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My Lords,I begin with the hope, but not much expectation, that the House of Lords will not be inundated this coming Session, as it was during the previous Session, with too many Bills of a similar nature, often containing interacting content, and with large sections of Bills coming from the other place not examined at all.
That said, the coalition Government are to be congratulated on much of the content of the gracious Speech, in that it certainly contains and confronts some issues that have been ignored by previous Governments. Not least among them is the existing situation in the UK, which has an increasingly ageing and costly population and totally inadequate resources to provide them with a dignified end to life. The state certainly has not budgeted the necessary resources for them for far too long, and nor, in the majority of cases, has the individual. If, to meet the existing situation, the Government can genuinely provide a neighbourly way in which we all share the responsibility of caring for this ageing generation, preferably in their home environment, and if, in addition, the Government can devise, for the long term, a scheme by which people pay for such care during their working life and are therefore not obliged to sell their homes to meet the cost, considerable progress can be claimed. However—forgive the cynicism—I shall await more detailed examination during the Committee stage of any such Bill before I am sure of exactly how much progress can be genuinely claimed.
There clearly will be interest in and concern about the Government’s plans to provide an alternative method of dealing with offenders who would currently be given a year’s imprisonment. The concern, which I share, is over the effect this will have on the probation service. As I have mentioned in other debates, immediately the noble Lord, Lord, Lord Carter of Coles, began his reform plans for that service a few years ago, I would have looked for another job if I had been a probation officer. So how many probation officers will lose their jobs as a result of Chris Grayling’s plans? Almost certainly the answer will not be good news for those officers or for our quite invaluable probation service.
Having said that, the interest of the scheme is in the realisation that a short, costly period in prison serves no useful purpose at all. The proposed scheme recognises that nearly 60% of these 50,000 offenders reoffend. The Government propose to give their payment-by-results plan to organisations that will mentor and supervise each offender. Presumably the aim is to get them into a job or training and a place to live as a basic beginning. Will this idea lead to a much earlier look at the family history of offenders? If that were a result, I suspect that some useful evidence would be uncovered in many cases of the offending background from which today’s offenders come, which might help—I certainly hope it would—to press the case for the early intervention policy of Frank Field and Graham Allen.
Turning to our more immediate tasks in the Lords, I join other noble Lords in welcoming many aspects of the Children and Families Bill, which your Lordships’ House will be receiving shortly from the other place. The earlier placement of a child with the right potential adopters—the fostering for adoption policy—is clearly sensible, as is loosening the requirement to find perfect ethnic matches. The urgent need is for each child in that situation to have a family. The expansion of the right of parents of both sexes to request flexible working during the statutory maternity leave period is another welcome step, but one must still hope for a more sensible long-term policy which allows flexible working for parents throughout their children’s childhood to become the norm. Equally important, in light of the Government’s desire and incentives to encourage more business start-ups, would be to make flexible working available for everyone.
Part 5 deals with the role of the Children’s Commissioner. It is also crucial, particularly the commissioner’s greater independence from government and the requirement to produce an annual report to Parliament. Anyone who has read Always Someone Else’s Problem, the report from Dr Maggie Atkinson, the Children’s Commissioner for England, on illegal school exclusions, will realise how important that independence is. The picture painted in her report of the use of exclusion in some schools for SEN pupils—no doubt in an effort to meet the necessary school attainment levels—is very worrying.
The concerns of Dr Atkinson in that report reminded me all too vividly of a very similar situation which existed many years ago when I was, for some 20 years, chairman of a London juvenile court. Whenever a youngster appeared for committing a criminal offence, we would immediately adjourn proceedings for a school report. In almost every such case the child’s school attendance record was either appalling or non-existent. For, alas, in those days too, the incentive for teachers to turn a blind eye to disruptive or difficult children not turning up for school was equally self-evident. I am glad to say that we always started with at least one adjournment of the case to see if school attendance could be resumed before passing sentence for the actual offence committed.
Equally worrying are other concerns of families with SEN children. Scope’s recent report Keep Us Close points out that 62% of the families it surveyed say that the services they require are not available in their local area. Unsurprisingly, this causes 80% of these families anxiety and stress. Scope is also concerned that the Bill’s local offer does little more than require local authorities to set out the support available—that is, a directory of services—with no requirement on them to improve either the quality or availability of such services. This will clearly require more detailed examination of the Bill during its later stages. Again, unsurprisingly, Scope is concerned that the accountability measures around the local offer are not strong enough for parents to be able to hold local authorities to account to access the support they are entitled to.
I fear that, as in the previous Session, we shall, again, spend more time in trying to ensure that maximum support is made available for SEN families, who have an even harder time in ensuring that their basic needs are met, not least when so little legal aid is now available.