care. The tragedy has been well illustrated this afternoon by the noble Earl, Lord Howe, the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, and others, notably by reference to the fact that about 40 per cent of youngsters in YOIs have been in care and approximately 40 per cent of homeless young people have been in care. The scandal is that these are the products of the system of care for young people. The results can be seen in low educational attainment, inadequate preparation for being ejected into the cold outside world and lack of support after leaving care. All of these factors need to be tackled. It is not just the job, or the fault, of central Government. Local government and voluntary organisations such as NCH Action for Children, of which I am vice-chairman, must bear a large part of the blame and make a major contribution to putting it right. NCH has learnt from its failures and gives a high priority to providing aftercare support to young people who leave care. It now has some 50 projects. I join in the praise for the Who Cares Trust. I like to regard NCH and other bodies of that kind as part of the response. But the essence of what I have to say is that we are all part of the problem and need to be part of the solution to it.
The fact that we have the Bill before us today shows that central Government have learnt. It is not merely the Bill for which central Government deserve praise. I warmly welcome what the Government have done in respect of educational provision and more generally in the context of the social exclusion programme to tackle the interconnected issues. The proposals in this Bill in effect offer a new deal to care leavers. That is the point of central importance in this Bill. The new provisions will also have the valuable by-product of saving a great deal of money which would otherwise have been spent or, rather, wasted.
This afternoon emphasis has rightly been laid on the need for adequate resources. Every year 2,500 care leavers end up in young offender institutions. If this measure helps only one in 10 of those youngsters to stay out of YOIs it will save society about £7 million a year just for starters. The lifelong benefits to young people and to all of us will be immeasurable. But we must look at the need for resources in the context of what is to be saved. I hope that my noble friend will keep that in mind in deciding whether to target a little extra money on the most vulnerable care leavers in ways that should make a good Bill even better.
I warmly welcome the cross-party support for the Bill this afternoon. I join previous speakers in making a few modest and, I hope, constructive suggestions that perhaps will make a good Bill better. My first suggestion relates to the duty placed on local authorities to assess and meet the needs of all 16 and 17 year-olds whom they have looked after and to continue to provide a personal adviser for them until they reach the age of 21. While this is a considerable advance on the present situation, there is a strong case for extending the duty on local authorities to assess and meet needs up to the age of 21. As NCH projects have emphasised, the most vulnerable are typically those who are most difficult to work with. That was one of the main reasons why Utting recommended that the discretionary powers in Section 24 of the Children Act 1989 should be converted into a duty and that young people should be supported up to the age of 21. To restrict support up until the age of 18 to a hard-pressed personal adviser may simply mean that the care precipice is shifted forward and that young people fall over the edge at 18 rather than 16. It is an improvement but it is not a situation that we want or that we would tolerate for our own children or grandchildren.
My second point relates to the power to provide assistance for expenses related to employment, education and training. The change proposed in Clause 24 would give local authorities power to provide grants to care leavers up to the age of 24 to assist with expenses connected with education or training. At present their power is exercisable for the most part up to the age of 21, so that sounds like an advance. But, as the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, and others have said, some local authorities are very reluctant to use their powers. There are good and poor local authorities, and that is why I believe that the power to provide assistance should be converted into a duty. The aim to improve the employability and skill levels of young care leavers is absolutely critical to this Bill.
One NCH project has drawn attention to the case of a young man who at 17 is still the subject of a care order and is attending a carpentry course. The authority will not help him with bus fares to get to the course which cost him £8.25 per week. All participants on the course have to wear steel-capped shoes. The young lad could not afford the £40 cost and faced exclusion from the course until the NCH project suggested it might contact the local press. There are still problems ahead. In time the lad will need to purchase tools. By that time he will probably be out of care. The local authority has said that it will not help with any further expenses. Many good local authorities are using their powers sympathetically, but unless these are made into duties I fear that some authorities will continue to fail their care leavers.
My final point relates to Clause 6, exclusion from benefits, to which reference has been made. As my noble friend, Lord Hunt, reminded us, there are two possible sources of support at the moment--central Government and local government. Far too often this has led to unhelpful wrangling over which has responsibility. In general I welcome Clause 6, which offers both the establishment of a clear national minimum standard of support and removes the typical entitlements to benefit, except for lone parents and disabled people. This should at least ensure consistency of treatment.
As has been said, it is possible for a care leaver to become estranged from his or her local authority, just as a young person can fall out with his or her natural parents. His or her attitude may be regarded as unreasonable, even bolshie, but it may none the less be very real and totally intractable. I welcome the assurance given by my noble friend Lord Hunt that there will be a fall-back safety net for those who could be among the most vulnerable and exposed young people. Not to provide one could force them to live, as it were, off the land--and we all know what that means in terms of squatting, petty crime, even in terms of prostitution and drug pushing. We know, too, that once a young person has developed a pattern of living of that kind it is extremely hard to break out. I welcome my noble friend's clarification of what will happen if a young person falls out with a local authority and into this trap.
However, like the noble Earl, Lord Howe, I should like to press him a little further on this point. What provision will be made in the exceptional cases where a youngster cannot come to terms with even indirect contact with his or her local authority? Will my noble friend consider providing access to the severe hardship allowance--perhaps conditional upon a rigorous but sympathetic independent examination of why the young person is unable to maintain a relationship with a local authority--and ensure that appropriate action is taken?
In the debate, emphasis has rightly been laid on the need to listen to care leavers. I am sure that my noble friend and the Government he represents will set a good example by listening to the constructive suggestions that have been made today for--I repeat--making a good Bill even better.
The Earl of Rosslyn (Crossbench)
My Lords, I should like to say something about the Bill from a criminal justice perspective. In so doing, I declare an interest as a serving police officer in the Thames Valley, where I am currently head of youth justice for the force.
It is well known that a disproportionate amount of crime is committed by young people, especially by young males. The 1994 Audit Commission report, Misspent Youth, records that about a quarter of all known offenders are under the age of 18 and that together they are responsible for some 7 million offences each year. But it is important in the context of the debate to remember that young people are also more likely to be victims of crime than adults, with 16 to 19 year-olds having, for example, the highest risk of being assaulted.
Although there is no way of predicting accurately which individuals will offend, we know that young people in certain circumstances are at much greater risk of doing so. Those circumstances may relate to the family; for example, where there has been neglect by parents, family conflict or the absence of a good relationship with either parent; where family attitudes have condoned anti-social and criminal behaviour; where there is a parent or sibling with a criminal record; or where family income is low. Young people who say that their attachment to their family is weak are more likely to report that they have committed offences, as are those who have experienced cruelty and abuse at the hands of their parents.
The risk may arise from the young person's relationship, or lack of it, with his or her school; for example, through low achievement, beginning in a primary school; aggressive behaviour or bullying. Young people who truant or who are excluded from school are also more likely to offend. Some 42 per cent of offenders sentenced in the youth court have been excluded from school, while half of truants offend compared to a quarter of non-truants. Research has shown a significant correlation between those young people who experience difficulties of various sorts within the educational setting and those who demonstrate delinquent behaviour.
The risk might develop from the young person's relationships with individuals, friends or from the community more generally. I refer to peer group pressure to offend, unstable living conditions, lack of training and employment, and drug and alcohol abuse, all of which have been shown to be factors which increase the risk of offending.
There is also evidence to suggest that aspects of health are correlated in some respects with offending behaviour. The review by Her Majesty's Inspector of Prisons in 1997, for example, indicated that 40 per cent of young people in custody presented with some long-standing physical illness, almost double the figure for the general population. This is not to assert that a causal link exists between ill health and a tendency towards delinquency, but the factors associated with the risk of becoming involved in offending may also predispose young people to adopt unhealthy lifestyles.
Those who experience many or all of these risk factors throughout their childhood and teenage years are at the highest risk of getting caught up in a cycle of anti-social behaviour, including offending, which it is difficult to break. The association appears to be a strong one, with over 80 per cent of young males who experience four or five of such influences being actual offenders.
It is only realistic to suppose that many young people in care will have been exposed to such risk factors. For some, those risks will have led directly to the young person's initial placement in care. Evidence of such risks is not difficult to find. For example, local audits taken following the Audit Commission's 1994 study, Seen but not heard, found that nearly half of all children of school age living in local authority residential homes were not attending school on the day the auditor called, and one-third were not receiving any formal education. The main reasons for their non-attendance were being excluded from school or refusing to attend.
Other research in 1989 by Centrepoint suggested that nearly 60 per cent of young homeless people had been in social services care at some point in their lives, while 39 per cent of all male prisoners under 21 have been looked after by the local authority at some stage in their childhood.
At the time of leaving care, such young people are, one might feel, particularly vulnerable. The 5,000 or so a year who leave at present do so at the age of 16 or 17 while, as the consultation document preceding the Bill indicated, the average age for leaving home for the population as a whole is 22. As my noble friend Lord Laming pointed out, the level of support available to those two groups is unlikely to be comparable.
Many continue to move frequently after leaving care-- 40 per cent experiencing one or more moves and 10 per cent making four or more moves in the first three to nine months. Many find themselves living in unstable conditions in temporary accommodation with little support and in areas where the levels of criminality and drug misuse are high.
The measures in the Bill will, I believe, enable young people to prepare more effectively for the future and provide a better degree of support as they move towards independence. The content of the proposed pathway plan, or that suggested in the consultation document, seeks to address directly the very range of risk factors to which I referred earlier: education; employment; health; accommodation; personal and financial support; and life skills. With the young person's adviser fulfilling what seems in many respects to be the role of a mentor, there is an opportunity for a one-to-one relationship to be established, and from that a young person may find greater confidence and raised levels of achievement--academic, personal or job related.
However, as the experience of a growing number of mentoring projects in this country and elsewhere has shown, high quality staff, careful recruitment and training, and well constructed programmes will be required if the mentoring relationship is to be a successful one. Can the Minister say anything more about the guidance on the recruitment and training of the young person's adviser referred to in the consultation document? In the debate on 22nd November, my noble friend Lord Northbourne--he mentioned it again today--referred in a different context to experienced youth workers being siphoned off into higher-paid posts as learning mentors for which exactly the same qualifications were required. I wonder whether the Minister has any concerns that similar difficulties could arise when the recruitment of young persons' advisers is undertaken.
The success with which care leavers make their transition to independence and the extent to which they are given a more equal chance of a fulfilling life should be of concern to us all since their interests and those of society are in these circumstances so interdependent. For such reasons as these, I warmly welcome the intentions of the Bill.
Lord Elton (Conservative)
My Lords, it is a great and somewhat unusual pleasure to be able to offer an unreserved welcome to the intentions of a government Bill. It is a great and even more unusual experience, in particular with the reformation of this House, to be sandwiched between a couple of hereditary Earls younger than myself, both with more experience than I have of dealing hands on with the problems of disadvantaged young people. We are fortunate to have retained their services.
In welcoming the Bill, I acknowledge the debt of gratitude due also to the noble Lord, Lord Laming, and his friends in the Who Cares Trust in pushing public concern in the right direction. My interest arises from my interest in juvenile offenders, acquired when I was the Minister responsible for prisons. I have bored your Lordships with that often enough not to repeat it. I note that the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, nods--in a rather hurtful way!
Baroness Hollis of Heigham (Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of Social Security; Labour)
My Lords, I nodded to indicate that we had heard the noble Lord. We always listen attentively because we always have a lot to learn from him.
Lord Elton (Conservative)
My Lords, I shall try to change the tune in order to retain the noble Baroness's attention.
It is not necessary for me to repeat the various indicators that being in care is a clear predictor of criminal involvement, sad though that is. I see a parallel with another predictor to which the noble Earl, Lord Rosslyn, referred: exclusion from school. As president of the DIVERT Trust, I declare an interest in this matter. Because they are so at risk, we have been developing mentoring schemes for dealing with children who are on the edge of exclusion from school. The Bill deals with children on the edge of exclusion from society by appointing not mentors but personal advisers. The Minister repeatedly referred to them as "young persons' advisers". I wonder whether we have the opportunity to avoid a divergence of jargon. With a tiny amendment at Committee stage, perhaps we could change the name in the Bill so that it fits with what the Minister is currently making popular jargon.
A mentor, a personal adviser, or a young person's adviser, is a strange, precious and rare creature. He or she has to be available--that is, accessible. In some urban authorities, he or she is not difficult to find from local authority personnel. However, in local authorities with a wide geographic area, that may be extremely difficult. It is even more difficult to find someone who is sympathetic to the young person.
Crucial to the plan in the Bill is the development of pathway plans. It is no good having the most splendid, detailed and compellingly convincing pathway plan for a young person if the young person does not think that he or she owns it. It takes great skill to guide a young person into adopting a pathway plan which you, as an adult, think that that young person should adopt. It does not follow that because the Government wish this to be done by local authorities, and even though local authorities are eager and willing to do so, those personnel will be available. They will need training even if they are in post. We have already heard of the shortage of training in the care system--hence a good deal of its trouble--and it is no good passing children from one set of untrained supervision to another.
I have another word of caution for the Minister. My experience in various guises of young children is that when they get into trouble they are almost always in rebellion against authority. Authority is expressed by them through the contemptuous word "them": "They won't let us do it"; "It's all because of them"; and "them" represents a series of concentric circles of authority which may start close to the home and then embrace the teacher, the probation officer, the social worker, the policeman, or any employee of local authority.
The people required who are in post may not be geographically accessible. They will need training; and they will need personal characteristics which are pretty rare to find. At this point I do not feel that I have to apologise for bringing forward again the voluntary sector or for suggesting to the Minister that it may be a good source of trainable or trained mentors. I do not put forward any claim on behalf of the DIVERT Trust. I put forward a claim on behalf of the voluntary sector. There are many others involved in the voluntary sector besides the trust. I ask the Minister to recognise, and to ensure that local authorities recognise, that it is not a source of cut-price personal advisers, or young people's advisers. Those people have to be trained. If not, they will not be efficient. They are a valuable resource which will be lost if those whose skills should be used in this direction are deployed in raising funds to gain compensation for employment.
There has been a great change in thinking in the past 10 or 12 years, not only by this Government, but also by the previous government. I came into government in 1979. We inherited an assumption that the Government would provide the resources with which the voluntary sector could do things which the government otherwise would be doing. That tide of money ceased. When there was a change of government, there was an expectation--and I must say it tempted noble Lords on these Benches with my inclinations almost to thoughts of disloyalty--that the incoming government would have a different view and that core funding might again become available for the voluntary sector to do things which otherwise government would do. That has not happened except in a few notable cases. I draw your Lordships' attention to that because it is central to the whole of the voluntary sector. The matter needs to be addressed if that sector is not to become moth-eaten and overburdened.
Finally as regards the young people's advisers, the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, referred to a reconciliation service once the relationship has broken down. Of course, once broken it is difficult to restore. However, it is so precious that if the Government have retreated from their view, they should be encouraged to return to it.
As regards the legislation, I note that the Minister has no fewer than 13 order-making powers, all of which have been given a good bill of health by the scrutiny committee. However, I believe that two in particular--those in new Sections 23D and 23E--might with advantage be published in draft before we complete our debates on the Bill, and preferably before Committee stage. The new Section 23E relates to regulations concerning the pathway plan and reviews of the same. They are central to the Bill and to the relationship with the adviser.
Finally, I join the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, in asking what on earth all this is going to cost. Not only is there a new duty to be paid for, but certain incomes which young people would receive as benefits will have to be provided by the local authority. Linked to the questions of what it will cost and how it will be met is the question we so often forget to ask in this House. After the "Bill do now pass" debate, we sit back with a sigh of relief and think that we have done a good job, but no one bothers to ask when the legislation will be implemented. The date of the coming into effect of the Bill is connected to the degree of enthusiasm we can show for it. I hope that the Minister will show that it will not be before the resources are available, but it will not be later than 18 months.
The Earl of Listowel (Crossbench)
My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady David, drew attention to asylum seekers, who are left out of the Bill. I work with asylum seekers and I hope that the Government will consider what it is like for children who know that their parents are being bombed or who have lost members of their family and do not know whether they are alive or dead. That should come into the Government's consideration of their treatment of asylum seekers, particularly those in such situations. A theme of the debate has been the Government's emphasis on corporate parenting. That is an important principle. But we should remember that these children are extraordinary; they are a selected group, as the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, pointed out. They have had the worst of times, so in some ways they are unlike our children and need more help and support for a longer period.
The tenor of this Bill reflects the Government's commitment to the most vulnerable in society. It is widely welcomed by voluntary organisations which interest themselves in the well-being of looked-after children.
As has been pointed out, currently children are being forced out of care prematurely. They are often unsupported and some 25 per cent become homeless within two years. One quarter of looked-after girls have had a baby by 16 and half are mothers within two years of leaving, compared with one in 25 of the population at that age. The system has failed them and has left a legacy of unhappiness for the next generation.
In beginning to remedy this, the introduction of more support for longer and of an allocated young person's assistant to oversee that support is most welcome. The pathway plan, a strategy for the future formulated by the young person and his advisers, is also an innovation to be applauded.
Similar plans are used in foyers for young people who have been homeless. Their use is well-established good practice and has the effect of making clear to the young person his rights and responsibilities. They encourage independence and make clear the help available to achieve it.
The Bill is a good start in addressing very serious problems, but, in common with the noble Lords, Lord Northbourne and Lord Elton, I feel that it needs to be more realistic. The consultation document, Me, Survive Out There? states:
"The proposed new arrangements need the trust of young people if they are to work".
This is indeed true. If children leaving care reject the help of a young person's assistant, it would appear that they are worse off than before. Under this legislation, they would be eligible only for severe hardship benefit--perhaps not even that. Have the Government conducted research into the probable number of the 5,000 or so leaving care each year who will not trust the new arrangements?
Michael Little, of Dartington's Social Research Unit, in summarising his work for the Department of Health on children in residential care, writes:
"The starting point has to be the needs of looked after children".
Have the Government taken sufficient steps to see that they are aware of the particular needs of these children?
My researches suggest that while the children concerned have been consulted and those who have left care have been involved in informing policy, neither the Government nor the Civil Service have spent time going into a residential home on a regular basis, developing relationships with cared-for children and learning first hand the particular challenges they face. It may not be the custom so to do, but the failures of the system indicate the consequences of those formulating policy being too far removed from the experience of those for whom they legislate.
I have that experience. I have not worked in residential care, but I have worked in an intermediate treatment centre--an establishment for young people with behavioural problems--and with young people in a psychiatric unit. Many of the young homeless people with whom I have worked during the past year have spent time in care. In addition, I have reflected on my experience and consulted with those who have studied the development of children and sought to heal those who have been damaged.
Michael Little, in the same summary quoted earlier, writes:
"Some of society's most damaged young people are placed in residence; including those convicted of grave crimes; and the perpetrators, as well as the victims of sexual abuse. Typical characteristics staff encounter include chaotic behaviour; fear of going to school; a sense of being lost, having no one and no future; offending; inappropriate sexual behaviour".
Other research finds that 30 per cent of 10 year-olds going into care have clinical depression. Such children are on the horns of a dilemma. Because they lacked parenting, they need a surrogate parent to walk with them on the journey into adulthood. But because they feel they were poorly treated by those who should have cared for them most, they distrust caring adults. Alienated, only time and a crisis may lead them to seek help.
Therefore, I urge the Government to reach further than the Bill stipulates. As many speakers have said today, there needs to be a clear and explicit commitment to extend the full duty to assess and meet the needs of all care leavers up to and including the age of 21 rather than the age of 18 as provided in the Bill as it stands. Indeed, this is only what the Government were minded to do in their response to the recommendations in Sir William Utting's Children's Safeguards Review. That would recapture some of the lost sheep--those who become disillusioned with premature independence--and realise their need for support. It would also ensure that others do not become lost.
Not to feel loved by one's parents is not similar to losing one's job, or losing a relative, or missing out on education. An inadequately parented child feels useless and empty. No matter how much that child does right and no matter how kind people are towards that young person, there will be one certainty in his or her mind. He will say to himself, "I am empty and useless. All my achievements are illusions and the kindness of others is misplaced and will not last". There are things to be done about such a state of mind, but its persistence and perversity must not be underestimated. Such young people mature late and may have to go through years of degradation before realising that they need emotional help, training, education and proper accommodation.
I ask the Government also to consider giving local authorities discretion to assist care leavers beyond the age of 24. A wanderer, drug addict, rough sleeper or criminal may come to realise that he is wasting his life. Local authorities should be able to consider aiding him to return to education, to take up training, to find proper accommodation or to begin a course of counselling. A good parent exists not to prevent a lazy child from taking responsibility for his actions but to welcome a child, however old, who is ready to mend his ways. The noble Lord, Lord Laming, conveyed that point extremely clearly.
Over the next few months I shall be spending a couple of hours weekly working in a residential home for looked-after children. I should warmly welcome the company of advisers to the Minister and of Members of your Lordships' House. I should so like them to be able to tell me that my concerns are unfounded or to join me in calling for the Government to go even further than they are at present in meeting the real needs of children in care.
Lord Hunt of Kings Heath (Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of Health; Labour)
My Lords, we have had a wide-ranging and, if I may say so, very encouraging debate on the Bill. It has been a real pleasure to debate a piece of legislation where everyone agrees about what we are trying to achieve. That is consistent with the consultation on Me, Survive Out There?, where well over 80 per cent of the responses received supported the overall thrust of the Government's policy. However, since the process of working out the policy there has of course been a great deal of interest in the details of implementation, as we have heard this afternoon.
I should like first to respond to the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, who has so much important first-hand knowledge of the experience of vulnerable young people. I fully accept that we must ensure that, as far as possible, we have a system that enables us to engage with people who, in the words of the noble Lord, Lord Elton, regard the system and the state very much as "them" and not "us". The noble Earl, Lord Rosslyn, was also much to the point when he talked about young people as the victims of crime and as offenders. He made a connection between young people in such situations and failure at school, exclusion from school, unwanted parenthood and failure to gain employment skills, which links back to the whole issue of support, or lack of it, for so many children in care over the past few years.
Because the noble Earl raised that point, it is important to stress that the Bill must be seen in the wider context of enabling us to give greater support to those troubled young people. Last year, the Government's response to many of those issues set out a range of practical measures to address the issues originally raised in the Utting report.
In particular, to tackle the defects of the care system, we established the Quality Protects programme, which was launched in September last year. It is a three-year programme of radical overhaul of children's services which concentrates especially on the public care system and covers all aspects of the service: attitudes, management, standards, service delivery, training and value for money. It sets a series of new objectives for children's services as well as covering the protection of children and suitable secure placements. Its provisions include ensuring that children looked after gain maximum life chances from educational opportunities, health care and social care. Therefore, the Bill must be considered in the context of our overall approach in those areas.
The noble Earl, Lord Howe, opened his remarks by stressing that, for the programme to work, it is essential that young people have ownership of the process. I agree with him. That is what makes the role of the young person's adviser so crucial. The noble Lord, Lord Elton, and the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, particularly stressed that point. It is a crucial role. The young person's advisers will have to give support when it is needed. They will have to ensure that the multi-agency assessment and pathway planning process is comprehensive and properly conducted. They will have to represent the young person's wishes and negotiate an agreed pathway plan between the local authority and the young person.
One can see that that will be an important and skilled job. I assure the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, that such people will be vetted for their suitability. The young person's adviser must be a person whom the young person may trust. They must be committed, readily accessible and prepared for intensive contact with the young person should a crisis arise. I accept the points made by the noble Earl, Lord Rosslyn, and my noble friend Lady David about the crucial importance of the training and development of those people. I assure noble Lords that we shall be discussing that issue with the Local Government Association and the Association of Directors of Social Services and issuing guidance to local authorities in that area.
Furthermore, training and development must be considered also in the context of a Bill that we shall shortly be debating on the development of a general social care council which is in itself designed to raise the professional and training standards for the million-strong social care workforce. A number of questions were asked by the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, and the noble Lord, Lord Elton, about where the young person's advisers will come from. Of course some will be directly employed by the local authority from its existing workforce; perhaps from some of its current care-leaver teams. It is worth making the point that, although the performance of local government has been variable, we can--as the noble Earl, Lord Howe, suggested--point to a number of local authorities which have developed extremely good practice as the essential foundations on which we are building our approach.
However, it might well be of advantage and local authorities may well wish to employ experienced foster parents in such a role. I certainly agree with the noble Lord, Lord Elton, that people from the voluntary sector will be well placed to be appointed to such posts. I assure him that in the guidance that we give to local authorities we shall encourage a diverse approach to the employment of the right people to do the job.
The noble Earl, Lord Howe, asked whether our guidance would make mention also of the specific needs of disabled young people. I assure him that that will be the case. Many comments were made by noble Lords, particularly by my noble friend Lord Murray, about the issue of troubled young people who run away from local authorities. We perhaps must assume that, even with the new arrangements in place, such young people will find it difficult to keep in touch with the support arrangements that we wish to implement. Clearly, we must ensure that there is emergency provision to pick up such young people and a support system flexible enough to encourage them back on terms which they can accept. I must say to the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, that I do not have figures on the estimated numbers that I can give to him--it is extremely difficult to calculate--but if I can dig up any more information, I shall certainly do so and write to the noble Earl.
In relation to emergencies, as I said in my opening remarks, those young people will still be eligible for emergency help from any local authority in whose area they arrive. As happens now, they may turn up at refuges, such as Centrepoint, or at night shelters. The emergency provision should see them through the short time it takes to re-establish contact with the responsible authority.
Our new arrangements are designed to be as responsive as possible to the young person who is disaffected with his local authority for whatever reason. We believe that those arrangements will make it easier for the young people to remain within the support arrangements. For example, if a young person breaks off the relationship with his local authority, he need do no more than keep in touch with his young person's adviser in order to be supported anywhere in the country. Under this system, money, resources and support truly follow the young person wherever he may be in a way which, I believe, did not happen in the health service.
The other point I wish to make on this matter is that, as I said earlier, the young person's adviser is crucial. If a young person loses confidence in his adviser, the option and ability exist to change the adviser. I hope that that will be helpful also in overcoming the problem of disengagement.
That brings us to the issue of the availability of money to young people. I very much accept the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, that part of the process is to help young people with money management skills. I believe that the pathway plan, with its revisions, allows people to move along that pathway at different speeds. Therefore, some young people will be able to be given a budget and will be independent. Others might start with pocket money but with everything else managed for them. There then might be stages which move the young person along the pathway plan towards independence. On that basis, it is not appropriate to standardise levels of support because the circumstances of each young person will be very different.
All of that presupposes that local authorities are up to the task. I believe we all accept that there is enormous variation in the performance of local authorities in this area. However, as I said earlier, the foundation on which we are building is that some local authorities have made a very good contribution. In terms of performance management, which is crucial to this issue, the Social Services Inspectorate has a key role to play in monitoring the introduction of new arrangements to the system for the performance assessment of social service authorities. The evaluation of policy will be part of an evaluation package for the Quality Protects programme which is currently being developed. We shall use inspections and research, and we shall scrutinise authorities' reports and their management action plans. At the end of the day, if we are not happy with the performance of local authorities, we can intervene and set targets.
A number of points were made about the financial arrangements. First, I refer to ring-fencing. I understand the concerns of noble Lords that ring-fencing takes away the discretion of local authorities. However, I believe that that is entirely justified in developing policy such as this. The intention is that ring-fencing will last for one Comprehensive Spending Programme. The Act is expected to come into force in 2001. Therefore, it will last for one year of the current CSR and for another three years. It is a four-year programme. At the end of that period we would expect the ring-fencing element to be taken away. By that time, the system should be up and running and we shall have been able to satisfy ourselves that local authorities are performing in the way we want.
I have been asked about the figures. I am a little reluctant to say too much because it has been very difficult to estimate the figures. However, essentially we are talking of something in the order of £250 million, £200 million of which will come from the existing budget that local authorities spend in this area; another £30 million from the Quality Protects programme; and we believe that the transfer of funds from DSS will provide another £20 million. Clearly, how we allocate budgets to local authorities will be most important. We are concerned that the allocations will be sensitive to local needs. We shall seek the views of the Local Government Association and other relevant bodies, and we shall be working on this matter over the next few months.
The noble Earl, Lord Howe, asked about the situation in relation to Scotland. The current law does not allow authorities across the Border to transfer funds. Therefore, the financial regime cannot follow a young person across the Border. But the young person's adviser should still keep in touch. Of course, our hope is that Scotland will legislate in a similar way to us. Certainly, constructive discussions have taken place between the officials of the relevant departments. However, the Bill allows for a transitional arrangement if there is a gap between the enactment of this Bill and any Bill in Scotland.
Noble Lords asked about the pathway plan and in particular when it will come into play. As the Bill states, it comes into play when the young person reaches the age of 16. However, there is no reason why preparations and discussion cannot take place in the preceding period. I very much take the point of noble Lords who suggest that a long period of preparation is needed so that when the young person reaches 16, the plan does not come as a shock to them; they know what is going to happen; it has been agreed and they have ownership of it.
So far as concerns keeping in touch, the noble Lord, Lord Laming, and my noble friend Lady David referred to the issue of people moving across the country. We do not believe that that should present a problem. With the definition of a responsible authority, we know that that authority will remain responsible for a young person wherever that young person lives. The authority retains its duties to keep in touch, to carry out the needs assessment, to ensure that the pathway plan is effected, to have a personal adviser in place and to provide the necessary support. I accept that, if someone comes from the North of England to London, there may well be advantages in an arrangement between their local authority and a local authority in London whereby the young person's adviser remains in close contact with that person. There is no reason at all why local authorities should not come to co-operative arrangements to that effect.
The noble Lord, Lord Laming, asked whether "keeping in touch" was rather too loose and light a term. We regard keeping in touch as being an extremely important responsibility. We shall make it clear to local authorities that keeping in touch should embrace a robust process so that as far as possible we do not allow people to disappear or slip through the net.
My noble friend Lady David asked a number of points about the 13-week prescribed period to qualify as a relevant or eligible child. The reason for that provision is that we do not want to draw into the new system young people who are looked after as children and who happen to return to care briefly, say, at the age of 16. The new arrangements are intended to help those who need them and not to interfere in the lives of those who settle elsewhere.
I understand that a number of points in relation to that qualification need to be teased out. No doubt we shall do that in Committee. But we shall try to frame regulations which seek to ensure that people do not slip through the net and, as with other regulations, they will be subject to extensive consultation.
The issue of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children was raised. Where local authorities take asylum seekers into care, those children will be fully entitled to the benefits of the new arrangements. In addition, under the Children Act, local authorities have a responsibility to provide services for children in need in their area.
I turn now to the issue of 18 to 21 year-olds. I understand the points being made in that regard. Indeed, the Government have made it clear that they are committed to that principle when funding permits. That remains the situation. We have put in place the legal framework so that, when finances permit, that could be brought into play. However, I must make it clear that, if that were to happen, it would be a top-up on benefit availability, because 18 to 21 year-olds would retain their benefits in contrast with 16 and 17 year-olds, whose benefit entitlement is essentially being transferred from the DSS to the DoH.
I believe that in the time available, I have answered most of the points raised. If I have missed any, I shall be happy to write to noble Lords. I conclude by saying that this has been an extremely encouraging and constructive debate. I welcome the contributions made by many noble Lords. I know that there are many points of detail which we shall need to debate in Committee but I am encouraged by the support which noble Lords have given to the principles of the Bill. I therefore ask the House to give the Bill a Second Reading.
On Question, Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.