[Relevant documents: Sixth Report from the Education Committee, Pre-legislative scrutiny: Special Educational Needs, HC 631, Fourth Report from the Justice Committee, Pre-legislative scrutiny of the Children and Families Bill, HC 739, Sixth Report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights, Reform of the Office of the Children’s Commissioner: draft legislation, HC 811, and Children and Families Bill 2013: Contextual Information and Responses to Pre-Legislative Scrutiny, Department for Education, Cm 8540.]
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
The coalition Government are absolutely determined that all children, whatever their background or start in life, should have the opportunity to realise their potential and to succeed. In particular, we have a fundamental responsibility as a Government to look out for the most vulnerable children in our society and to not only protect their welfare but safeguard their interests and their future. That is why the measures in the Bill are so closely entwined with what I, as someone with compassion at his core, am aiming to achieve as the Minister responsible for children and families and to what the Government want to achieve for all our children.
Growing up with many foster children and adopted siblings, I saw at first hand the huge challenges that vulnerable children face as well as the huge scope for turning lives around. Whether children find themselves in the care system through no fault of their own or face the additional challenge of a special educational need, we have a responsibility to ensure that the system helps them to flourish. We need to recognise that those children are our children and that they deserve exactly the same rights and opportunities as anyone else.
That is the rationale behind our education reforms. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is leading a crusade of opportunity for all through an education system that does not have lower aspirations for poorer or more vulnerable children. We believe that every child should have the chance to succeed, that every child should be able to experience an outstanding education and that every child should not just matter but be able to make a difference.
The measures in the Bill take on that crusade, with an unrelenting focus on tackling the challenges that face the most vulnerable and that can make a positive future more difficult to envisage and achieve. By encouraging better stability, improved support and security and an unswerving focus on a child-centred approach, those measures offer the best hope for children to thrive.
This Bill includes measures to reform adoption, breaking down the barriers for adopters and providing more support to children. It will build on what we have already done to reform family justice, tackling appalling delays and focusing on the needs of the child. It will improve services for vulnerable young people, transforming the special educational needs system and doing more to protect children’s rights.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one concern expressed by many of our constituents is about the right of grandparents, who can often provide extra stability in a family at a time of crisis, to have access to children? Can he confirm that the Bill will address that and that the whole approach will change?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention and I pay tribute to his work in opposition on trying to enhance the rights of children, particularly to recognise the role played by members of their wider family in delivering good care across the country. Through the Bill, we want to make sure that we give every child the best opportunity for a fulfilling involvement not just with both their parents but with their wider family, when it is safe to do so and in their best interests, and we recognise the important role that grandparents often play.
The Minister makes an important point about the role of the wider family in caring for vulnerable children and for children generally, but the most important people are children themselves, and putting them at the centre is the critical role for the legislation and anything we do in the House. Does he take on board that that should always come first even when it may be in conflict with the rights of others in the family or other adults?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. From his work and his personal experience of dealing with children of a particularly vulnerable disposition, he knows that children’s rights must be at the heart of whatever changes and decisions we make, which is very much what the Bill seeks to achieve.
The hon. Gentleman has written to me about the campaign, as have many Members. As part of the pre-legislative scrutiny process, from the inception of the Green Paper right through to the publication of the Bill, we took into account all the concerns and views that were put to us. Later in my speech, I shall set out some of the measures we have taken as a result of the pre-legislative scrutiny and consultation process. They have considerably enhanced the Bill, and we can discuss them further in Committee.
The majority of children, most of whom do not need such support, will benefit from the introduction of a shared parental leave system and reforms to flexible working and child care. Those changes will help to create a truly family-friendly society.
Today, we published a young people’s guide to the Bill. It sets out the driving principle of the Bill in straightforward language. For example:
“We want to put children and young people right at the centre. We want things to work out right for children...We want services to meet children’s needs, not professionals’ needs.”
Some Members have found previous young people’s guides extremely useful as a nutshell, given their time-constrained existence. If they do not have time to read the text of the whole Bill, I encourage them to use the guide as a very good substitute.
The Bill is all the stronger for the fact that we consulted children and young people on the key proposals throughout, and we continue to do so. I put on record my thanks to Roger Morgan, the children’s rights director, for enabling many of them to contribute.
We have, of course, also listened to adults. The Bill evolved in its current form through extensive partnership working. Numerous consultations over many months sought a wide range of views—from those who provide services to those who benefit from them. That is particularly true of provision for special educational needs. Pathfinders have tested and continue to test our reforms to make sure they are delivering on our aims.
I am grateful to colleagues both here and in the other place for all the care and attention that have gone into preparing the Bill. Large sections of it have benefited from and been enhanced by the scrutiny of four parliamentary Committees and the advice and guidance of hon. Members on both sides of the House.
I recognise the importance of my hon. Friend’s commitment to taking account of the concerns of parents, such as a constituent who came to see me on Friday. Her son has Asperger’s and when he was aged between six and 10, she spent £25,000 trying to get a basic level of provision for him. He could not have a statement and now, in the transition from primary to secondary school, she is struggling to find an appropriate placement. As she says, however loud she speaks and however sharp her elbows, she also speaks on behalf of those who cannot afford £25,000 for basic provision and care. Will the Bill answer some of her concerns?
The story of my hon. Friend’s constituent is one that I have heard from many Members who have, in their constituency surgeries or elsewhere, come across the many battles that parents of children with a special educational need find that they must face, day after day. Those parents are having to provide duplicate information and tell their story time and again, and rather than working in partnership with local authorities, the health service and schools, they often find themselves in conflict with them. The Bill is designed to tackle that head-on, and to ensure a much more child-centred, family-orientated SEN system, with a single assessment and planning process for those aged nought to 25, to make sure that those difficult transition periods are dealt with in a much more smooth and co-ordinated way. There will be a much reduced probability of many of the problems that people such as my hon. Friend’s constituent have had to face, even quite recently; in fact, we hope that they will not happen at all.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, and I compliment him on many of the measures in the Bill, which will be widely welcomed. However, he will be aware that some parents are concerned that in future, their children will not meet the standard for a statement of special educational needs. They are concerned that when School Action and School Action Plus stop, their children may fall out of the scope of the local offer. How can he reassure those parents?
I will come on to address those issues, but it is important to say at this juncture that we are not changing the definition of special educational need. It is clear from the Ofsted report of 2010 that there has been over-identification of many children, who have been labelled as needing School Action or School Action Plus, but for whom that has not addressed the core concerns around their presentation and their inability to progress at school satisfactorily. We want a greater emphasis on outcomes, and we want to personalise the support that children get at school—if necessary, through a plan, if they meet the criteria. We are not changing the definitions; we are ensuring that the rights that parents and young people enjoy under the SEN system will be protected under the new system. In fact, they will be enhanced, as they will apply beyond the age of 16, all the way up to 25, when that is considered appropriate.
I commend my hon. Friend for the way he is presenting the Bill. Does he agree that this is not just an education Bill, but a health Bill and a care Bill? Unless we make sure that services are joined up through local joint commissioning, there is a danger that the good work he wants to take place will not happen properly.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has on many occasions displayed his deep knowledge and understanding of the subject, and as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on autism continues to fight for the cause admirably. Of course he is right: we want better integration of services, and better co-ordination of assessments relating to education, health and social care. That is why, in the Bill, there is for the first time a statutory duty to ensure joint commissioning of services relating to education and social care; there is a duty on the different agencies to co-operate. Through the local offer, they will all have to publish—through a common framework, which we will set out in the code of practice and in regulations—what services they have on offer locally for children with a disability or a special educational need, so that there is much more transparency, and people can hold them to account much more effectively.
I will make progress. I know that everyone is keen to get in, and many people have been sitting here for quite some time, and were here throughout the urgent question, but I have a fair amount to get through, and at least 27 colleagues want to speak, so I ask hon. Members to bear with me for a moment.
We have listened to and considered all views offered on how to refine the draft legislation to make sure that what we are proposing will work in practice. In particular, I want to thank the four Committee Chairs—Baroness Butler-Sloss, my hon. Friend Mr Stuart, Sir Alan Beith, and Dr Francis—as well as the
Committee members and staff for their diligent and constructive reports. It has been a purposeful and fruitful process.
We believe that supporting strong families and introducing flexible working practices is key to achieving business and economic growth. A new system of shared parental leave will support business by creating a more motivated, flexible and talented work force. Flexible working will also help widen the pool of talent in the labour market, helping to drive growth. Underpinning all this, the Bill will give children a stronger, more independent champion of their rights through reforms to the Office of the Children’s Commissioner. That will ensure that their views are properly represented and taken seriously.
I am mindful of the time constraints, which will prevent me from detailing every clause, but I want to talk through our headline reforms, starting with those on adoption. As someone with two adopted brothers, I know all too well how life-changing adoption can be, for both the adopted child and the family they are joining. I also know how glacial the pace of the adoption process can often be. It currently takes an average of two and a half years to place a child for adoption. This is completely unacceptable. These inexcusable delays are costing children time that can never be recovered—time when they should be bonding with their adoptive family and enjoying the routine and stability that they so desperately need. We must do all we can to reduce the time it takes for a child to be adopted.
My hon. Friend Tim Loughton deserves real recognition for his personal crusade to tackle this problem and for the important progress already made. The Bill builds on that work to create a system more focused on the needs of children and which more actively involves and supports adopters.
I refer the House to my declaration of interest as chairman of the Justice for Families campaign. Does the Minister accept that there are some people, including myself and some in foreign countries, who believe that sometimes children are adopted who should not be adopted?
I am very much aware of my hon. Friend’s views and have conversed with him on a number of occasions. I always listen to and am mindful of the words that he speaks on this subject, but I have a strong view that for those children who, for whatever reason, are unable to find any other permanent placement, we ought seriously to consider adoption as a way of giving them that stability, that routine, that loving, stable family home which far too often they miss out on because we have not managed to move them through the adoption system in enough time, commensurate with their best interests.
The hon. Gentleman raises an extremely important point. We know that the level of adoption breakdown, which ranges from 3% to 30%, is probably the worst outcome of all for those children, let alone for the families who have been brave enough to put themselves forward as prospective adopters. We know that what is key to ensuring successful adoption is good planning, a good matching process that is more adopter-led than it has been in the past, and the support that is provided during and after the adoption is put in place, to prevent any possible breakdown happening in the future. That support, in light-touch form, may be necessary for many years into the future.
I know from my own family’s experience that even 20 or 30 years on, there may be moments when some experience prior to going into care and being adopted comes back to haunt an individual, so we should be mindful of the fact that for adoption support to be successful, it needs to continue to be available. I will come on to the aspects of the Bill which deal with that issue. It is a step forward to make sure that that adoption support is available where it will make a difference.
I am grateful. The Minister has made a good point about getting the balance right between speed of adoption and avoiding rushing, leading to breakdown and the damage that that does to children and families. What are his plans to increase the number of potential adopters coming forward? He rightly mentioned support. The No. 1 issue that could be addressed by the authorities is increasing the number of people who are prepared to adopt and who have the support to do so.
If the hon. Gentleman bears with me, I will come to that point in a moment, and I will address it head-on. I am not trying to avert his gaze from that issue.
The fostering for adoption clause will require local authorities to consider a fostering for adoption placement as soon as they are considering adoption for a child, but local authorities must make the most appropriate placement available, which may well be a kinship care placement.
The Government recognise the importance of family members in taking care of children who cannot live with their parents, and we are aware that a child brought up by a family member benefits from living with someone they already know and trust, rather than a stranger. We stand by the measures in the existing legislation: the Children Act 1989 requires local authorities to seek first to place children with their wider family, and the Children and Young Persons Act 2008 strengthened that requirement. That is why section 17 was amended in April 2011 to make it easier for local authorities to provide regular and long-term financial payments to families caring for children, where they assess that to be appropriate. That is also why the Department has funded the Family Rights Group by £93,000 a year since 2011 and why it will award it two further years of funding in our voluntary and community sector grants in April to help further the role of family group conferences.
I know that the Minister is very much aware of the issues facing kinship carers—in fact, I think that he was one of the sponsors of the Kinship Carers (Parental Responsibility Agreements)
Bill, which I introduced a couple of years ago—but does he acknowledge that the Family Rights Group says that clauses 1 and 6 need to be removed or amended because they place real obstacles in the way of kinship carers? Are the Government looking at that?
I am aware of the issue the hon. Lady raises. I have just set out the principles that remain in place, and it is worth noting that the concept of fostering for adoption is not new. A number of local authorities already use fostering for adopting very successfully, for example East Sussex county council. That is in no way trying to undermine the principles in law that already exist whereby local authorities must look at potential future placements within the family before considering a placement outside the family, and that will pertain as a consequence.
We also know that black children take, on average, one year longer to be adopted than white children or children of other ethnicity. Again, that is totally unacceptable. As Birmingham city council’s recent report illustrated, potential adoptions are still being blocked by misplaced and misguided efforts to find the perfect ethnic match over and above all other considerations. I want to make it absolutely clear, for the avoidance of any doubt, that we do not intend that ethnicity will never be a consideration. However, ethnicity should not block a placement that is in the best interests of the child and that can provide them with the loving and stable family home they so badly need. The Bill will remove the explicit requirement to have regard to a child’s religious persuasion, racial origin and cultural and linguistic background when matching them with prospective adopters. In doing so, it will ensure quicker and more balanced decision making when matching them for adoption.
We need to ensure that the national crisis of children waiting for adopters ends, and that it ends as soon as possible. Therefore, we are continuing to work with local authorities and voluntary adoption agencies and have recently provided them with over £150 million to scale up adoption recruitment services and bolster capacity to meet the growing demand for placements. However, if local authorities are unable to develop a sustainable approach, we will be prepared to use the provisions in the Bill that enable the Secretary of State to require some or all local authorities to outsource their adopter recruitment and assessment function to one or more other adoption agencies.
As we discussed a few moments ago, sadly some adoptions break down, with inadequate therapeutic and other forms of support often being a contributory factor, yet we know that properly assessed and well-planned support can help prevent problems that can lead to a placement breaking down. People adopting children need to be confident in the support available, but that has been sadly lacking, with many adopters not even being made aware of their right to request an assessment. So we are placing a duty on local authorities to provide information about the support that is available. We are also introducing personal budgets to give adopters more control over who provides the support and how it is delivered. With appropriate safeguards, the Bill will also widen access to the adoption register so that adopters can take a more active role in identifying children for whom they may be appropriate adoptive parents.
Taken together, the Bill’s measures on adoption will mean more children being adopted more quickly where that is the right thing for them. It will mean adopters having a greater degree of control and support so that they can give those children the best start in life.
Will the Minister say something to reassure Barnardo’s and others that, given that 80% of current adoption recruitment is carried out by local authorities, Ministers do not plan to force whole swathes of local authorities into the voluntary sector, which might not have the capacity or capability to step up?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Select Committee Chairman and I take his question in the spirit in which it was meant. The first thing to say is that we have provided £1 million to the Consortium of Voluntary Adoption Agencies to boost their latent capacity, and those agencies have already seen 20% growth this year and the year before that. It is recognised that this sector comprises only 20% of the current market, so by scaling up the market by making more astute economies of scale, we are ensuring that we move towards a much more mixed market, maximising capacity right across the country to meet the demand. Of course we do not want to sit idly by and watch this money have no effect whatever. That is why the Bill contains this enabling clause to make whatever changes are necessary to recruit the number of adopters we need so that children waiting to be adopted can have the opportunity of getting an adoptive placement.
The Minister is being generous with his time and is setting out quite a compelling vision for the future of children and the adoption system. His use of language such as “market” and “demand”, however, creates some anxiety, particularly in view of what was said by Mr Stuart. What discussions has the Minister had with the Department for Communities and Local Government about the impact of some of these changes on local government, given the crippling cuts that many local authorities face as a result of other changes recently implemented by this Government?
We have provided local authorities with £150 million to try to improve their adoption service. This is a good opportunity for them to show that they can deliver for children in their care whose plan is for adoption. I do not see why the hon. Lady should feel that this is not an appropriate way of trying to resolve this national crisis. What we are trying to do is simply to provide a practical solution to the problem created when all 180-plus adoption agencies have no incentive to recruit beyond their own boundaries, which prevents children from being placed with a family that is potentially waiting for them in a different part of the country. We want to break down such barriers, ensuring that every child whose future lies in adoptive placements gets that opportunity as soon as possible.
Is not the key issue the fact that although about 4,500 children are waiting to be adopted, potential adopters are being put off by the checks and the intrusive nature of the whole process? Is it not important to streamline the system to encourage more adopters to come forward rather than to worry about whether it is local authorities or adoption agencies that are providing the placements?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is why we are streamlining the assessment process for adopters so that it will take no longer than six months, whereas I have heard of cases in which it takes as long as three years for a couple or a single person to be approved as a prospective adopter. It is also why we have launched the national gateway to provide a single point of advice and information for anyone who is interested in adopting so that they are not immediately cocooned within their own local authority area as regards any potential assessment and thereafter matching. We are doing what we can right across the adoption system to make it more adopter-led and more streamlined to break down some of the barriers that have existed for far too long.
One of the reasons we want to encourage local authorities, through this additional funding, to move into a more consortia-type arrangement is that that reduces overheads. At the moment, more than 180 adoption agencies are recruiting, on average, 17 adopters each year. That is not a good economy of scale. There is huge scope within the system to make savings and to get the money to where we want it to help to get children adopted.
We know from research done by Julie Selwyn at Bristol university that for every year a child is not adopted there is a 20% reduction in their prospect of being adopted. By ensuring that adoption is timely and that the matching process has been done in conjunction with the prospective adopters rather than as an adjunct to that process, we will get children into the right placements in a quicker and more quality-assured way than has happened in the past. The longer children wait to be adopted, the less prospect there is of their being adopted. Adoptive placements are some of the most secure and stable arrangements outside the family. Clearly, adoption breakdowns still take place. We are looking at every stage of the process to make sure that the support that is made available and the information that is given to prospective adopters about the child they are adopting is as transparent as possible so that the prospects of any breakdown are reduced to a bare minimum. The right hon. Gentleman makes a key point that we consistently bear in mind as we make these reforms and push them forward.
Not all children in the care system will or should be adopted. But for all children, the difference it makes when someone cares whether they do well at school is crucial. When someone has high aspirations for them, they are more likely to have high aspirations for themselves. Yet in 2012 only 15% of children who had been looked after continuously for 12 months achieved five or more GCSE grades at A* to C, including English and maths. There have been slight improvements in recent years, but these results are simply not good enough. We have a duty to these children as corporate parents—a duty to care for them as we would our own children.
Of course, we should not forget that, thanks in large part to the fantastic foster carers we have across the country, the large majority of looked-after children benefit from their time in care. However, we want to drive up the focus, commitment and effort within our schools, councils and, yes, foster and residential care homes to make sure that the education of children in care is a real priority. The Bill introduces a duty on every local authority to have an officer—the “virtual school head”—to promote the educational achievement of its looked-after children, because these children are our children and they deserve the very best chance in life.
I want to turn to family justice reform. There is no debate about the need for reform of the family justice system. It is simply not acceptable that children wait, on average, over 47 weeks—until recently, over 56 weeks—for their care or supervision case to be resolved. In 2011-12, 21,553 children were involved in care proceedings and subject to this delay.
David Norgrove’s widely welcomed family justice review made the case for setting a clear time limit for the length of care cases, ensuring that decisions are child-focused and aimed at reducing duplication in the system. We know how important family courts are in making sure that vulnerable children end up in appropriate placements safely, but we need to do more to speed up the process to make sure that children can find stability as quickly as possible. To this end, the Bill includes measures to tackle delay through the introduction of a maximum 26-week time limit for completing care and supervision proceedings.
We also want to see a reduction in the number of additional expert reports commissioned, by ensuring that expert evidence is used in children’s cases only when it is necessary and not as a matter of routine. We will make it explicit that when the court considers a care plan, it should focus primarily on those issues that are essential to its decision about whether to make a care order. We will also help to reduce bureaucracy in the system by removing the need for frequent renewals of interim care and supervision orders.
Our private law reforms are also based on the family justice review’s detailed analysis and recommendations. Simply too many children are involved in private proceedings. Just over 56,000 children were subject to new contact and residence cases in 2011-12. For many families involved, the process can be drawn out and emotionally draining. As someone who spent the best part of 10 years practising as a family law barrister, I can testify that this is rarely the best way to resolve family disputes. Taken together, the Bill’s private law provisions keep the needs of children firmly at the centre of the system, while explicitly acknowledging the important role that both parents should play in a child’s life post-separation.
Our starting principle is that separated parents should resolve their disputes out of court whenever possible. The Bill makes attendance at a mediation, information and assessment meeting—known as MIAM—a prerequisite for applying to court for certain types of family proceedings. This support to help parents reach their own agreements will be underpinned by better online support, access to information programmes and encouragement to develop parenting agreements. The material will also emphasise the importance to children of relationships with wider family members, particularly grandparents.
The principle that most children benefit from the involvement of both parents in their lives after family separation is also pivotal to our private law reforms. Too many children lose contact with a parent following family breakdown. One survey suggests that between a quarter and a third of children who do not live with both parents rarely, if ever, see their non-resident parent. We will emphasise in the out-of-court support we offer to parents the importance to the child of both parents playing a role, but we also believe it must be explicit in the court environment.
The role of mediation has been generally welcomed, but it will require mediators. At the moment, a lot of the mediating is done by court officers and others. Who will play the role of mediator? Their responsibilities will include identifying the safeguarding of children and domestic violence issues. What qualifications and accreditation will be required of them?
The mediator will not be a court clerk or court officer. An independent mediator will be assigned to carry out the mediation in a particular case. When the Bill goes to Committee, we will go into the detail of exactly how the role will be performed. There is a difference between those who go through publicly funded proceedings and those who do not. I will be happy to provide more information on that.
As a former child and family social worker, I value what the Minister is saying about the importance of retaining separated family members in the child’s life. Does he acknowledge, however, that part of the problem we will face in retaining the involvement of separated parents in families is the implications of the bedroom tax? A separated parent might be financially penalised for keeping bedrooms so that their children can visit them during holidays and on weekends. Is that not counter-intuitive to what the Minister is trying to achieve?
I will try to kill two birds with one stone, in that case. That is not a matter for this Bill and I am sorry that the hon. Lady did not take the opportunity to raise any of the substantial issues that are in the Bill. As she has raised the under-occupancy rules, she must remember that it was her party that brought them in for the private sector. It is therefore an extension of something that was brought in by the previous Government.
The Bill makes it absolutely clear that both parents should be involved with their children after separation, unless there is a genuine welfare reason why that is not appropriate. This is about the needs of the child, not parents’ rights.
My hon. Friend has made it clear on many occasions that the Bill is not intended or likely to lead to different court decisions. Why is he so optimistic that it will lead many parents to take a different view of the need to come to a sensible settlement and not get to court?
My right hon. Friend knows from his astute chairmanship of the Justice Committee that the intention of these changes to the law is to remove the adversarial, winner-takes-all nature of many of these proceedings and the perception among many parents that they are entering an arena that is about their personal battles, rather than what is in the best interests of the child. The changes will do that not in isolation, but as part of a wider package of measures including MIAMs and the enforcement of the orders.
Nobody would argue that both parents should not be involved in a child’s life if it is safe and in the child’s best interests. We believe that these measures will make it crystal clear to parents who are thinking about their post-separation arrangements or, further down the field, about taking these matters before the court, that the court will judge not the parents’ dispute, but what is in the best interests of the child. The presumption will be that having both parents involved in the child’s life is the right course where it is safe and in the child’s best interests. That is particularly important given the huge number of children who no longer have any contact with one parent after a separation. We need to try to bring that number down and I believe that these measures will help do that.
The message about focusing on children’s needs is reinforced by the replacement of contact and residence orders with the new child arrangements order. That will set out in one place who a child lives with, spends time with or has any other type of contact with, and when. It will move us away from the perception of a hierarchy that is present in contact and residence orders, where the resident parent is seen as the winner or the more important parent.
I will now turn to the special educational needs reforms. I am conscious of the time and apologise to hon. Members whom I know will be desperate to get in on this issue. I will take one or two interventions, but then I must press on. These are the most significant reforms in the area for more than 30 years. At the outset, I want to acknowledge the committed work of my hon. Friend Sarah Teather, who was brave enough to push forward these reforms. I am also grateful to the many parents and young people I have met as children’s Minister in Coventry, Bromley, East Sussex and elsewhere, who have so graciously and generously shared their experiences with me.
When one hears stories of young people with needs and extra challenges that they did not ask for, bravely battling a system that can be complex and unwieldy and is often a cause for frustration, it underlines the vital importance of making things better. It continues to be the case that children and young people with special educational needs do less well than their peers at school and college, and are twice as likely to be out of education, training and employment at 18.
The Bill builds on the Green Paper initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Brent Central to put the interests of children and young people first. It will bring up to date a terribly outdated system and keep the rights and protections that families value. It will give children and young people with special educational needs and their families better co-ordinated support, and more choice and control over how that support is provided. It will provide, for the first time, one system from birth to 25, promoting earlier identification of children’s needs and extending comparable rights and protections to all young people over 16, whether they choose to continue their education in school or in further education.
The Bill also sets out a number of measures to tackle some deep-seated problems. It requires local authorities and local health bodies to work together to plan and commission services for children and young people with SEN. That will make the best use of available resources and deliver integrated support, and it will bring a real commitment across agencies to ensuring that the services required to meet local needs are available. Families should no longer find themselves caught between different parts of the system, waiting for a particular service.
The Minister may be aware that CLIC Sargent, the children’s cancer charity, has raised concerns about the educational support that is available now, let alone in future, to children who have missed out on school as a result of cancer. Will he meet CLIC Sargent and myself—I have written to him today about that—to see whether we can have a more flexible approach to ensure that such children get the education and support that they need?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue, and I thank him for alerting me to it prior to the debate. I am of course happy to meet him and discuss the implications of the reforms for him and his constituents as the Bill moves through both Houses of Parliament.
The Bill requires local authorities to publish a local offer giving parents and young people clear, accessible information about the support that is available to them from education, health and social care bodies. The local offer will outline how they can get an assessment for an education, health and care plan and where they can get information, advice and support. Local agencies will be required to co-operate in developing that offer. We will set out in regulations a common framework for the local offer and give further guidance in the new birth to 25 special educational needs code of practice.
Many hon. Members will know from their constituency surgeries that it is a common occurrence for children and young people who need support to have to tell the same story over and over again to myriad different professionals. The measures in the Bill will lead to better, more co-ordinated assessments across education, health and care that involve children, young people and parents from the very start and focus on their goals and aspirations. Along with a new approach to assessment, we are introducing education, health and care plans.
What can the Minister say to reassure those who are concerned that children with a specific disability and health need, but with no identifiable educational need, will not have access to an education, health and care plan and so will not be able to benefit from the local offer? Is there are a simple and straightforward answer that I can give such families?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I know from having paid a visit to his all-party group on young disabled people that many of that group of people are wrestling with the issue. Through the local offer and the joint commissioning of services, there will be much more transparency about what services are available for all children with special educational needs and disability, which will put them in a stronger position to hold the providers of those services to account. I am sure he will examine that as we take the Bill through Committee.
Education, health and care plans will have a new and important focus on outcomes, including employment and independent living, and they will be clear about the support to be provided to enable the child or young person to achieve those personal goals.
There is an unhelpful divide between school and college in the current system for young people over 16. They keep their statement and the legal protections that it brings if they stay in school, but they lose it if they go to college. The Bill will change that. SEN statements and learning difficulty assessments will be replaced with the new EHC plans, which will be for children and young people from birth to age 25. For the first time, young people with special educational needs will be able to enter further education and training with the same rights and protections as pupils in school, including rights to appeal to the tribunal.
I have already spoken about how we plan to give children, young people and families a much greater say in shaping local policies. We will also give those with an education, health and care plan much more say in how their support is provided and where they are educated. Parents and young people will have the option of a personal budget, enabling them to be much more involved in deciding how support is provided. They will not have to take up that option, but their entitlement to it, combined with the new approach to assessment and the
EHC plans, will mean that agencies will be clear about the level of support that a child or young person should be getting and why.
I want to express my profound disappointment that the Government have not taken the opportunity provided by the Bill to strengthen the rights of young carers. The offer and the assessment that the Minister has talked about are very welcome, but the same needs exist among young carers, who are the most hidden group of carers in our society. Does he recognise their need to be identified and assessed, the support that they need to ensure that their education does not suffer from their caring work load and the need to ensure that they are referred for support? The other things that he is talking about are wonderful, but why were young carers left out?
Although the hon. Lady has raised an issue that is not covered in the Bill, it is an important one that I have discussed with some of the groups that champion the cause of young carers. Of course, I will continue to listen to the arguments that they make during the passage of the Bill.
The Bill sets out plans to encourage the use of local services for settling disputes and independent mediation. That is intended to reduce the need for parents to feel that a time-consuming and stressful appeal to the tribunal is the only way forward. We are confident that the measures in the Bill will improve the lives of children and young people with special educational needs and their families. By promoting closer working between agencies, the Bill will improve local practice and benefit other groups, including those who are disabled but do not have special educational needs.
The early years and child care system is in need of reform and we must increase choice and availability, improve quality, and continue to remove any unnecessary bureaucracy that may inhibit innovation. In “More great childcare”, the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend Elizabeth Truss, set out plans to encourage all providers to learn from effective best practice, including from other countries. Many of the reforms set out in that report, however, are not matters for this Bill.
This Bill takes forward important provisions to improve the flexibility with which quality child care can be provided, including childminder agencies that are expected to help more childminders enter the market and offer greater support and quality assurance. Child care providers will be able to request a paid-for re-inspection by Ofsted at an earlier date than that allowed by the current three to four-year inspection cycle, so that improvements can be recognised. We are also removing the bureaucratic requirement on local authorities to carry out a rigidly defined assessment of child care sufficiency every three years, as well as the requirement on governing bodies to consult every time they want access to services such as “wrap around” child care. Evidence is clear that high-quality early education plays a vital role in a child’s development, preparing them for school and later life, and provisions in the Bill recognise that attending a high-quality early years setting improves children’s academic and social development.
In 2010 John Dunford conducted his independent review of the Children’s Commissioner. His report stated that children were more vulnerable to having their rights breached than adults, and that they had fewer opportunities to influence political decisions or make their views heard. He concluded that the role of Children’s Commissioner is necessary, but that current legislation has prevented it from having enough impact. The Government agree, which is why the Bill will give the Children’s Commissioner a powerful voice to stand up for the rights and interests of all children, particularly those who are vulnerable.
Under measures of which my colleague the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, Jo Swinson is justly proud, the Bill will modernise the leave system following the birth or adoption of a child. Research suggests that a father’s attendance at ultrasound scans increases his commitment to the pregnancy and helps early bonding. We know, however, that a third of fathers do not take time off to attend antenatal appointments, so we are creating a new right to unpaid time off for dads, partners and intended parents in surrogacy arrangements to attend up to two antenatal appointments. Adopters will have the right to time off to attend certain pre-adoption meetings.
The Bill will allow working couples to share the leave and pay remaining when a woman ends her maternity leave or a person their adoption leave early. That radical new system will enable working couples to take leave together and better manage their caring responsibilities and work commitments. We are also making significant changes to the policy on leave and pay for adopters. We think that the shared parental leave and pay package amounts to a substantial step forward in the flexibility available to families to look after their children and balance competing demands at work and at home.
The final section of the Bill—you will be pleased to hear that, Mr Deputy Speaker—supports family life by providing a right for all to request flexible working. Currently, the right to request flexible working is available to parents and carers and enables them to request changes to the way they work to accommodate their caring needs. Four out of five requests for flexible working arrangements are acceded to. The Bill will extend the right to request flexible working to all employees so that parents can be supported in their caring responsibilities by people in the wider family such as grandparents who will also be able to request flexible working.
There is no denying that this is a large Bill with a wide and varied scope. Shining through it all, however, is the coalition Government’s commitment to equality and increasing opportunity, and to ensuring that the most disadvantaged children reach their potential and that fathers and mothers work together to achieve the best for their children. Every measure in the Bill is driven by one simple objective: our determination to improve the outcomes for all children and families in our society, whatever their start in life and whoever they may be. Despite unprecedented pre-legislative scrutiny and public consultation, the Bill still has some way to go before finding its way into statute. Therefore, in the spirit of constructive dialogue that has to date been a strong feature of the Bill, I look forward to hearing people’s views during today’s debate and as the Bill progresses, and I commend it to the House.
Order. Before I call Stephen Twigg, I inform the House that, initially, there will be an eight-minute limit on Back-Bench contributions.
I congratulate the Minister both on his opening remarks and on his wider handling of the Bill. In the tone and substance of what he has said today, he has risen to the occasion on these important subjects.
Reforming the systems for children in care, for children with special educational needs and for family justice is surely right. The Opposition welcome the opportunity to debate those important issues. The case for reform is clear. The system to support children with SEN all too often leaves families struggling to get the support their children need and deserve. More than a quarter of parents of children with autism say they have had to wait more than two years to get the support their child needs at school.
The time it takes for children in care to find suitable permanency is often far too long. As the Minister has said, on average, it takes more than two and half years for an adoption to be completed. For children who are black and minority ethnic, it takes an average of a year longer. Although we must ensure that the best interests of the child are upheld, delays to finding the right match are at the expense of a child’s development.
The family justice system needs to work in the interests of resolution and mediation, retaining the primacy of the interests of the child. I place on record my thanks to David Norgrove for his work for both the Government and the Welsh Assembly Government on reforming family justice. I also thank the all-party parliamentary group on child protection for its recent report, “Making Care Proceedings Better for Children”. We have an opportunity to build a cross-party consensus on lasting reforms. For example, strengthening the role and remit of the Office of the Children’s Commissioner could ensure that the primacy of children’s rights is protected in future. I thank John Dunford for his work for the Government on that.
The Children Act 2004 created the Every Child Matters framework, which I believe is as relevant and important today as it was in 2004. A decade ago, children and young people told us that five outcomes are crucial to their well-being, both as children and in later life: being healthy; staying safe; enjoying and achieving; making a positive contribution; and achieving economic well-being. Our ambition was then, as it is now, to raise the educational outcomes for children from all backgrounds, but particularly for those from the poorest families, for children with SEN and disabilities, and for children in the care system.
Hard-working families, who are currently being hit by the rising cost of child care and cuts to maternity pay, will welcome changes that enable flexibility for parental leave following the birth of a child. The previous Government introduced statutory paternity leave, which was an important turning point for many families. Although the current Government’s failed economic plan is hitting families hard, parents will benefit from greater flexibility for parental leave.
On special educational needs, the Select Committee on Education was right in its report to say that the 2011 Green Paper set high expectations and high hopes for parents and for children with SEN. All hon. Members will have been contacted by parents of children with SEN in our constituencies. The story is a familiar one.
I appreciate that the Minister tried to cover a lot of ground quickly, but his response to Paul Maynard was extremely disappointing, and there is a broad concern. Does my hon. Friend agree that too many children will be left out by the proposals? That is particularly true of children with dyslexia, who are excluded from the Minister’s current plans.
I share my hon. Friend’s concerns, but I will come to a number of ways in which the Bill needs to be improved in Committee.
All hon. Members will have experienced a familiar story in their constituencies. Parents have a lack of information about the support available. They then have a long, drawn-out battle to secure the additional support their children need. Even when that support is offered, they have to jump endlessly through hoops to get the services their family needs. There is no doubt that we need a radical transformation of the SEN system.
Going back to 1981, the Warnock inquiry introduced the process of statementing, as well as provisions for inclusion of children and young people with SEN in mainstream education. Since then, we have seen several reforms—for example, the requirement on the Secretary of State to publish annually the numbers of children and young people with SEN and their outcomes, following a campaign led by the shadow children and families Minister, my hon. Friend Mrs Hodgson.
My hon. Friend may know that the bottom 25% of middle class children, on measures of cognitive ability at 22 months, have overtaken the top 25% of the poorest children by the age of 10. Is he therefore concerned that most children with speech, language and communication needs will not in fact be statemented or included in education, health and care plans, and that problem will continue and be exacerbated?
Like my hon. Friend Steve McCabe, my hon. Friend anticipates points that I will make later in my speech. However, he is right, both in his general point, which makes the case for early intervention, and—crucially—about some of the weaknesses in the Bill, which we hope to probe today and in Committee.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. If I may, I will take this opportunity to congratulate the Minister on his introduction of the Bill.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, I am especially interested in what happens to people with autism. The all-party parliamentary group on autism and others, including the National Autistic Society, have pointed out that the most difficult time for those with autism is the transition to adulthood. In Committee, will he probe further on whether we could have individual transition plans for those people with autism as they move into employment or further education, because that is often the most difficult point for individuals and families?
I pay tribute to the right hon. Lady for her lengthy record of work on this issue, including securing legislation as an Opposition Member under the previous Government. I shall move on to the elements of the plan that we do support, including the extension to the age of 25. I know that she has campaigned for that, and the Government now propose it. We very much welcome that proposal, in part for the reasons that she has set out.
We support the switch from statements to education, health and care plans, and we absolutely share the ambition to encourage joint working between different agencies in drawing the plans up and providing the services described in them. We also welcome changes that have been made following campaigning by charities and parents, supported by Labour, and also through the pre-legislative scrutiny, which will maintain access to independent special schools and colleges as an option for children with SEN, and the extension of education, health and care plans for those young people on apprenticeships.
What is striking about this part of the Bill is not so much what it contains, but what it does not. If the Government are to meet the high expectations that they have themselves raised, important changes will need to be made during the Bill’s passage. As the Bill is currently drafted, the education, health and care plans will offer no more legal entitlement to support from health and social care than statements offer at the moment. We will press for stronger requirements on health and social services throughout the passage of the Bill, as well as a strengthening of the plans for those in post-19 education.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman about imposing as best we can on health, but the NHS has a constitutional requirement that can conflict with attempts to impose duties on it. Has he thought up some creative ways past that barrier?
The hon. Gentleman refers to an important point, which makes the case for the agenda on health and social care set out by the shadow Health Secretary, my right hon. Friend Andy Burnham, which moves towards a whole person approach. That has been a focus for adult health and social care, but the Bill is an opportunity to demonstrate that that can also be the case for children and young people.
Let me turn to the point raised by the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys. We, too, agree with the Select Committee that disabled children should be included in the provision of education, health and care plans whether or not they have a learning difficulty. Education, health and care plans should codify and bring together the current entitlements for disabled children and young people. The statutory rights that disabled children and young people have in terms of both assessment and provision are already laid out in disability legislation. Including disabled children, therefore, would serve to promote better co-ordination and integration of the duties that already exist, and could even lead to savings.
Having spent time working in the children’s hospice movement, I am well aware of families constantly complaining about a lack of co-ordination between all the services that they have to access. Some children and young people are not in education and will therefore miss out. Does the hon. Gentleman not think that we must look at that area again in order to help families both inside and outside the hospice movement?
Absolutely. The hon. Gentleman raises an important point, and I will come on to the Government’s proposal in the Bill, which we welcome, on the position of children in that situation and the virtual school leadership model.
One in six children with additional needs will not be catered for under these plans, and it remains unclear what the provision will be for children who currently have school action or school action plus, which are to be scrapped. For example, will this mean that access to specialist teachers and educational psychologists might be at threat? Parents deserve a straight answer from Ministers on what will fill the void following the abolition of school action and school action plus. Will the progress of those children still be measured and published as they are now under the Special Educational Needs (Information) Act 2008? We share the Select Committee’s concerns about local offers. Of course, we welcome parents having more information about the services available in their area, but we will be seeking amendments to toughen up local offers to prevent this reform from simply exacerbating the postcode lottery that we know already exists.
On a matter relating to Parliament itself, unlike the current code of practice, a statutory document that sets out how the SEN system should work, the Bill requires only that the revised code is laid before Parliament under the negative resolution procedure. We believe that it should be subject to a positive resolution procedure, given the importance of its contents. Can the Minister—in his winding-up speech, or, even better, now—tell the House when the code will be published, and commit to its publication in full so that it can be scrutinised by the Bill Committee?
I am grateful to the shadow Secretary of State. Just to try to answer his question, we intend to publish an indicative draft of the code of practice for the Committee stage, but of course it will still be subject to a full public consultation process in the autumn. On his point about a negative or positive resolution, is he mindful of the Select Committee’s recommendation for a negative resolution? The usual principle for other codes is that they are laid before the House through the negative resolution process.
I am wary of ever disagreeing with the illustrious Education Committee—[Interruption.] That applies to the entire Committee, including its Chair. This is such an important issue, however, that using the positive resolution procedure merits consideration, although I welcome the Minister’s assurances regarding the publication of the code so that it can be scrutinised in Committee.
We have had situations where affirmative and super-affirmative resolutions have been used so we can have a wider dialogue. One of the other issues apart from the code of practice is the regulations, particularly with regard to the local offer. The component parts of the local offer should be contained in the regulations. Is it not important that we at least have some sight of them during the Committee stage, too?
That is absolutely right and sensible. The spirit of the Minister’s speech, and his and the Government’s handling of this issue—and the fact that he is nodding at me—suggest that my hon. Friend will get what he wants.
I welcome the Minister indicating from a sedentary position that that is the case. Parents were told that this Bill would represent an end of the struggle for support and to the adversarial nature of the system, but there are many unanswered questions, which potentially undermine that goal.
I shall now discuss adoption and children in care. Clearly, one of the state’s most important duties is to care for children who, for whatever reason, are without a safe, loving family to care for them. In recent decades, the system has seen step changes in the fulfilment of that duty, but we know only too well that failings have let down some of the most vulnerable members in our society and, in the most extreme cases, have cost children and young people their lives. I welcome the emphasis that has been placed on reducing the time for completing an adoption and increasing the number of adoptions, where that is in the child’s best interests.
Let me put on the record my thanks to Martin Narey, who has done so much to champion the rights of children in the care system, and to The Times for its persistent campaign to address the crisis faced by too many young people in the care system. We should recognise the incredible commitments made by so many who work in the care system. Social workers up and down the country do a fantastic job, often in very trying circumstances, and it is right that we put on the record our thanks for their duty and service.
We should acknowledge important developments in social care, and I welcome the Government’s contribution of funding to the Frontline initiative for social work. Frontline has the potential to play an important role in raising performance in the care system, both for those currently working in the system and for the new recruits that it will bring in. Measures of the educational attainment by children in care show the scale of the challenge; the Minister pointed out the figures for 2012, when fewer than 15% of looked-after children secured at least five good GCSEs including English and maths.
My hon. Friend will be aware that young carers can also have lower educational attainment. Does he agree that the work of organisations such as the Eastern Ravens Trust, in my constituency, is crucial in supporting these young people and that such organisations also need to be financially viable?
Absolutely, and I shall briefly address the issue of young carers later in my speech. I pay tribute to that organisation in my hon. Friend’s constituency. We know that voluntary sector organisations of that kind up and down the country do a fantastic job, often with very limited resources, and that they have often borne the brunt of the recent cuts in local government spending.
I welcome the introduction in statute of virtual school heads, whereby a duty is placed on local authorities to promote the educational achievement of the children in their care through a designated virtual head teacher. I also welcome the Bill’s emphasis on reducing unnecessary delays in adoptions, but I have concerns about removing completely any statutory requirement for consideration to be given to ethnicity in determining the placement of a child. We support the Government’s attempt to address this issue; we should indeed reduce the prominence given to ethnicity, but we must not move to the other extreme where it could be ignored entirely, which is the risk in the Bill, as drafted. We do believe that ethnicity should remain a consideration, and it is important that adoption agencies are clear about that. The weight of evidence points to delays being primarily caused by the age and health of a child. Last year Ofsted reported that
“there was little evidence of delay caused by an unrealistic search for a ‘perfect’ ethnic match.”
We share the view of the House of Lords Select Committee on Adoption Legislation that the requirement for due consideration on ethnicity should be on the statutory welfare checklist that the courts and adoption agencies must consider.
It is important for us to recognise other forms of permanency, alongside adoption—other options that may be in a child’s best interests. We should also be discussing reforms to strengthen support for foster carers, kinship carers and special guardians. As my hon. Friend Barbara Keeley has said—my hon. Friend Alex Cunningham reinforced the point—the Bill contains no provisions to strengthen the rights of young carers.
That is a very important point. I have served on the pre-legislative scrutiny Committee for the draft Care and Support Bill. A promise was given that strengthening the rights of young carers would be covered in that Bill and this one. We had a battle to strengthen those rights in the pre-legislative Committee and no provision is made in this Bill to strengthen them. Young carers and their organisations are feeling really let down and it is important that we send the right message to them today.
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. She anticipates my next point, as I was about to say exactly what she just said. Research by the BBC estimates that there are up to 700,000 young carers in this country, and we believe the Government should use the opportunity of this Bill to improve the identification, assessment and support given to young carers. As she reminded the House, the draft Care and Support Bill will give greater rights to adult carers, but support for young carers surely could and should be clarified and strengthened at the same time.
Ministers plan to write a presumption of “parental involvement” into the Children Act 1989. Labour strongly supports the principle that both parents should be involved in a child’s life, unless that compromises the child’s safety or welfare. However, we believe it is wrong to dilute the principle that the child’s best interests should always come first. Both the Select Committee on Education and David Norgrove have expressed significant concerns about the proposal.
The Select Committee on Justice, whose Chairman is in his place, has expressed a number of concerns, and I shall set them out. The first is that the Bill would not achieve its objectives in regard to shared parenting and that there is no evidence of a bias in the courts currently. The second is that the Bill could have a negative impact on the paramountcy principle, which states that when a court determines any question with respect to the upbringing of a child, the child’s welfare shall be paramount. The third is that the Bill will lead to misunderstandings about the right to particular amounts of time for parental contact because of the use of the word “involvement” without any definition and because of the use of presumption. A similar measure in Australia created an expectation that shared parenting meant equal time and led to courts becoming more clogged up as parents challenged decisions made on the basis of a child’s best interests, thus turning relatively straightforward decisions into lengthy conflicts.
Does the shadow Secretary of State not acknowledge that what was proposed and became law in Australia was very different from what is being proposed here? Anything that can, in any way, be interpreted as meaning equality of time would not work. That is why the wording in the Bill, which has taken a lot of work and effort, is absolutely not a presumption about equality of time, but a presumption that all of us must surely agree that a child does best when both parents have as much involvement in the childhood of that child as possible, subject to the welfare provisions, which absolutely still stay paramount in the Bill. Why, yet again, do Labour Members not recognise that there is a problem and that at last we have legislation trying to address it?
I certainly do not doubt the sincerity of the attempt to address this issue and to learn from the Australian experience. Labour’s judgment, as I have set it out today, has taken into account not only what the hon. Gentleman and other Government Members have said, but what has been said by organisations working in the sector, including in the field of children’s law. They tell us that there is a gap between the Government’s intention and what might happen in practice. We have to anticipate those unintended consequences, so although I absolutely agree with his final comments about the importance of both parents being involved, provided there is no threat to the safety or welfare of children, the paramount principle has to be the best welfare of the child—that has to come first. The concern is that what the Bill proposes could take us down the road that the Australians went down. We should explore this issue further in Committee, because there is a real difference of opinion on it. I urge Ministers to listen to those who are expressing a different view, so that we make sure that we do not have, as an unintended consequence of this Bill, something that makes the situation worse.
The Bill proposes a 26-week limit for care proceedings. At present, children wait for an average of 55 weeks for a decision about their future. The Government are seeking to address that, and we support them in their aim to speed up proceedings. However, speed should never be at the expense of getting it right for children. We want safeguards to be built into the system to ensure that complex issues are not overlooked and siblings are not separated needlessly. Because much of the delay comes from local authorities, the Government must also address the dangerously heavy case loads of social workers.
Again, we support the recommendations of the Justice Committee. It proposes first that the 26-week time limit should be specified in secondary legislation, while primary legislation should specify the power to set such a limit so that it can be amended easily if it proves unworkable in practice, and secondly that the clause should be amended to give judges the power to take cases outside the 26-week timetable.
The hon. Gentleman’s point about the work done by local authorities before care proceedings is extremely important. That is why we have placed more emphasis on family group conferences, and on the need to ensure that as much as possible of the evidence that is required for a case to be dealt with as quickly as possible is available at the inception of the application. Does the hon. Gentleman agree, however, that we cannot maintain a situation in which the average time for a case to be dealt with is 17 weeks in one court and 89 weeks in another? The tri-borough pilot in London has produced a reduction to 24 weeks, less than the 26 weeks proposed in the Bill.
I understand that specifying a time limit in that way in primary legislation is very unusual internationally, and possibly unique, although that is not a sufficient reason for not doing so. I think that the Justice Committee’s proposals address the legitimate points that the Minister has made, but do so in a way that would not only enable timely decisions to be made, but allow for greater flexibility in individual cases. That strikes me as a sensible compromise, and I hope that it will be considered during the Bill’s Committee stage.
There is a child care crisis in this country, with rising costs. The Government’s proposals to change child care ratios have been widely criticised as a threat to quality. We oppose the proposal in the Bill to remove local authorities’ duty to conduct an assessment of the sufficiency of child care at least every three years.
As for child care agencies, we welcome the idea of additional support for childminders to promote work force development and progression, to increase efficiency and share best practice, and to improve local co-ordination to help parents find good childminders. However, as they stand, the plans are rather hazy on detail. Ministers will need to give assurances that they will not cause knock-on effects, such as extra costs to parents. Ministers will also need to clarify what they will mean for local authorities, how often Ofsted will inspect agencies, and how the criteria for the inspection of agencies will differ from those for inspections of individual childminders.
Does my hon. Friend share my fear that agencies may cream off a profit and add costs to parents rather than supporting better child care? We have seen that happen in the older care sector.
My hon. Friend has raised a legitimate concern that has been expressed by a number of other people. I hope that the agencies will provide a genuine opportunity for the raising of standards and improvement of quality in the child care sector, but I think that if the system is not managed and co-ordinated carefully, with a continuing role for local authorities, there will be a risk of our going down the path described by my hon. Friend. The quality and cost of child care, as well as parental confidence in childminders, must surely be at the centre of any changes.
Since 2010, the Government have moved away from the last Labour Government’s emphasis on children’s well-being and early intervention. We welcome the additional funds that have been allocated to adoption, but why do the Government always raid the early intervention budget for such new forms of funding?
We are halfway through a Parliament during which the Prime Minister told us that we would have the most “family friendly” Government in Europe. What have we seen instead? We have seen a £l.1 billion cut in early intervention funds, a 10% reduction in the child-care element of working tax credit, and cuts in Sure Start as a result of which there are now 400 fewer Sure Start centres than there were in 2010.
Labour Members welcome the opportunity to debate the children and families agenda, not least because it has been sidelined by the present Government. We will work throughout the Bill’s passage to reach a cross-party consensus on lasting reforms. Our policy will be led by evidence, and by what is in the best interests of the children and families of this country. I think that the Bill gives Parliament an opportunity to reaffirm the principles of Every Child Matters, and to send the Government the message that inclusion and children’s well-being go hand in hand with high standards of education for all.
I welcome the Bill. It is a Bill of many parts.
I intend to concentrate on the clauses that deal with family law. The core issue is the need to deal with the long-standing failure of the legal, judicial, social services and educational systems in order adequately to safeguard those of our children who need to be taken into care. The present arrangement is costing the taxpayer some £950 million a year, but is straining to keep up with increased demand. In 2007 it involved some 19,650 children, but by 2011 the number had risen to 29,492. In 1989 the average case took 12 weeks, but by 2011 the figure was 54 weeks. I know that by last year it had fallen to 48 weeks, and I was pleased to hear the Minister say that it has fallen again to 47 weeks—that is a great improvement—but there is still a very long way to go.
In the event, the reform approach supported by most parties was that adopted by the Norgrove family justice review, which finally reported in November 2011. We owe sincere thanks to David Norgrove and his team for their sterling work. As the report pointed out, there have been at least seven reviews of family justice since 1989, and more money would not be the answer even if it were available. What we need is fundamental reform.
The core of the Norgrove report attempts to pull together the disparate strands of the overall service. It aims to ensure that the best interests of children are met and to provide them with a voice, to unify the service into a family justice service sponsored by the Ministry of Justice, and to provide effective leadership. When I was a Minister, I encountered as poor a managerial situation as I have seen in any field and in any sector, complicated by regional variations and the lack of any proper measurement of performance. In some regions of the country, the judges were being blamed for delay on the part of the lawyers; in others, the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service was being blamed for delay on the part of the judges. However, that was mainly anecdotal, as we had no reliable measurements of success or failure and no recording mechanism.
It is important to emphasise that the implementation of family justice reform has not waited for this legislation, which forms only part of the overall picture. Indeed, I note that the vital aspect of the introduction of a single family court is proposed in the Crime and Courts Bill. It provides for an applicant to have, in future, a single entry point, avoiding what can currently be a complicated choice between the different family courts. It should also mean that the right level of judge is allocated to the case.
As the Minister noted, much of the framework of the family justice reforms has already been put in place over the past two years. For instance, the Bill’s key 26-week time limit for the completion of care and supervision proceedings would probably mean little if we had not already set up a national Family Justice Board to orchestrate a cross-agency strategy at the centre and local family justice boards to review performance at court level, backed up by new performance figures—starting from last year—for each and every court. The key point is that if the 26-week limit is not reached, we will know where and by how much it has been missed, the reasons for the delay and the patterns of poor performance in an area. In other words, it should result in more positive action and less of the old blame culture. I would be interested to hear from the Minister whether that is happening on the ground.
I am afraid, however, that the Government must play a part, too. For too long, policy has floated without effective leadership among the Department for Education, the Ministry of Justice and the judiciary, resulting in delay, confusion and the detriment of children’s best interests. When I was at the MOJ, I and my opposite number in the Department for Education, my hon. Friend Tim Loughton, who I am pleased to see in the Chamber, partly addressed that significant failing by holding regular meetings with the president of the family division. I hope that that joint working continues and that the new Family Justice Board will now be included.
A good working relationship with the judiciary is key to the implementation of these measures, but we must also appreciate that the Norgrove review proposed, and the Government agreed, that CAFCASS should be moved to the MOJ or Her Majesty’s Courts Service within the MOJ. Will the Minister advise the House on the timing? From my experience, although he might not agree with me, I would recommend that the Children’s Minister should be moved to the Ministry of Justice from the Department for Education in contemplation of that operational shift. Government must fall into line with everyone else and unify policy and delivery for children as far as possible.
The 26-week time limit represents the iconic change that family justice must undergo, which will involve nearly halving the average time. Even our best courts are nowhere near meeting the target. I note that some judges and practitioners are saying that the limit is unfair or unachievable for one reason or another, but we must stay resolute—I say that in the knowledge that pre-legislative scrutiny has already marginally diluted the time-limit clause. We need more effective management and better joint working by agencies backed up by targets and monitoring. We must drive the delay down; the children deserve no less. It was therefore entirely appropriate that the Government insisted on keeping the 26-week limit in the Bill and that is why I strongly support other aspects of part 2, including the measure to ensure that timetabling is child-focused. There can always be another report, but we must ask whether a delay is in the child’s best interest.
The 26-week limit is a target to be worked towards. It will not be reached overnight, but we need tough targets if the courts are to get down to it. Ultimately, the judge makes the decisions in the court and they need to be better managed than they have been in the past. In that regard, I recognise the sterling work on the modernisation of judges’ working practices carried out by Mr Justice Ryder.
We should also note that for too long family law has been the poor relation of criminal law, and the lack of time given to family cases has meant that judges have had to go back to their criminal work. Judges need to spend more time considering the causes for delay and why the service has been worse as a result.
Finally on the subject of private family law, I have long been a great supporter of mediation and I therefore wholeheartedly support the mediation information and assessment meeting requirement in the Bill. Although that has been supported by a pre-action protocol for more than a year, I hope that placing it in statute will mean that those parts of the country where the courts have overlooked the need under the PAP to go to mediation first will now have to take note. In my view, the Government were correct to be cautious about the proposal by the Select Committee on Justice that judges should make decisions based on the merits of compliance. Mediation is an alternative to judges and I am delighted that its use is increasing. It is cheaper and quicker than court, and as both parties need to buy into the process, its settlements are often better observed and less divisive than court judgments.
There is a long way to go in improving family justice in this country, but I believe that the Bill, along with other things that are now being done, helps to set us off in the right direction.
I have personal and family experience and experience in local and central Government of the matters covered by the first three parts of the Bill.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Stephen Twigg, the shadow Secretary of State, on his speech and its emphasis on the overall approach that must be adopted to invest in the well-being of young people and families from the very earliest years.
The Minister’s personal commitment and grasp of the issues are obvious and welcome, and I wish him well in taking the Bill through the House. I advise him not to take the advice of Mr Djanogly and get himself moved to the Ministry of Justice, as I am sure the Secretary of State for Education will give him the support needed to do the job.
The welcome streamlining and speeding up of adoption, with safeguards, under part 1 is very welcome, but as a number of Members have said in interventions, we should not forget the critical role of families, including grandparents, and of intensive fostering, which is often forgotten. When she was the social services chair in Birmingham, Edwina Currie came to Sheffield while I was social services chair there to see what we were doing with intensive fostering. Our approach comes in waves, and then it goes away again. A lot of money can be wasted if we avoid doing the obvious of getting people with expertise and supporting them in doing their job.
On part 2 and the subject of family justice, I have a slight disagreement with some of my colleagues. I do not normally speak about this, because it is too raw and sensitive. Although I am not saying that they should not speak, if they have not had experience of the family court and the family justice system they should be wary of taking a view. It is a nightmare and it is almost impossible for those who do not have large sums of money to deploy.
I welcome the Government’s emphasis on Norgrove 1, as David Norgrove and his colleagues did an excellent job. It was rational that Norgrove 1 should be the way forward. The child arrangements orders and emphasis on mediation, even if it does not work perfectly, are the right way to proceed and I advise people to listen to Mr Justice Ernest Ryder on these issues, as he has enormous experience and a great deal of wisdom to offer.
I have both personal and family experience of the issues covered by part 3. Let me pick up on the point made by Paul Maynard, who, like me, has had experience of special needs, and emphasise the importance of ensuring that those with disabilities and special needs do not end up being separated out. We should build on our experience of the education, health and care plans and early assessment. Back in the 1970s, Sheffield and Coventry received Government funding from the social services and health Departments to experiment with these questions and those who are worried about the obligations or otherwise of the health service should consider whether joint funding arrangements might be needed in some places. Barbara Castle invented that approach and it was a good thing. Our approach often goes in waves and we often come back to things that we have abolished. Such an approach would have a lot to offer, but would be accessible only when all services were prepared to collaborate and work together so that the money could be drawn down to meet the plans.
There is no point in having a local offer, the information or the signposting, although that is crucial, there is no point in having the code, although I welcome the Minister’s commitment to making that available in Committee and for consultation, and there is no point in letting families believe that an offer of entitlement is on the table unless it is funded and the rights are applicable and accessible without the need to go to court. We need to work together.
Let me say a word about the welcome commitment to nought-to-25 provision. My experience of residential school started at the age of four, and although I would not recommend that, over the years I have been won over to a strong belief in the principle of integration. As with other provisions in the Bill, we must ensure that the child’s needs are paramount. We need a system that works within a local authority area, collaborates across local authority boundaries and uses a degree of regional planning—if I can use that term, as it is not fashionable any more—to provide real options and choices and, when necessary, a national perspective. That is particularly true in post-16 provision when residential care and support is needed. Above all, the emphasis should be not just on education and skills but on skills for life that enable people to live independently on equal terms and to be self-reliant. That takes more for some people than simply going, as I did when I left residential schooling, to the local college of technology.
We need an approach that means that the colleges which will be called section 41 colleges know that they have secure funding. I do not understand why the Skills Funding Agency cannot be used for that purpose, rather than relying on a lottery of very expensive care from local authorities, as I said at a recent reception. I also said that funding for prisoners was greater than that for which we were asking for post-16 residential provision, and that in terms of location, food and discipline, my school was a bit like prison sometimes. One young man who was at the reception to support college principals waggishly suggested that it was the same in the school he went to—I do not think he had a very good welcome after that. It is not the same; things have moved on. We live in an entirely different environment, thank goodness, and we have the necessary collaboration.
For once, on most of the issues, we have genuine commitment on both sides of the House, but we shall achieve what we seek only if there is collaboration across all services. I shall give just one example. If child and adolescent mental health services are not adequately funded, and there is not support from both health and local government, we will end up spending far more down the line, both in terms of mental health services and the Prison Service, than if we get it right. Together, we can do the job better—and I am sure we will—than if we knock bells out of each other individually.
It is a pleasure to follow the former Home Secretary, Mr Blunkett, who brings not only working experience in the field but very illuminating personal experience that is relevant to several aspects of the Bill. That gives his comments an authority that we should take note of.
I shall refer briefly to the family justice elements of the Bill. The Justice Committee report on the draft family justice clauses has been cited several times this afternoon. It was published on
Relationship breakdown and the family justice process are highly emotive topics, producing strongly held views, many based upon personal experience. We bore that in mind during our inquiry, and in addition made sure that we considered the proposed changes in the light of other changes that are taking place in the family justice system. I should place it on record that the Government accepted a number of our detailed recommendations on the drafting of the Bill, and I much appreciate the work of the Committee’s legal adviser and the Government’s ready response.
On the public law clauses, we welcomed the Government’s commitment to reducing delay in the care process, which is absolutely essential. Lost time is lost opportunity in a child’s life, and cannot be returned or repaid. We praised the work being undertaken by some local authorities and courts on a shorter timetable. We were impressed by the changes we heard about in social worker training and management, and by the work being done in Hampshire and the three London boroughs engaged in the tri-borough project. We welcome the Government’s involvement, although we have some concerns about how it will be pursued.
We argued that when it is in the child’s best interests, it is important that the child’s wider family and family friends are not excluded from the care process. We recommended that the Government undertake to review the practical effect of the 26-week time limit to ensure that kinship carers are not excluded from the local authority or court decision-making processes because of the rush to comply with the timetable.
We recommended that the draft clause on judicial scrutiny of care plans be revised to make express reference to contact by the child with the birth family, including the wider family. We are pleased that the Government have committed to considering whether further guidance on the importance of kinship contact is required in advance of the legislation, and to review the general impact of the clause on an ongoing basis. We are also pleased that clause 15 on care plans now makes express reference to section 34(11) of the Children Act 1989, which considers parental contact with children in care. These are often difficult cases, but parental contact can remain important even when a decision has been taken to put a child in care.
We are glad that the Government removed the word “exceptional” from the test for extensions to the 26-week limit. It created the odd and rather unhelpful impression that some children’s cases are more important and more exceptional than others, whereas the test should be whether the extension is necessary for the case to be resolved justly.
On the private law clauses, we heard evidence about the training received by mediators for mediation, information and assessment meetings—occasionally I have to remind myself that is what MIAMs stands for. We were concerned to ensure that the Government gave help and assistance to mediators. As has been pointed out in interventions, there will be a large demand for skilled mediation, so quality standards are important. The Government told us that they have asked the pre-proceedings working group of the Family Justice Council to look at the issue, and the Justice Committee looks forward to seeing the results of that work.
The Government disagreed with the Committee on only a small number of the recommendations, but particularly on whether the 26-week limit should be set out in primary or secondary legislation and how flexible it should be. I welcome the support we heard today from the Opposition Front Bench on that issue. The big disagreement was about how the parental involvement principle is applied. It is not really about the principle, as there should be no disagreement that it is in the interests of the child to remain in contact with both parents, unless the risk of harm seriously outweighs it. We fully support that principle. The adoption of the Committee’s recommendation to change the title of the relevant clause is welcome. It represents a change from sharing out parenting to recognising parental involvement, and we want wider and more careful consideration of those parts of the Bill. The Government have expressly stated that the courts already operate on the basis that both parents should be involved in a child’s life, unless of course it is not safe or not consistent with the child’s welfare. They say that they do not intend to change outcomes, and cases will not be judged differently as a result of the legislation, so why is the provision there? What is it intended to achieve?
The Government say that
“the purpose of the clause is not to promote the equal division of a child’s time between parents…it will encourage the resolution of agreements outside court by making clear the basis on which courts’ decisions are made and by ensuring that parents’ expectations are realistic when deciding whether to bring a claim to court. The Government anticipates that over time, this change will contribute to a societal shift towards greater recognition of the value of both parents in a child’s life, and to a reduction of the perception of bias within the court system.”
As I indicated earlier, that is a pretty optimistic claim. It would be very good if it were the case, but the danger is that false expectations are created by the inclusion of those words, and much harm could result, as we see from some of the press coverage. For example, The Daily Telegraph reported:
“The new legislation states that judges should ensure that fathers are given the legal right to spend time to develop a meaningful relationship with their sons or daughters.”
Actually, the Government expressly excluded the words “meaningful relationship” from the legislation. If an expectation has been created by press reporting, perhaps encouraged by some briefing, we risk disappointing many non-resident parents, most but not all of them fathers, who feel that their case has not been properly considered, and that in future courts will look at the issue in terms of sharing out time.
Can we nail that misconception straight away? The provision has nothing to do with giving rights to parents; it is about the responsibilities of parents and the rights that children should have. They have a right to have both their parents as involved as possible—[Hon. Members: “And grandparents.”]—as well as other kinship care. I suggest to the right hon. Gentleman that the reason why the addition of this provision to legislation—for the first time—is so important is that it sends a clear and strong message to resident parents who use the court system to freeze the non-resident parent out of their relationship with the children that it will no longer wash. We want to keep more cases out of the courts, to be agreed amicably in the best interests of the children. That is what it is about.
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman and former Minister on what we are seeking to achieve, but he should note that the press coverage is already suggesting something rather different, which is the sharing of time—
As the hon. Gentleman says, it is wrong; perhaps the Government will have to make it rather clearer that it is wrong. On dealing with the perception, even if it is false, that there is a bias in the court system, there is another issue that figures much more largely in the concerns of many non-resident parents, predominantly fathers, and that is enforcement. Court orders are made that appear to give them reasonable involvement in the life of their son or daughter, but they are not observed, and the process of enforcing them is long, time-consuming and ineffective. We urged the Government to produce proposals on enforcement. They concluded that, on balance, it would be premature to legislate now to give courts additional enforcement sanctions. What they hope to do is bring cases quickly back to court—preferably to the same judge. I welcome that; it would be highly desirable.
I represent one of the youngest constituencies in the UK: over 20% of the population of my borough is under 16. Between the last two censuses, the population in the borough of Hackney grew by 30,000. That included a large increase in under-fives, and many people in their early 20s and 30s, many of them parents. Child care is therefore of great importance in my constituency, as well as up and down the country.
The Bill deals with many important issues, but I want to focus on child care. The muddle of Government child care policy is not helped by the child care clauses. They make nothing clearer; in fact, they make the chaos worse. First, the Bill repeals the local authority duty to assess child care provision. I am against that, because it is important that we provide an accurate assessment of the availability of, and demand for, child care in an area, and it is reasonable to expect that to be done locally. I am greatly in favour of local authorities having more say on the subject, but if we remove that statutory duty, in areas unlike mine, where there are not that many children, that may be something that falls off the edge of a local authority’s area of responsibilities. That is another example of the Government’s small-state-is-good ideology, this time on a local level, and with working parents as the victims. It does not square with the Government’s desires—all our desires, indeed—and need to encourage people into work.
There is also a huge issue to do with the proposed ratios between children and their nursery carers or childminders. The policy is unworkable. It beggars belief. It does nothing to reduce costs, but if one were to say, on a generous reading, that it did, it would be at the cost of quality. So that Members are absolutely clear, let me explain that the Government propose that the adult-child ratios for nurseries should go from one adult per three children to one adult per four children for one-year-olds and younger—for the baby room in a nursery, as most of us would know it—and from one adult per four children to one adult per six children for two-year olds. They propose changing the childminder-to-child ratios from 1:1 to 1:2 for the under-ones, and from 1:3 to 1:4 for children aged two to five.
I am the second of 10 children, so I do not have a problem with lots of children being looked after, but imagine taking six toddlers through potty training, or to the park. A constituent wrote to me on the subject. She is just one of the many parents, childminders and professional child carers in Hackney who are really concerned about the proposal. Her child is looked after by a childminder, whom she values greatly. She says:
“If this ratio had come in before I had gone back to work I may not have gone at all. I didn’t want my baby in a nursery. I feel very strongly that parents need the option of leaving our children in a safe, caring home environment” with a childminder. She speaks for so many parents up and down the country, and indeed for childminders.
That brings me on to the proposals in the Bill relating to the setting up of childminder agencies. I mentioned my concerns about this in an intervention. I am not alone in my scepticism. It is unclear from the Bill how the proposals will work. Among other things, I am concerned that the concept of an agency is different to different people. It might mean one thing to the Minister who made the proposal, and another to others. Is it a children’s centre or a local authority effectively acting as an agent for Ofsted and professional development locally—something that I could support, with the right safeguards—or is it the relentless march of the private sector, supported by the Government, who are enabling it to turn a profit from the relationship between child- minders and parents? We have had no further clarity on that from the Minister today. Will the agencies be able to allocate any childminder to any family, or will the parent have a say? The local, very specific negotiation about a child is vital to the relationship between parents and childminders.
Will there be the recreation of what we could laughingly call the paradigm of the agencies that manage domiciliary care for older people? As someone who has been a carer for two older people, I would hate to see child care go down that route—to see agencies creaming off a profit while providing inadequate care—when we have a very good childminder sector that has improved immensely thanks to the Ofsted badge of quality, which is prized by childminders and valued by parents.
That is not to say that I do not support any change. Sometimes there are challenges arising from Ofsted inspecting such a range of childminders, but I would prefer that to be done through the local authority, or possibly the local children’s centre, both of which already have a relationship with the childminder, rather than through new agencies being set up.
I want to touch on special educational needs, which are a big issue in my constituency. Of course I welcome the principle of improving provision; I think we would all agree on that. On all these issues, I seek to work with the Government to try to improve what they have to offer, because we have no great desire to make a political battleground of an issue as important as the future of our children, but where are the safeguards around special educational needs, and the measures to ensure that the new education, health and care plans include proper, joined-up working to make life easier for parents and to deliver swifter, fairer outcomes for children?
At the moment, there is no single point of accountability for parents seeking redress, and that is a big challenge in areas such as mine. Parents with deep pockets who care for their children can find the money to challenge the provision that is made—or not made, more likely—for their children, and to argue the case. However, many families in my constituency—the majority—cannot afford to pay for their own private support through the SEN minefield. Although there is a lot of good talk about the new provisions, there is no detail on how they will work. A single point of redress is very important if there is to be a level playing field for all parents—and, more important, all children, as they seek the educational support that they need.
For all that I want a cross-party approach on the importance of quality child care and proper SEN provision, my worry is that the former Children’s Minister, Tim Loughton, was correct when he said to the Select Committee on Education a month ago that the children and families agenda was being “downgraded” by his colleague, the Secretary of State for Education, and was “a declining priority” for the Government. I hope that is not the case. I hope that the House can send the message to the Government that we care very deeply about making sure that the Bill really delivers for parents, and for the children in my constituency who will be paying the pensions of the rest of the country in years to come.
The Children and Families Bill is a hugely important piece of legislation, and a huge tribute to the Secretary of State; to the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend Mr Timpson; to his predecessor, my hon. Friend Tim Loughton; and to other Ministers. It says a lot that the Bill has been every bit as much a priority for them as all the other major reforms launched by the Department for Education since 2010. That is all the more important given that it has been subject to considerable pre-legislative scrutiny and consultation.
My interest in the Bill lies in the area of special needs education—an area in which my county of Herefordshire has, despite very low levels of public funding, built a significant body of expertise owing to excellent school leadership, teaching and parental engagement. I refer to schools in my constituency such as Blackmarston primary school and Barrs Court secondary school, both of which do extraordinary work with disabled young people, and both of which have coped magnificently with the need for expansion as numbers have grown. One of my early experiences as a candidate—I was not even an MP —was of being pressed into service at Barrs Court school in an “X Factor” competition, complete with sunglasses and shoulder-length red wig. It was frightening to me but a source of hilarity to those watching.
I will resist the temptation to put it on YouTube.
The schools that I have mentioned and others will welcome the Bill’s insistence that the new education, health and care plans must be effective for young people all the way up to 25 years old. I specifically want to single out the work of Richard Aird, newly OBE and head of Barrs Court school, and of Alison Sheppard on behalf of parents in the county in pushing hard for proper further education for disabled young people in Herefordshire. Why should a young person with special needs be treated any worse than one without?
I welcome the new duty on local authorities to set out a local offer of suitable schools and institutions for each individual with special needs, but I want to draw the attention of the House and of Ministers to the fact that this carries with it a risk that the new duty will be interpreted in a purely local and parochial way, cutting out national providers with specialist expertise in particular areas. In Hereford, the Royal National College, for example, has superb facilities for the blind and partially sighted and is dedicated both to the skills of learning and of living. It combines these with a track record of innovation over several decades, ranging from special new Braille technologies to flexible learning methods for the visually impaired to the development of blind football and other sports at an international level. If any Member of the House has not seen a blind football match, I strongly encourage them to do so. It is a magnificent sport and full of extraordinary skill.
No local provider could match the Royal National College for expertise and deep understanding of the highly complex special needs associated with visual impairment. The students’ experience bears this out. I think of the student at the RNC with a passion for information technology who arrived, having been bullied for having a teaching assistant and special support at a mainstream school. He took his GCSEs three times and struggled to do a standard IT course because of his visual impairment. After two years not in employment, education or training, he was finally referred to the RNC by the local Jobcentre Plus. He now takes specialist IT training for the visually impaired and courses in art, and is back on track for the IT career he always dreamed of. I invite the Minister to meet me and the Royal National College to discuss its expertise and these issues in more detail.
In closing, let me say that there appears to me to be a straightforward solution to the problem of parochial local offers. This is to require that local authorities include national specialist providers as well as regional and local ones in those local offers. This has three benefits: it maximises choice, promotes competition and preserves the national providers’ deep reservoirs of skill and expertise. It also perfectly fits with the Bill’s distinctively Conservative emphasis on excellence and institution building. I ask Ministers to give this idea their close consideration as the Bill progresses.
The principle that the interests of the child are paramount, which is enshrined in the Children Act 1989, should underpin all our legislation, policy making and attitudes to children. I therefore welcome the strengthening of the role of the Children’s Commissioner by giving a statutory remit to promote and protect children’s rights. It is crucial that this strengthened mandate is underpinned by sufficient resources.
The Children’s Commissioner’s recent report exposed the extent of child sexual exploitation in this country. I had hoped that the Bill would contain some provision further to support child witnesses in court. I will take a couple of minutes to explain why, giving an example that shocked me deeply—that of a young girl who was the alleged victim of anal rape before the age of three. The girl was interviewed on video six months after the initial disclosure. Aged four, she was brought to court for a live cross-examination via video link about the matters described in the video a year earlier.
To get to court on time, the girl had to be woken at 6 o’clock. However, when she arrived, the court was not ready for her and, after waiting all day, she was sent home. The cross-examination took place the following afternoon, with difficult-to-follow questioning, including the use of double negatives. The prosecution did not apply for a registered intermediary. During cross-examination no one except the judge intervened to ask if the child needed a break. How can this happen in the name of justice in our courts?
The Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999 introduced the use of a wide range of special measures for vulnerable witnesses. The use of special measures is important as children do not approach communication in the same way as adults. NSPCC recent research showed that only 2% of young witnesses receive support from registered intermediaries, and also that at least half of young witnesses reported being unable to understand some of the questions that they were asked in court. I agree with the NSPCC that children who have been the victim of abuse should always be supported by a registered intermediary, as they have been shown to improve the administration of justice, ensuring that questioning and cross-examination practice maximises the quality of victim evidence. Furthermore and very importantly, the court experience for the child is less traumatic.
Obstacles to implementing section 28 of the 1999 Act must be overcome as rapidly as possible. Governments have been delaying for practical reasons the implementation of the special measures provision, which would allow a young child’s evidence, including cross-examination, to be obtained out of court and in advance of a trial. This would reduce delays in the start of trials and in the presentation of evidence at trial, a cause of great distress to child witnesses.
I strongly support the case that the hon. Lady is making, but that applies to older children as well, who are deterred from coming forward with their evidence on the basis that they will be re-traumatised in child sexual exploitation cases, of which there are some notorious ones currently under way. We need to make the system far more child-friendly to enable those children to make their statements that can nail the perpetrators in court, and not make them go through those traumatic events all over again in front of multiple barristers, as can so often be the case. I strongly support the point that the hon. Lady is making.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that. What he says is quite right. It is a problem that goes right through the system, from the youngest to the oldest children. They are put through a terrible trauma, and it is sad that the measures that were introduced in 1999 are not being used in the courts. Something must be done about that.
I welcome the measures to reduce delays in adoptions. Concerns have been expressed about delays in adoption as a result of ideological correctness and because of the requirement in section 1(5) of the Adoption and Children Act 2002 to give
“due consideration to the child’s religious persuasion, racial origin and cultural and linguistic background” when making an adoption placement. The previous Government made it clear that this did not mean that a child should always be matched with a family of their ethnic origin or that this consideration overrode other welfare interests. Clause 2 removes that requirement. If that clarifies that this is not an overriding consideration in placement, that it is welcome. However, the requirement remains to consider the child’s age, sex, background and any of the child’s characteristics that the court or agency considers relevant when making a placement, and of course that will include religion and race. The Children’s Commissioner in her new role has a statutory responsibility to protect children’s rights, including the right for children to learn about and enjoy their own culture. So I do not think this issue can be resolved by legislation alone. It is more a matter of good adoption practice, with the individual needs of the child being paramount.
Just as the issue of ethnicity is complex, so is the issue of contact in adoption placements. This is certainly the experience of constituents of mine, who were informed by the local authority that placed the children for adoption that there was to be a voluntary letter box agreement—that is, letters are exchanged on an agreed basis. The way that that is being implemented was causing a great deal of distress. When I asked my constituents why they continued with this, as they clearly thought it was not in the best interests of the child, they said:
“You are correct, the agreement is voluntary and not legally enforceable. Our concern is this: the LA”— the local authority—
“have said that although the agreement is not legally enforceable, birth parents have the right to apply for leave of court to get a contact order and so we were to be careful what we agreed to. This is written in a leaflet they gave us after we were told of what the contact arrangements would be. I will be quite honest with you . . . we feel very vulnerable and I have been having sleepless nights worrying about what we are to do. We can’t continue an agreement that is not in the best interests of our children but we feel that we have to continue it as we feel threatened.”
What a situation for adopters to be in!
I am unclear whether clause 8 will help my constituents. It may be that this is an issue of good practice and ensuring that adopters have the proper support. The new helpline manned by adopters, which was announced in September, will be very much welcomed by my constituents.
I tabled a written question on the number of children returning to care as a result of adoption breakdown. I was told that the Department for Education does not currently collect those figures but will do so from 2014. I think that it is important that there is much better research into what is needed to support an adoption placement and into the factors in adoption breakdown, which can take many forms, including sending children to boarding school, youth custody, returning to birth parents, admission to psychiatric units and sleeping on a friend’s sofa.
I understand that research is being undertaken by the university of Bristol. The demands on modern-day adopters are perhaps summed up by its introduction:
“More children have been entering care because of maternal drug/alcohol misuse, and the impact of such use during pregnancy and later parental neglect have detrimental developmental effects. Attachment difficulties/disorders and the impact of early trauma have all risen to prominence and been linked with placement disruption.”
We need that research. We have a shortage of adopters, and perhaps more families would be willing to adopt if they could be reassured that they would get the support they need. We will need a range of different care models, including adoption, family-based and residential, to meet the complex needs of children coming into our care. Adoption will always be the best placement for some children. We need to do all we can to support the therapeutic parenting we are asking of many adopters.
In conclusion, we must also do more to improve the quality of all our care placements so that when children come into the care system because their parenting is not good enough, they are provided with the best possible opportunities and do not again face poor care because of poor parenting in the care system.
It is a pleasure to take part in this debate, which has been interesting throughout. I congratulate former Ministers and the Secretary of State on their contribution to the Bill. In particular, I congratulate the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend Mr Timpson, on the way in which he presented the Bill today, on how he dealt with pre-legislative scrutiny by the Education Committee and on his general willingness to listen. If Ministers have the right attitude, the pre-legislative scrutiny approach is exactly the right way to go about creating legislation. With reference to another issue, I think that Ministers who listen to suggested changes and then change tack accordingly should be seen not as weaker as a result, but as stronger. It is about doing the right thing in the long-term interests of children, rather than trying to avoid political embarrassment on the day. Fortunately, pre-legislative scrutiny allows no such embarrassment anyway.
Although I broadly welcome all the provisions in the Bill, I will focus today on special educational needs, which the Education Committee has looked at. The
Committee’s recommendations were addressed very thoroughly in the Government’s response, on which the Minister deserves to be congratulated. The regulations and the code of practice will be absolutely key to whether the legislation delivers for children with SEN, as we hope it will, but we are yet to have any sight of them. It will be so important that the Bill Committee looks at, understands and scrutinises those regulations as it does its work.
Of course, those regulations will include the detailed requirements on local offers, which will be critical. I think that I speak on behalf of the whole Committee when I say that we have no doubt that for those with education, health and care plans the framework set out in the Bill will definitely lead to an improvement, although not perfection. Getting it right for those on school action and school action plus schemes—in other words, not the 3% who have a statement now, but the 17% who are on other types of support—is critical, and that comes down to the local offer.
I am delighted that the Minister agreed to extend the pilots, but, in truth, as we scrutinised the legislation we had little information back from the pilots that would allow us to understand what local offers would actually look like. The regulations relating to local offers need to address our recommendation on the need to clarify what will be available for pupils with low to moderate SEN, particularly those with speech, language and communication needs, who make up a substantial group within the category. That is dealt with in paragraphs 52 to 53 of the Government’s response.
The Committee recommended having minimum standards for local offers in the Bill. We wrestled with the idea of a framework, so I was pleased to hear the Minister say today that there would be a common framework. I am not sure whether he will also be summing up at the end of the debate—
No, that would be unusual. Perhaps the Minister who will sum up can tell us more about what the common framework for local offers means. Will that go some way towards our minimum standards? Will it create a formal basis to make it easier to compare provision in one area and another? It will be important to find out.
We are delighted that the Government accepted the Committee’s recommendation that the code of practice should be a statutory document and be laid before Parliament, although Her Majesty’s Opposition, doing their job, will rightly press on whether that should be by negative or affirmative resolution, which I am sure will be a useful debate to have.
The role of health remains unclear in the Bill, but not because Ministers are not trying their best; it touches on the issue I raised earlier about the NHS constitution. On the positive front, we are encouraged by the Minister’s clear determination to find ways to hold the NHS to account for how well it meets the needs of children. The Bill makes provision for time scales—they apply, for example, to responding to requests for assessments of SEN, and to carrying out the assessments—to be included in regulations, including provision for aligning time scales between local authorities and health. That is to be welcomed, because it is critical, but it needs to be watched closely when implemented.
The Bill will maintain many essential protections, entitlements and freedoms for parents and young people, including a specific right to request a statutory assessment. We also welcome the fact that the Committee’s recommendation that the detail in an education, health and care plan should be “specified”, as opposed to “set out”, was accepted by the Government and is in the Bill. The Committee’s recommendation on mediation being advised but not made compulsory has been accepted, for which I am grateful.
The Bill also shows a good level of commitment to ensuring the involvement of children and young people and their parents and carers in how provision is made for them. Explicit provision has now been made for regulations to set out how local authorities should involve young people and their parents in preparing and reviewing the local offer. The Bill now provides for more choice for young people with SEN and their parents about where they will receive their education. In response to the Committee’s recommendation on independent specialist colleges and independent special schools, provisions have now been included, so the Secretary of State can approve individual institutions for which parents or young people express a preference in their plan.
The Bill will entitle NEETS of compulsory participation age and apprentices to a plan, following the Committee’s recommendations, and I am again grateful to the Minister for listening and taking that on board. The Committee expressed concern about SEN pathfinders failing to involve colleges adequately in trialling the approaches to nought-to-25 provision. The Government’s response explains that pathfinders will redouble their focus on the post-16 sector, along with additional funding for well-performing pathfinders to advise others on implementation, but I ask the House to note that the Association of Colleges is concerned about the implementation of new funding a year ahead of the Bill’s proposed implementation. It states:
“The poor management of the funding changes are threatening the goodwill of Colleges towards the Bill.”
I hope that Ministers will take that on board. It might be something that can be looked at closely in the Bill Committee.
The Minister shares the Committee’s view that special educational needs co-ordinators should be required to be qualified teachers, and he has expressed his intention that regulations should make that a requirement in future. That, too, is welcome.
Briefly—I have 40 seconds left—the Committee’s recommendation was that disabled children with or without SEN should be included in the scope of entitlement to integrated provision and to education, health and care plans, but that was not accepted by the Government, which is disappointing. I accept that they made a cogent case as to why that was, but I hope that they might be able to look at that again. The Committee’s request for reassurance that ensuring statutory protections for 16 to 25-year-olds will not compromise provision for others has not been fully answered, so I hope that can be looked at as well. If we are to have the big improvement we all hope for, we must ensure co-operation and have seamless systems in place across all sectors, including health.
I recognise what the Minister is trying to do in seeking to reform important areas of law affecting children, young people and their families. New as I am, however, I am beginning to learn that the devil is in the detail when it comes to many of this Government’s Bills. I am not alone in that view. The Children’s Commissioner for England, Maggie Atkinson, said that she supported
“the objectives of the Children and Families Bill”,
“concerned about some of the detail. Some measures proposed could be interpreted as overriding the principle that all decisions are to be made in the best interests of the child”.
In preparing for today’s debate, I was deeply disappointed by the lack of an impact assessment of the full effects of the Bill. I found one on business, but I did not find any relating to how the provisions would affect the groups of children and their families to whom the Bill applies. I feel that that is deeply disturbing. Again, my views are shared by others, including the Association of School and College Leaders. Because of the Bill’s complexity and the range of areas that it covers, there is concern about whether proper parliamentary scrutiny can be given to ensure that it has no unintended consequences. I think we should listen to such organisations.
The Bill’s positive elements have been recognised, but a number of concerns have also been raised, and I would like to focus on a couple of them. Although the steps forward on adoption have been recognised, we have heard concerns about adoption and about the importance of ensuring that the interests of children are paramount in the family justice system and of the need to strengthen the independence and powers of the Children’s Commissioner for England.
If I may, I will focus in my remaining time on part 3, which deals with special educational needs. These provisions have been heralded as the biggest reforms to SEN provision in over 30 years. Replacing the dual system of assessment for children and young adults with a single system and the education, health and care plans is a positive change. I am mindful of what colleagues on the Education Committee said in their pre-legislative scrutiny. The Committee observed that
“the legislation lacks detail, without which a thorough evaluation of the likely success of the Government’s proposals is impossible”.
Although some proposals, such as the pathfinders, have been supported and taken forward, Scope and other disability charities in the Special Education Consortium have continued to express their ongoing concerns, particularly about clause 30 and the local offer. The real concern is that, as the provisions stand, they allow for no more than a directory of services, with no duty on local agencies to provide what is set out in the local offer or to define service standards, although there has been some movement there. The risk is that the Bill’s objectives in seeking to improve educational outcomes for children with SEN and disabled children and their families will not be met. There is also concern that children with less complex needs will fail to reach the threshold for new education, health and care provision in much the same way as only the adults most in need of care services are able to access them.
One concern I have encountered a lot in my constituency is where a child has something that is difficult to diagnose or put a name to. Does my hon. Friend share my concern that unless we get this right in the Bill, those children, their parents and their teachers will not have any better provision than is currently on offer?
I do indeed share that concern. Similar issues have been raised with me in my discussions with different charities.
We know that one in eight families has a child with SEN, and it is estimated that one in six will not be provided for under the Bill. We already know that 1.4 million children with SEN do not have a statement and will not be eligible for EHCP—education, health and care provision—under the Bill. Approximately 87% of all children with SEN are currently supported through school action or school action plus—in the provision of speech and language therapy, for example. With the abolition of these programmes, those children will rely totally on the local offer, so we must ensure that it is strengthened.
I want to refer quickly to accountability, which is still an issue in respect of these services. We need to make sure that children and their families can hold people to account and be engaged in the provision of their services, and the monitoring review of those services. Simply publishing the comments of parents and young people does not really do what is needed. We need to ensure that the engagement is meaningful, as reflected in the UN convention of the rights of the child.
This Bill is inadequate not only in the proposals it puts forward, but in its failure to recognise the policy context that surrounds it. My hon. Friend Mrs Moon spoke about that context, which includes complex legislation on welfare reforms and health system reforms, as well as massive cuts in local authority funding. It remains to be seen how well those local authorities will cope with that.
I want to conclude with a reference to one of my constituents: the mum of an eight-year-old son with Down’s syndrome. She says that taking him to all the various appointments he needs, whether for physiotherapy or speech therapy, or even for accessing an appropriate shoe service, given that he needs to wear corrective boots, has proved to be a full-time job in itself. Such demands on her time meant she was forced to give up work. As the household income has dropped with her loss of earnings, her husband has taken a higher-paid job in Scotland to make ends meet. Now the family is together only for the occasional weekend. Joanna says:
“I am not naive, I don’t expect services to exist just for me, or facilities to be for my convenience. The frustration comes from the possibility of services being made easier.”
This is an example of the stress experienced by families across the country in raising children with disabilities and special educational needs. Positive though some elements of the Bill are, it does not reassure us that the particular pressures that these families face will be addressed. I hope that the Government will look again at how to strengthen the provisions.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate and to welcome the Bill, which covers such a broad range of areas. I hope Members will forgive me if I focus on special educational needs, as so many others have done.
I know from my own life story how important it is to get this right. I was one of the pre-1981 report children whose parents had to fight to get me into a special school, and then fight again to get me back into a mainstream school a few years later. The special school was not far from the Minister’s own constituency, in Hebden Green. When I was in the mainstream school, my parents had to fight to get the speech therapy I needed to make the most of being in that mainstream school.
It was with some distress and dismay that when I first got elected to this House, I found that the first three cases of my very first constituency surgery were all about parents fighting for their children to get the special educational help they needed from their schools. Thirty years on, nothing much seemed to have changed. That is why I welcome the Bill, as it starts to introduce some level of change. I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend Sarah Teather, who is sadly no longer in her place. What she did with her Green Paper was to raise expectations, perhaps even to create a rod for the Government’s own back in a strange way. None the less, she needs to be congratulated on that.
I know not just from my own life story, but from what I see on the ground in Blackpool, how important this issue is. When one of our council officers—the head of inclusion and access—gave evidence during the Education Committee’s pre-legislative scrutiny process, she explained why this matters so much in Blackpool, where we have such a high transient population, with four times as many young people than the national average entering the town already having a statement—9.8% versus 2.8%. Yet Blackpool manages not to make it an adversarial experience; in fact, it has fewer tribunals than the national average. I can see that situation working itself out in my constituency surgeries and in my casework.
As always with legislation, the temptation is to focus on the elements that one is not completely happy with. I will try to resist that temptation and look at the wider picture. I am very privileged to chair the all-party group on young disabled people. What strikes me in that role is that society no longer puts a lid on expectations for our young disabled people and tries to limit what they can achieve. If anything, the only lid that is placed on their expectations is the bureaucracy in the system. Society is changing, but the structures of governance need to change as well to enable them to keep pace. That is why the Bill is so important.
When I meet groups of these people, I am struck by the fact that so many of them do not just want to go into work when they reach 18—they want to go on to university, to go and live their lives. I welcome what the Education Committee and the Minister have said about those who are in apprenticeships or are not in education, employment or training having access to EHC—education, health and care—plans. However, I have a twinge of disappointment about the fact that apparently those who want to go on to university will not have access to those plans. I share the Committee’s concern that we need greater clarity over what this provision should look like for the 19 to 25 age group and how the local offer should be structured in this regard. We have made great efforts in the draft Care and Support Bill to ensure that those who wish to attend university can take their social care package with them from their home local authority to where they seek to go to university. That was a bold and ambitious move that excited many young people, and I want to make sure that what we do in this Bill has the same level of sophistication.
Equally, I urge Ministers to look again at the issue I raised in an intervention—how we treat disabled young people who have a health need but no specific educational need. I realise that it is very difficult to place duties on the NHS. None the less, having had such a revolutionary Bill that is going to change the landscape, it would be a shame if we missed this opportunity to get it right for all our young people.
One of the big things that excited me about the Green Paper was that it finally tackled the issue of transition—the cliff edge that many young people, and their families, come to when they transfer from child services to adult services, whether they be wheelchair services, community and mental health services, or so many other services. As people reach the age of 16, child services start to tail off and there is never any confidence that adult services will then kick in. People get very concerned about that. I urge Ministers to embrace this opportunity to resolve that cliff edge. Families have a fear of the unknown because of the threat of uncertainty and fragmentation. On my reading of the Bill, children with health needs but not educational needs will not get an EHC plan. That is wrong given the spirit of the Green Paper.
I support charities such as Together for Short Lives, which represents the children’s hospice sector, and the Communications Trust, which represents people with augmentative and alternative communication, where interaction between health care and education is not just important but crucial to the role played by the machines that assist them.
I should like finally to focus on clause 69, which seeks to exclude a particular group of people for whom we, as legislators, have responsibility—people in custody in the youth justice system. Again, on my reading of the Bill—I am happy to be corrected—those in youth custody will be specifically excluded from having an EHC plan and will be frozen in a no man’s land.
Is it not the case that children who are in detention are more likely to have special educational needs than those in the population as a whole, and so denying them access to support in the Bill is a real discrimination against that group?
I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention; she is right. We must recognise that the Minister has moved substantially on the issue, but it is still important that clause 69 specifically recognises this group. Communication delays and speech and language needs lie at the heart of the offending behaviour of many of these young people, and it seems perverse to exclude them, because that will not help their rehabilitation.
Having picked out every bit of the Bill that I do not like or disagree with, it is important that I emphasise how important it is, how much I welcome it, and how pleased I am that this Minister will pilot it through, because he has a very strong personal commitment to and excellent understanding of these issues. I have great confidence that as the Bill goes through Committee much of what I am highlighting can be teased out, made clear and made fit for purpose. I want us to remember that the Green Paper raised such hopes among disabled charities, organisations and young people, who thought that it was the moment to make sure that Warnock was built on and, indeed, that many of Warnock’s inadequacies were corrected.
I welcome what the Minister has been trying to do and what I know he will continue to do. I even welcome the constructive comments from Labour Front Benchers and the shadow Secretary of State. This should not be a partisan issue—an opportunity to bash political parties over the head—because it is too important for that. I am sure that all of us in this Chamber have parents coming to our surgeries to try to get the support that their children need. This is our chance to work together to solve these problems so that in 30 years’ time we do not all have to come back again to try to make it right.
It is a pleasure to follow Paul Maynard, who raised several important issues that I hope will be considered.
This is an important Bill that will impact on children and their parents—on how families function and how the state supports them in so doing. I support many aspects of the Bill and the spirit of this debate, which has been conducted in a very comradely fashion. Some of the Bill received pre-legislative scrutiny, and it is much better for that. However, there is concern inside and outside the House about some of the proposed changes, particularly to child care, that are being foisted on a sector that is fairly united in its opposition to them. It is therefore disappointing that so much of that aspect did not go to consultation before the Bill came before us.
For many families in the current climate, life is tough and getting tougher as they are paying the price for this Government’s failed austerity drive, and the Bill does little to alleviate the pressure on them. However, I raised a number of these issues in a recent Adjournment debate, so I will not go into them now.
Reform of the adoption system is welcome, especially if it means that more children can be placed with a loving family more quickly. However, as always seems to be the case with this Government, progress comes with a price tag. I am concerned about local authorities such as my home authority, Manchester, which will lose 44% of its early intervention grant to help to pay for these adoption changes. Cutting the early intervention grant by £150 million a year—not increasing it, as the Minister stated—to pay for adoption changes is more than robbing Peter to pay Paul: it is counter-productive.
I hope that the hon. Lady heard me refer to the adoption reform grant, which was recently made available to local authorities to the tune of £150 million to bring about the reform of the adoption system that we need. That money is being specifically targeted to bring about the changes that she wants to see.
I thank the Minister for clarifying that, but he might want to refer to his Department’s own website, which says that the money for these adoption changes is coming from a cut to the early intervention grant. If he wants to bring forward other changes, I am sure that all Labour Members would welcome that.
Early intervention work with families prevents them from entering the care system in the first place, saving money for local authorities and the state. The Government are in danger of failing the early intervention test and I know that my hon. Friend Mr Allen will continue to hound them on that issue. I add my voice to his efforts on behalf of vulnerable children and families in my constituency.
I am also worried, given the context of this debate, about the safeguarding of looked-after children. The Bill is a missed opportunity. The Government need to do more to shore up safeguarding capacity in the system, particularly given the massive cuts to local government, and social workers need to be given more support to carry out their duties and to safeguard our children.
My hon. Friend is making a compelling argument. The Minister seems to be shaking his head at what she is saying. I have visited local Sure Start centres in my constituency and they are all earmarked for closure in 2016. Does my hon. Friend share their concern and mine about the capacity to safeguard children without that network of centres?
I agree with my hon. Friend. In addition, my local authority in Manchester is experiencing a huge cut to its children’s services budget, which is having a massive impact on how the local council provides for children in care. That is particularly worrying.
As I said in my recent Adjournment debate on child care, the child-care crisis is one of the most fundamental issues facing families today. Part 4 of the Bill relates to child care and many elements have been met by a chorus of disapproval. Childminder organisations have welcomed the changes to allow Ofsted to charge for early reinspection at the request of the provider, but there is deep concern at opposition to plans to create new childminder agencies. Providers, the third sector, parents and the Government’s own advisers also have deep reservations about measures to change child-care ratios. Indeed, an unpublished report being sat on by the Secretary of State apparently says that changes to ratios will lead to a deterioration in the quality of care and will not help parents reduce their costs. I have previously asked for that report to be published and I repeat that request tonight. The Minister is in danger of driving down quality while costs balloon.
There are many concerns about the proposed childminder agency changes, and I echo those raised earlier by my hon. Friend Meg Hillier. Childminders are concerned that agencies could charge them high fees for registering and that plans for Ofsted to cease inspecting agency-registered childminders could confuse parents. Indeed, the Pre-School Learning Alliance has questioned why the Government would create another layer of bureaucracy that will see many parents and childminders pay more while duplicating the work of several organisations.
I am also concerned about plans to remove the existing duty on local authorities to assess the sufficiency of child care in their area. I have spoken before about the child-care crisis facing families hit by the triple whammy, including a reduction in the number of places. Indeed, my hon. Friend Mrs Hodgson has highlighted the closure of Sure Start centres in some parts of the country and my hon. Friend Catherine McKinnell also raised that point earlier. More than 400 centres have been lost since this Government took office and 4Children has highlighted that 55% of children’s centres no longer provide any on-site child care, while 50% of those that still do report that those places are massively over-subscribed.
Sufficient child care is a prerequisite for parents—mainly mothers—returning to work. Removing the duty on local authorities to ensure sufficient child care will not help parents who are trying to get back into the workplace. It is a backward step that sends the wrong message to families who struggle to find the right child care.
Involving fathers more in bringing up their children is important and the Government’s proposals for sharing leave are positive, provided that safeguards are in place for women. Indeed, there are still many issues to resolve for women to achieve equality in the labour market, especially returning mothers. I welcome the move to extend the right to request flexible working. It is a further important step to ensure that work for parents pays and it builds on the revolution in family-friendly practices introduced by the previous Labour Government.
Given the unprecedented pressures faced by parents and carers today, it is important that we create a system where families and individuals are able to manage home and work life for the economy as well as for themselves. However, I am not convinced that watering down guarantees for employees, with provisions being transferred from statutes to a code of practice, is the best way to highlight the importance of flexible working for family life.
The Government say that this Bill is about supporting vulnerable and disadvantaged children and families. However, as my hon. Friend Barbara Keeley has said, one group is conspicuous by its absence. Young carers do an amazing job caring for relatives such as parents, siblings or grandparents who have a disability or a mental health issue or who suffer from substance misuse. Although new rights for adult carers are proceeding in the draft Care and Support Bill, the Children and Families Bill does not include equivalent provisions for young carers. Many are concerned that this is a missed opportunity. The Bill is a key opportunity to consolidate and simplify the law for young carers and to provide them with rights equivalent to those given to adults. I hope that the Government will take note of the many representations that are being made on the issue and introduce proposals to ensure that young carers will be covered by the Bill. I look forward to debating the Bill further in Committee.
I congratulate all Ministers who have been involved in this Bill, past and present, on many measures that appear to be a huge step forward. I look forward to monitoring its progress through to fruition.
I want to discuss the role of the virtual school head teacher. Virtual school head teachers are a tried and tested method for improving the attainment of looked-after children. They have been shown to have a positive impact when they are well resourced and focused. The Bill contains a new statutory requirement for local authorities to appoint at least one individual to promote the educational attainment of looked-after children, and it is intended that such people will be the virtual school head teacher. As the chairman of our local charity in Calderdale, Together for Looked-after Children, and of the all-party group on looked-after children and care leavers, I welcome this important step forward, because although the attainment plight of looked-after children has been acknowledged in the past, this Bill finally puts accountability for such attainment on a level playing field.
The local authority duty to promote the education of looked-after children does not cover young people over 18, but local authorities continue to have some duties to support the educational achievement of care leavers up to the age of 25. This support is especially important as care leavers are less likely than their peers to achieve traditional testing points throughout their educational life. Research by Catch22’s national care advisory service and the Who Cares? Trust shows that it is vital that the education of care leavers benefits from the same strategic overview provided by virtual school head teachers as that of looked-after children.
For that reason it is important that the Bill Committee looks carefully at doing one or two additional things to strengthen the role of the virtual head teacher. It should either extend the duty on local authorities to promote educational achievement to include care leavers, or include a new clause to require a strategic overview of duties regarding the education of care leavers between the ages of 16 and 25.
Such an amendment would have several benefits. It would provide a strategic oversight of educational provision for all looked-after children and care leavers, and a framework to link education to broader career planning and the employability responsibilities of schools and local authorities. It would provide efficiencies in service delivery by linking, not duplicating, existing pre-16 and post-16 provision. It would provide a framework to monitor systematically the effectiveness of educational provision for individuals and cohorts beyond the age of 16, supporting local authorities to deliver on the extended performance indicators that will be introduced next year. It would also provide a framework for capturing and supporting the educational needs of looked-after children who enter care post-16, such as the homeless 16 and 17-year-olds under the Southwark ruling and unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, as well as care leavers.
The proposal would improve joint working and information sharing with further education, higher education and other employment, education and training providers. It would also provide educational expertise to train, advise and support social workers and personal advisers who work with care leavers to deliver EET support, including through input into pathway plans and post-16 personal education plans. The proposal would also avoid gaps in the educational support provision of local authority children’s services. For example, one local authority reported recently that young people were unsupported during the summer holidays post-GCSEs until the 16-plus service took over their case.
The proposal would meet the improved standards of accountability under the forthcoming revised Ofsted framework, which will require local authorities to demonstrate how they would support the education of care leavers until they are 25. Ofsted has already had an impact, with one local authority reporting that the remit of its virtual school head teacher had been extended in response to criticism in a previous inspection.
The beauty of these tweaks is that they are achievable with little additional resource. Many local authorities already deliver an extended service, but I accept that there are concerns about the resource implications of an extended statutory duty. Local authorities would be free to decide the extent to which they used the remit of the virtual school head teacher to provide enhanced services to care leavers. The Who Cares? Trust and the National Care Advisory Service envisage that virtual school head teachers will provide strategic oversight of the educational support that local authorities must provide to care leavers, rather than direct casework, unless local authorities find that that would improve services.
More importantly, the proposal would protect the investment in leaving care support by providing a framework to monitor systematically and review the effectiveness of educational support post-16 and providing the evidence needed to evaluate services in order to enable better targeted support and to eliminate ineffective interventions. It would protect the investment in young people’s educational achievements at an earlier age by ensuring that they were supported to complete further and higher education and given the tools to achieve and maintain future economic well-being.
The proposal would also provide a framework for establishing better links with other EET providers, including further and higher education providers and training providers. Local authorities would be able to make better use of the resources for vulnerable groups. For example, they would be able to negotiate effective systems to access bursaries, support services and other schemes that support educational achievement.
This slight change to the Bill would not only join up services for this vulnerable group of young people, but would be cost-neutral in the long run.
I welcome many of the changes in part 1 of the Bill to streamline the adoption process and the provisions in parts 6, 7 and 8 to introduce new employment rights for women and men who have young children.
As one of the first people to argue in this place for a Children’s Commissioner for Wales, I support the commissioner’s response that his remit should be extended to include some reserved matters so that he can better represent the children of Wales. I hope that that provision can be looked at in due course.
My remarks will focus on part 2 of the Bill and the impact that the changes that it introduces could have on family justice. I declare an interest because I practised in family law for more than 35 years and draw some of my opinions from my experience in the courts, as does the Under-Secretary of State for Education, Mr Timpson, who, although not of my vintage, practised in the same area of law and on the same circuit.
I sit on the Justice Committee, which undertook some of the pre-legislative scrutiny of this Bill. Regarding the public law clauses of the Bill, the Committee was supportive of the Government’s intention to reduce delay in care and supervision proceedings. We applauded the example set by some local authorities and courts in cutting timetables. We have heard about the Norgrove report, which recognised the terrible delays of 61 weeks in care centres and 48 weeks in family proceedings courts. Such delays can obviously cause unnecessary strain and distress for the most vulnerable children.
Like the right hon. Gentleman, my background is in law, although not in family law. I know from my surgeries that my constituents will welcome the simplification and shortening of the process. However, does he share my concern that we must ensure that the judiciary have the right training and perhaps more training so that when we have the shortened hearings, the right results ensue?
Mr Justice Ryder, who is in overall charge of this area, gave evidence to the Justice Committee not long ago and the hon. Lady should rest assured that he is on the case. There has been progress of late in that area, but I am sure that there will be greater progress. I thank her for that intervention.
In evidence to the Justice Committee’s inquiry, Barnardo’s stated:
“Two months of delay in making decisions in the best interest of a child equates to 1% of childhood that cannot be restored.”
Thus, the principle of introducing a 26-week time limit is obviously to be welcomed. However, as the Family Law Bar Association noted in its evidence, the practical consequences of the provision might result in further delay in the courts, because cases will still be likely to take longer than 26 weeks to complete and so will be repeatedly referred back to the court for extensions. The evidence of the NSPCC drew attention to the importance of granting adequate time to work with families in cases where intervention projects are utilised, such as in the family drug and alcohol court in London, without the extra burden of having to apply for extensions.
The Committee recommended that the draft provision should be amended to allow judges some leniency to identify cases that are likely to take longer than 26 weeks and to exempt them from the 26-week time limit. That may well reduce unnecessary bureaucracy and expensive extension hearings. I urge the Minister to think further about that, as I am sure he will.
The Justice Committee was concerned about the provisions on child arrangements orders in clause 12 and recommended a number of alterations. It is important to remember that the UK has had equality of parental responsibility since 1989. That principle was introduced to reduce conflict in courts over contact arrangements and to remove the perception that there are winners and losers in such disputes. The Committee was unconvinced that merely changing the wording from “contact order” and “residence order” to “child arrangements order” would eliminate the perception that there are winners and losers in the family courts.
The Committee was also concerned that the changed wording would cause confusion in foreign jurisdictions and recommended that the Government reconsider the practical difficulty in interpreting the clause in the context of international law. The concept of “rights of custody” is well established in The Hague and in EU legislation. There is justifiable concern that the introduction of CAOs could cause confusion about the nature of parental responsibility, unless the orders specify that the person with whom the child is to live has rights of custody.
My greatest concern and that of the Committee relates to clause 11. We heard a debate about this matter earlier and the Minister became animated when we came to it. The explanation of Tim Loughton comforted me. The Government accepted the Committee’s recommendation that the title of the provision should be changed from “shared parenting” to “parental involvement”. However, the Government did not accept that the term “involvement” should be defined in the Bill to remove any implication that involvement equates to a parent’s right to a set amount of time with a child.
In their response to the Committee’s report on the Bill, the Government stated:
“Whilst it is not a specific policy intention to change the outcome of court decisions in particular cases, we anticipate that the amendment will encourage parents to adopt less adversarial and entrenched positions in relation to the care of their child.”
I hope that that is right, but evidence suggests that, to the contrary, the change might prompt people to assume that they have rights and could lead to courts undermining the paramountcy of the welfare of the child, inferring instead that equal access to both parents will have a beneficial impact on all children. As Gingerbread pointed out in its briefing on the Shared Parenting Orders Bill, which failed to be passed during the last Session, there would be problems with
“any form of legal presumption that assumes a particular outcome—that is, a parenting arrangement of near equal or equal time—before the consideration of a child’s best interests”.
I appreciate that this is a Second Reading debate, but it may be worth the right hon. Gentleman acquainting himself with page 21 of the explanatory notes, which deals with the issue and states explicitly:
That is clear in the explanatory notes and was made clear when I gave evidence to the Justice Committee.
Repeating the misconceptions in the press does not help. Does the right hon. Gentleman not accept that if it is crystal clear that both parents are expected to be involved with their children, they are less likely to have to go to court for that to be enforced?
I have been practising in the courts for quite a time, and as I understand it, there is a presumption in the courts that the involvement of both parents is good, provided that it accords with the overall principle of the children’s welfare being paramount. Nothing will change drastically, but my concern is that some people who do not have any contact with their children for various reasons will suddenly think that there is now shared parenting and they have a right to do this, that and t’other. I may be wrong, and I hope so.
I accept what the hon. Gentleman said about the need for the parent with residence not to freeze out the other parent. That is absolutely right, but a recent report by the universities of Oxford and Sussex, “Taking a longer view of contact”, states that structural factors such as the frequency and format of contact are relatively unimportant compared with the quality of contact that children experience with both their resident and non-resident parent. It further observes:
“Parenting arrangements after separation cannot be considered in isolation to the patterns of parenting established in intact families.”
It stresses that no contact is better than bad contact, and that there are circumstances, such as when abuse is present, in which no contact should take place.
We know that fewer than one in 10 cases in which parents divorce or separate come before a family court for a decision on contact. It is estimated that between a third and half of the cases that do come to court include allegations of violence or abuse. I believe that the provision in the Bill is more about creating a perception than anything else. This has been a good debate hitherto, and I do not want to fall out unnecessarily on this point, but I simply do not understand why we are legislating to change a perception. At the end of the day, family courts are manned by experienced judges who start with the principle that it is always good for both parents to be involved when it accords with the all-important principle of the welfare of the child being paramount.
I want to address a couple of points relating to the special educational needs reforms in the Bill. There is a lot of consensus on the matter on both sides of the House. Indeed, the debate has been so good that there has been a lot of consensus on the Bill anyway, and I am not going to disturb that consensus.
I start with a quotation from Barnardo’s:
“Barnardo’s is supportive of the Government’s intentions, which aim to support better joint working between agencies and introduce unified Education, Health and Care plans for children and young people.”
One of the key components of the Bill, therefore, is better joint working across a range of agencies. There is much to be welcomed in that, although I have some concerns—I have noted that other Members do, too. I should say en passant that giving children, young people and their parents care of the funds through personal budgets is an excellent way of proceeding and has to be right.
Everyone has acknowledged that the integration of education, health and care plans is widely approved, but I wish to raise a question about how it will work in practice. How will the role of health be captured and delivered in the process? That question was put to me by the head of Woodeaton Manor special school in my constituency, which I recently visited. She doubted that the joint education, health and care plans could be delivered without a statutory duty on health services.
That was a great disappointment to her, because she was very much in favour of them and wanted to give them a good run. I understand that the constitution of the NHS and the way in which it operates mean that that has not yet been possible to achieve, but I encourage Ministers to continue their dialogue with their NHS colleagues to find a way of sorting this out. Unless they do that, there will be no certainty that the education, health and care plans can be delivered, and that will be an enormous shame.
I urge Ministers also to ensure that one person is appointed to look after a child’s interests. My experience is that when more than one agency is involved, the need for a person to look after the child often falls through the cracks and we end up with nobody looking after the child. In some cases the relevant person will clearly be the education sponsor, but that will not necessarily be true in other cases, particularly when we are dealing with those who are not in education, employment or training. It would be extremely useful to have a provision along those lines in the Bill.
The education, health and care plans replace statements. The accusation has been made that too many assessments are a bad thing and that they are time-consuming, and I agree with that, but the more fundamental point is that statements are a very blunt instrument that can be open to misuse. I pay tribute to the staff of Woodeaton Manor school for the fantastic work that they are undertaking there. When I visited, they were preparing with some children with difficult autistic conditions to take cakes to a cake stall at a local market. The head made the point that the concentration on statements leads to too many children being statemented as autistic. That not only inhibits the best use of resources but dilutes the focus on those who really need help. The misdiagnosis of SEN, or of the level of SEN, leads to the easy solution that everybody ends up with a statement or with SEN provision.
Autism is an important issue in both the south and north of my constituency, where there are two organisations. The problem always comes when the child leaves school. They come to a cliff edge at 16, or perhaps at 18 when provision is taken up to that age, when it is left to individual organisations such as Thomley Hall in my constituency to help shape that young person’s future. That is why I am particularly pleased that the Bill’s provision extend to the age of 25 so that that cliff edge can be smoothed out. Will the Minister confirm that that will be the case for children with autism?
The new special educational needs code of practice will be important. It will give statutory guidance on the provisions in the Bill, and I hope that it will also set out how those who do not require education, health and care plans will be supported. Providing funding for that is important. Oxfordshire now has a good range of high-quality cost-effective local provision for young people aged 16 to 25 across special schools and colleges, but that is in stark contrast to many other areas. Although it has developed local provision that has significantly reduced expenditure on out-of-county placements, there still seems to be disagreement on how the SEN block grant should be treated and I urge Ministers to look at that. It is simply not acceptable that so many families struggle to get the help and support that their child needs to receive a first-class education. Every child has the right to fulfil their potential, and I believe this Bill will ensure that that happens.
Order. Owing to the number of speakers, I am going to drop the speech limit to seven minutes.
As I indicated in an earlier intervention, I wish to focus on the serious impact that the Bill could have on kinship care arrangements. I hope that the Government will seriously engage with and address concerns raised by groups such as the Family Rights Group, and take the opportunity to amend the Bill in Committee.
Recent research by Bristol university estimates that around 173,200 children are being raised by family members or friends of their parents because their parents cannot look after them. That equates to one in every 77 children in the UK, and in Bristol rises to one in every 59 children. These children have often experienced tragedy or trauma in their life due to the death or imprisonment of a parent, or to a parent’s alcohol or drug misuse or mental health problems. Sometimes, the parent has simply walked out on them and disappeared. Most of those children are being raised by grandparents, but sometimes siblings, aunts and uncles, and even friends and neighbours or a parent’s ex- partner, step in to help. Many of these placements occur when a crisis arises. Children benefit hugely from remaining within their wider family units and with people they know and who love them. That helps them to maintain contact with family members and sometimes, where appropriate, with their parents. Often, it also means they can stay at the same school and keep in touch with their friends.
Roughly half the children who enter kinship care have behavioural and emotional difficulties, but around 80% improve after placement—the same figure as for foster care. Despite the fact that support for family and friends carers is inadequate or non-existent, children in kinship care are as safe as and do as well if not better than children in unconnected foster care in terms of health, school performance and attendance, self-esteem, and social and personal relationships. There is also a marked improvement in emotional and behavioural problems. Family and friends carers are more likely to be highly committed to the children in their care than unrelated foster carers, as well as more likely to match their ethnicity, leading to more stable placements.
Only an estimated 6% of children raised in the care of family and friends are looked-after children. The huge majority live with relatives and friends outside the care system, either with their parents’ agreement or under a residence or special guardianship order granted by the courts. Such arrangements save the state approximately £12 billion, which is what it would cost for the children to go into independent foster care.
I first became interested in this issue when I heard the story of Paul on “Women’s Hour” a couple of years ago. Paul is now 26 and from the age of 22 has raised his six younger siblings. He had to battle the system for more than a year and see his brothers and sisters taken into care and put into foster homes before the courts accepted that he was the best person to look after them. I was fortunate to meet him in June 2011 when I introduced a ten-minute rule Bill to assist kinship carers, and I was struck by the extraordinary love and determination he has shown towards his younger siblings, and by the sacrifices he had made in his own career and personal freedom to look after them. He was adamant that he had to step up to the plate and that he was the best person to look after his siblings, and so far that has proved to be the case.
Clause 1 of the Bill states that that when a local authority is considering adoption for a child in the care system but is not yet authorised to place them for adoption, it must consider placing that child with a local authority foster carer who is also approved as a prospective adopter. The local authority will no longer be required to give preference to placing the child with their parents or a wider family network. The Family Rights Group has undertaken detailed research into the impact of the proposals on family and friends care, and set out some careful and reasoned amendments that I hope the Government will consider. Clause 1 could apply to any looked-after child, even those in care by agreement with the parents, despite there having been no due legal process by which the threshold for the state to remove a child from their parents and/or place the child for adoption is fully established. In voluntary accommodation and pre-birth cases there will have been no legal proceedings at all, and kinship carers in such circumstances are unlikely to have had legal advice.
The court’s final decision on whether a child should be removed from their family will be pre-empted by the child forming attachments to the prospective adopters. Any court that later considers the case would not be able to resist the status quo argument—that it would be better for the child to stay with the adopters than return to their parents. That problem is further compounded by the lack of any legal duty to work with parents to help them resolve their problems before or after the child is looked after. It has been suggested that the measure might squeeze out potentially suitable family and friends carers because again the status quo argument would militate against moving a child from prospective adopters to a relative’s home.
It is vital that court decisions on whether to remove children permanently are not pre-empted. In addition, the Government’s proposal to limit the time frame for care proceedings to 26 weeks as set out in clause 14 might be imposed at the expense of getting it right for children. I am aware that that aspect of the Government’s changes to adoption has not received a proper airing because so far the debate in the media has been on efforts to reduce the emphasis given to ethnicity, culture and so on when matching a child to an adopter parent. However, given that this Bill makes provision for children to be removed from their families without due legal process being observed, I am slightly surprised that it has not caused more alarm among Government colleagues, who are normally quite exercised by the concept of an overbearing state interfering with people’s lives. I hope that the Government will reconsider clauses 1 and 6, and that they will take the opportunity to introduce amendments set out by the Family Rights Group that could support kinship care arrangements. I hope that such matters are considered in Committee.
I congratulate Ministers and ex-Ministers on this Bill—the way it has proceeded and been put together—and on their willingness to discuss it. Ministers will be aware from the discussion this evening that much of this Second Reading debate has turned into a Committee stage. I do not intend to continue that and will say merely that this broad Bill is about looking after children—something I have been interested in since the early ’80s when I was on a social services committee in an inner-London borough.
The point I want to pick up briefly and congratulate Ministers on concerns adoption. The social services committee was looking after a broad spectrum of issues—everything one could possibly expect in inner-London, with all its problems—but one point that struck some of us was that an awfully large number of looked-after children were in homes. Although those homes were good and tried hard, there was a turnover and no parental influence, and the opportunities for children to progress were not good. Some of those children were not suitable for adoption, but the whole council attitude changed and we pushed towards fostering and adoption with huge success.
As I have said, that took place in the early ’80s in the days before political correctness came in. We saw some extraordinary and beneficial changes and I will relate a small story as an example. As councillors, we met all the adoption and fostering people regularly, including one young couple who had adopted two boys—they were pre-school age, just. The father was English and the mother Australian, and one of the two boys was white and one black although both were exactly the same age. The success of the family was striking, and by that I mean even the extended family. The grandmother in Sydney knitted pullovers for both boys, each with his name across the front. On the first visit to grandma, they flew into Sydney. The boys decided that they were going to fool grandma so they swapped their pullovers which, if you think about it, is actually about a big smile. What I am really getting at is that the change and opportunity for those kids once they were adopted were striking.
Through my constituency actions and going back to that local authority, I was staggered at the way the system had gummed up and how children and those who wished to adopt were not getting the opportunity to do so. Progress had stopped. As speaker after speaker has pointed out, that space of time is short for us but long for those children. Therefore, succinctly, I congratulate Ministers on going ahead and taking on those problems, and on having the courage to tackle the political correctness while recognising an element of truth in what people say.
It is vital for our children and young people that the Bill delivers the change that they want and need, with the necessary resources, safeguards, directions and clear lines of accountability. Failure to deliver on those factors will mean that the Bill will not be worth the paper it is written on. Worse, it could lead to deterioration in service provision and huge variations in the quality of service offered to children and young people in different parts of the country.
I do not doubt that Ministers have every good intention with the Bill, but good intentions are not enough to satisfy the needs of our community. Government cuts have caused a lack of specialist services and professionals since 2010. It is for Ministers to explain how the reforms will work in that context. The Education Committee carried out pre-legislative scrutiny on the Bill’s SEN provisions, but the sector still has concerns that funding cuts in different areas will undermine the positive impact that elements of the Bill could provide to those who need support.
The SEN clauses have created deep-seated cause for concern in the sector, possibly because of the lack of detail in the Bill. They include measures that will shift us from statements to health and social care plans. The key difference between the outgoing system and the new one is that the new plans will extend beyond the mandatory school age, which I welcome. However, the system of education health and care plans does not include a greater degree of legal entitlements than the system it replaces.
Parents with children who have SEN are rightly concerned that current problems will not be solved without a single point of accountability for parents seeking redress. That must be put right. For example, Ambitious about Autism proposes changing the Bill to include a duty that requires local authorities to conduct a review of support available to young people aged 19 to 25 when they fall out of education. That would give them the best possible chance of re-engaging in learning and accessing future employment.
I am pleased that the Government have responded to the Education Committee’s suggestion for an extension of such entitlements to apprentices and, in specific circumstances, to young people who are not in education, employment or training. However, the Government have not taken that promising first step to its logical and desirable conclusion. We should support each and every young person with an EHC plan up to the age of 25, including those in supported employment. Under the current provisions, young people at university will cease to be eligible for EHC plans as soon as they begin their courses. Surely the Government do not want to abandon such young people when they are facing the biggest change in their lives. I would like to hear what the Minister has to say on that. Is that a simple oversight that will be corrected? Campaign groups such as Every Disabled Child Matters and the Special Educational Consortium have observed that disabled children without learning difficulties will not have access to the new plan.
Scope says that the Bill represents an important opportunity to alleviate some of the strain on families with disabled children. I agree with Scope’s objective of amending the Bill to include a guarantee of better support for disabled children and their families in their local area. The Bill requires local authorities to publish information on the services they expect to be available in their areas to children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities—both with and without education, health and care plans. However, the Bill does not say what they must provide. Why are the Government reluctant to provide a national framework of minimum standards for local offers? A greater degree of guidance from the Government would improve accountability and set higher standards for local councils to fulfil their obligations under the new system.
We need assurances from the Government that the new SEN system does not evolve from an informal postcode lottery to a formal one. The National Union of Teachers has concerns that, although local authorities retain a welcome role in SEN provision, the gradual shift away from local oversight of schools will undermine the ability of local authorities to carry out their SEN functions. What is the role of academies in that context?
I am pleased that the Government—I seem to be very pleased with them tonight— accepted the Education Committee’s suggestion during pre-legislative scrutiny that the new code of practice should be laid before Parliament, but the Bill requires that it is laid under the negative resolution procedure. It is not clear why the code will not be subject to the positive resolution given the importance of its contents. I am also concerned that the Secretary of State will meddle with the service by changing regulations.
People in the sector have shared concerns about the scrapping of school action and school action plus— the current graduated response approach to meeting the educational needs of children at school. As other hon. Members have said, around 17% of school-age pupils are on one of those programmes, and concern remains on whether their replacement with a single SEN stage will deliver what young people need.
The Minister should consider the case for expanding the definition of “vulnerable children” to include children living in custody and separated children who are seeking asylum or who have been trafficked, as recommended by the Children’s Society. It is right that action is taken to find more and better adoptive homes for children, but I hope that speeding the process up can be done without compromising the quality of child placement. Speed should never come at the expense of getting that right. No hon. Member wants an increase in the number of failed adoptions. I would be interested to hear more on the safeguards, to which the Minister has referred, for ensuring that speed does not come at the expense of getting it right.
I do not agree with the Minister and the Government that the bedroom tax is not a problem in the context of the Bill. It most certainly is a problem, particularly for foster parents, who rely on having that room available. How many places will be lost for foster children if the bedroom tax is implemented?
I am glad my hon. Friend mentions the impact of the bedroom tax on foster carers. Has he considered the impact on prospective adopters? A prospective adoptive family must have bedrooms available for children moving in with them. Any prospective adoptive parent who lives in social housing will be in the same position as adoptive foster carers in social housing.
The changes to how child care works are proposed against the backdrop of the rising cost of living, depleted public services such as Sure Start, and benefit changes that penalise hard-working families. The Government have announced grand plans, but Ministers must know that they cannot deliver with less money—although perhaps they will tell us that the Chancellor will reverse the cuts and invest to help rather than hinder our families.
The Bill is a mixed bag. Some measures are welcome, such as some of the changes on flexible leave and on the Office of the Children’s Commissioner. Sadly, it does not live up to its initial promise to end the battle for support for children with special educational needs. I look forward to the Government working in Committee to fulfil that promise.
This huge and important Bill intends to improve services for vulnerable children and to support strong families. It intends to reform the systems for adoption, looked-after children, family justice and special educational needs—my comments will focus on special educational needs.
As a constituency Member of Parliament for three decades, I have too often met parents who have felt that they have had to battle for the support they need. They have been passed from pillar to post, and bureaucracy and frustration have faced them at every step. Being a constituency MP and hopefully helping people is a great privilege. For example, I was grateful to the parents of a 19-year-old son and 16-year-old daughter who both had Asperger’s syndrome. The parents recently wrote to me that
“after years spent battling with LEA and schools to get some SEN support for our son and daughter, it wasn’t until your personal intervention Sir Tony that we were actually listened to. As a result, our daughter was successfully placed in a specialist school near Oxford and today is Head Girl. It was sadly too late for our son and the damage has been immense”.
They went on to ask:
“how will the County Council work to ensure that Government proposals to reform the SEN systems are implemented and that our children get the right levels of support to get the education they deserve”?
Hon. Members agree that it should not be necessary for parents to feel constantly that they have to battle the system, and/or that the only way they will make progress is by enlisting the help of their Member of Parliament. Everyone welcomes the fact that the Government want to put in place a radically different system to support better life outcomes for young people, and to give parents confidence by giving them more control and transferring power to professionals on the front line and in local communities. It is good news that the Government clearly want to bring about better life outcomes for young people from birth to adulthood by helping professionals to identify and meet children’s needs early; by ensuring that health services and early education in child care are accessible to all children, and that those services work in partnership with parents to give each child support to fill their potential; and by joining up education, health and social care to provide families with the package of support that reflects all their needs. But there are still many questions, to which I am not sure that I yet have all the answers—and actually in this regard I see myself just as a typical constituency MP wanting to make sure that I can give help, support and appropriate advice to any parent who comes to see me with questions or concerns.
I do not expect the Minister to have time in his winding-up speech to respond to all my questions, but I hope that he might in due course write to me. Who will be responsible for ensuring that parents understand the process of the combined education, health and care plan? How will schools prepare themselves for when parents are much more in control of the SEN budgets? What will happen to those children who do not quality for the EHCP and those children whose difficulties are often not diagnosed until later on in their school life? Among the health and social service professionals needed in some instances to support children with special educational needs are educational psychologists and speech and language therapists. Do we have enough and how do parents access them? Are we sure we are giving teachers adequate training to teach children with a whole range of conditions, particularly those on a wide scale such as autism? How can we ensure a more consistent approach is taken across all local education authorities? How do we improve the transition from primary to secondary education? How do we improve the selection and training of special educational need co-ordinators in schools?
Parents of children with special educational needs raise two further issues with me. First, they feel all too often that their children are being bullied at school. I hope that we can do more to explain to students, perhaps in year 7, about the various neurological disorders and other disabilities that they might find among school friends, which I hope would then reduce bullying by increasing understanding.
The other concern is the number of exclusions of children with special educational needs. I think I am correct in saying that pupils with a statement of special educational needs are at present nine times more likely to receive a permanent exclusion than those without. Of course, SEN is not some sort of label that can be used to excuse bad or unruly behaviour in schools, but I would have thought it sensible that, if it was thought appropriate for any child to have either a temporary or, in particular, a permanent exclusion, very serious thought be given to whether that child has special educational needs and whether those needs are being properly met.
Many parents are concerned about what happens to their children when they leave school. As one parent put it to me:
“What is the vision for the future for our children to be able to live productive, independent and supported lives when currently post-18, there seems to be little more than part-time college courses for their continued education and properly supported residential places to enable independence and learning of life skills are all out of county”.
I support the notion that parents should be given greater choice, but they must also have the choice of being able to send their children to specialist schools—depending on their needs and disability—such as the National Star College, or the Royal National College for the Blind.
There is a specific issue in respect of Oxfordshire, simply because when the Learning and Skills Council was created and the SEN block grant was first established, there were no post-16 places in maintained special schools in Oxfordshire. As a consequence, no funds were included in the SEN block grant. This is an issue on which I know that Oxfordshire county council has written in detail to officials in the Department for Education and, in anticipation of today’s debate, I have also written to Ministers. What Oxfordshire is requesting is that the Education Funding Agency treats Oxfordshire in a way that is broadly consistent with other local authorities.
Finally, as co-chair of the all-party group for carers, I want to echo the hopes expressed by hon. Members on both sides of the House that in Committee Ministers will think about whether provision can be made in the Bill for young carers to mirror the provision for adult carers in other legislation. Young carers are a very vulnerable group. Otherwise, this is an excellent Bill, and the Government are to be congratulated on introducing such a huge and encompassing Bill that will do so much to help vulnerable children.
It is a pleasure to take part in this high-quality debate today on a Bill that we on the Opposition Benches broadly support, albeit that key improvements and changes need to be made. In the short time available, I wish to concentrate my comments on the SEN provisions.
I recently held an Adjournment debate on the SEN provisions in the Bill, and while I welcome some of the improvements made on the draft Bill, such as including academies and free schools in the provisions, unfortunately it seems that in many other areas the Government are still not moving far enough, despite what I am sure is an attempt to do the right thing with this legislative opportunity.
I remind colleagues that this is not a marginal issue. There are some 700,000 disabled children in England and some 1.7 million children are said to have special educational needs. However, far too many of these families feel they live close to crisis point, and MPs are all too familiar with the cases of parents who are forced to fight through a seemingly endless bureaucratic nightmare in order to get the support they so desperately need for their children.
At the heart of the struggle faced by families with disabled children and those with SEN is the unacceptable lack of support for these families close to home. Recently, a report by Scope found that the biggest issue facing families with disabled children is a lack of local support services. More than six in 10 parents of disabled children say they are not able to get the services that they and their child need in their local area. Child care, respite care and therapeutic services, such as speech and language therapy, are often just not readily available. This lack of local accessible services can have a devastating impact on a family’s quality of life. Research has found 80% of families with disabled children who cannot access the services they need locally report feeling anxious and stressed, and more than half said they missed out on doing family activities together as a result.
This situation is getting worse, not better, with local authorities now facing cuts of up to 30% of their budgets. Many councils are therefore being forced to cut services for disabled people, making an already bad situation worse. For example, more than half of councils have cut spending on respite breaks for families, and 77% of local authorities are either making cuts or efficiency savings in services for people with a learning disability. The fundamental question underlying today’s debate is where the money will come from to make the improvements promised by the Bill.
The Government have said that that their reforms to SEN provision will reduce the adversarial nature of the system, putting an end to the frustration of parents having to fight to get the support their children need. I welcome the Bill’s intentions, particularly the requirement for local authorities to publish a “local offer”, to better enable families to find the education, health and care support they need. I also welcome the duty on local agencies to jointly plan and commission services for disabled children—something long overdue in a system that tends to compartmentalise children and their families. But I cannot help but feel that while the Government’s proposed reforms are well intentioned, they very much lack the ambition to truly improve the support available for families with disabled children.
Clause 30, for instance, requires a local authority only to produce information on the education, health and care services “it expects” to be available locally. Many organisations in the field do not believe that this will reduce the battle that families face in getting the support they need. Unfortunately, the local offer stands as little more than a directory of services, with no legal compulsion on the part of local agencies to actually provide what is set out in the offer. Furthermore, if the local offer is to work, it is vital that families with disabled children and children with SEN are able to hold local agencies to account for the delivery of the services contained in that offer. Without that accountability, families with disabled children will have no way of ensuring that the services they need are available. However, the Bill is totally inadequate in this respect, with local authorities being required only to publish comments by parents and young people on the local offer. That will not be enough for parents to hold local agencies to account, nor will local agencies be under any obligation to improve the services contained in the offer, and the chances are that parents will continue to battle with local authorities as they have in the past.
It is even more important for the local offer to be strengthened if Parliament consents to the clauses that abolish the school action and school action plus programmes, as children under those categories will be totally reliant on the services contained in the local offer. Currently, almost 1.4 million children with SEN do not have a statement and will not qualify for the plan under the proposed reforms—87% of the total number of children with SEN. Those children are currently supported under the school action and school action plus programmes. Often they have distinct needs, such as speech and language difficulties, which will have to be met solely by services contained in the local offer. If that offer is weak and unaccountable, those children could miss out on the support they currently receive or will need in the future.
Unfortunately, the Government have not listened to experts in the field, nor have they properly considered the views of the Education Committee, which said in its pre-legislative report:
“The importance of getting the Local Offer right cannot be overstated.”
The Committee recommended that the Bill should establish a national framework for the local offer, together with improved accountability measures by which they could be evaluated. Unfortunately, the Government have so far chosen to ignore that advice, but it is not too late.
I do not oppose the Bill, which I see as an opportunity, but the Government need to respond—to listen to the experts and to make the improvements necessary as it goes through Parliament. Only then will the House be seen to legislate in a way that is truly meaningful to the lives of children with SEN and their families.
I shall concentrate my few words, before my voice gives out, on special educational needs. The Bill is to be welcomed, because while there are examples of good practice, the current system of SEN is not fit for purpose. I have been advised of examples where young, vulnerable people and their families have been let down; there are cases in which children have been excluded from activities, such as sports days and swimming, and in which schools have failed to provide support for a child until a medical diagnosis has been received, despite accepting that the child was struggling to access the curriculum. In contrast, there are other schools where completely the opposite service is being provided, with schools being super-supportive despite no diagnosis. There have been cases where parents have had to attend schools themselves to provide one-to-one support for their child, and where parents have been asked to take their child home at lunchtime due to staff shortages.
The Bill provides the framework to transform the system for children and young people with SEN to ensure that a consistently high service is provided across the country, with the examples of poor practice provided being consigned to history. It is right that young people and their families should have greater control and choice in decisions that affect their lives. It is right that the health service should play a full role in improving the planning, commissioning and provision of services. It is very much a step in the right direction that young people will be on the same footing whether they attend a maintained school, an academy, a further education college or a sixth form college. Replacing statements with a single assessment process and combined education, health and care plans is to be welcomed.
As I said at the outset, there are examples of good practice. Scope currently works with Suffolk county council to provide Activities Unlimited—a brokerage service that negotiates inclusive short breaks and leisure services for children, their families and their carers. By using the purchasing power of existing local service users, Activities Unlimited has increased the availability of local services such as youth clubs, swimming pools and play centres for families across Suffolk, including those in my constituency. It is important that this type of service becomes the norm, rather than the exception.
The Bill provides the opportunity to do that, but I would be grateful if the Government considered some issues in Committee and on Report that will improve the Bill. First, everyone who needs a plan up to 25 should get one. Provision should not be restricted to those with a statemented SEN. As other hon. Members have said, it is also necessary to consider higher education. The local offer needs refining, and should be backed up with a national framework. There must be accountability for delivering the local offer, and while the education health care plans are welcome, more work is needed. Consideration should be given to how best to commit health authorities to delivery of their new responsibilities. One should also bear in mind the changing role of local authorities in education. With the rise of academies and free schools, local education authorities do not have the powers they once had. The Bill should be future-proofed to take account of the fact that the role of local education authorities may change still further in the coming years.
I commend the Government for introducing the Bill. In doing so, they are seeking to address an inequity and an injustice that has gone unnoticed for too long. Some amendments are required for the Bill to achieve its objectives, and I urge the Government to continue to pursue the collegiate approach that they, and in particular the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend Mr Timpson, have pursued to date. Thank you very much, Mr Deputy Speaker—my voice is going.
It is a privilege to follow Peter Aldous who, despite struggling to find his voice, has made his points effectively.
There is sometimes a gap between the rhetoric we display in here and the reality outside. In the Scunthorpe area, 22% of children are defined as being in child poverty. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has said that families with children are the group being the hardest hit by the current cuts, with the poorest families with children under one having already lost approximately £1,000 a year. That is the context in which the children and families who need the most help are struggling.
I pay tribute to all staff in schools and colleges up and down the land who work extremely hard to achieve the best possible support and outcomes for young people with special educational needs. As the hon. Member for Waveney said, bad practice needs to be consigned to history. However, we need to celebrate good practice and recognise the efforts made by people on a daily basis—that is important.
One of the most significant problems with the current system is the fact that two different systems operate: pre-16 and post-16. That has resulted, more often than we would like, in students enrolling in college at the age of 16, but the college receiving little or no information about special educational needs. The establishment of a seamless system for everyone up to the age of 25 should be a step in the right direction, but the change raises a number of concerns because it will come into force in September 2014, a year after the September 2013 changes to the way in which post-16 special educational needs provision is funded.
Colleges are finding that the process of preparing for the 2013 funding change is exceptionally complicated, and it is regrettable that this proposal was not trialled in advance. There is a real danger that students are going to miss out on their education of choice. As the Education Committee Chair said, the poor management of the funding changes risks threatening the good will of educational institutional institutions towards the good intentions in the Bill. There is confusion about the funding for young people with SEN in respect of preparation for the change in 2013 in post-16 funding.
Local authorities are taking very different approaches, with the worst practice being where they are allocating funding based on their assessments. Such authorities are acting as commissioners and deliverers of the service, and that is endangering the quality of the service. I hope the Minister will confirm that the Government expect that, at the very least, local authorities should continue to fund current students until they have completed their course. It is important that that commitment is given by the Government to provide assurance in the system, so that there is the confidence to build on the
Bill and it is not undermined by the September 2013 changes. I hope that the Minister who will be making the winding-up speech has picked up on that point and will respond to it. Although the post-16 sector is enthusiastic about the principle, it is very concerned about the practice in respect of the funding changes for 2013 and there is a real danger that confidence will be undermined, even though the Bill seeks to do the right thing.
I wish to pick up on one or two other issues. Paul Maynard drew attention to the exclusion of young offenders from this Bill. I hope that the Government take the opportunity in Committee to re-examine that, because it seems, for reasons he expressed better than I could, that these young people need all the support they can get. Education for over-18s is not supported strongly in the Bill; it says that local authorities “can” take account of that when developing provision. That means that they might not take it into account, so the Government could also look to strengthen provision in that area.
Finally in my list of small issues, I would like the Government to examine the higher education provision. Young people with these additional needs should surely be supported in higher education, too, but the Bill deliberately excludes young people in higher education. Some young people’s higher education will be provided by further education colleges, and there is a lack of clarity about the position for that group in particular. I hope that the Government take the opportunity, either in response to this debate or in Committee, to examine these things in greater detail.
I welcome the excellent way in which the Minister began the debate by saying that he wanted to engage with issues and take the opportunity to improve the Bill. A number of hon. Members have mentioned the good intentions of the Bill and touched on the real issue, which is that with the changing landscape of free schools, academies, studio schools and so on—the hon. Member for Waveney mentioned that—there is a dislocation and dismemberment of a service, and we end up with a series of ad-hoc provisions. The Bill recognises the need for a proper service, but providing it is a challenge, because whereas Every Child Matters has a clear and direct philosophy behind it, the philosophy behind this Bill is at variance with the philosophy behind many of the other educational changes the Government are pushing forward. The Bill provides an opportunity for this skilled Minister to knit things all together, and I wish him luck.
This Bill is clearly close to the hearts of Ministers, hon. Members and many of our constituents. Unlike Nic Dakin, who has just made a typically well-informed contribution, I am not an expert in this policy area. Most of what I have learnt about it has come through the tuition of a very good organisation in the New Forest, Supporting special Children And their Relatives and Friends—SCARF. It has alerted me to one particular aspect in the Bill, which was referred to by my hon. Friend John Howell when he talked about the cliff edge encountered by young people when they reach 16.
SCARF is composed of parents of children with serious learning difficulties. They cope, and in most cases they cope quite heroically, but they need a degree of certainty in order to plan their lives. They told me that young people aged up to 16 were guaranteed five days of tuition per week, and were subsequently classified as adults. They had been receiving the full range of support to proceed to further education on what might be regarded as a full-time basis—for at least five days a week—but over the years since 2008, first under Labour and then under the present coalition Government, further education funds had been successively cut, and they were able to receive further education provision for their children with special needs first for just four days a week, and then for three. A ravine, or chasm, had appeared between the ages of 16 and 18. Families who had worked out a way of coping beforehand, and could cope afterwards, were suddenly confronted with an additional severe burden which could disrupt all their plans and hopes over that two-year period.
This is not the first occasion on which I have raised the issue in the House. I must say that I have been very impressed by the response that I have received from the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend Mr Timpson, and I think it is a measure of Ministers’ commitment to the Bill that he appears to have been present since the beginning of the debate. I was also struck by the fact that the Secretary of State was present for the first two hours, although he would not be participating directly in the debate, and I know that the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, Jo Swinson, who will wind up the debate, has been present for the vast majority of it. I therefore have no doubt about the seriousness with which these problems are being taken.
I originally raised the matter in an Adjournment debate on
A particular point emerged from those discussions. I shall observe the principle that one should only try to make one main point in any given oration; at least, that is what Mr. Speaker always used to tell me during the years when we were practising our speaking techniques before entering this place. I understand that, whereas in the past funds have been effectively guaranteed on the basis that a minimum of 450 teaching hours a year will be supplied for young people with special educational needs, that minimum will rise to 540 hours, with an average of 600. What was impressed on us by the Minister’s officials at the meeting was that that should mean that any further education college delivering those hours should deliver them over a period of at least four days, rather than three.
Let me make a simple suggestion. It relates, I suspect, to clause 37(4) of the Bill, which states:
“Regulations may make provision about the preparation, content and maintenance of EHC plans.”
I think that we need either an amendment at a later stage, or a commitment from a Minister that those regulations will specify that the minimum number of teaching hours —now, I believe, guaranteed to be 540, with an average of 600—shall be delivered over no fewer than four days. That would be a major step in the right direction, because it would mean that those parents—with all the burdens that they bear, all the efforts that they make, and all the courage that they show—could be assured that, for at least four days a week, their children could receive appropriate stimulation and support. As they point out, the last thing someone aged between 16 and 18 wants is to be nursemaided by their parents. They need stimulation and support. The Government are offering the extra hours—all praise to them for that—but they should ensure that the local authorities are instructed to deliver them over a minimum of four days a week.
The Bill covers such a medley of issues about which I and many of my constituents care deeply that it was difficult to know where to start. I have raised many of them previously in the House from both the Front Bench and the Back Benches, including the adoption process, the importance of supporting all looked-after children, the reform of the family justice system, how to enable parents to create a better work-life balance and the protection of Sure Start services, which I am alarmed to see being put at risk by some of the Government’s local authority cuts. All those issues are incredibly important, as they not only have a direct effect on our constituents but impact on the welfare of society as a whole. However, I decided to focus on the reforms to the system for children and young people with special educational needs, including those who are disabled, so that, in the words of the Department for Education,
“services consistently support the best outcomes for them.”
The Bill’s aim to provide support from birth to the age of 25 through the new education, health and care plans is laudable and deserves cross-party support. We all know from our constituency casework that the provision for families and children with special educational needs is often not up to scratch and, too often, the support that is available must be fought for extremely hard by parents. I welcome the move towards EHCPs, but I support the concerns expressed by several special educational needs organisations that as the Bill is drafted they will offer no more legal entitlement to support from health and social care services than statements. I know that organisations such as the National Autistic Society—including its Newcastle branch, which I met recently—are very concerned that the health and social care aspects of EHCPs should be put on the same statutory footing as education, with greater duties in health. If the Government are serious about delivering a joined-up system of support to families across all services, that concern must be addressed and acted on.
I am keen to focus today on personal budgets, the idea of a local offer of support and, more particularly, how that will be delivered on the ground in the current climate of austerity and cuts to local services. Earlier this month, Mencap published its latest report into the provision of short breaks, commonly known as respite care, for family carers of people with a learning disability. That excellent report makes sobering, indeed difficult, reading. Its key finding is that eight out of 10 family carers are still reaching crisis point due to a lack of breaks from caring. The Minister should be particularly concerned by the report’s findings that, in the past three years, four out of 10 family carers said they had experienced cuts to short breaks and four out of 10 felt their short breaks services had got worse. Three out of 10 councils had closed short breaks services for adults and children, more than half had cut spending on short breaks and six out of 10 had provided short breaks services to a smaller proportion of children with a learning disability in their area.
I know from my constituency just how important short-break provision is to families with children, including adult sons and daughters, with learning disabilities and special educational needs. In Newbiggin Hall in my constituency, we are hugely fortunate to have Cheviot View, a purpose-built and extremely impressive facility that provides overnight residential short-break care for children and young people with disabilities aged 6 to 18. The city council area also has Castle Dene, which is in the constituency of my right hon. Friend Mr Brown but is used by many of my constituents and provides a very similar service for people over the age of 18.
I had the privilege of visiting both centres and meeting the families who use the extremely high-quality facilities, which have been described as an example of best practice. The short breaks provided by the centres to children and young people with a wide range of different and often very complex needs enables them to develop friendships, be independent and take part in activities in which they simply would not otherwise have the opportunity to take part. More than that, short breaks provide their often exhausted and isolated families with much needed respite, not a holiday, just the opportunity to take a break from their full-time caring role and do the everyday things, such as shopping, cleaning, having a full night’s sleep and spending time with their other children, that most of us take for granted. By doing that, the centres undoubtedly help to prevent family and relationship breakdown, and there is no doubt in my mind that they provide an absolute lifeline to many local families.
My recent meetings with families who see those facilities put at risk were invariably moving and emotional. The reason for my visits was the proposed closure of those centres by Newcastle city council as part of its draft budget for the period 2013-16. Following the cuts to local authority funding, the city treasurer estimates a funding gap in the city of about £100 million. Newcastle is not alone. Other northern cities and the poorest London boroughs are bearing the brunt of many of the local government cuts; the areas in most need of support are being hardest hit.
The respite centres in Newcastle were therefore considered for closure towards the £100 million of required savings, alongside a whole raft of other savings. I am pleased to say that since the budget consultation closed, and following an incredible campaign run by local people including Nicola Vose, the tenacious mother of two children who use the facilities, the council is revisiting its decision and has announced that the centres will remain open until 2014 and, I very much hope, beyond. Part of the reason the centres may be able to stay open is that many local authority areas around Newcastle are closing their centres and may now need to access services in Newcastle.
The issue is also national, and it needs to be considered, so although I fully welcome the intentions behind the Bill, I ask the Minister to confirm how much consideration has been given to the implementation of its provisions in a climate of austerity, and whether offering children and their families personal budgets will have as much value if there are no services for many of the most vulnerable people.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak in support of the Bill, albeit briefly. I offer my apologies for not being in the Chamber for the beginning of the Minister’s comments; I was upholding the honour of the parliamentary hockey team, which is why I am now limping.
There are many things in the Bill to support. It takes forward much of the work done over our past few years in government, and indeed when we were in opposition, especially on adoption and parenting, and I shall talk about those two subjects in particular.
I very much welcome the special educational need reforms, and I think the Minister is open to amendments to tweak and improve them. I welcome the Children’s Commissioner reforms, on the basis of John Dunford’s excellent report. I also welcome the innovative proposals on parental leave and flexible working, especially in respect of adoption. Valerie Vaz should be complimented on her private Member’s Bill a couple of years ago, which brought the matter to the attention of the Government.
I welcome those provisions, but a number of things could be done better. The subject of shared parenting, or parental involvement, as we are now to call it, has a lot of history. We put forward proposals for the 2006 Children and Adoption Bill. I was disappointed that although more than half of Labour MPs, and Liberal Democrats, supported an identical early-day motion, they voted against proposals that could have brought in the provisions in 2006.
The Bill should be seen in the context of many other things that the Government are doing on private law cases in the justice system, such as better mediation services, better relationship support upstream and better enforcement. The Chairman of the Justice Committee, Sir Alan Beith, who spoke for the Liberal Democrats, seemed to think there was not a problem. There is a perceived problem and an actual problem. In research on children who do not live with both parents, resident parents reported that between a quarter and a third of the children rarely, if ever, see their non-resident parent. That is a real problem. In 2011, despite serial breaching of contact orders in the many cases that as constituency MPs we see week in, week out, only 53 enforcement orders were granted for non-resident parents to have contact with their children.
I am grateful. It is a problem that we have all known about, but have shied away from doing something about. This is a real opportunity at last to do something about it. It is not about parental rights; it is about parental responsibilities. That includes the responsibilities of parents who have done a runner. The legislation will make it clear to them that they have a responsibility to their children, whether they are on the scene or not. The provision does nothing to dilute the principle of the paramountcy of the welfare of the child; that is absolutely clear. If it did anything else, I would not support it. It is in clause 1; it is subjugated to that very important paramountcy principle in the opening section of the Children Act 1989.
The Bill must send out a very clear message to warring parents—to the 10% of cases who still go to court: “If you think you can play winner takes all, and freeze the non-resident parent out of your child’s relationships and childhood, forget it. Think again, because both of you will have a responsibility to the children, or will be expected to play as full a part as possible in their upbringing.” That is what the provision is all about; it does not dilute the welfare principle.
A lot has happened on adoption in the past few years. This legislation builds on the work of the adoption action plan and the adoption gateway. It was encouraging to see the early glimmers of a reversal in the trend in adoption numbers since 2007; we saw a tick up in 2012, but it is early days. I very much support the measures on fostering for adoption, or concurrent planning, as we used to call it. Coram in particular has done some excellent work on that. It is about a seamless transition for a child, with the risk being taken by the prospective parents, not the child, and about maintaining continuity of care, which is so important to a child in care in the early years.
I strongly support the adoption support services mentioned in the Bill. Peri-adoption support services are probably the most important thing in ensuring a good-quality, lasting placement. As Ann Coffey said, we absolutely need to do more research on those adoptions that are disrupted. I am afraid that it is also necessary for us to do more around ethnic matching. As to whether we need legislation to do it, I do not know, but we absolutely need to make it clear that first and foremost a child needs a safe, loving, stable environment from a family. If that family happens to be an ethnic match, that is a bonus; it should not be a deal-breaker for the child.
I am concerned that the £150 million taken from the early intervention grant may mean that provision is taken away from children who remain in care. Even if we double the number of children going into adoption—that is not a target—90% of children in the care system will remain in it, in foster care and residential homes, and will not go into adoption. Yet the only measures in the Bill relating to looked-after children are those for virtual heads, which I welcome, and those on contact arrangements. Why do we not extend personal budgets to foster carers? Why do we not do more to give children in care priority access to mental health services? Half of children in care suffer from mental health problems. That is probably the single biggest contribution we could make to giving them greater stability and a chance to do well at school.
As the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children has said, half of children who come into care because of abuse or neglect suffer further abuse when they return home, with up to half of them returning to care. If we did more to support them, so that they could stay with their families, we would have fewer kids in care.
We need to do more. Where I take issue with the Government is on recruitment. We desperately need to recruit more prospective adopters. We desperately need voluntary agencies to recruit more adopters, but it is too early to compel local authorities to take away the responsibility for recruiting adopters. It has been only a year since the adoption scorecard came out. They are three-year track records, and they are always retrospective. We need to give local authorities a greater chance to show that they can recruit more adopters and work in partnership with voluntary agencies. One thing that we could do to help those agencies is create a bounty fee; voluntary agencies would be paid for recruiting prospective adopters. At the moment, the more they recruit, the more they have to pay to retain and train them. They do not get paid until they receive the inter-agency fee. A bounty measure would incentivise voluntary agencies to do more of what they so successfully do to recruit. The Bill risks de-linking adoption from other permanent options.
Finally, I would like to see more measures for supporting young carers, as many hon. Members have mentioned. I would like to see an effective independent complaints or ombudsman system in adoption, for those cases that have gone badly wrong. I would like to see child performance regulations in the Bill—which my ten-minute rule Bill will propose—as it is the only opportunity that we have had and probably will have in this Parliament to introduce them. I would also like to see us do more to compel local safeguarding children’s boards to publish their serious case reviews and to commission them in the first place, as we do not have any primary legislation to do that. There are many other things that I would like to see, but I have run out of time.
Tim Loughton served with distinction in his role both in opposition and in government. Members in all parts of the House appreciate the work that he did and the passion that he showed for the issues being debated today. I commend him for that. We heard some good ideas from him that could improve the Bill.
I shall say a few words about special educational needs, before concentrating on adoption, and make my own comments about the excellent practice throughout the country, not least in my borough, Sefton, where schools work on the basis of inclusion and working closely together to make sure that children with special needs get the best deal possible. I have seen that from personal experience in my own family.
I add my concerns to those expressed by a number of Members about the impact of a local offer without minimum standards. Lack of minimum standards could be the undoing of the intention behind it. With falling budgets it will be very difficult for local authorities to deliver on education, health and care plans without national minimum standards. A number of speakers have commented on changes to School Action and School Action Plus. The Government will need to address in some detail the concern about children who are receiving the services now potentially missing out as a result of the change.
On children in care and the plans to speed up adoption, the Government have made much of the delays in adoption. Two and a half years, as the Minister pointed out, is the average time it takes for a child to be adopted. It is right to point out that for young children delay in making secure, long-term, safe relationships can be as damaging as the neglect or abuse that caused them to be taken into care in the first place. For children who are adopted and for families adopting, where the right match is made between child and family, yes, everything should be done to speed up the legal and administrative process.
There are problems with the speed of the court process, with the understanding of the courts, with the case loads of social workers, and with the understanding of some professionals of the impact of delay or the impact of children moving from birth family, sometimes to multiple foster carers. Understanding of the long-term psychological damage done is improving, but there are still delays at all stages. However, just speeding up adoption placements is not the full answer. Some 90% of children in care do not go on to be adopted. I agree that where adoption can be speeded up, it should be, and so should decisions about long-term foster care, kinship care, special guardianship and keeping families together. These should all be made in a timely fashion. In short, we need a system of care for children which is for the many, not just the lucky few.
The idea that adoption is the gold standard, followed by lesser options for other children, is not good enough for the most disadvantaged group of children in our society. Just because a child ends up in a children’s home does not mean that they should receive a lower level of care or support than one who is adopted. Speed is not always the answer. Getting the placement right is tricky. Adoption placements, sadly, break down. Just as with children who are in foster care or residential care, children who are adopted are often severely damaged, physically or psychologically, and it can be very difficult for them to build relationships with adoptive or foster parents.
In the understandable and desirable clamour to speed up the adoption process, another factor needs to be taken on board. I mention Every Child Matters in this context. When it comes to children in the care system, that should apply just as much as to children in other circumstances. As the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham said, the presumption that the child is put first is incredibly important, and I glad that he pointed out that that is not affected by what is proposed. If it is in the interests of the child for adoption to be rushed through, that is great, so let us do all we can when a child and prospective adopters bond, but when it is not so clear, a little more thought needs to be given. It must be worse for a child to be placed with a family only to find out months or even a few years later that they have to move to another placement.
The importance of identity and the need to form stable attachments are crucial to the well-being of each child, and the long-term impact on children who have gone through the care system cannot be underestimated. In the long term, the impact is there for all to see in the high number of young people who were in the care system and whose life chances have been permanently damaged. Sadly, children who are in care are all too likely to end up with few or no qualifications, which has a seriously damaging impact on their job prospects and increases the chances that they will have mental health problems, will be homeless or will struggle to build stable relationships later in life. Of course, far too many people in our prisons were in care as children.
It is crucial that everything is done to support children in care to ensure that they have a stable, loving home, whether through adoption or not. In order to achieve that, we need to look at those adults who are expected to support the children in the care system. We have heard a lot about social worker case loads. We need to recruit and train more social workers.
I want to talk about foster carers, adoptive parents and the recruitment of the adults who could look after so many more of the children going through the care system. What I want to see from the Government are ideas on how we can get far more adults to be adoptive parents. It is about being honest and upfront with them about the difficulties they will face, the emotional challenges of children who are severely damaged, and all the challenges, stress and problems that can be caused for a family taking on such vulnerable children. Being upfront is the way to go, but training and support is also important. If we are to have professionals in teaching, in nursing and in social work, why not make people professionals when they come forward to adopt or to care as foster carers? Why not express formally that they are professionals and put in place the money to support them, and not just in the support services, but in the funding they get themselves?
I start by paying tribute to the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend Mr Timpson, for the exceptional way in which he introduced the debate and took the House through the detail of the Bill, of which he has such an incisive grasp. It is an excellent Bill, particularly when it comes to the rights of children to have a relationship with both their parents, an issue on which I have brought a ten-minute rule Bill before the House. I also want to pay tribute to my hon. Friend Tim Loughton for his part in helping to prepare the Bill.
Some 3 million children in this country are growing up in families that have separated, and around 1 million of them have no contact with one of their parents. The Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service has been criticised in the past for having a heavy case load and for too often not being timely enough, so the provisions in clause 10 relating to mediation are extremely welcome.
Clause 11, most of all, is dear to my heart. It will give children the right to know, and to have a relationship with, both their parents. We need the understanding that the child must have the right to a relationship with both parents, because too often it is about mums’ rights and dads’ rights, but this is actually about the rights of the child. It is not right that a parent should sink their child’s right to know the other parent in a sea of acrimony when they split up. From my point of view, that is a very timely and welcome reform. I have had so many complaints about that from constituents, such as Mrs A of Wootton, who wrote about her son’s experience. She said, “Each time a visit is due, their mother creates a great deal of hassle, never being able to give a precise date etc., and she has twice prevented the visit completely.”
It is not simply about mothers with residence. There are cases in which the father has had residence and has blocked the mother from seeing the child. What I have to say is that it is wholly wrong in both cases, as it is an abuse of the child’s rights. It is a child’s right to know and have a relationship with both parents because both parents have love, affection, knowledge and mentorship to offer—and the law should not stand in the way of that; the law should assert and assist that and make it more possible.
The general view of the House is that the Bill is a good one that could improve the quality of life of large numbers of children. It is not the revolution, to be frank, that some of us wanted, and there is also an underlying fear that the austerity measures being introduced might undermine the Bill’s potential. Let me say to the Minister that if the Bill requires a battle with the Treasury, he has allies on all sides to fight the fight over resources.
As we legislate, we need to learn lessons. For a Bill that relies so heavily on regulations and codes of practice, we need to learn the lesson that it would have been better to have those regulations and codes of practice available to us on Second Reading. I know that it will happen in our Committee consideration, but it would have been good to have them before us today, as without them we will be working on some issues in the dark until the detail of the regulations is revealed over the next few weeks.
I shall concentrate on two elements: family justice, and children and young people. We have all received many briefings on family justice, and I think we should thank those who supply them to us. On the family justice side, I have received briefings from the National Association of Probation Officers, or NAPO, and the Public and Commercial Services Union, which organises Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service workers and others.
I have three issues to raise. The first is about mediation in clause 10. I raised the issue earlier, but we need to know in some detail how mediation is to be organised in the regulations. Who will undertake the mediation; how will it be structured and organised; how will it be resourced? In addition, I raised the point in an intervention, and it was taken up by the Chairman of the Justice Committee, about the qualifications of the mediators. How will they be trained, and what accreditation will they have? They will have to deal with issues such as the safeguarding of children, the identification of domestic abuse and other matters. That is a professional role; it needs to be professionally resourced.
On the child arrangements orders in clause 12, I am anxious that this new procedure is being introduced at a time when legal aid has been cut. I am concerned that in complex cases adequate legal aid must be available to ensure that the children are properly represented by guardians. It would be worth exploring that further with the Minister in Committee; we must have confidence that the resources will be available to protect children and ensure that their voice is heard.
As for clause 15, I am concerned that the Bill amends the Children Act 1989 so that the courts focus on the central issue of whether the child should be removed from their parents, and the scrutiny of the detail of the care plans is to be left to local authorities. Frankly, when local authorities are under significant financial pressure, my anxiety is that that scrutiny might be influenced by that fact. I welcome the role of the courts in that respect. We sometimes need the independence of a judicial view on these matters.
On the special needs elements, I am grateful for the briefings we received from the Association of Educational Psychologists, my own local group the Hillingdon Autistic Care and Support society, and the National Autistic Society itself. Future work will be based on the foundation stones of the assessment procedure. The regulations or the code of practice need to be explicit about what is expected in the assessment. There will be a requirement to draw on very specialist services. I would welcome it if those services were spelled out in some detail in the regulations—for example, that there will be recourse to educational psychologists, that there will be recourse to speech and language therapy. It should be obligatory that that sort of service will be part and parcel of the assessment procedure. Again, I fear that in this economic climate some local authorities, for example, might be tempted to save money by using less rigorous assessment procedures or by using under-qualified or inappropriately qualified staff to save money. That can be overcome, I think, only by central direction from the central Government in regulation.
Time limits will be important in these assessments. I am anxious that there are no time limits in the Bill and hope that they will be determined in more detail in regulations. We should set out in regulations the specific time limits on responses to parents’ requests for assessment, on providing a mediation certificate, and on when a plan is to be put in place. There also need to be regulations on the form and content of the plans, because there are anxieties not only about a postcode lottery, as others have said, but about the possibility that form and content could vary across the piece. That could not only create difficulties for parents but make it difficult for the Government to monitor the effectiveness of the implementation of the plans.
On local offers, the regulations need to be very specific not only about what local authorities are saying exists, but about what should exist, in individual services—best-quality standards rather than minimum standards. The regulations should also ensure that schools are required to set out what they are making available in terms of their local offer. Now that school action plans, among others, are no longer to exist, parents will require that information to make their judgment about the placement of their child within a school setting.
With regard to tribunals, I reiterate the point that others have made about the lack of enforceability with regard to health and social services. I cannot understand why we have a different system from Scotland, where there is some enforceability over health and social services in the development of plans. I welcome the encouragement towards mediation services. I am grateful that the Government have listened to parents so that we do not have an obligatory form of mediation, but having dropped the element of compulsion they have introduced a cumbersome certification process that ultimately can only delay matters.
I fear that personal budgets will not cover the specialist services that are required, particularly in educational psychology. We need to be much more specific about how those personal budgets will be spent to ensure that they can draw in the expertise that children need.
It is a pleasure to follow John McDonnell, who made very important points about the need to make sure that the regulations that follow the Bill protect and enhance not only the rights of the children and young people concerned but the rights of their parents and families. Accountability must be at the heart of this process. It was the lack of accountability and the resulting problems that we all encountered as constituency MPs—and, indeed, as parents—that led to the developments that have seen the introduction of this welcome Bill. I am delighted to support its Second Reading. I am very encouraged by the degree of cross-party support that we are seeing in the Chamber and will, I hope, see in Committee.
The road to the Bill has been a long one, and many of us who have a great interest in these issues were sometimes champing at the bit for the pace to quicken. However, having seen the results of the extensive consultation process and the hard work of the various Select Committees, I am pleased that we have reached this Bill at last rather than at first, as it were, which will make it a better and stronger piece of legislation.
As a member of the Justice Committee, I took a particular interest, with colleagues, in the family law provisions, particularly the debate about parental involvement, as it will now rightly be called. However, I will deal mainly with the provisions relating to special educational needs, which form a large part of the Bill.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s work on special educational needs, particularly autism. Does he share my view that children with a middle to low special educational need such as pragmatic language disorders, dyslexia and autism are often short-changed by local authorities, and that the more we can do to strengthen the hand of parents, the greater the amount of provision that will be available to those children?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. A large cohort of children and young people with disabilities that have been diagnosed will not be covered by the new plans. Some, but not all, were formerly covered by the School Action and School Action Plus programmes. I hope that the Bill will be a catalyst, not only to improve the lot of those young people who will be subject to the new plans, but to improve training and awareness and the system so that it encourages the earlier identification and diagnosis of such problems so that they do not develop to a degree that necessitates intervention in the form of a plan later on.
That is why it is vital that we do not regard this as merely an education Bill—it is also a health Bill and a justice Bill, and it relates to social care. The joined-up thinking—not just at Government level, but at local level—that I and many others have been talking about for so long is vital if we are to make real progress. The provisions that impose a duty on local authorities to work jointly with other agencies, such as the national health service and local health bodies, are absolutely key to make sure that we can deliver for young people.
As I have said, early identification of disabilities such as speech, language and communication disorders— I think that will be enhanced by the expansion of the health visitor system with the injection of another 4,200 health visitors by 2015—will be an essential part of the work that will have to accompany the passage of the Bill. If we do not achieve a fully integrated health and education check at the age of two and a half— I know that that is one of the Government’s key ambitions—we will miss an important trick.
When the all-party group on autism, which I have the pleasure of chairing, reported on these proposals last year, we looked in particular at the need to address the question of transition. Although I am delighted that the Bill extends the provision of education, health and care plans for young people up to the age of 25, it is essential that 25 does not become the new cliff edge. More work needs to be done to ensure that duties are imposed on local authorities and others to provide for those important transition years. Many young people with special educational needs take time to develop. They do not abide by the usual milestones, but go at their own pace and do things in their own time, which is why the extension is so important. We do not want to see the good work that can be done up to the age of 25 wasted by a lack of provision for the transition to adulthood. I also hope that the Bill will make provision to support those who fall in and out of education—a number of people do so for various reasons, some of which are health-related—back into it.
Much has been made of clause 69 and the sad exclusion of young people in detention. That, to my mind, is something of an admission of defeat. More than 70% of young people in detention have some form of speech, language or communication disorder. We cannot ignore that cohort. In fact, we ignore them at our peril. I want concerted action to be taken, not only by the Department for Education but by the Ministry of Justice, to make sure that effective provision to address the special needs of those in custody keeps pace with the welcome reforms.
I look forward to the publication of the draft code of practice and hope that the new code will be much more of a living instrument than its predecessor, which has not kept pace with changes in provisions or in priorities. It has to be a living document that will adapt and change over time.
Much has been said about the local offer. It must combine the enterprise and initiative of many local authorities and agencies with a national framework from which those who commission services can seek guidance and support. Blending those two factors will be essential, for example for families with children with special educational needs who, for work or for other reasons, have to move around the country and want to see similar provision in the town or city in which they are going to live. That form of passporting is important in ensuring that there is consistent provision across England.
The position of those who do not fall within the care plans is of genuine concern to us all. However, it is my belief that the Bill, which is the most important reform of special educational needs provision since the
Education Act 1981, goes a long way towards addressing the genuine concerns of professionals, parents and all those who have campaigned so assiduously in the sector. I pay tribute to the Minister and his colleagues for the commitment, passion and hard work that they have put in to make this a very useful foundation for success.
I begin by supporting the comments of my hon. Friend Ann Coffey. In Rotherham, a prosecution for child sexual exploitation collapsed because the young person found that the horror and trauma of going to court outweighed their desire for justice to be served. I am deeply sympathetic to that young person’s choice, but I urge the Minister to use the Bill to make reforms that prevent other children from having to go through similar horrors.
I broadly welcome the Bill. However, I will focus on how it will impact on life-limited children and children with cancer because I am concerned that they might be overlooked in such a large Bill.
From my experience of working with such children, the care system is often disjointed and baffling. Families routinely deal with more than 30 professionals from education, social care, health and other services. It was standard for families to tell me how frustrated they were that they had to say the same thing over and again to different professionals because the information was not shared between departments, let alone between other agencies. Communication between agencies is generally inadequate, leaving families burdened with the stress of having to navigate their way through an unco-ordinated system. All that happens at a time when many families are overwhelmed by their child’s situation. Unfortunately, that experience is common among families of all disabled children.
If a child’s life is likely to be shortened, the time that is wasted negotiating through the system can be particularly distressing. The Bill must prevent that. As one constituent said:
“Unless you shout and fight you don’t get anything. And, to be honest, I’d rather be spending that time with my child instead of battling the system that should be helping us.”
All the evidence suggests that the best outcomes for children with life-limiting conditions are achieved when there is an effective partnership between parents and the services. As many Members have said today, it is imperative that care is co-ordinated around the needs of the child.
The Bill includes a series of clauses that aim to reform the provision for special educational needs and disability in England. The original SEND proposals were included in the 2011 Green Paper, which set out a vision of improved outcomes for children and young people who are disabled or have SEN. The aim was to reduce the
“adversarial nature of the system for families”.
The Green Paper offered an opportunity to join up assessments and services for all disabled children. However, the draft SEND clauses that followed focused too heavily on education-related services and did not provide an adequate framework to draw health and social care services into the system of support for children with SEN. The Education Committee recommended that the
Government broaden the scope of the clauses to reflect the aspirations of the Green Paper. Ministers have not taken its advice. As a result, it is unlikely that the Bill will bring about the integrated assessments and care that the Government have promised. Unless that is addressed, the Bill will simply replicate and reinforce the fragmentation in the current system.
Research has estimated that about 25% of disabled children do not have SEN. Similarly, there are children who have specific health conditions such as cancer who would benefit significantly from a single plan and jointly commissioned services. However, those children would not meet the requirements for an SEN statement. At a time when local authority budgets are under increasing pressure, I seek assurance from the Government that they recognise the impact of local cuts on SEND services.
Local authorities will need considerable support and resources to ensure that the reforms can make a practical difference at a local level. To ensure that the Bill realises the aims of the Government’s original Green Paper, its focus should be widened to include all disabled children, including those without a statement of SEN. It should make clear what disabled children can expect from local services, through a duty to provide and a national framework for local offers. The entitlement to education, health and care plans should extend to all disabled 18 to 25 year olds, including those no longer in education. The duties on the health service to contribute to integrated assessment and delivery need to be clearer and more explicit, and the Bill’s focus should be widened to include all disabled children.
Despite the Education Committee’s recommendation, the Government have chosen not to include disabled children without an SEN statement in the scope of the Bill. That means that disabled children who do not require support in school, or who are not in education or training, and their families, will not benefit from more integrated services despite the significant time and effort that many have to commit to securing the care and support that they need. I urge the Government to adopt the measures that I have suggested, as they would have a considerable positive impact on a vast number of families.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate and to follow Sarah Champion, who is already making a huge contribution to the business of the House.
As others have said, this is a huge Bill. It covers a broad range of topics, but there are a number of features that unite them. The first is that all aspects of the Bill are intended to meet a demand that has been out there for some time, which those outside the world of politics have been calling for to be met. They relate to problems that are brought to us as constituency MPs time and again, and we have heard some examples today, some of them quite harrowing, of what we hear from constituents and from the many organisations that represent people who are going through tough times.
The Bill has been brought forward from a perspective of trying to solve problems in a way that will stand the test of time. In some areas, we have not had new legislation for a long time, so the Bill is significant. It is intended to overcome the disadvantages that some people have faced and to better support, for example, looked-after children and those who are seeking adoption. We perhaps hear more often from families who want to adopt about the barriers that they are facing, but the process must focus on the young people concerned, who have every right to expect a loving and supportive family in which to grow and do well.
The Bill also includes the proposals for greater flexibility in the workplace, which my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister and the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, my hon. Friend Jo Swinson, who is in her place, have talked about for some time. Other hon. Members have covered those proposals in greater detail. I pay tribute also to my hon. Friend Sarah Teather, who is no longer in her place, for the work that she did in bringing forward the proposals on special educational needs, and to the other former Ministers from whom we have heard, who made a great contribution to getting us to where we are today.
The process has been one of listening, as all right hon. and hon. Members who have spoken have pointed out. Opposition Members have been keen to point out where they would like the Government to change things further, and we have the process of Committee and Report and the detailed debate in another place to go through yet, but they have also said that the Government have set out their proposals, listened and sought to meet the concerns that have been raised.
There has been broad welcome for a special educational needs system that will now go from birth to 25, as that will overcome the problem of crucial periods of change, such as at the ages of 18 and 16. The Bill will ensure that there is greater support for those considering further education, as Nic Dakin said, and for those who are considering apprenticeships and wider training opportunities.
The Bill is intended to deal with the parental concerns, about which we have all heard a great deal, about many different agencies providing services to a family. Families are having to jump through separate institutional hoops, sometimes at a time of stress when they need the most support, and the plans that the Government set out in the Bill are a huge step in the right direction towards bringing those services together and providing one point of contact for families to ensure that we get things right.
Hon. Members are, of course, concerned about the local offer, as are organisations on behalf of parents outside this place. We should not, however, be too prescriptive and must consider existing levels of support. John McDonnell mentioned some specific services—educational psychology, speech and language therapy and so on—but equally, at a time of stretched budgets we do not want services that become costly and might not meet the needs of individual young people. As with other services, we must ensure that what is on offer meets the needs of the young people concerned, and that services are shaped around them rather than sat on a shelf waiting for a need that may or may not arise. We must get the balance right between those two aspects.
Flexible parental leave is another step in the right direction of ensuring that everybody is able to contribute in the workplace. Employers can benefit from the skills of women who have hitherto perhaps spent longer out of the work force, but who might be able to come back to work if they have a supportive partner who is willing and keen to spend more time with their children. Leave entitlement should be used more flexibly so that it is split between the couple and also between two employers—employers will welcome that once the system beds down and we must ensure that we get it right.
A number of Members have mentioned adoption and I will not dwell on that except to say that the Government have set out their concern that the process should continue to focus on the child and be rigorous from the perspective of parental approval. It must also ensure that young people are placed with the right family as speedily as possible and in the interests of the young person concerned. We have heard about family justice and the family court, and we must ensure that the key principle of a child-centred approach is still there, and that the child does not become a pawn in a game between two parents. Both parents must be aware that they need to make room for the other parent in that child’s life. The process should support that and keep the case out of court wherever possible.
The Bill contains measures on child care and the role of the Children’s Commissioner, and I hope Ministers will address the concerns felt by childminders that the proposed agencies will enable them to get on with the job and are not about forcing them into a new straitjacket or seeking to bring them together into a large privatised agency. I am sure the Government will seek to correct that concern. In essence, the Bill seeks to do a huge amount and sets out approaches that will tackle the problems mentioned today.
I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this interesting debate. I wish to focus on one aspect that many hon. Members have already raised—special educational needs—and I particularly welcome the Minister’s commitment to those most vulnerable children in our society. The Bill aspires to improve support and create a smooth pathway for all young people on their transition to adulthood.
My hon. Friend Mr Buckland referred to the cliff edge that some young people face as they move between child and adult services. As that person moves into adulthood, support that has been good throughout childhood can become rocky and disjointed and it is not always as easy a transition as we would hope. Teenage years can be difficult for any young person, but for those with special educational needs they are that much harder. This Bill is an opportunity to address the cliff edge that is a cause of concern for both parents and their children. Currently, however, the Bill does not adequately explain how that might be managed.
Ambitious about Autism, the national charity for children and young people with autism, has suggested that the Bill should include a duty to offer an adult social care assessment and complete a transition to adulthood plan for a young person before an education health and care plan can cease to be maintained. It is an expert in the field and runs not only the TreeHouse school in Muswell Hill, where young people with autism between the ages of four and 19 receive specialist education, but also Ambitious Support at Barnet college, which caters for 19 to 25-year-olds. That attracts young people from across north London.
Because of its considerable experience, Ambitious about Autism understands the challenges of supporting young people through that difficult transition. It has a pragmatic and realistic approach to the likelihood of dropping out and seeking to restart education. It is easy to understand that young people with autism will take time out of education—they do so for a range of reasons, including health issues, exclusion from college, or self-exclusion owing to a lack of appropriate support. Equally, young people with autism might commence an apprenticeship or work placement but find it unsuitable and seek to return to college.
Ambitious about Autism is concerned that the Bill means that those young people could lose their package of support and struggle to be assisted back into education. I regard such assistance as an absolute imperative. All hon. Members know that young people often find it difficult to settle on one path. It is essential that those with special educational needs are given the safety net of being able to find their way back into education, and that they have the appropriate support to do so.
The Government suggest that regulations could make provision to support such young people. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to ensure that they are explicit on the need to protect education, health and care plans for young people. I also urge him to review support for young people with special educational needs between the ages of 19 and 25, should they fall out of education, employment or training for any reason. We should have a view to supporting them back into education when that best meets their needs.
Ambitious about Autism’s “Finished at School” campaign found that just one in four young people with autism access education beyond school. For some, that will be through choice, but others would stay in education if only they could access courses and colleges that are capable of providing appropriate support. I welcome the steps the Government have taken to improve the 16-to-25 elements of the Bill, but we need a clearer definition of post-16 education and training institutions. Regulations setting out the definition should be published before Committee and ensure that young people have the broadest possible options for further education.
I am desperate to speak in this debate, because I really want to be on the Public Bill Committee, where I will be able to make the speech I am unable to entertain hon. Members with this evening.
I want briefly to say that the greatest potential for supporting families and children is in the perinatal period, from conception to age two. That is when we have the greatest potential to get the society we want, with resilient babies who grow up to become socially responsible adults.
I have a couple of suggestions for the Government on amending the Bill to make a significant difference instantly. First, they could take up the suggestion of Mr Field of having all births registered at a children’s centre rather than a registry office. That would destigmatise children’s centres, which would be an instant access point for all families.
They could go into the realms of a children’s centre and get the support they need. The centres would also provide a chance of support for those with post-natal depression.
Secondly, I would like the Government to adopt my ten-minute rule Bill, which deals with children born on to the child protection list. When there is no plan to take the baby away, the mother would be allocated talking therapies when she became pregnant. In that way, she can improve her maternal attunement towards the baby. The sting in the tail is that, if the baby reaches six months and there is no improvement in the mother’s ability to parent, a decision should be taken at a case review to take the baby away. There is a pitifully short window of opportunity for the baby. If the Bill is all about the children, we should seriously consider more radical solutions to ensure that we are not wasting their valuable time.
Finally, if women were offered an ante-natal interview that assesses problems such as attachment, maternal attunement and depression, and that predicts future depression, we would be in a position to know the magnitude of the problem and introduce measures to resolve it.
We welcome the coalition’s first Bill to focus on children and families. We especially welcome the fact that the Bill focuses on some of the children who are facing the greatest challenges, such as those with special educational needs and those in the care system.
We believe that the provisions on shared parental leave that build on the maternity and paternity leave entitlements of the last Government, and the measures to improve post-adoption support, are an important step forward for children, and we warmly welcome the introduction of child arrangement orders. However, we have heard considerable concerns from hon. Members throughout the debate about the real-world effect of some of these measures, and they need much greater scrutiny before the Bill becomes law. That is particularly true of the provisions on special educational needs, as highlighted by Paul Maynard and my hon. Friend Alex Cunningham; the exclusion of children with disabilities from care plans; and the potential postcode lottery of the local offer.
We share concerns raised by the Select Committee on Adoption Legislation in the House of Lords about the practical implications of removing the requirement to consider ethnicity when placing a child for adoption; about prescribing children’s best interests in primary legislation; and about the unusual, if not unique, attempt to impose strict time limits on care proceedings in primary legislation. The needs of individual children must remain paramount, both in principle and in practice. While we welcome the efforts made by the Minister so far to accommodate the concerns that have been raised with him, we believe that the Bill can be significantly improved in those areas and we will seek to work with Ministers to achieve changes as the Bill makes progress.
As my hon. Friend Stephen Twigg outlined, the Bill contains some good measures, but we believe that it will come to be characterised less by what is in it and more by what is not. It is a Bill about vulnerable children and families, but it says nothing about the problems facing young carers, trafficked and migrant children, and children who have been abused and ill-treated. We know that action is needed in these areas, but where is the action and urgency for those children? In the words of 10-year-old Paige, as reported by Save the Children:
“It doesn’t get any better. It gets worse and worse as the days go on.”
Where is the strategy for children such as Paige, after the dismantling of the Every Child Matters framework?
In line with the points made by my hon. Friend Ann Coffey, we will consider how to ensure that the Bill introduces more support for children who have been abused and ill-treated, and who face the prospect of the courts. We will consider how to ensure that the needs of children in the wider care system are not neglected. We are concerned that the Bill is unbalanced. The focus on adoption is welcome, but it should not come at the expense of attention on other children in the care system, the majority of whom are in foster care placements, at a time when we have a shortage of nearly 9,000 foster carers. We share the concerns of my hon. Friend Kerry McCarthy, who spoke compellingly about the situation facing children for whom kinship care is and should be the right option.
We want to know what the Government intend to do to ensure that children can remain with their birth parents where that is in their best interests. We are very concerned about the stripping away of support for those children at a time when families are under huge pressure up and down the country. My hon. Friend Mrs Hodgson has uncovered the huge cuts that have been made to the early intervention grant and she highlighted the disappearance of more than 400 Sure Start centres since the last election. Recently, the Government took even more of the early intervention grant to pay for their adoption reforms, as my hon. Friend Lucy Powell pointed out. For some children, remaining with their birth family is the right option: where is the support for them?
The Bill fails to address some of the stark challenges that children face. This is their Bill—it is not our Bill or the Government’s Bill. It is for and belongs to the one in five children who go to school hungry, without decent shoes, without decent clothes and without basic essentials; for the estimated 1.5 million children who, according to Action for Children, are growing up in neglect; for the record numbers of children in the care system; and for the nearly 9,000 homeless families, 2,000 of whom are languishing in bed and breakfast accommodation, up by 51% in the past year.
At a time like this families need support more than ever, but the safety net is being eroded, creating a perfect storm for some children. The Bill is completely silent on the wider problems. The cuts to local authorities are particularly important, because parts of the Bill require social workers to take on an even bigger and more responsible role—for example, in the court process, and in deciding to place children in fostering for adoption arrangements before the court has made a decision. Those are crucial decisions for children, yet nearly eight in 10 social workers say that they are overburdened. The situation for independent reviewing officers—often the voice of children—is just as difficult. Without action from Government, the reforms could easily work against, not for, children’s best interests.
That is why we warmly welcome the strengthening of the role and remit of the Children’s Commissioner for England. At a time when the reality for some children is very bleak indeed, as illustrated by the bedroom tax, and their needs are easily overlooked by other parts of Government, children need a strong voice. We therefore support the Government’s measures to strengthen the role of the Children’s Commissioner. We will seek in Committee to further strengthen its powers, its remit and its independence.
While we welcome some of the measures in the Bill that help the people who matter most to children—the key adults in their lives—through the shared parental leave provisions and the post adoption support provisions, we have concerns about the capacity of an overstretched, hard-working children’s work force to meet those rising needs. We will therefore seek to improve the Bill in Committee, so that the system gives more support to families—not just to parents who have children with special educational needs, but to siblings and others who play an active role in helping a child at home. We want to be sure that the pathfinder schemes for personal budgets provide concrete proof that they will result in better outcomes for children before they are rolled out. That is our key test for the Bill: does it improve the situation of the children whom it seeks to help?
We are concerned that too often the Government are not child-focused; that too often they see children through the eyes of adults, not adults and adult systems through the eyes of children. It is why we are concerned by measures—for example, the time limits on court proceedings, as we heard from the Chair of the Justice Committee—that seek to prescribe the solution for individual children. We have heard a great deal about them in the course of the debate. It is important to retain individual flexibility for individual children, and we will seek to press the Government on that point in Committee.
We heard concerns from all parts of the House about attempts to define children’s best interests in law. We heard a welcome assurance from the Minister that that is not about seeking to define parents’ rights against children’s rights, but our concerns remain. We share the concerns of the Children’s Commissioner, and many of the organisations working with children, that this sends a dangerous signal that the paramountcy of children’s welfare is being diluted. While we agree strongly with the Government that parental involvement is in the best interests of children, so too are other relationships with grandparents, siblings, step-parents and friends. That is what children say matters to them, and we believe that they ought to be listened to and treated as individuals when decisions that affect them are made.
We will seek to give children a long overdue voice and ensure that the Bill reflects their priorities, not the Government’s, and the stark reality of the situation they face. While we will support strongly the Minister’s efforts where they improve the lives of some children, today we are laying down a challenge to the Government: work with us to improve the lives of more children. At present, many children are silent and invisible in the Bill, and do not have the childhoods that they, or we, would wish or expect. We lay down a challenge to Ministers to work with us during the passage of the Bill to do better by them.
I am delighted to respond to this debate and, alongside the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend Mr Timpson, to be introducing legislation on issues about which I am so passionate. It is a pleasure to have heard all the contributions by hon. Members from across the House, and I welcome the general warmth and support for the Bill. Its measures are diverse, but they are united by the guiding principle of bringing about real, radical and positive change for children and families.
In the time available, I will respond to some of the specific points raised but, as, wonderfully, we have heard from 34 Members, I will not be able to address every point. We may perhaps hear further from some Members in Committee, including my hon. Friend Andrea Leadsom, who was so concise in her remarks. Clearly, the House contains a lot of expertise on these issues and we will have interesting discussions in Committee.
Many hon. Members spoke about the reforms to special educational needs, and I, too, wish to pay tribute to my hon. Friend Sarah Teather for the work she did to start this reform process, which has of course been continued by the Under-Secretary of State for Education. I also thank all those who got involved in pre-legislative scrutiny, particularly the Education Committee, as that process was a good example of how the House can improve legislation before it becomes a full Bill. I welcome the broad consensus on many of our SEN measures, particularly the support for a statutory framework that works for children and young people from birth to 25. We, of course, look forward to further discussions in Committee, but I wish to say that if any hon. Member was in any doubt about the intention of the Bill, they should look at clause 19 for the key founding principles on which the SEN provision will be based.
The Chair of the Education Committee, my hon. Friend Mr Stuart, made specific mention of the local offer and the Under-Secretary’s use of the term “common framework”. The regulations will provide the common framework for local offers, setting out all the things they should contain. That will bring consistency and will enable provision in local areas to be compared, and I am sure that will be welcomed. As my ministerial colleague has mentioned, we will be providing indicative regulations for the Committee, so that we can have a fuller discussion at that time.
On the issues of family justice, we heard from the Chair of the Justice Committee, my right hon. Friend Sir Alan Beith, and from the former Home Secretary, Mr Blunkett, who brought us his personal experience, memorably talking about the nightmare of the family courts. It is important that we hear that direct experience. I also note the comments by the former children’s Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), who eloquently put the case that the needs and welfare of the child remain of paramount importance. I know that some hon. Members expressed concern that the paramountcy principle will be undermined, but I wish to reassure the House that the relevant clause has been drafted with the express intention of not diluting that principle, which is so important, as has been said.
Ann Coffey raised the horrific example of the experience of a young child victim of abuse giving evidence and the traumatic way in which that took place. We take this issue very seriously, and we will certainly bring that to the attention of Ministry of Justice Ministers in order to raise the point she makes. Such issues have been discussed recently; the Under-Secretary has been holding round table meetings on tackling child sexual exploitation. So we are aware of those issues and she is right to raise them.
Stephen Twigg asked for reassurances about the details of our plans for childminder agencies. We will be setting out more detail, including some draft regulations, in Committee. Introducing agencies is about increasing choice for parents; no childminder will be forced to join an agency and parents will vote with their feet, choosing the childminders or other child care offering the best quality and value for money. Let me just set out the context. In the past two decades the number of childminders has almost halved. That is a real problem on the provision we need to secure for parents. Agencies will help us to increase that provision, which is much needed, and, especially, to give the greater flexibility that many parents increasingly need for out-of-hours child care provision, too.
Meg Hillier raised the issue of the sufficiency duty, and I wish to clarify the position in case there has been any misunderstanding. Our proposal is to repeal the requirement for local authorities to conduct an assessment of the sufficiency of child care in their area in very specific terms. However, the duty to secure sufficient child care remains—it is in section 6 of the Childcare Act 2006—and to meet that duty, authorities will need to collect data on supply and demand. We are repealing the bureaucratic requirement to create a specific document and publish it.
The issue of staff-child ratios in child care is not dealt with in the Bill, but as it was raised by more than one Member today, let me say that our focus is on quality rather than quantity. We are consulting on the proposal, and in particular on what levels of qualification would unlock higher ratios. I encourage the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch, and any others who are particularly interested in the subject, to contribute to the consultation.
While welcoming the Government’s plans to extend the right to request flexible working, Lucy Powell expressed concern about the move to guidance. Let me reassure her, and other Members, that we want to make the process simpler and less bureaucratic for employers and employees alike. I was rather horrified when, having arrived in the Department and asked what the procedure was, I was shown a flow chart featuring eight separate steps with periods of 28 or 14 days elapsing between them, the total amounting to 84 days. Far too much bureaucracy was involved in what should be a straightforward and simple set of discussions between employers and employees. We are replacing that with two pages of common-sense, straightforward guidance, so that everyone will know where they stand. I think that that move should be welcomed.
These reforms are long overdue. They address systems that are old-fashioned and out of step with the needs of children and the wishes of modern parents. The needs of children will be put where they rightly belong, at the heart of the services that support them. In the Children’s Commissioner, children and young people will have a strong and independent champion. Children for whom adoption is the right option will be settled more quickly in a safe and loving home. Unnecessary and damaging delays will be driven from the family court system. The most radical reforms of the special educational needs system in 30 years will raise aspirations and put children, young people and their parents at the centre of decisions. Child care will be more widely available and of better quality, helping parents to juggle their work and family lives.
Perhaps because there has been general agreement on the subject, we have not heard a great deal today about the shared parental leave plans, but they constitute a radical reform. Mums and dads will have freedom to choose how they share time off after having a baby or adopting. As every parent knows, having children brings both joy and plenty of challenges. Our changes will let families get on with sharing the care responsibilities in whatever way works for them, replacing rigid rules based on an outdated stereotype that assumes that men are the breadwinners and the role of women is to stay at home and look after children.
By extending the right to request flexible working to all employees, we will help families in the widest sense, while also removing some of the workplace resentment about the different rights that exist for parents and those without children. We will also help the economy to benefit from a more flexible, committed and productive work force. Changing the culture of United Kingdom workplaces to embrace flexibility is good for employers and good for workers.
At the heart of the Bill are two simple changes. We are giving families real choice and flexibility in relation to the decisions that affect them, and we are ensuring that services focus consistently on the best interests of the children who need them. This is a Bill that will make real, long-lasting changes, and I commend it to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time.