New Clause 6 — Appointment of visitor for a child who is not being visited

Orders of the Day – in the House of Commons at 4:45 pm on 17th May 2006.

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'For Article 31(1) of the Children (Northern Ireland) OrderSI No.755 (N.I. 2) substitute:

"(1) Where it appears to an authority in relation to any child whom the authority is accommodating under Article 21 for a continuous period of more than 3 months that it would be in the child's best interests for an independent person to be appointed to be his visitor for the purposes of this Article, the authority shall appoint such a visitor.

(1A) In ascertaining the child's best interest under 31(1) the authority must take into account the child's age and understanding about the appointment of an independent visitor subject to subsection (5).".'.— [Lady Hermon.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Sylvia Hermon Sylvia Hermon UUP, North Down

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

I welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Paul Goggins to his new responsibilities in the Northern Ireland Office and pay tribute to his predecessor, Ms Smith, who worked extremely hard and was very well liked in Northern Ireland. We wish her well, and we also wish his other colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, the hon. Member forSt. Helens, South (Mr. Woodward), well in his new post. The new Minister is most welcome to Northern Ireland. I hope that he enjoys it, is extremely successful and delivers all that I request, including accepting the new clause.

Since this is the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, I have an opportunity to introduce, under the heading of miscellaneous, a very important issue that has come to my attention for a certain reason in North Down. The new clause would amend the current wording of article 31 of the Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995. If no next of kin or other family member has visited a child in care within 12 months, the relevant authority should certainly appoint an independent visitor to see to the needs and request of the young person who is in care.

I understand that the system of independent visitors has worked extremely well in Wales, but the practice has been very patchy in Northern Ireland, where some trusts appoint independent visitors, while others choose not to do so or leave doing so until the eleventh hour. The new clause would ensure that, if there had not been a visit to a child in care in a much shorter period of time—three months—an independent visitor would, of necessity, be appointed.

The matter came to my attention in my constituency for a very particular reason. The whole of Northern Ireland is serviced by one juvenile justice centre, which was opened recently. I pay tribute to—sadly—the late Martin Mogg, who led the way in many ways. He was very progressive in his thinking about modernising juvenile justice in Northern Ireland and I had the great good fortune of being first shown around the juvenile justice centre on the Rathgael road in Bangor by him. I knew at the time that he was ill, but I did not realise just how ill. I am sure that other hon. Members who knew him will wish to join me in paying tribute to his efforts to modernise juvenile justice in Northern Ireland.

I first visited the juvenile justice centre on Good Friday 2004. We are talking about young people who, allegedly, have committed serious offences in Northern Ireland, but who are juveniles. During the course of conversations with some of those young people—particularly the young women, who were being taught for the first time to iron clothes and the young men who were being taught how to make scrambled egg, if I remember correctly, and were delighted to have been given skills to cook, wash, iron and look after themselves—many of them expressed reservations about returning to their communities.

Those young people—particularly the young women—also gave me a clear impression of how they felt let down by the care system in Northern Ireland. That has remained with me in my conscience for two years. As I say, we have a vehicle to change things and to try to improve the care system in Northern Ireland for young people. It seems a terribly sad fact of life that young people who have gone into care—particularly young women—have ended up in the juvenile justice centre. We have let them down badly somewhere along the line.

I have not drafted the new clause with particular care, but I want to put it on the record that we definitely need a care system that is much more flexible in terms of independent visitors or advocates for young people who go into care for whatever reason—and there are always a variety of reasons. I do not wish those young people to end up in the juvenile justice centre. If the Minister cannot accept the wording of the new clause, I hope that he will give a clear commitment that the issue will be looked at seriously and promptly by the Northern Ireland Office and those who are responsible for juvenile justice in Northern Ireland..

Photo of Alasdair McDonnell Alasdair McDonnell Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow Spokesperson (Education), Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

I welcome the opportunity to raise my concern about child welfare. There are many serious issues. Although I welcome the purpose and intent of my hon. Friend Lady Hermon in proposing the new clause, I have some concerns. I would have preferred the new clause to have been additional to the current legislation, rather than something to be used instead of it. As I understand it—I am subject to correction if I am wrong—article 31(1) of the children order allows independent visitors to be appointed only for children who are in care. Children in care are defined by articles 25(1) and 27(2) as children under care orders. That means that independent visitors cannot be appointed for other children who are very much in need, but who are not fully in care or fully under care orders. Such children may nevertheless need and seek considerable assistance with finding a place to live. They are generally teenage children who are in transition to independent living, but not always. They are known as article 21 children. There is a serious defect because these children are very much in need of support. They are in a halfway house, or no-man's land, between care and independent living. The new clause would certainly go a long way towards addressing the problem.

The new clause would delete article 31(1) and substitute the new wording, but that would create a new problem, because article 31(1) is essential for the protection of children in care. In fact, we need both provisions. We need visitors to be appointed to children in care, but I would claim that we also need visitors appointed to the many children who are not quite in care or under care orders, but at the boundaries. Such children need support as they move from being in care to independent living.

Photo of Iris Robinson Iris Robinson DUP, Strangford 5:00 pm, 17th May 2006

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the system fails badly to follow up how those young people are doing after they get out into the community? They are very vulnerable.

Photo of Alasdair McDonnell Alasdair McDonnell Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow Spokesperson (Education), Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

I thank the hon. Lady because I am making exactly the point that there is a transition phase. The follow-up is poor and, in many cases, weak. We have many problems in Northern Ireland with inadequate child care. The inadequacy is often driven by underfunding, which is being compounded at the moment by cuts at the education board level. I do not like to bring this matter to the feet of our new Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Paul Goggins, immediately, because I would like to give him the opportunity to get to grips with the situation, but there is a serious problem. I welcome the new clause, but I would have preferred the new provision to be additional to article 31(1)—perhaps that is not possible at this stage—because we need to hold on to the existing article. I am in a dilemma about that, so I would like to hear his comments. We need to retain the old provision as well as adding the wording in the new clause.

Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack Chair, Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Chair, Northern Ireland Affairs Committee

I support Lady Hermon, who moved new clause 6, and Dr. McDonnell, both of whom have a much more detailed knowledge of such matters than I. However, I know from representations that I have received and conversations that I have had in Belfast and elsewhere that there is considerable concern about the inadequacy of child care and supervision in the Province. Mrs. Robinson outlined that in her intervention, too.

I, too, welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Paul Goggins, to his new post. I am sure that his background will give him a real insight into the problems and sympathy with the situation. In his previous incarnation, he had a degree of responsibility for some of the most difficult young people in the United Kingdom, and I met him when he was acting in that capacity on at least one occasion. These young people need not soft treatment, but care and concern. No matter what offences they may have committed, they must have the chance of rehabilitation and hope, and I think that that is what the hon. Member for North Down is trying to achieve.

The hon. Lady indicated that the drafting of the new clause might not be absolutely acceptable at the moment, but she has put down a marker. I hope that the Minister will reply by indicating his concern and willingness to examine the situation. The care of young people in Northern Ireland is a matter that the Select Committee might want to address in a future inquiry because there is concern about it throughout the Province. With those few words of general support for the principle of the amendment, I hope that we will hear a positive response from the Dispatch Box.

Photo of David Simpson David Simpson Shadow Minister (Trade and Industry)

I support the idea of having a visitor for young people. I have been involved in youth work for more than 20 years, and I recognise some of what Lady Hermon referred to. I remember visiting an organisation in the city of Belfast which dealt with young people from 11 up to 16. I visited one small apartment of a young lady of 15 years of age. She had a young baby in the corner in one of the prams. I was informed that that was her second child. Some of the young people had been used on the streets of Belfast by paramilitary organisations and some of them had got pregnant.

My hon. Friend Mrs. Robinson mentioned follow-up visits, which are important. Through that organisation, the young people were learning how to take care of basic domestic tasks, from ironing clothes through to handling money, including learning about computers so that they could keep basic accounts. Those were tremendous achievements, but the young people needed to be visited. Many of them had gone through traumatic times, not only because they were used on the streets, but because they were abused in homes by family members. We need to push for such support. Will the Minister give the new clause serious consideration and see whether there is something that he can do?