Queen's Speech — Debate (5th Day) (continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:40 pm on 3rd June 2010.

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Photo of The Earl of Listowel The Earl of Listowel Crossbench 5:40 pm, 3rd June 2010

My Lords, I join others in congratulating the noble Earl, Lord Howe, on his new post as Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State. I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Hill of Oareford, for his maiden speech. I shall speak about young people in care and care leavers, but I should like to raise a few points before I do so.

The principles behind the Queen's Speech were freedom, fairness and responsibility. The noble Lord opened the debate by talking about the need to free up professionals at the front line to do the job that they understand and know how to deliver. That is crucial. A general theme in this debate has been that professionals and users on the front line can make the most difference. We can deliver freedom, fairness and responsibility through teachers, social workers, foster carers and all those other workers.

Listening to the noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Yardley, I recalled that two months ago the former Secretary of State, Ed Balls, said in Church House that if he regretted one thing from his term in office it was that he did not do more for social workers early on. No matter how often we say that we need to support and develop teachers and social workers on the front line, somehow they manage to slip off the agenda. I pay tribute to the Government's excellent work in raising the status of teaching, but there is still a long way to go. The noble Lord will recall that, over several years, Finland has been the highest performer on the PISA tables. It is so demanding about who should teach its young people that it rejects 90 per cent of those who apply to become teachers.

The noble Baroness, Lady Howarth, talked about social work training and the social work college. I look forward to hearing information about the future of this important new institution. The National Centre for Excellence in Residential Child Care has over several years provided excellent support to a sector that has very little capacity in working with children with the most complex needs. Paul Ennals, the director of the National Children's Bureau, started out as a residential childcare worker. Jonathan Stanley, the director of the National Centre for Excellence in Residential Child Care, which is based at the National Children's Bureau, was director of the well respected Caldecott Foundation, a therapeutic community for children, of which my noble friend Lord Northbourne was once a trustee. The institution has a great deal of experience in residential childcare, so the Government's decision to switch funding to another organisation caused some consternation. That may be quite the right thing to do, but I am glad that there is a second opportunity to look at the contract and I hope that the Minister can provide further information on why the decision was made.

I do not believe that we have spoken this afternoon about early years. I remind the Minister that research by Professor Melhuish at the University of London highlights the fact that, working in particular with disadvantaged communities, if one provides good-quality pre-school education, pupils will still be doing well at the age of 11 whether they have gone to a bad primary school or a good primary school. I hope that the Minister will take thorough note of that. I am sure he is aware of the importance of early intervention. There has been much progress with the early years workforce, although there is still a high turnover of staff and the work is still regarded as low-status and is poorly paid. Much more attention needs to be given to it.

The noble Lord referred to unruly children. I hope that soon he will consider meeting exemplary charities, such as The Place2Be, which provides much-needed mental health support to children in primary schools, to the parents of those children and to the teachers in those schools. It has a very good track record in this area and I hope that the Minister will decide to meet its staff soon to discuss their work. Volunteer Reading Help is a charity that provides support to more than 1,000 primary schools, helping children to read. Volunteers trained by the charity work, over a year, with children who are identified by their teachers as having a particular need for support. Over that period, the children benefit not only from improving their literacy but from developing a relationship with an adult. I have visited the organisation's training sessions and have noted that many of the volunteers are men, so boys who are experiencing life without a father have an opportunity to develop a relationship over the period of a year.

I declare my interests as vice-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Children and Young People in Care, and as a trustee of TACT, the largest voluntary adoption and fostering agency operating in England, Wales and Scotland. I am also a trustee of the Michael Sieff Foundation.

I see that I am running out of time, for which I apologise, but perhaps I may take this opportunity to thank Her Majesty's Opposition for their huge commitment over many years to young people in care. I recall the Quality Protects initiative, which ring-fenced funding for children in care. I also recall the legislation, including the Children (Leaving Care) Act, which introduced new duties on local authorities to support young people, sometimes up to the age of 25, providing them with a personal assistant. There was also the Children and Adoption Act, which introduced a right for children to have an advocate when making a complaint-something that was very much welcomed in the sector. In addition, there was the Children and Young Persons Act, which introduced a duty on local authorities to secure an appropriate range of placements for these children. I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, and her predecessors for the commitment that they showed in that role.

I ask the Minister how the Government will build on those achievements. I know that there has been some concern that, despite all the investment, the outcomes for these children have not improved as we would have wished. Professor Jackson was the academic who first alerted us to the way in which we had, over many years, failed these children in terms of their education. Two weeks ago, she told me that the admission rate to university for these young people has moved from 1 per cent to 9 per cent-an increase of 900 per cent. Although that is far below what we would want and what is acceptable, clearly progress has been made. Indeed, although these children's GCSE results are still not where they should be, they are at last beginning to follow the rate of improvement experienced among the general population. Therefore, the work invested in the past is beginning to pay off, but how will the Government build on that?

The previous Government introduced two pilots to enable young people to stay with their foster carers past the age of 18. Will the Minister consider how that might now be progressed and how such an arrangement might be made available to all young people in care? There is a shortage of 10,000 foster carers in England and Wales. Perhaps the Minister would care to write to me about how that will be addressed.

Many Peers among the Opposition have been strong champions of looked-after young people over the years. I shall briefly speak of the work of Timothy Loughton MP who, fortunately, has been shadow Minister for children and families for several years. He has built relationships with NGOs working in this area; he is well respected; he has visited Denmark and seen children's homes there and the excellent model of social pedagogy operated in that country; and he has several children's homes in his constituency of Brighton and Hove. It is reassuring that he now has an office within the children and families section of the Department for Education. We cannot expect too much given the budgetary constraints, but it is encouraging, especially as he chaired the committee on the excellent report on social work,No More Blame Game, to which my noble friend Lady Howarth of Breckland referred. I am encouraged that the Government are talking about freeing those at the front line to do their job. Of course, they need to be equipped to do that job. Through teachers, social workers, foster carers and early-years' workers, fairness, responsibility and freedom for our citizens will be delivered. I am grateful to the Government for taking these matters so seriously.