My Lords, in Committee, quite rightly, we had a substantive debate about the importance of the mental health of looked-after children and care leavers. The Government share the views of noble Lords about the need to ensure that the mental health and emotional well-being of this vulnerable group of children and young people are given as much consideration as their physical health. As my honourable friend the Minister for Vulnerable Children and Families explained when he met Peers last week, we have reflected on the points raised in Committee. As a result, we have tabled an amendment to Clause 1 to put beyond doubt that promoting the health and well-being of looked-after children and care leavers will mean promoting their mental and physical health.
My Lords, I shall speak to Amendment 4. I am very glad that the Government have tabled Amendment 1, which is the burden of much of the intention behind my Amendment 4, although my amendments spell out some of the mental health descriptions, which, under the heading of mental health needs, are not always apparent.
Perhaps I may start with a plea to the Minister that in future, Bills be handled differently from the way in which this one has been. We got extremely short notice of Second Reading immediately after the Queen’s Speech and then, immediately before Grand Committee, we were bombarded with documents, papers and briefings. Those of us who have no research or clerical support, for example, have to spend a considerable amount of time perusing those in order to understand what is being said so that we can play our part in the purpose of this House, which is to revise and scrutinise legislation.
We complained about that in Grand Committee but, lo and behold, during the short return between the two recesses we again received a number of briefings and letters, and this past week has been absolutely mad. Ministers gave three government briefings last Wednesday. I am not complaining about that, but I ask Ministers to remember that others have diaries and that it is not always possible to change with the rapidity that is expected. Also, there has again been a deluge of government amendments, government briefings and government papers, which suggests to me two things: first, that the Bill was not properly thought through before it was introduced; and, secondly, bearing in mind what was said in Grand Committee, that no impact assessment of any of the measures was carried out—a complaint we have made several times before. An impact assessment does not just say that you either do it or not. It should consist of an analysis of the outcomes of doing it or not, so that those of us not coming at it from a party-political angle can make judgments based on the facts as they are given.
What has also disturbed me during the passage of the Bill is the number of practitioners, including organisations such as the Association of Directors of Social Services, and others working in children’s services, who have tabled amendments and made appeals because they do not feel that they have been consulted, or, if they have, that any of their advice or experience has been listened to. That is really not a healthy basis for important legislation about vulnerable children.
The other thing that has come through strongly—I am very glad that the Government have tabled Amendment 1, because it reinforces the point—is that unfortunately, since the demise of the Social Services Inspectorate, responsibility for children’s social care has passed to the Department for Education. Yet when you talk to the people working in the delivery of children’s services, you find that most of the problems they face are more to do with health, emotion, behaviour and well-being than education. Indeed, preparing children so that they are in a fit state to be educated—mentally as well as in every other way—occupies a great deal of their attention. I am worried that more emphasis is placed on the educational direction of social work and that there is not a more apparent cross-government approach, working with the health industry in particular.
Amendment 4 is designed to spell out in more detail the conditions that children in care and other vulnerable children present. It is based on a paper published by the British Psychological Society in 1915 called, Children and Young People with Neuro-Disabilities in the Criminal Justice System. Unfortunately, we have become used to using the phrase “learning disability”, which carries an understanding of a more serious lack of ability to comprehend than some of the conditions in the amendment. The reasons for this go back to the marvellous paper prepared by Baroness Warnock way back in the 1970s in which she spelled out conditions warranting special educational needs status and therefore special treatment. That list was by no means exhaustive but since her paper there has been a great deal more research, and there is now a great deal more understanding of the various conditions grouped together under the phrase “neurodisability”, such as ADHD, dyslexia, and autism. I am strongly of the belief that all of these conditions—which have now been listed by the British Psychological Society—should be better understood. You need only go and talk to the director of a children’s home to find that it is those conditions that give them greatest trouble.
I am very glad that since Grand Committee, there has been a meeting between officials in the Department for Education and the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists. In Grand Committee, I spelled out the need for the assessment of speech, language and communication difficulties on the grounds that inability to communicate is the scourge of the 21st century and means that too many of our children are unable to communicate with their teachers and therefore engage with education. There is now an assessment programme, carried out, I hope, for all children in this country before the age of two by health visitors who have been trained by speech and language therapists. The aim is to ensure that a plan can be made to introduce treatment that will enable that child to engage with education in five years’ time, when they start primary school.
Officials from the department have also spoken with the National Association of Virtual School Heads, which I must admit I had not heard of—I was slightly worried when I saw the word “virtual”, because I thought that either you are a school head or you are not. Apparently, however, the virtual school heads have a very valuable role in this area, as does the expert working group on mental health.
I am glad that the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists has been brought in. They are the best people to advise on looking after children and to advise the Government on how to ensure that children, and those working with them, have access to the communication services they so badly need, particularly children suffering from neurodisability orders. Therefore, I am seeking in this amendment the Minister’s undertaking that, in addition to the bald statement in Amendment 1 about improving access to mental and physical health treatment, he will agree to spell out the conditions that so dominate the lives of those responsible for delivering children’s services and ensure that local good practice—which I know his officials are aware of, because it has been listed to them by the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists—is turned into national good practice, so that all children can take advantage of what has been done in some parts of the country.
My Lords, I will speak to Amendment 8 in my name and indicate my support for Amendments 4 and 5, also in this group. In addition, I warmly welcome Amendment 1, which the Government have tabled in response to discussions in Committee. The addition of mental health to the corporate parenting principles is an important step forward towards ensuring that mental and physical health are treated with equal importance by local authorities when they are making decisions about the services and support available to children in care. The Minister’s amendment, therefore, is an important signal of principle—but principles alone will not improve the outcomes for children in care.
My amendment is designed to ensure that we can achieve some practical improvements to the care that children receive. It introduces mechanisms that will ensure that the mental health needs of children entering care are properly assessed and that they have access to specialist support if this is needed. Basically, the amendment has two elements: first, a mental health assessment for children entering care, carried out by a qualified professional; and, secondly, a designated health professional in each local authority who has strategic oversight of the outcomes of the assessments and matches those with the services that are available for children in care to support their needs.
In short, this amendment seeks to establish a mechanism that will identify children’s needs early on, refer the children to the right services and ensure that services exist that children in care are able to access—and access easily. This joined-up approach is supported by the Alliance for Children in Care, a coalition of leading children’s charities, as well as the Royal College of Nursing, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, and the Royal College of Psychiatrists.
I will address briefly some of the concerns about this approach that have been raised by the Government. First, why do we need to assess all children entering care? Many of us here know very well that the vast majority of children entering care do so in the first place for reasons of neglect or abuse, with all the detrimental impact that that has on their emotional health and well-being. We also know that over 40% of children entering care have a mental health condition: indeed, research from the US suggests that nine out of 10 children who have been abused will develop a mental health condition by the age of 18. It is staggering to find that over 70% of children entering residential care have a diagnosable mental condition.
The Government have suggested that offering assessments to every child in care will be an inflexible approach, and indeed a burden on already overstretched local authorities. I am of course mindful of these concerns, but I firmly believe that it is the right course of action. I will be clear: this amendment does not propose that every child entering care is forced into an assessment by a clinical psychologist, but that all children in care should be offered an assessment by a trained professional—be it a counsellor, a trained mental health nurse or a similarly trained professional—who is able to conduct an assessment that is sensitive to the specific needs of looked-after children. By conducting a fuller assessment, local authorities will be able to more accurately consider the needs of every young person and ensure that they are offered the appropriate support.
Again, I am not suggesting that every child entering care needs some sort of clinical intervention, but children need to live in a supportive and protective environment with the appropriate therapeutic support—be that peer support, group work or counselling—to help promote their emotional well-being. I contend that such an approach would undoubtedly see a reduction in the number of children ricocheting between placements and that placement stability would rise. I would add, in case people think that it will be complicated to draw up a new mental health assessment tool, that a very good one already exists and is used for all young people in contact with the youth justice system, or in the secure estate—and, of course, many children in contact with the justice system have been in care already.
I will talk briefly about the designated professionals, also proposed in this amendment. The proposal is based on a recommendation made by the Education Select Committee’s enquiry into the mental health of looked-after children. Designated health professionals would fulfil a similar function to virtual school heads. There have been some encouraging results over the past few years, as I am sure the Minister knows. The underlying principle is that each local authority will have a professional who has oversight of the provision of services and is responsible for ensuring that children in care actually get those services at the time that they need them and that they do not, as so often happens at the moment, fall through the net because of placement instability, which means that they never get to the top of a waiting list. Those professionals would also have a pivotal role in feeding into local transformation plans.
I hope that I have set out the reasons why this amendment is so important. I hope that the Minister agrees that this is a crucial matter and will at least commit to meet me to consider the issues that I have raised between now and Third Reading. Without such an undertaking from the Minister, it is only fair that I signal at this stage that I would wish to test the opinion of the House.
My Lords, I follow my noble friend Lord Ramsbotham in being most grateful to the Government for bringing forward this Bill; there is much in it that is very welcome. I know that the complexities of parliamentary timetables can mean that Bills get introduced to us with fairly short notice, but there is one clause in the Bill that causes particular concern. Clause 29—formerly Clause 15—has the opportunity to roll back significant child protection legislation from the past. My personal concern is that something as important as that needs more time for consultation.
The document Putting Children First, which lays out the basis for this particular proposal, came out in July—so, just as we were looking at this proposed amendment, we were also given the theoretical background to it. We have not had enough information or a long enough time to process this important clause, so I ask the Minister to consider withdrawing the amendment, consulting on it properly and bringing it back at a later date. I know that we have not yet settled a second day on Report, which gives us more time to consider this important issue. I hope that that suggestion is helpful.
I support the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, on this matter, and declare my interest in mental health assessments for looked-after children and designated mental health professionals for them. I am a trustee of the Brent Centre for Young People, a centre of excellence in the treatment of adolescents with health disorders, including eating disorders and other issues, and of the charitable foundation the Child and Family Practice, which brings together paediatricians, head teachers and psychiatrists to produce assessments of children with complex needs such as autism. I strongly support her amendment and I have added my name to it.
The Minister may be concerned about whether we should assess all children. I have heard people say, “What about young children? They will not necessarily need a mental health assessment”. But research from the Tavistock a few years ago was quite clear that we were overlooking the need to assess the mental health of three and four year-olds; their needs were not being caught or addressed. I have been interested in the work of the Anna Freud Centre for many years. It does admirable work with infants, for example in Holloway Prison and in refuges, working with very young children and providing them with therapy and assistance—so that should not be an obstacle.
I look forward to the Minister’s response. There is such a call on mental health provision at the moment and I am afraid about what will happen if we do not legislate—and obviously we want to legislate sensitively. The mental health of these young people has been ignored for many years. We have prioritised their education but we have not given enough thought to the trauma that they experience before entering care and on entering care—and that trauma is often exacerbated by suffering many different placements in care. I strongly support the noble Baroness’s amendment.
My Lords, I support the amendments in this group, particularly Amendment 4. I am pleased to support the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, who stressed the need for screening for the various neurodevelopmental disorders and neurodisability needs listed in the amendment. Many of those arguments were made in Committee with particular reference to communication disorders, and I hope the Minister will find them more persuasive on this occasion.
There are many problems related to getting children an assessment and/or a diagnosis. The social worker needs to be aware of neurodisabilities and the support and training to enable them to develop this understanding. The lack of time to build meaningful relationships with a child and really get to know them is also of concern. Again, I hope the Minister will have something to positive to say on that.
On Amendment 1, the Minister acknowledged the need for parity of esteem between physical and mental health, and of course that is welcome. That being the case, however, there is surely no reason why he should not accept that his amendment is logically extended by the wording of Amendment 8 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler. Looked-after children are among the most vulnerable in our society, often entering care with a history of abuse and neglect. But it is the sad case that once they are in the care system—a system intended to protect them—many continue to be at risk of further abuse. The Children’s Commissioner estimated that between 20% and 35% of children who had been sexually exploited were in care at the time of that exploitation. I am afraid that, all too obviously, there have been several such cases in our newspapers recently.
Knowing and understanding what types of support would benefit children entering care should be a simple step. It should be a basic element of that support that they receive a mental health assessment alongside the physical health assessment that already happens. Not only would that identify children with diagnosable conditions that require clinical interventions, it would allow foster carers, social workers, teachers and other responsible professionals to develop an understanding of how they could foster therapeutic relationships with those children in their care. I echo the recent remarks by the noble Earl, Lord Listowel: in many cases children require mental health assessments prior to entering the formal education system because damage can often be done at that stage that it is very difficult to deal with later. Children cared for in institutional settings have often experienced a high number of foster placements which have subsequently broken down, which can often be a by-product of poor emotional well-being.
It is estimated that almost three-quarters of children in residential care have a clinically diagnosable mental health condition. If a concerted effort had been made to address the mental health needs of those children when they entered care, it is at least possible that they may never have needed to be placed in residential care, which is, after all, a much more expensive option than foster care. That is why a whole raft of professionals working with the mental health needs of looked-after children believe that this help should be offered as early as possible. There is no rational reason for delaying the introduction of these simple measures, which could prevent further trauma being inflicted on these children.
As many noble Lords present will know, we have raised this issue time and again. I was among several noble Lords making the case at each stage in the passage of the Children and Families Act 2014. It was repeated at Second Reading and in Committee on this Bill. I raised it again at the briefing session on the Bill for noble Lords which the Public Health Minister hosted in September. All this was to no avail. Nor has this House been the only source of such pleading. As the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, said, in April, the Commons Education Select Committee published its report entitled Mental Health and Well-being of Looked-after Children. One of its recommendations was that,
“all looked-after children should have a full mental health assessment by a qualified mental health professional. Where required this should be followed by regular assessment of mental health and well-being as part of existing looked-after children reviews”.
The Government considered the Committee’s report, rejected most of it, it must be said, and their response on that point was:
“We do not accept the recommendation as it stands”.
The response went on to refer to the expert working group for looked-after children that the Government established in May as a possible means of filling this long-established gap in provision for looked-after children. Perhaps there is reason to be optimistic as to that group’s recommendations, since it will have as its co-chairs Alison O’Sullivan, the former president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, and Professor Peter Fonagy, a psychologist and medical researcher. By what I am sure is complete coincidence, both gave evidence to the Education Select Committee’s inquiry and both, I understand, indicated their support for children having a full mental health assessment when they enter care. The expert working group also included four people who gave evidence to the Select Committee, plus the person who acted as its adviser, so the crossover is considerable, which I very much hope is all to the good.
It would lack consistency for the Minister today to submit Amendment 1 but then dig in his heels and steadfastly refuse to go further with regard to a full mental health assessment. Simply pointing to the expert group is not satisfactory, because it is not due to report for at least 18 months, which means that the Government will effectively stonewall again when the Bill reaches another place. Even if the expert group recommends a mental health assessment for each child entering care, the Government would then need to accept the recommendation—which, on past practice, requires a leap of faith—and then we would need to await the next suitable Bill as a vehicle to introduce it. So if anything does change, it will be quite some way down the line.
The Minister, his advisers and officials at the DfE should ask themselves how many more children will have their mental health issues undiagnosed because of government foot-dragging on an issue that the professionals are quite clear on. Over the years ahead it will be many thousands and that is not a thought of which anyone associated with the Bill on the government side should be proud.
My Lords, I support all the amendments in this group, particularly Amendment 8, spoken to so ably by the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler. I shall turn to Amendments 4 and 5, to which I have added my name, in a moment. It is a strange irony that she could find an assessment tool in the youth justice system for these conditions; looked-after children seem to have to work their way into the criminal justice system before they can avail themselves of this tool. If I may say so to the Minister, it might be worth considering getting in there a little earlier with looked-after children and accepting the noble Baroness’s amendment.
I strongly support Amendments 4 and 5 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham. I declare my interest as the grandparent of a child on the autistic spectrum and a staunch supporter of the National Autistic Society. From all my involvement with looked-after children over the years, many of whom then appeared in the youth justice system, where I saw them again, far too many of these children end up in that system and far too many of them have neurodisabilities or neurodevelopmental disorders. Their problem has often been overlooked for a very long time. These disabilities can be at the heart of their problems in terms of social non-compliance in the school and in the wider community. This leads to their becoming children at risk and in need, as well as often ending up in the youth justice system. The way that they process information and instructions—or, more accurately, fail to do so—is at the heart of many of their problems. Knowing about this is a first step to helping them to manage their condition.
If the state is to take the drastic step of assuming responsibility for these children, the least it can do is to make very sure whether these children have disorders and disabilities about which, on their own, they can do very little and with whose management they need help. The Government should take this issue seriously and include in the Bill a provision of the kind set out in Amendments 4 and 5.
My Lords, I support this group of amendments because we all know that while each year, here in England, thousands of children enter the care system, too many who enter it cannot rely on the loving support offered by family and support networks. Many have already experienced terrible traumas in their young lives and we know that without the right support, these traumas can have long-lasting consequences. The challenges that looked-after children face after they leave care are well known, so we have to cater for their needs and find ways to encourage them to aim high by fulfilling their ambitions, inspiring aspirations and laying foundations to help them find ways to achieve happiness and personal fulfilment. That is why I am delighted to support especially the amendment tabled by my noble friend Lady Tyler to ensure that mental health assessments will be provided for all children entering care.
It is essential to ensure that the assessment of need will be translated into practical support because we in the state—the corporate parents—have a moral duty to do so. Too many children are crying out for support, like the child who told the NSPCC:
“I live in a residential unit. Other people in the unit keep bullying me. One of them attacked and injured me. I feel really lonely because I have to stay in my room to avoid them”.
They said that it had already upset them so much,
“that the staff won’t arrange a transfer for me. I don’t know who to turn to for help”.
Another young person told ChildLine:
“I don’t understand why everyone hates me. I feel like nobody wants me anymore and I just want to go to a normal family that loves me”.
At the core of the amendment proposed today is the desire to ensure that the emotional and mental health needs of children in care are assessed at the point of entering care, so that their needs will be properly supported through their care placement while at school and through a clinical intervention, if that is what the child needs.
Without a better system of support in place to help the 31,710 children who entered care last year, we know that many of them will struggle to overcome the legacy of those early experiences. As recent statistics released by the Department for Education showed, 40% of children who left care last year were not in education, employment or training. We must therefore take this opportunity before us today to improve the assessment of the mental health needs of children in care. We will otherwise continue to see children in care struggling to stay afloat with the weight of their past experiences. The Prime Minister has highlighted the need to tackle mental health issues; the earlier that we do so, the better.
My Lords, I too begin by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Nash, for his amendment on mental health and the corporate parenting principle. I tabled an amendment on this issue in Committee and I am pleased to see that our concerns are being addressed. Ensuring that the mental and physical health of children in care reaches a point of parity is a welcome amendment. It represents an important statement of principle and I am pleased to see steps being taken towards achieving the ambitions set out in the Government’s Future in Mind strategy.
Principles are important, but so too are actions. I should like to use the remainder of my time to speak in support of the amendment tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler. There are currently more than 70,000 children in care in England—70,000 children who no longer live in their family home and who are reliant on the support of the state for all their needs. We have a duty to care for their physical safety, but we have a fundamental responsibility to care for their emotional well-being as well. It is not enough to remove a child from their family home and hope that this will be enough to change their lives. We must aim higher than this. We must aim to provide them with homes that are far better than the family homes they have just left.
It is vital that we find proactive ways of supporting children in care. The first step in this process is to identify the types of support from which a child in care would benefit most. To do this, we need to introduce mental health assessments for children entering care and throughout their time in the care system. The point at which they enter care is crucial, as other noble Lords have said. If a child’s first experiences of life in care are positive—if it becomes a space through which their mental health and emotional needs are attended to—then they will be so much more likely to thrive and have the confidence to take advantage of the opportunities afforded to them. If problems are left unidentified, this can have particularly grave consequences for looked-after children.
The research report, Achieving Emotional Wellbeing for Looked After Children, published by the NSPCC last year, highlighted how children are particularly vulnerable when they experience poor emotional well-being while in care. This report illustrated the way in which poor mental health can lead to placement instability which, in turn, leads to a further decline in emotional well-being.
A teenage girl called Emily told the NSPCC about the impact that placement instability was having on her emotional well-being. She said:
“I can’t cope any more. I have been in care my whole life and have been pushed around between foster families and adopted families. I feel so let down, broken hearted and like I don’t belong anywhere. No one wants me to be here so maybe I should do them a favour”.
What a horrible thought to come from anybody, let alone a child of that age.
Sadly, many children who enter care come from chaotic circumstances. Often they have never known what it was like to live in a safe, stable and secure family home. Entering care should be about giving them this stability but, sadly, this is not the experience of many looked-after children. Having the right support in place to help children make sense of their experiences from before they entered care is crucial. If we can find ways to help them manage their emotions in a safe way, many of the challenging behaviours that often lead to placement breakdown could be avoided. We can, and surely must, do better by these children. This strikes me as an eminently sensible place from which to start.
My Lords, I too support very strongly this group of amendments. I am very glad that issues about emotional stability, and that dimension of life, have been stressed in this debate. They were stressed particularly powerfully by the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin.
I have always thought that structures and systems themselves never achieve anything. They can be very effective in supporting and providing the right context, but what matters are the values, principles and sensitivity of the people working within the system. This again emphasises the importance of the emotional dimension. I was very glad that the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, had the strength to be prepared to use the word love again. It is a word we should discuss more often in our considerations of these matters, because the tragedy is that so many of these children have never encountered love. The other terribly important thing is that they should be able to form stable, lasting, enduring relationships. Ideally, such relationships are there in the family. But if you are dependent upon a system, they are not obviously there, and therefore continuity of relationships is terribly important.
I want to make one point which is not in any way to argue against what the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, said so powerfully. We should be careful about exonerating the formal educational system from its responsibilities. It is often in the context of formal education that things begin to be noticed. There therefore needs to be an excellent working relationship between the formal educational system and social services. There should be a natural opportunity for people to share notes and responsibility for how the situation might be resolved. When our approach to education emphasises achievement all the time, I sometimes worry that the community dimension of education is being obscured. What matters is that there are space and resources within the education system to make allowances for children who have special needs. Again, that depends on a close working relationship between social services and the formal educational system. In a comprehensive school near where I live in Cumbria excellent work is done in this area. What I really admire about it is that this has become the concern of the whole staff. All the staff are involved. When children have special needs the staff ask what the school is doing to meet that situation, provide care, love and relationships within the school and enable other students to take their share of responsibility. We need a very close working relationship between the formal educational system and social services.
My Lords, I did not take part in earlier stages of the Bill and it may be that the question I am going to ask was answered earlier, in which case I apologise. I would like the Minister to explain why the Bill contains no statement that, in his opinion, the Bill is compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. My understanding is that that is what the Human Rights Act requires. It may be that there is a very good technical explanation.
My Lords, I rise to speak on this group of amendments not least because children’s mental health and well-being was the subject of one of my amendments in Committee. I am delighted that noble Lords have brought this issue back to the fore with their amendments, and I am even more pleased that, from Amendment 1, we can see that the Minister listened to those concerns, because the change it proposes makes explicit the importance of the mental health of the vulnerable young people who are the subject of the Bill. This is a significant concession. I congratulate the many noble Lords who have been working hard to achieve it. This is, surely, what those of us who put down amendments in Committee were seeking—for this to be taken seriously and put in the Bill. The Government should be congratulated on making this significant concession.
The concession obviates the need for the other amendments in this group, much as I support the impulse and motivation behind them. To give one example, Amendment 8 concerns the duty to promote physical, mental and emotional well-being. The statutory guidance, on the top of page 14, states that health and well-being should encompass emotional, mental and physical health and well-being. Being statutory guidance, this has the power that we want. We now have recognition in the Bill of the importance of mental health.
This is not the end of the story. There is still a huge amount of influencing to be done. It is important to note that the statutory guidance is in draft. There are lots of ways of thinking about how it could be improved. The influencing work will go on. Rather than giving attention to further amendments, we should focus on improving and finalising the statutory guidance.
My Lords, I had not intended to intervene because I have not participated earlier, having been absent from the House for some months. I come in at the middle and it is always irritating when people do. However, I am astonished to discover that there is not a mandatory assessment, as proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, when children are going into care. We should not dream of admitting adults into care without a mental health assessment. As a psychiatrist, I am not experienced with children but, knowing the outcomes of looked-after children in the longer term and the likelihood of their developing problems of all kinds that we do not need to outline, I am astonished that we do not assess mental health as a matter of routine.
The government amendment uses fair words. I allow that it is a nice amendment, but it does not address the practicalities. As the noble Lord, Lord Warner, has said, these children will often have profound delays in all kinds of neurological developments that will have led them to have had many mental health problems leading up to their going into care. I am astonished that mandatory mental health assessment does not already exist, so I strongly support the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler. I hope that she takes it as far as she can.
Briefly, in response to the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Lester, he and I were both members of the Joint Committee on Human Rights. He may have seen the third report of the session 2016-17. Paragraph 3, commenting on the Children and Social Work Bill, reads:
I am very grateful. I gather that the reason for my mistake is that version that we now have does not have the compatibility statement, but I think that the original version did. I am grateful.
My Lords, I wonder how the Government’s amendment can be carried out without giving effect to the other amendments in this group. Amendment 1 has the effect of requiring that in carrying out its functions, a local authority must,
“have regard to the need … to act in the best interests, and promote the physical and mental health and well-being, of those children and young people”.
How one could promote their health without knowing what they may need in the way of health I cannot understand. Therefore I assume that these amendments are all covered by the generality of the words in Clause 1(1)(a) as amended.
My Lords, I start by responding to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, about the preparation for the Bill and consultation. The Bill has been very widely consulted on, and impact assessments have been conducted, including a full assessment in respect of children’s rights. Ministers and officials meet regularly with representatives of local authorities and the voluntary sector to discuss all aspects of the Bill, and their views are always listened to very carefully. In relation to the provisions on looked-after children and care leavers, we have spoken to the ADCS, the LGA and approximately 20 local authorities on the corporate parenting principles and local offer. Our thinking was also informed by eight meetings of care leavers organised by voluntary sector organisations as we developed Keep on Caring. However, I take the noble Lord’s point about, at certain times, the rush of correspondence and the flurry of activity, for which I apologise. It has not been easy for any of us, and I will take his points back, again, and ensure that they are taken very seriously.
I now turn to the amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, which would place a duty on local authorities to promote the mental health of looked-after children and care leavers. I am grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, to my noble friend Lord O’Shaughnessy, to the noble Lords, Lord Warner, Lord Watson and Lord Judd, to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, and to the noble Baronesses, Lady Murphy and Lady Benjamin, for their contributions to today’s debate.
All mental health-related amendments have been discussed with the co-chairs of the expert group for mental health for looked-after children. One of the co-chairs, Alison O’Sullivan, attended a meeting with some noble Lords in September to present the work plan and ambition for its care pathway project. Assessment, and how children access the right support, will be at the very heart of its work. The next stage of the group’s work will see the development of options for a care pathway along with models of care and quality indicators for the mental health of looked-after children. A care pathway is an evidence-based journey that outlines possible treatment options, timescales and the professionals involved in a person’s care. It will consider, explicitly, the pros and cons of carrying out a full mental health assessment on entry to care.
The expert group plans to share the evidence base behind the chosen models and the pathway with interested parties, including noble Lords, in the spring. We are committed to acting on the findings of the expert group, and will fully consider all the recommendations it makes, including any recommendations to legislate. Every local authority is already under a duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of the children they look after. That means not just keeping them safe but considering their emotional well-being. Looked-after children already must regularly receive a comprehensive health assessment by a registered medical professional on entry into care.
Where there is concern about possible mental health or special educational needs issues which require further investigation, local authorities must ensure the appropriate professionals undertake necessary next steps. Access to NHS services is based on the clinical needs of each individual. The current approach of undertaking further specialist assessment where there is an established need allows resources to be targeted appropriately.
Transition between children’s and adult mental health services needs to be managed effectively. However, prescribing the age at which a young person leaves CAMHS fails to recognise looked-after children as individuals with varying needs. NHS guidance is clear that the transition must be carefully planned with the young person and should take place at the time which is right for them. Services should, wherever possible, accommodate this flexibility.
Co-operation between local authorities and clinical commissioning groups is vital. That is why CCGs are relevant partners under Section 10 of the Children Act 2004 and must co-operate with local authority arrangements to promote the welfare of children. That includes those looked after and care leavers in their area. Innovation projects such as No Wrong Door in North Yorkshire show what can be achieved through multiagency team approaches.
There are numerous examples of joint working across local authority and mental health teams: North Tyneside, Kensington and Chelsea, Croydon, Hartlepool, Sheffield and Trafford to name but a few. So what we want to see is already happening, but just not everywhere. Through initiatives like the Innovation Programme, the Government are supporting this work and will be helping the wider sector to learn about what really works in this area. Services are improved through better planning and commissioning. The needs of this vulnerable group should be addressed through local health and well-being boards and the local transformation plans that all CCGs have produced with local authorities, together with other local partners.
I completely agree with the importance to be placed on identifying and responding to the mental health needs of children in care. That is why, as I have said, every looked-after child is subject to regular physical and mental health screenings. Where any potential issues are identified, a more intensive specialist mental health assessment should be pursued. But we must remember that around 50% of looked-after children have a mental health problem; 50% do not require intensive specialist assessment—these assessments should be used where there is cause for further investigation, not indiscriminately. As I say, if the expert group on mental health recommends that we reconsider this position, we will do so, properly considering all its recommendations, including legislation.
The noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, clarified some of her concerns and who she proposes would carry out these assessments, which I personally found extremely helpful. I will commit not only to meeting her to discuss this matter, but also to try to ensure that the co-chairs of the expert group are also at that meeting to listen to and discuss her points.
I turn to the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, which focuses on the needs of looked-after children and care leavers with neurodevelopmental disorders or neurodisability needs. The ability to communicate in order to access learning and improve life chances is something to which the noble Lord is deeply committed. The Government share that commitment, both to looked-after children and care leavers and those with special educational needs. However, we need to take a proportionate and targeted approach to assessing and meeting needs.
The amendment includes a long list of issues that a proposed mental health assessment should cover, all of which may require a specialist assessment. We do not think that screening all children for every condition on that list is appropriate, with children only being sent for specialist assessment where the earlier general assessment has indicated this is necessary. An assessment framework for looked-after children and young people is already in place to ensure their needs are addressed.
I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. I am trying to work out whether he has agreed that the issue about mental health assessment can be brought back on Third Reading.
Well, I have committed to having a meeting with the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, and the co-chairs of the expert group, to discuss this further. We believe it would be inappropriate to bring this forward now in advance of the expert group making its findings, but it would be helpful if the noble Baroness spoke to the group about her concerns and its direction of travel, and then we can discuss this issue in more detail.
I was dealing with the issues raised by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham. For looked-after children and young people there is already an assessment framework in place to ensure their needs are addressed. This focuses on the whole child’s needs: physical, mental, emotional and behavioural development as well as identity, relationships and social presentation and self-care skills. It draws on expertise from health and education partners and is sufficiently comprehensive to identify children with unmet needs who require further specialist assessment. Where children have or are suspected to have special educational needs or disabilities, social workers should be working with professionals who are experts in addressing those needs and identifying the support needed.
The central approach that underpins the Special Educational Needs and Disability Code of Practice is to use the term “children with learning difficulties”. It is a very broad term, to be applied to any child who has difficulty with learning for whatever reason, including neurodisabilities. It is also intended to identify social, emotional and behavioural issues that are hard to screen for because they are context-based and develop over time.
Under Section 20 of the Children and Families Act 2014, a child or young person has special educational needs if he or she has a learning difficulty or disability that calls for special educational provision to be made for him or her. That definition includes any condition that amounts to a neurodisability, such as autism or dyslexia. The statutory guidance for virtual school heads emphasises this and stresses the importance of the social care and SEND professions working together so that referrals can be made in a timely way and the right support put in place. To that end the department has, for example, been working with the Communication Trust, a consortium of over 40 voluntary and community sector organisations active in the field of speech, language and communication, to build on existing resources and programmes to ensure that practitioners are supported, and to suggest new opportunities to meet the needs of children and young people with speech and language difficulties.
I welcome the emphasis that the noble Lord gives to the speech and communication challenges faced by looked-after children and care leavers. My officials recently met with the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists, and I want to use this as a platform to encourage greater collaboration between the royal college and the National Association of Virtual School Heads. I commit that we will use guidance and the other tools available to us to disseminate good practice, in order to ensure that all concerned are aware of the importance of speech and communication needs and prevalent conditions and, as I say, to help to facilitate links between virtual school heads and the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists. Lastly, I have asked my officials to ensure that the new communications standards being produced by the royal college are disseminated by the Children’s Homes Quality Standards website.
Let there be no doubt of our commitment to improving outcomes for looked-after children and care leavers, but I encourage noble Lords to be wary of adding to the already complex landscape of legislation in this field at this time, ahead of the expert group—
I am sorry to interrupt the Minister’s flow, but I am puzzling over what he has just said about the amendments from the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, and whether the thrust of those is going to be included in statutory guidance, particularly covering all the conditions set out in Amendment 5. He seemed to be quite encouraging about this, but perhaps he could clarify whether that will be covered in statutory guidance.
We will certainly draw attention in the statutory guidance to all these conditions and their importance. We are reluctant to encourage people to assess everyone for all these conditions, if the noble Lord sees what I mean.
I thank the Minister for what he has said, but it is not assumed that everyone should be assessed for all these conditions. Rather, they were not recognised in Warnock and have therefore not been recognised as specific conditions in the criteria for special educational needs. It is merely listing them as those that should be included in the SEN description in future.
I think we can do that. I am happy to discuss this further with the noble Lord but, as I understand it, we are proposing to list them as conditions and draw practitioners’ attention to them. As I was saying, I am reluctant to do anything further on this in relation to mental health until the expert group has met, but I invite the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, to meet that group.
I am sorry to interrupt the Minister again, but I would like him to clarify what he was saying to my noble friend Lady Tyler. He mentioned that if the expert group says that the gist of what she is recommending should be in place, the Government will be prepared to legislate. Legislative opportunities being so few and far between, can he assure the House that a suitable vehicle, in the form of a Bill, will be available in this Parliament to achieve that, should the expert group make that recommendation?
I am not authorised to make that assurance or to predict future legislation standing here. However, we have appointed these experts, we know what their direction of travel is and we will listen very carefully to all their recommendations, including on future legislation. Obviously, when I say “future”, I mean that if they make recommendations, we would like to get on and legislate, where appropriate, as soon as possible. However, it would be helpful if the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, had further conversation with the co-chairs.
Lastly, I thank the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, for his comments about Clause 29. Of course, we are not due to consider amendments to that clause today. The Government have tabled several amendments to address points made in Committee, and I encourage noble Lords to give them proper consideration before we have a full discussion of that clause in some weeks’ time. I am happy to have further discussions on this with noble Lords in the interim; it would be very helpful to discuss this clause in more detail. I also thank my noble friend Lord Faulks for clarifying the point raised earlier by the noble Lord, Lord Lester. I hope and trust that what I have said—particularly on the amendment on the corporate parenting principle—will reassure the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, and the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, and persuade them to withdraw their amendments.
Amendment 1 agreed.
My Lords, Amendment 2 is in my name and that of the noble Lord, Lord Warner. I should apologise briefly for not recognising the importance of government Amendment 1 in the last grouping. I welcome that important amendment to make clear to local authorities their duty to consider both the physical and the mental health of looked-after children. I was grateful for the opportunity to meet with the Minister this morning to discuss my amendments in this part of the Bill.
I welcome the inclusion of the corporate parenting principles in Clause 1. However, I believe that these could be further strengthened by adding a new principle, as my amendment does, to support relationships between children and young people and their families and carers. The Care Inquiry report, Making not Breaking, concluded that,
“the relationships with people who care for and about children are the golden thread in children’s lives, and that the quality of a child’s relationships is the lens through which we should view what we do and plan to do”.
By allowing the child to stay in touch with people whom they feel are important to them, this new principle would support principles (b) and (c) in Clause 1(1), on listening to the views of the child, and principle (f), on the stability of relationships.
Research shows that one-third of children and young people in foster care and care-leavers have been prevented from having contact with a former foster carer. More than half have said that their social worker does not support them in keeping in contact at all. Good- quality relationships impact on social and emotional development, educational achievement and mental health. Children who have secure attachments have better outcomes in all of these areas than those who do not have secure attachments. We need to keep in mind the history of broken relationships that many of these young people have had: broken relationships with their birth parents and siblings as they enter care; with their schoolmates and teachers as they move placements; and with their social workers, as those change.
The practice of cutting off the relationship between the child and their former foster carer is very damaging, and social work practice needs to recognise this. Amending the corporate parenting principles in this way would provide a strong foundation from which to build this change. I hope that I may pay tribute to the Government for their “staying put” legislation and the forthcoming proposal on “staying close”, with regard to children’s homes. I think that the Government have really recognised the importance of the principles that I have just been describing.
I would like to end with the comments of a few young people. One young man said:
“Because... I don’t even know! I’d like to, I keep in touch with one of my foster families. But the ones I really want to keep in touch with are not allowed, and I think it is wrong that we can’t do so as maintaining a secure relationship with foster families makes the child feel valued and still loved and cared for. I hope in the future that this changes”.
Another young person said:
“I have asked but it wasn’t allowed and they want to see me too we had a good bond. It should have happened”.
Finally, another said:
“Foster parents are, or can be, like parents: they are the ones who care for you on a day-to-day basis. The idea that you can live in a home for years and then be expected to move to a new home and never look back is abhorrent”.
I look forward to the Minister’s response, and I beg to move.
My Lords, I am responsible for Amendment 9 in this group. I had the honour of introducing the Bill that ultimately became the Children Act 1989, and I am glad that it has survived since then. Although it has been subject to improvements as time has gone on, the main structure of that Bill has lasted well. Ever since, I have been concerned about the progress of the care system. I have felt sad when it has been shown to have failed in various ways.
One of the important points made by the noble Lord, Lord Judd, earlier was that a good family promotes very close relationships between the parents and the children. Sadly, those who come into care are normally without that provision, and it is the task of the care system to provide for it, as far as possible. One aspect that has troubled me—and those with more hands-on experience of the system than I—is that when a child is in residential care, the people looking after the child change often, and often suddenly. The result is that it is very difficult for the child to build up a relationship with any particular person who has responsibility for their immediate care. As we heard from the noble Earl, in a foster care relationship a very good relationship is often built up, which should be protected thereafter, as far as possible. That is the purpose of Amendment 2. My amendment is related to that, and it is therefore appropriate that they be dealt with together.
I moved a similar amendment in Committee, but I found the Minister’s response somewhat disappointing. I thought he had not quite understood what I was trying to get at—no doubt that was entirely my fault—so I arranged for a meeting with the Bill team to discuss my amendment, and a very full meeting we had. Incidentally, in relation to what is now Clause 29, I proposed a redrafting which I thought would deal with a good many of the objections raised to it in Committee. I am not sure whether that was brought to the Minister’s attention, but in raising it with the Bill team I obviously intended that it should—but that is not for today.
I had a very satisfactory letter back from the Bill team, and I shall put some of it on record:
“Given that our discussion focused in particular on the need for children in residential care to build relationships with a trusted carer in order to promote their wellbeing, I thought you would also appreciate being sent the link to the Guide to Children’s Homes Regulations, including the quality standards”.
Needless to say, I found that extremely useful. It points out that these do not require the registered person of the home to ensure that there will be a relationship with a particular child. The standards do not require a primary carer to be allocated to each child in the home. Practice is for children to be allocated a key worker who will be the primary person responsible for their well-being. I ask that the Government should recognise the importance of that in the legislation. It seems to be the practice.
I have to say that the Minister’s account of the practice in relation to people responsible for children—the officer who is supposed to have regard to his or her well-being outside the immediate care home—was important. However, I noticed that Barnado’s report published during the Recess, in August, pointed out that some 97% of children in care do not in fact have such a person. That suggests to me that the Department for Education has possibly not got a full account of what goes on in children’s homes.
In any event, I think that this response recognises that the practice is to have a particular carer allocated to the child. If that happens and is consistently carried out, the link is likely to arise that may be of extreme value in the emotional well-being and stability of the child, as it is very difficult if these people change completely every so often without any continuity. That is what I want to achieve and I am glad the noble Lord, Lord Warner, has found it possible to put his name to this amendment.
My Lords, I shall speak to Amendments 2 and 9, both of which I have added my name to. Based on my own experience, I believe that the amendment of the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, is extremely important. Too often, in the understandable wish to make children safe, we overlook the importance of previous and sometimes current links to children’s family and a wider group of people who are important adults in their life. That is even where parts of that family have been highly dysfunctional and may not have always treated them well. There is often still a link with that family which is very important to the child.
These children often wish that their immediate family had treated them better, but they do not necessarily wish to sever all their links to family and the wider world outside of what they experience in care. Very often, there are people in their family and among a wider carer group with whom they have made quite a strong bond and relationship and have a desire to maintain that contact. I suggest to your Lordships that it is critical to a child’s own sense of self-worth that they are not given the impression that they do not matter to this wider family and group of people who have been important in their life. I think it is critical that the Government take seriously the spirit of the amendment proposed by the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, and are willing to incorporate that spirit in some form in appropriate words on the face of the Bill.
I have added my name to Amendment 9, proposed by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, because I strongly support it. I think he has worked extremely hard trying to persuade the department that there is merit in his approach. I think there is very strong merit. Children in residential care are often the most needy and vulnerable. All too often they have a history of failed placements and a strong sense of being let down by the adult world. They are often used to adults walking away from them or dipping in and out of their lives, rather than building strong relationships with them that last over time.
When they come into residential care and find a key worker or a personal adviser to whom they can relate, it is often very important for their sense of self-worth that the system tries to foster that relationship and assists its continuance, not only while they are in care but when the child leaves residential care and moves to independent living, which is a very difficult thing to carry out. Many of us find it difficult to encourage our own children to move to independent living well into their 20s, so imagine what it is like for a young person leaving care. Maintaining that relationship with a key worker, personal adviser or adult who is connected to the child when they are in care may, in some cases, be the ingredient that determines success or failure as they move into independent living.
This is a massive issue for many of these young people, and I think that the Government would do well to listen to both the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, and the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, and to take seriously their amendments.
My Lords, I want to make one simple point in support of Amendment 2, although it probably relates to Amendment 9 as well. In discussing the previous group of amendments, we talked about the mental and emotional health of children, and the Government’s amendment was about the promotion of mental as well as physical health. I cannot think of anything that could do more to undermine the mental health of children than to be torn away from relationships that are really important to them. Therefore, in the interests of making a reality of government Amendment 1, I hope that the Minister will feel able to accept Amendment 2 in the name of the noble Earl, Lord Listowel.
“persons aged under 25 who are former relevant children within the meaning of”, the Children Act, and it is that part of the Bill that I wish briefly to address.
I agree completely with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, about the importance of relationships to children and young people. On Thursday last week, I attended a briefing organised by the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, and the Children’s Society at which I heard from two care leavers, both of whom spoke very passionately about their experiences. One young lady, who was 18, has now left care. However, she was removed from her foster placement one day after her 18th birthday, which seems unnecessarily hasty and somewhat insensitive. To date, no personal adviser has been appointed for her and she has no one to officially advise her. She made the very valid point that she and others in care really need advice, particularly on their likely financial responsibilities, before they reach 18 and not afterwards, as all money stops at 18. I will return to this aspect of financial advice in later amendments.
It is important that children in local authority care have someone they can turn to at all times. Children not in care have parents and relatives whom they can turn to and confide in. Looked-after children deserve parity with their peers, and I fully support the amendment tabled by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, and the noble Lord, Lord Warner.
I am grateful to my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay, the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, and the noble Lord, Lord Warner, for their amendments on promoting stable relationships between looked-after children and care leavers and their families and those who care for them.
I am pleased to reassure the House that local authorities already have robust duties to promote and maintain contact between looked-after children, their families and people significant to the child. There are also staff in local authorities and children’s homes with a clear responsibility to promote individual children’s well-being and to build strong relationships with them.
Helping young people maintain positive relationships is a vital part of corporate parenting. Doing so will enable local authorities to comply with several principles; for example, those relating to acting in the child’s best interests and promoting their health, encouraging children to express their wishes and feelings, and to be safe and have stability in their relationships. Maintaining positive relationships is part of promoting children’s best interests and arrangements need to be based on children’s needs and wishes. Existing legislation and statutory guidance strongly support this.
The presumption that contact between children and their family should be maintained while a child is being looked after is already set down in paragraph 15 of Schedule 2 to the Children Act 1989. The Act requires local authorities to promote contact with parents, relatives and those connected with the child, provided it is consistent with the child’s welfare.
Statutory guidance on care planning, placement and case review is also clear. Children’s welfare is the paramount consideration in determining contact and the care plan for a looked-after child must set out the arrangements made for contact with parents, anyone with parental responsibility or any other connected person. The guidance also makes clear that children’s wishes and feelings regarding contact should be taken into consideration. As part of children’s case reviews, independent reviewing officers must speak to children before the review meeting to ascertain their views, wishes and feelings. This gives children a chance to express any concerns, including with their contact arrangements, so the review can take these into account.
I agree with noble Lords that looked-after children, including those in residential care, should be supported by professionals who promote their well-being and have clear accountability for this. At local authority level, all looked-after children have an allocated social worker and an IRO who are responsible for their well-being and development.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, rightly highlights the need for children in residential care to have a strong relationship with at least one member of the home’s staff. I entirely agree with him that an ongoing, trusted and stable relationship is really important for these young people. Although it is not mandatory, it is common practice for homes to appoint a key worker for each child. This is a member of staff who has special responsibility for an individual child. The key worker role complements requirements on all staff to protect and build positive relationships with children. While there is no doubt that staff in this role can be a huge source of support for children, we do not believe that making it compulsory would be the right thing to do. Children’s homes have evolved greatly in recent years, both in their size and the approach they take to supporting children, and we strongly believe that they should have flexibility to shape the role and the support they provide to meet children’s individual needs and circumstances.
There are many examples of excellent practice, such as North Yorkshire’s No Wrong Door project. Here children’s wishes and feelings are taken into account by letting them choose their key worker after they get to know their staff. The key worker builds a strong relationship with them and, like a parent, advocates for them where necessary. At No Wrong Door, key workers support young people up to the age of 25, remaining a consistent point of contact as they move to independence.
We recognise that maintaining relationships can be a particular challenge for care leavers. That is why our care leaver strategy, published in July, set out our desire to test new models of support for those leaving care. The Family Finding model, for example, identifies a range of adults, including family members, ex-carers and professionals who have known the young person during their childhood and are prepared to make a lifelong commitment to the young person.
In addition, as the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, mentioned, in response to a recommendation in Sir Martin Narey’s review of residential care, we will introduce “staying close”, which will provide the benefits of “staying put” for those leaving residential care. “Staying close” will support continuation of the trusted relationship that the young person has developed with staff at their former residential home through to age 21. We are planning to invite local authorities to pilot “staying close” in the first instance, to enable us to better understand the costs and practicalities of providing this support.
While I support the very positive intentions behind the amendments, I believe that the way to address them is by continuing to develop effective practice rather than imposing new requirements on practitioners who need the space and flexibility to work out what is best for the children in their care. Though I have much sympathy for the emphasis noble Lords have given to the importance of stable relationships, I believe that this is something local authorities should be promoting through the local offer.
Amendment 11, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, which we will come to later, seeks to add relationships to the services that local authorities may offer as part of the local offer. I am very sympathetic to this and will go away and consider whether such an amendment would be appropriate.
I was also very concerned to hear the figure of 97% mentioned by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay. That is disturbing and is not, I am told, a figure that we recognise. However, I would like to meet him and officials to share our thoughts and figures on this. Obviously, if anything like that figure is true, clearly we should be doing something about it.
Given what I have said, and the existing statutory responsibilities to promote contact and well-being, I hope that the noble Earl will feel reassured enough to withdraw his amendment.
I recall a discussion at the All-Party Group for Looked After Children and Care Leavers at which I met a man in his 50s. He told me that his mother was celebrating her 80th birthday and that, as she had run a children’s home for many years, generations of children and families who had gone through that home would be celebrating her birthday with her. That does happen: there are really good social workers who keep in touch with their care leavers; there is a broadcaster—a care leaver—who still keeps in touch with his social worker from the past.
It can be difficult, however, to manage that relationship when a young person leaves care. Some professionals and foster carers perhaps do not quite have the confidence and professional ability to manage that as the young person moves on. I hope that the Government’s vision to develop the status of social work and make it an attractive and well-supported profession will help to improve those relationships in the longer term. I am grateful to the Minister for his response and beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 2 withdrawn.
My Lords, this amendment seeks to include a duty to promote access to legal advice and representation for children in care in order to safeguard and promote their welfare and future life chances. It seeks to do that on the face of the Bill.
Local authorities, in their role as corporate parents, have a particular obligation to promote meaningful access to legal services for the children in their care. Recent evidence presented to the Refugee Children’s Consortium suggests that it is not enough for access to legal advice to be included in a child’s care plan. There should instead be an active duty to promote access whenever needed. For example, children may need access to legal advice in regard to accessing appropriate education in their area if they have special educational needs; to have a voice in family law proceedings that concern arrangements for their care; to regularise their immigration status; or to claim compensation where they are a victim of crime, including human trafficking.
In the concluding observations of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child’s recent periodic report, it was noted that some children in care do not feel listened to, and that unaccompanied, migrant and asylum-seeking children may not receive independent legal advice. I am particularly concerned that children are missing out on opportunities to resolve their immigration status before they turn 18 because of the limited provision of legal advice and the difficulty of finding independent and reliable advice providers. A child without a way to regularise their immigration status in local authority care becomes a young person without support at 18, and now will be able to appeal against deportation only once they have been returned to their country of origin under the terms of the Immigration Act 2016.
My reason for proposing this subsection is that it is yet another example of where the solution does not seem to lie in the hands of the Department for Education alone, but requires co-operation and co-ordination with the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice. I therefore hope very much that the Minister will feel able to accept the amendment and turn it into a government amendment in due course. I beg to move.
My Lords, I rise to speak in support of this amendment, especially in relation to unaccompanied migrant children. I will not repeat what I said in Committee, especially around the regularisation of immigration and citizenship status, but will simply emphasise—here echoing the noble Lord—its importance from the perspective of meeting our obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
In an earlier report, the Joint Committee on Human Rights, of which I was then a member, underlined the importance of access to qualified legal advice and representation to compliance with Article 12 of the convention, which stresses that children must be,
“provided with the opportunity to be heard in any judicial and administrative proceedings”, affecting them. The Equality and Human Rights Commission highlighted this as a priority issue for implementing the concluding observations of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which the noble Lord referred. It calls on the Government to expedite the promised review of the LASPO Act to assess its impact on children. Here it is echoing the committee itself.
“the voice of the child fully in the design and implementation of policy”.—[
In the light of that, I hope the Minister will be able to respond positively to the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham.
In local authorities where the ethos of corporate parenting is strongest—for example, in North Somerset and Trafford—the views of looked-after children and care leavers are at the heart of how local services are created and delivered. Along with the Minister for Vulnerable Children and Families, I applaud the way in which many local authorities, through their children in care councils and care leaver forums, listen and respond to the views and needs of this vulnerable group.
The corporate parenting principles are designed to ensure that the local authority as a whole has regard to the need to act in the best interests of the child whenever it carries out functions in relation to looked-after children or care leavers. Considering this together with the existing functions to ensure that the rights of children and young people are promoted, I do not believe that amending the principles in the way suggested is necessary. However, I am aware of the report on advocacy services for looked-after children by the Children’s Commissioner, which highlighted that 55% of looked-after children were unaware of their right to independent advocacy support. Local authorities have a duty to provide assistance for advocacy services for all looked-after children, children in need and children in care, and this includes making them aware of this provision. I do not believe that further legislation would help here.
We need to work directly with local authorities to improve good practice and raise awareness. I will commit to the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, that we will do so. Some local authorities are already very good, but others are not; as the Children’s Commissioner made clear in her report. It is about raising the game of the poorer authorities to meet their existing responsibilities. Indeed, while I sympathise with the underlying intention behind the noble Lord’s amendment, I believe that it may risk introducing an unhelpful adversarial dimension to the relationship between children and young people and their local authority as corporate parent, which I am sure the noble Lord would not wish to see.
The framework for care planning and the transition from care to adulthood that exists already gives children and young people routes for voicing their views. These include court-appointed guardians, their social worker and a named IRO who follows their case, meets the child privately before the formal meeting to review his or her care plan, and also advises the court.
A key role of IROs is to resolve problems arising out of the care planning process. Every local authority should have a formal process for IROs to raise concerns and to ensure that those concerns are respected by managers. This is referred to in our guidance as the local dispute resolution process. An IRO has the statutory power to refer the case to Cafcass at any stage if he or she considers it appropriate to do so. He or she may consider it necessary to make a concurrent referral to Cafcass at the same time that he or she instigates the dispute resolution process. There is clear guidance on this point in the Children Act 1989 statutory guidance on care planning and in the IRO handbook. That handbook, which is statutory guidance that local authorities must comply with, also makes it clear that each local authority should have a system in place that provides IROs with access to independent legal advice. Skilled independent advocates who speak on behalf of looked-after children also work with the legal service. They provide the independent advice and assistance sought by this amendment.
Local authorities are required under Section 26A of the Children Act 1989, which deals with advocacy services, to make arrangements for the provision of assistance to looked-after children and care leavers for advocacy and representation support, and local authorities must make these arrangements known publicly, as they see fit. I am not therefore convinced that adding a further principle on a specific area as regards services or support, which is already the subject of a statutory duty, is necessary.
The corporate parenting principles and the needs articulated in Clause 1 are about improving the culture and ethos of local authorities so that, as far as possible, children are treated with care and as a good parent would, so that the children do not feel that they are being looked after by an impersonal corporate body. The way to do that is not to create expectations of legal representation for all looked-after children and care leavers when disputes can be resolved without escalating it to lawyers. That means using IROs and advocates effectively and making better use of children in care councils, which all local authorities will have. I hope that the noble Lord will feel sufficiently reassured to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply and to the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, for her comments and remarks. I am concerned by the content of the UNCRC’s fifth report because it repeats so many criticisms that were contained in the fourth report that do not appear to have been actioned. I am also particularly concerned about the change in status of immigrant children in care, which was included in the Immigration Act 2016. The comment that they lacked legal advice before they were deported is not something of which we should be very proud.
I hope, therefore, that in considering all the things that he has said to me, the Minister will go back and assess the local area legal provision, particularly relating to immigration, because I give notice that I shall raise this question again at Third Reading. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 3 withdrawn.
Amendments 4 and 5 not moved.
Moved by Lord Warner
6: Clause 1, page 2, line 27, leave out “A local authority in England must” and insert “In discharging its duties under subsection (1), a local authority must—(a) ensure that all the local authority’s relevant partners are aware of their duty under sections 10 (co-operation to improve well-being) and 11 (arrangements to safeguard and promote welfare) of the Children Act 2004 to co-operate with local authorities to improve the well-being and safeguard and promote the welfare of children who fall under subsection (2); and(b) ”
My Lords, in moving this amendment I shall also speak supportively of Amendment 7, to which I added my name after I had tabled Amendment 6. Both amendments seek to achieve similar ends but in slightly different ways. That end is to include in Clause 1 of the Bill on corporate parenting principles the importance of strong co-operation between the responsible local authority and all the other partner agencies that are critical to successful corporate parenting of looked-after children.
On Amendment 6, as I have said in previous discussions with Ministers, we cannot state too often that the Bill should remind partner agencies of their duty to co-operate with the responsible local authority in delivering the best outcomes for looked-after children. The fact that such a duty was set out in the Children Act 2004 does not, in my view, mean that we should not refresh that duty in this new, reforming Bill. It helps, if I may suggest it, to give local authorities leverage with partner agencies when those agencies face difficult priority decisions on how to use scarce resources. That situation, if I may say so, is a lot worse than when that previous piece of legislation was passed. Local authorities need all the help they can get to leverage support for the children they are responsible for from these partner agencies at a time of very difficult public expenditure situations.
These same arguments, I suggest, apply to Amendment 7, which the noble Lord, Lord Watson, will be elaborating on. I would be willing to forgo Amendment 6 if the Minister finds Amendment 7 more to his liking. I beg to move.
My Lords, I and other noble Lords attempted in Committee to persuade the Minister that the list of corporate partners in the Bill should be widened. We were unsuccessful then, so today we have tried a slightly different approach with an amendment that speaks only of,
“such other persons or bodies as may be defined in regulations”, with the proviso that such regulations must be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure.
Corporate parenting is one of the most important roles of a local authority, and elected councillors take that responsibility extremely seriously. Corporate parenting means the full and active involvement of the formal and local partnerships needed between local authority departments and services and associated agencies which are responsible for working together to meet the needs of looked-after children and young people as well as care leavers. Recognising that the different component parts each have a contribution to make is critical to the success of corporate parenting. A major challenge in operating effective corporate parenting is to manage its contradictory nature, balancing the need for continuity with the changes necessarily involved, whether through political control, staff changes within the local authority or other partners, or the emergence of new policies, perhaps even new legislation. The aim must remain static: to help provide each individual child or young person with a sense of stability in their life.
Any duties to co-operate must, of course, be reciprocal, with local government, health partners and the police all working together to protect and support looked-after children in their area. All corporate partners need to fully understand and accept their responsibilities as corporate parents, and governance arrangements will be in place to make sure that work within councils and their partner organisations is child-centred and focused on achieving the overarching outcome. The overarching outcome of corporate parenting should be for young people who have experienced the care system to go on to be successful learners in whatever career path they choose, to become confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors whose life outcomes mirror those of their peers as far as possible. The ultimate aim must be that there is no discernible difference between the outcomes of children and young people who have been looked after and those who have not. That, I accept, is a lofty aim, but it is surely one that no one who has the interests of our most vulnerable children at heart can turn away from. I hope that, in that sense, the Minister will look upon Amendments 6 and 7 and give a positive response.
My Lords, I draw the House’s attention to my interests as a councillor in the Borough of Kirklees and therefore a corporate parent, with whom the buck finally lands. We had a considerable debate in Committee, as the noble Lord, Lord Watson, said, because there was a lot of concern about having clarity of definition about corporate parenting principles. The noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, talked about the report of the noble Lord, Lord Laming, In Care, Out of Trouble, drawing attention to, “Less clarity leading to more inconsistencies”. That is precisely why, at this stage, there is an endeavour to find greater clarity in the corporate parenting principles laid out in the Bill as it stands.
I also suggest that we ought to support greater clarity because of the changing role of local authorities, given the financial pressures on them. It is also the right thing to do because it makes corporate parenting more effective. There has to be work across other public sector partners; those referred to in the amendment laid before us are the police and the health service. The reason for doing that is to ensure that those two bodies in particular have it as a priority in their planning and actions that they take note of the importance of corporate parenting when they meet young people who are in need of care, and who are sometimes—more often than we would like—brought to the attention of the law.
The third reason why we support the amendment proposed is because, in the principles as laid out, and as described by the Minister in Committee, everyone who is employed by a local authority is responsible as a corporate parent. My fear is that, if everybody is responsible, no one is. That is why I have argued consistently that we need to be clear about where the final responsibility lies.
We need to expand the definition of corporate parenting responsibilities to include other key public sector organisations, but also to have clarity within local authorities on where the final responsibility lies. In the words of the noble Lord, Lord Warner, it is always helpful to refresh requirements in earlier legislation because it brings it to the attention of professionals that this is a matter on which legislators place great importance. With those words, I support wholeheartedly Amendments 6 and 7.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lords, Lord Watson and Lord Warner, for the opportunity to discuss the most effective way of ensuring that partner agencies support local authorities in fulfilling their role as corporate parents, and grateful to them and the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, for their contributions to today’s debate.
Legal responsibility and accountability for looked-after children and care leavers rests with local authorities. We believe that maintaining this clear accountability is right to protect vulnerable young people. As such, it is important that the law is clear that local authorities are the corporate parents for looked-after children and care leavers. Section 10 of the Children Act 2004 already places a robust and clear statutory duty on local authorities to,
“make arrangements to promote co-operation”, to improve the well-being of local children and care leavers in relation to,
“physical and mental health and emotional well-being … protection from harm and neglect … education, training and recreation”, the contribution made by children to society, and “social and economic well-being”. The partners listed in Section 10 include the agencies necessary to support vulnerable children properly. This includes those listed in this amendment, such as health bodies and the police, but also organisations such as schools and further education institutions that local authorities consider appropriate.
I absolutely agree that partner agencies must be aware of their duties to co-operate with authorities to improve and have regard to children’s welfare under Sections 10 and 11 of the Children Act 2004. However, in practice, to fulfil these duties effectively local authorities would have to make relevant partner agencies aware of their obligations under Sections 10 and 11, so these amendments simply duplicate what is already legally required or necessary in practice to meet existing requirements regarding looked-after children and care leavers. I should add that, crucially, Section 10 goes wider than the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Watson, as it also places a reciprocal and direct duty on partner agencies to co-operate with local authorities in this regard. Moreover, Section 11 of the Children Act 2004 places a direct duty on the bodies it lists to make arrangements to ensure that they have regard to the need to safeguard and promote the welfare of children when discharging their functions. Therefore, all the bodies within the scope of this provision will be required as of necessity to know about it.
When defining well-being, Section 10 actively addresses key areas where noble Lords rightly want assurance that all vulnerable children will receive high-quality support, such as mental health and emotional, social and economic well-being. This clear and holistic definition provides local authorities with a robust mandate for interagency co-operation to improve the wider well-being of children. Section 10 gives local authorities a strong lever to get the local co-operation needed properly to support vulnerable children and young adults in key aspects of life. The corporate parenting principles provide a further lever for local authorities to engage with key partners and utilise Section 10 arrangements to co-operate to improve the well-being of looked-after children and care leavers.
The fourth principle, in particular, provides for local authorities to have regard to the need to help looked-after children and care leavers access and make the best use of services provided by the local authority and relevant partners. Strong interagency working, underpinned by Section 10, will be crucial to achieving this. The statutory guidance on the corporate parenting principles will emphasise it. It is also important to recognise that there are numerous examples of local authorities and other agencies already working effectively together in the interests of looked-after children and care leavers.
In his report Residential Care in England, Sir Martin Narey refers to the protocol between 10 local authorities and four police services. The protocol aims to reduce the prosecution of children wherever possible by encouraging the use of restorative justice approaches. Trafford provides another good example of strong interagency working. Here, collocation of social workers with health staff and child and adolescent mental health services supports good access to services.
What Peers are seeking to achieve across the country—indeed, what we want—is already happening. It just needs replicating and this is about disseminating good practice and influencing hearts and minds. The corporate parenting principles aid that process because they apply to the whole authority and are intended to create a culture change. We recognise, of course, that, despite the existing legislation to promote interagency co-operation, practice is not always as consistent as it should be. We therefore plan to engage further with directors of children’s services on this issue with the aim of identifying other positive practice and disseminating it more widely.
Given the strength of the existing duties to co-operate under Section 10, our intention to reinforce this in the statutory guidance on the corporate parenting principles and to continue the drive to improve and embed effective practice, I hope the noble Lords, Lord Watson and Lord Warner, will feel reassured enough to withdraw their amendments.
Tabled by Baroness Tyler of Enfield
8: After Clause 1, insert the following new Clause—“Duty to promote physical and mental health and emotional well-being(1) The Children Act 1989 is amended as follows.(2) In section 22 (general duty of local authority in relation to children looked after by them), after subsection (3C) insert—“(3D) The duty of a local authority under subsection (3)(a) to safeguard and promote the welfare of a looked after child includes a particular duty to promote the child’s physical and mental health and emotional well-being.(3E) A local authority must develop a local care pathway to ensure that the needs of looked after children, relevant children and former relevant children are addressed through the provision of—(a) a mental health assessment at the time the child enters care;(b) regular monitoring of the child’s on-going need for mental health support;(c) a mental health assessment at the time the child becomes a relevant child or former relevant child;(d) provision of the necessary support to meet the needs of the child, relevant child or former relevant child as identified by the assessment and monitoring conducted under paragraphs (a) and (b), for as long as is necessary until the former relevant child reaches the age of twenty-five.(3F) Each clinical commissioning group for an area, any part of which falls within the area of the local authority, must take steps to assist the local authority in the exercise of its functions under subsections (3D) and (3E).(3G) Each clinical commissioning group must appoint at least one registered medical practitioner and at least one registered nurse for the purpose of discharging the duty under subsection (3F).””
Moved by Lord Mackay of Clashfern
9: After Clause 1, insert the following new Clause—“Member of care staff to be responsible for the well-being of a child in local authority care(1) When a local authority receives a child into its residential care, it must forthwith appoint one of its care staff to be responsible for the well-being of that child and, subject to subsection (2), the appointment shall endure for so long as the child remains in the care of the authority.(2) If a change of circumstances makes necessary the termination of the appointment under subsection (1), the authority must forthwith appoint another member of its care staff to be responsible for the well-being of the child.”
My Lords, I do not propose to elaborate because we have already discussed this, but I want to take the opportunity to answer the point made by the Minister. It is in relation to the Barnardo’s release from the National Independent Visitor Development Project, dated
I am sorry that, due to the same sort of considerations that the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, mentioned, I have not been able to attend the briefings that have been held because I have not been here, but I would be very happy to meet the Minister. I sincerely hope that, at least, the Government will be able to incorporate this amendment by way of guidance in the standard that they have set out. I beg to move.
Moved by Lord Watson of Invergowrie
10: After Clause 1, insert the following new Clause—“Duty to provide suitable accommodation(1) Each local authority in England must take reasonable steps to provide all former relevant children up to the age of 21 with accommodation that—(a) is within the authority’s area; and(b) meets the needs of those former relevant children.(2) A local authority is deemed to have discharged this duty towards a former relevant child where staying put arrangements have been made under section 98 of the Children and Families Act 2014 (arrangements for living with former foster parents after reaching adulthood).”
My Lords, Amendment 10 would place a new duty on local authorities to take reasonable steps to provide care leavers up to the age of 21 with suitable accommodation. It would also end the inequality between young people in stable foster care placements, who are entitled to stay with their foster family until the age of 21 under the “staying put” arrangements, and other groups of young people leaving care.
The Bill rightly aims to improve outcomes for care leavers, a group of young people who, as many noble Lords have said, face significant challenges. However, as currently drafted, we do not believe that it goes far enough to make a real difference to young people’s lives. Organisations supporting these young people have consistently said that safe and stable accommodation must be the starting point for improving outcomes in other areas. Education, training, employment and health would be the main examples. A 2015 report by the National Audit Office found that young people with a background in care were more likely to become homeless or to end up in custody. Indeed, the most recent figures from the Department for Education shows that, in 2015-16, 7% of care leavers aged 19 to 21 were in accommodation considered unsuitable and the suitability of the accommodation of a further 11% could not be established. Equally, 4% of care leavers aged 19 to 21 were in custody, and 40% of care leavers in that age group were not in education, employment or training. All these figures combined show the scale of the task that faces us when we seek to look after young people leaving care.
When most young people leave home, they are usually able to continue to rely on their parents, as the noble Lord, Lord Warner, said, for many things, not least advice as well as practical and financial support. Young people who have been in care do not have that support system open to them. Many have significant emotional and mental health needs which are often due to a history of abuse or neglect. The transition to adulthood can be daunting at the best of times for all young people. By definition, looked-after children rarely experience the best of times and have to cope with multiple changes: finishing school or college; moving from child and adolescent mental health services to adult services; and often the need to find alternative living arrangements. Even among children in different forms of care, there is real inequality between care leavers who can stay with their foster family under “staying put” and all other young people leaving care.
The Government have promised to pilot “staying close”, which would offer accommodation to young people leaving residential care, but we understand there is to be no duty on local authorities to do so, and there is certainly no clarity on funding. As it stands, if you are not in a stable foster placement at 18, you may well end up in an unsafe or unstable accommodation placement or be homeless or sofa-surfing. Outcomes for care leavers in general will not improve until this issue is addressed.
In 2014, the Government recognised the importance of safe, stable and appropriate accommodation for care leavers. “Staying put” arrangements mean some young people can remain with their foster family until they reach 21. In 2015-16, of those who ceased to be looked after on their 18th birthday and who were in foster care, 54% of 18 year-olds, 30% of 19 year-olds and 16% of 20 year-olds were able to remain with their foster family. However, for other young people, including those in residential accommodation, who may be the most vulnerable of all and have significant needs, no equivalent support is available. This Bill offers an opportunity to ensure that all young people leaving care have an appropriate place to live until they reach 21 to help them start their adult lives.
In July, the Government committed to piloting “staying close” in Keep on Caring: Supporting Young People from Care to Independence. The aim is to explore models of accommodation for young people leaving residential care. That is to be welcomed, but Amendment 10 enables us to go a step further. I hope that the Government will look upon it favourably.
Amendment 12 in my name amends Clause 2. It concerns the local offer for care leavers and seeks to set up a national minimum standard that would set out the quality and extent of services to be offered by local authorities to care leavers. In a later group, we will discuss the national offer. I am aware that the Government, at this stage at least, are not minded to embrace such a concept. Setting out a national minimum standard is a similar approach in the sense of avoiding the postcode lottery that we all understand and that applies in different ways in different settings. That lottery could allow local authorities in some areas to provide a much less satisfactory service to care leavers than is provided in others. That is why it makes sense to set a national minimum standard. It would be no more than a minimum to be built on but it is necessary so as to have something on which to fall back.
Regarding the other part of the amendment, it makes sense to consult appropriately to ensure that the basis on which the national minimum standard would be set was one that carried the benefit of the experience of the various corporate parenting partners. It is important to say that the setting of a minimum standard is something that we need to do because the patchwork effect of the accommodation issues to which I referred in commenting on the earlier amendment show that there is no common policy across the country. That, surely, is not acceptable. For that reason, I beg to move.
My Lords, I shall speak in support Amendment 12, to which I have added my name, but I should like first to add my support to Amendment 10. Affordable single-person accommodation is one of the areas in shortest supply in many of our cities. This is the pool in which we are often trying to find accommodation for these young people. They do need a lot of support. We are asking them to live independently and to battle their way through what is often a confusing and difficult accommodation market. Even older, more mature adults find it difficult to survive in that market.
We are setting these young people up to fail if we do not do more to help them to get into safe and suitable accommodation. It is no wonder, sadly, that we find so many of these young people having been in care sleeping rough in many of our inner cities, including not far from this place. Anyone who late at night wanders around the South Bank will find some of these characters who have been in care having a difficult time. When you talk to some of them, you hear that they have never had good accommodation.
The Minister should take this seriously. When I was chairman of the Youth Justice Board this area was one of the major contributory factors to many of these young people moving down a path of crime and into the youth justice system. Tackling it is therefore in everyone’s interests, not just those of the young people. I strongly support Amendment 10.
I also support Amendment 12. Too often we pass reforming legislation without saying what would be an acceptable level of response by those responsible for implementing that legislation. There is a long history of the lifetime outcomes for looked-after children being inadequate. We shall come to the issue of outcomes in a later amendment. To address this long-standing problem, the Government would do well to set out some national minimum standards for the services that must be offered under their local offer for care leavers. Far too many young care leavers do not know what they can expect from the authority that has been looking after them when they move into the wider world.
From my experience as the commissioner for children’s services in Birmingham—appointed by the current Secretary of State’s predecessor but one, who has since gone on to further fame—one also finds huge variations in the performance of some of the leaving-care teams within the same authority. This is not an area that has been well served by consistency even within the same authority. Setting some national standards would not just be helpful for consistency between authorities but would help some of the bigger authorities to have consistency within themselves. So I strongly support Amendment 12.
My Lords, I speak briefly to Amendment 10 and to agree with the comments of the noble Lords, Lord Watson and Lord Warner. In the market town in my own area, the number of beds available for young people in the excellent Foyer has been reduced over recent years, and it is now in danger of actually closing. As well as providing excellent accommodation to allow young people, especially care leavers, to move on and gain independence, it has provided training, other support and a coffee bar. It is a great shame, to put it mildly, that such a facility should be closed because of the lack of funding for the number of beds there.
As the noble Lord, Lord Warner, who is much more experienced in this area than me, has said, young people, especially care leavers, are very vulnerable and they require adequate quality accommodation to meet their needs.
My Lords, I am grateful to noble Lords for these amendments, which relate to the local offer for care leavers. Together, they seek to introduce a national minimum standard for the local offer and to place a duty on local authorities to provide suitable accommodation for all care leavers until the age of 21.
It is worth reminding ourselves what the local offer is intended to achieve. It is an opportunity for local authorities to set out in one place the services they provide to assist care leavers as they move into adulthood and independent living. In particular, it should include services relating to health and well-being, education and training, employment, accommodation and participation in society. The local offer must include both care leavers’ statutory entitlements, as well as the additional services and support that local authorities provide to meet the needs of care leavers in preparing for adulthood and independent living. The national minimum offer that the noble Lord seeks is, in effect, the statutory rights that all care leavers are entitled to, but we expect local areas to go beyond the statutory minimum and set this out in their local offer.
Under Clause 2, before publishing their local offer or any revised version of it, local authorities must consult care leavers, as well as any other persons or bodies who are representative of care leavers. I do not believe that prescribing a national minimum standard setting out the services that must be included under the local offer is the right way forward. It would mean central government deciding what is best for care leavers in their local area, rather than the local authorities and care leavers themselves. A set of minimum standards could serve to limit innovation and creativity, rather than to drive the improvements that we all want to see. We have already seen innovation and creativity in the best local authorities with a strong corporate parenting ethos and a care leaver local offer in place, such as North Somerset, Southwark and Trafford.
Turning to the specific duty proposed in Amendment 10, I reassure noble Lords that local authorities are already responsible for providing suitable accommodation to all care leavers aged 16 to 17. “Suitable” is defined in statutory guidance, which makes it clear that bed-and-breakfast accommodation is not a suitable option and must be used only in exceptional circumstances and for no more than two working days.
When care leavers reach the age of 18, local authority care teams are responsible for helping them to access suitable accommodation. The latest data for the year ending March 2016 show that only 7% of care leavers aged between 19 and 21 were in accommodation deemed unsuitable.
There are a range of accommodation options for care leavers aged 18 or above. As we have already discussed, we introduced “staying put”. As I am sure the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, who is not in his place, would be pleased to hear, the latest data show that 54% of 18 year-olds who were eligible to stay put chose to do so. Data also show that 30% of 19 year-olds and 16% of 20 year-olds were still living with their former foster carers.
I am also pleased to say that, since we last debated this issue, we have committed to introduce “staying close”, which we have already discussed. We will pilot different models of “staying close” to better understand what works and how much it will cost. We will announce further details in the coming months. In addition to “staying put” and “staying close”, there are a range of other semi-independent accommodation options for care leavers which provide a stepping stone to independent living.
We would expect local authority leaving care teams to work closely with housing services to help care leavers to access accommodation that is right for them. The Government are funding the homeless charity St Basils to work with local authorities to improve joint working between children’s services and housing services and to help them develop accommodation pathways for care leavers. Care leaving teams should also support care leavers to understand the housing options available and prepare them for living independently as part of the pathway planning process.
Where care leavers do struggle to find and maintain accommodation, they have a priority need within the homelessness legislation until the age of 22, and they are also a priority group in statutory guidance on the allocation of social housing.
In light of the points I have made, I hope the noble Lord will feel reassured enough to withdraw the amendment.
My Lords, first, I hope and suspect that my eyebrows were not the only ones to raise when the Minister said that it was not for the Government to set in statute what local authorities should be doing. It has been the pattern in recent years for Government to say what local authorities should not be doing. Housing and education were increasingly taken away from them; then planning was taken away; and social work services will to some extent be taken away if Clause 29 of the Bill becomes law. I suspect some in local authorities would be quite pleased to have the Minister standing up for them, but I am not being entirely serious, because I am suggesting that the Government should go beyond the minimum. The Minister says that there is a minimum, but the Bill does not say what that should be. Without that being set out, what is a minimum? We could be here until a week on Tuesday discussing what that is, so that is not a suitable answer. I am not asking the Government to tell all local authorities what they should do but I am asking them to set the minimum, because some local authorities clearly do not meet that minimum. We heard from the noble Lord, Lord Warner, a man whose experience is vast, of the inconsistences that already exist. I cannot believe that the Minister would regard that as acceptable—indeed, I know he would not. If it is not acceptable, we need to do something about it. That is why this amendment has been framed.
The Minister said a few moments ago that the local offer must aim to support independent living. Well, the most basic part of independent living is accommodation. While I accept what the Minister says about various agencies supporting accommodation, the most basic right anyone needs to build a sustainable life is accommodation of their own, rented or owned. Without that, I do not see how anybody can be expected to make their way in life successfully for very long. So the Government’s response is disappointing and—dare I say—a bit complacent. The situation that the Minister outlines is not that found on the ground by local authorities or by many of the organisations working in the field. I regret that the Minister has not been willing to go further, but I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 10 withdrawn.
Clause 2: Local offer for care leavers
My Lords, I rise to speak to Amendment 11, tabled in my name and those of my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern and the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler. To begin with, I must confess that I was not giving the Minister my full attention when he referred to this amendment earlier in speaking to Amendments 2 and 9. However, I think I heard encouraging words, so I will be speaking with an optimistic heart.
As I said in Committee about an identical amendment, including the word “relationships” would remedy an omission in the list of the areas of support that councils are required to include in their local offer. It stipulates that information and services to help young people develop and maintain healthy and supportive relationships should be available alongside the other five areas of health and wellbeing, education and training, employment, accommodation, and participation in society. I explained then how, when children and young people are taken into the care of the local authority, first and foremost these circumstances typically create a relationship problem. There are profound long-term effects of losing parental attachments and bonds with siblings and others in the extended family. Ministerial architects of the Bill had the best of intentions in this area but the wording acknowledges relationships only scantily and, as a consequence, ineffectively—as I hope to show here today. If the goal is to change the culture in local authorities so that relationships become of central importance, as the Government intend, legislation has to provide a stronger lead.
Clause 1 provides seven corporate parenting principles, including that children should have stability in their home lives and relationships. The local offer provided for in Clause 2 will, according to the note for Peers we received at the recent meeting with the Minister, be one of the main ways in which the corporate parenting principles are brought to life in relation to care leavers.
However, the draft local offer that was recently circulated to Peers was devoid of any reference to relationships, so how can this document claim to bring to life the corporate parenting principle about relationship stability? Yet this omission could have been anticipated, given that Clause 2, which guided the guidance, as it were, did not specify that information on relationships would form part of the service offering, hence this amendment.
The draft statutory guidance for applying corporate parenting principles for care and pathway planning does mention, on page 19, the need for looked-after children and care leavers to build resilience by forging strong relationships if they are to thrive. It goes on to say that this will mean local authorities having regard to the need to maintain, as far as possible, consistency in the home environment, relationships with carers and professionals and school placement. It then goes on to make important points about stability of housing tenure and provide good practice examples of financial and practical help.
However, there is nothing in either the guidance or the local offer about how to maintain stable relationships, and nothing about helping young people to form networks of supportive relationships beyond those with paid professionals and those formally designated as carers.
We withdrew this amendment earlier after reassurances from the Government that,
“the whole thrust of what we seek to achieve through the Bill is the reinforcement of the importance of relationships and helping children and young people to recover from their pre-care experiences to make a successful transition to independence. The importance of relationships is central to the corporate parenting principles … We will publish guidance for local authorities and I would fully expect it to say that they should include in their offers information
So the Government understand that care leavers need not just continuity of care, but support networks and relationship education.
Support networks do not just spring up but typically need the encouragement and facilitation of adults. In Committee I mentioned family finding projects, such as those taking place in Orange County in California. Family finding is an intensive search method to find family members and other adults who would like to step in and care for children and young people in, or about to leave, foster care who lack permanent relationships. The goal is to locate long-term, caring, permanent connections and relationships for them and to establish a long-term emotional support network with family members and other adults. They may not be able to take the child into their home but still want to stay connected with them and to journey with them through life. In Orange County, 97% of the young people who took part increased family contact, and 89% have lifelong connections. Edinburgh City Council has already adopted this approach. Encouragingly, in Grand Committee the Government stated their interest in this approach for their care leavers strategy, which the Family Rights Group is now testing in a number of local authorities.
Yet however many family members and caring adults we try to cluster around young people, these connections will be insufficiently sticky if young people are pre-programmed to reject the relationships that are on offer because of past experiences, or have no understanding of what a good relationship looks like. This is where relationship education comes in. It can be delivered informally when a young person finds it very hard to maintain a relationship with a key figure in their life. They mention it, say, to their personal adviser, and that person purposefully helps them to navigate through difficulties or misunderstandings in exactly the same way that a loving parent would. I am sure this already happens but it needs to be an important part of every personal adviser’s job description and skill set. Alternatively, it can be more formally delivered through the work of services like Love for Life, which is part of TwentyTwenty, the award-winning mentoring organisation with which the Government have contracted to work in the recently announced Derby social mobility hub. The ethos running through this and many other third sector organisations is that the skills to build good relationships can be taught and caught.
I have met the Minister, Edward Timpson, and am in no doubt that he is alive to the importance of relationships, but the Bill simply does not yet reflect how quintessential they are, as stated by the Government. Instead of trying to get this in the Bill, I could be arguing for better recognition in the draft guidance, the draft local offer and the forthcoming care leavers strategy. However, it is not a question of either/or; it is both/and. It could sensibly be surmised that the Government overlooked the need to make explicit reference to relationships in their draft local offer, despite what they say about its importance to the corporate parenting principles, because it was not included in the legally binding list provided in Clause 2. This suggests that it would be to all too easy for local authorities to do the same, thereby undermining the opportunity presented by the local offer to drive much-needed cultural change in this area. I beg to move.
My Lords, I support Amendment 11, to which my name is attached, as it was in Committee. To reiterate what I said then, and despite the very good debate we have already had today on Amendment 2, the Bill itself is currently almost devoid of references to relationships; indeed, you might almost say it is a bit of a relationship-free zone. That is ironic when what we are all trying to do here is improve the lot of the very vulnerable children and young people who most need love, warmth, emotional security and human empathy to help them on their journey through life, given their very troubled start. It is a statement of the blindingly obvious that good relationships are utterly indispensable to that end.
The noble Lord, Lord Farmer, who is such a passionate advocate in this field, has already referred to the need for a change in the culture of many local authorities so that they also make promoting relationships central to their work. I know that there are some very good examples of good practice here, but I want to talk very briefly about what cultural change requires and why it is important. It could be assumed that good-quality relationships, particularly the support of peers and adults who are not paid to take an interest, are somehow nice to have but out of the reach of many young people in, or coming into, the care system. If so, that assumption will shape a local authority’s response. It will focus almost exclusively on ensuring that a young person has the material, financial and practical support that they need in the absence of the family ties through which these things typically come. It will also put a greater load on the social worker and personal adviser role.
If, however, the assumption is that the local authority can and must ensure that a young person leaves care with what you might call the emotional ballast that a supportive network provides, practice will look very different. So changing the language and constantly reiterating the more relational emphasis that I know the Government want to promote will help change those assumptions and the culture, which is why the amendment is so important. It is also why the Bill needs to be explicit about local authorities’ responsibilities to help young people build and maintain relationships with people who are genuinely interested in them as individuals. For example, maintaining ties with family members such as siblings or grandparents is a really important example here because, even if that young person has had to be removed from their family, those bonds still exist and they cannot and should not be severed lightly. As the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, said, we know that in their early days many of these young people whom we are so concerned about have, sadly, not had role models of good relationships in the home.
I heard the encouraging words that the Minister said earlier on. He sounded very sympathetic to this amendment, so I am very much looking forward to his response.
My Lords, perhaps I may speak briefly in support of the amendment. Earlier we debated my Amendment 2, and I indicated this morning to the Minister that I would not be seeking to move it. I must say that, listening to the debate in the Chamber, I was almost tempted to change my mind. The amendment was brought to my attention fairly late, which is why I was reluctant to push it as hard as I might. This is an excellent amendment, if I may say so. I understand that the Minister is going to give a very sympathetic response. I hope he can go as far as possible towards enshrining this in statute. I look forward to his response.
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Farmer and the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, for the amendment. It seeks to add services relating to relationships to the services that local authorities may offer as part of their local offer. I understand the intention behind the amendment, and I agree that high-quality and consistently supportive relationships are critical to supporting care leavers into successful independent lives. I believe that the key to getting these relationships right is down to how the services are delivered, with individual professionals, volunteers and personal advisers building a strong and positive rapport with young people. I was very interested to hear what my noble friend Lord Farmer had to say about Orange County. It is an area I know well because in a past life I used to travel there regularly on business. I know that it is a very forward-thinking part of the world.
This is an important issue and I am certainly very sympathetic to the points that have been made. I am therefore very happy to take them away and consider further in detail whether an amendment to the Bill along these lines is the best way of securing further progress in this area. I hope that, in view of this, the noble Lord and the noble Baroness will feel reassured enough to withdraw the amendment.
Moved by The Earl of Listowel
13: After Clause 2, insert the following new Clause—“National offer for care leavers(1) The Universal Credit Regulations 2013 are amended as follows.(2) In regulation 102(2) —(a) in paragraph (a) after “18 or over” insert “and paragraph (b) does not apply”; (b) in paragraph (b) after “16 or 17” insert “or is a care leaver within the meaning given by section 2 of the Children and Social Work Act 2016 and is under the age of 25”.(3) In regulation 103(2) —(a) in paragraph (a) after “18 or over” insert “and paragraph (b) does not apply”;(b) in paragraph (b) after “16 or 17” insert “or is a care leaver within the meaning given by section 2 of the Children and Social Work Act 2016 and is under the age of 25”.(4) In regulation 104(2) after “18 or over” insert “and section (3) does not apply”.(5) In regulation 104(3) after “16 or 17” insert “or is a care leaver within the meaning given by section 2 of the Children and Social Work Act 2016 and is under the age of 25”.(6) The Working Tax Credit (Entitlement and Maximum Rate) Regulations 2002 are amended as follows.(7) In regulation 4(1), Second Condition, after paragraph (b) insert—“(c) is aged at least 18 and is a care leaver within the meaning given by section 2 of the Children and Social Work Act 2016, and is under the age of 25, and undertakes not less than 30 hours work per week.”(8) The Housing Benefit Regulations 2009 are amended as follows.(9) In regulation 2, in the definition of “young individual”, in each of paragraphs (b), (c), (d), (e) and (f), for “22 years” substitute “25 years”.(10) The Local Government Finance Act 1992 is amended as follows.(11) In section 6(4) (persons liable to pay council tax), after “etc)” insert “or 10A (care leavers)”.(12) In Schedule 1 (persons disregarded for purposes of discount), after paragraph 10 insert—“Care leavers10A A person shall be disregarded for the purposes of discount on a particular day if on the day the person is—(a) a care leaver within the meaning given by section 2 of the Children and Social Work Act 2016; and(b) under the age of 25.”(13) The Council Tax (Exempt Dwellings) Order 1992 is amended as follows.(14) In Article 3, Class N, after paragraph 1(b) insert—“(c) occupied only by one or more care leavers within the meaning given by section 2 of the Children and Social Work Act 2016 who are under the age of 25.””(15) The Secretary of State may by regulations made by statutory instrument make additions to the national offer for care leavers beyond those elements prescribed in the Income Support (General) Regulations 1987, the Working Tax Credit (Entitlement and Maximum Rate) Regulations, the Housing Benefit Regulations, the Local Government Finance Act, and the Council Tax (Exempt Dwellings) Order.(16) A statutory instrument containing regulations under this section may not be made unless a draft of the instrument has been laid before, and approved by a resolution of, each House of Parliament.”
My Lords, Amendment 13 relates to the national offer for care leavers. I am grateful for the support of the Labour and Liberal Democrat Front Benches for this amendment. Recently I heard from Ashley, an 18 year-old in a Staying Put placement who has experienced at least six different foster placements during her time in care.
As I speak, I am thinking about a colleague from a charity board who recently described to me her early experience. Her mother was a crack addict who told her children both that she valued drugs more than them and that if they did not visit her regularly, she would take her own life. My colleague is extremely bright and hard-working and made it to university—one of the 6% of care leavers who do so. There, she had many black days, but she was supported by her flatmates, she completed her degree and, in August of this year, was married to a kind man—an accountant. So many care leavers do not experience that success. Without a family to call on, they might quickly find themselves alone and in debt, perhaps destitute. Our ambition must be to furnish care leavers with the necessary skills and training to allow them to excel and achieve their full potential, as we would wish for our own children.
However, financial security—the bedrock of being able to do these things—is so often difficult for them. Jack, a care leaver who attended a meeting organised by the Children’s Society last week, subsequently told me that, “The national offer would provide stability to care leavers, with protection from the darker side of financial troubles. It means we could focus on our education, employment or training and not on the stress of how we are going to pay for this or that, or whether to buy a bus pass or food shopping that week”.
I welcome the steps that the Government have taken to better support care leavers: allowing them to stay put with their foster carers until the age of 21; the Ofsted inspection of care leavers services; the Government’s care leavers strategy; and the new rights under the Bill. However, we all know that we need to do more. The Bill makes a local offer, which is very welcome, but in their role as corporate parent, the national Government need also to provide a robust offer for care leavers, with a particular focus on financial support. If the Government are serious about building a country that works for all and improves the lives of those who are just managing to keep their heads above water, they must ensure that a package of improved support for care leavers is central to that commitment. It is certainly not for this House to decide on financial matters. However, as this Bill begins with your Lordships, we can give the other place an opportunity to discuss matters that are vital to the welfare of care leavers.
This amendment has four parts. The first provides for a reduction in the penalties attached to sanctions targeted at care leavers under the age of 25. The second would provide working tax credit for care leavers under 25, and the third would extend the current exemption from the shared accommodation rate for housing benefit for care leavers from 22 to 24. Finally, the amendment would provide an exemption from council tax for care leavers under 25.
Research from the Children’s Society shows that currently, care leavers are three times more likely to receive a sanction than other young claimants, yet are much less likely to challenge these sanctions, perhaps due to the lack of a pushy parent. When they do appeal, however, two-thirds of these sanctions are overturned. This amendment would soften the sanctions on care leavers under the new universal credit system, in recognition of the additional complexities in their lives—meaning that the maximum sanction would apply for four weeks, as opposed to the existing four to 13 weeks for a first-time infraction. The cost of this measure is effectively nil, as sanctioning is a form of punishment, not a revenue generator for the Treasury.
The noble Lord, Lord Freud, has made an eloquent case for the mental health benefits of employment—but, to be a viable option for care leavers, work must pay. For this reason, our amendment would allow for care leavers under the age of 25 to claim working tax credit—a crucial form of support already paid to those over the age of 25 and to those under that age if they have children or disability. I recognise that working tax credit is soon to be phased out, but, under the new universal credit arrangements, under-25s will still be penalised, so it would be a very important flag to ensure that universal credit will also recognise the needs of this particular group.
For care leavers, a job can mean the end of isolation, as well as the beginning of independence; yet care leavers are heavily overrepresented among young people who are not in employment, education or training. Perhaps the existing assumption behind the working tax credit age limit is that low-income young people will be living at home with their family. This assumption clearly does not apply to care leavers, and they should therefore be able to benefit from this extra help if on a low income.
Thirdly, our amendment would ensure that no care leaver would pay council tax up to the age of 25. Already, six local authorities have suspended this charge for care leavers. Where they are liable for council tax, most care leavers already receive heavy discounts—but still, many struggle to cover this. Despite these changes, we still have the nonsense of corporate parents sending around the bailiffs or taking their own children—or children for whom they have a corporate responsibility—to court to pursue small amounts of money, which might cost more than the money recovered. I am encouraged that, in their latest strategy, the Government have asked local authorities to consider a council tax exemption for care leavers. However, I am sure that noble Lords would agree that the sensible thing to do is to mandate that all local authorities do this, as they do already for those in higher education.
Finally, our amendment would disapply the shared accommodation rate for care leavers until the age of 25. Currently, when a care leaver turns 22, if they are living in privately rented accommodation, their housing benefit is often reduced to that sufficient to rent for a room in shared accommodation, rather than a self-contained property. For many care leavers, their first home might be the first stable home they have ever had. Faced with reduced housing benefit, they might experience dislocation and, possibly, homelessness. We know that approximately 25% of the homeless population have been in the care of a local authority and are therefore care leavers. It cannot be right that, when almost half of all 20 to 24 year-olds still live at home with their parents, we put care leavers in a position where they could see a typical £31 a week cut to their housing benefit at the age of 22.
The cost of our amendment is estimated at around £50 million a year. The aim of the Bill is to extend provision of some key forms of support for care leavers until the age of 25. The logic behind the national offer is to extend the financial support that a care leaver can expect to receive up to that age. The cost of not introducing this amendment is far higher than the cost of its introduction. I beg your Lordships to allow the other place the opportunity to consider this national offer for care leavers. I beg to move.
My Lords, I have added my name in support of this amendment. I pay tribute to the work done by the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, and by the Children’s Society, to which he referred. Many noble Lords have benefited from the briefing provided by that organisation and it is a matter that it cares very deeply about. We in your Lordships’ House should also care deeply about it.
In July, the Government launched Keep on Caring, a strategy for cross-government provision. That was certainly welcome, not least because it contained the proposal to introduce a care-leaver covenant. The Government have characterised this as complementing the local offer that local authorities will be required to provide. However, it did not meet what we, and several organisations involved day-to-day in the delivery of social services to children, see as the need for a national offer delivered locally. I referred to this on the previous group of amendments. We believe that the national offer is necessary because of the patchwork provision that will be made by local authorities, so I would like to reinforce the arguments that I made on the earlier group.
I will not repeat the details of the national offer that the noble Earl outlined, but I want to refer to one or two aspects of it. There are four points, and the Minister, perhaps slightly unusually, replied to all four in a letter to the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, before the debate. The noble Earl has kindly circulated that letter, and it is helpful for us to know what the Government’s position is. It is not exactly positive. None the less, it is helpful to have it outlined.
The most important provision that the noble Earl mentioned is the council tax exemption for care leavers until the age of 25. Some local authorities have already begun to offer that, as the Minister mentioned in his letter, where he states:
“We believe this will encourage other local authorities to follow suit”.
That is all very well, but I am clear that the reason that the Government are unwilling to have a national offer which would oblige all local authorities to follow suit in this and other aspects of the offer is cost. If the Government were to do that, they would have to tell local authorities that they understand that there are additional costs—the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, mentioned £50 million a year, which is not a great deal in the grander scheme of things—but I suspect that they are not willing to make that commitment because they do not want to find the money. They are saying to local authorities: “We have given you money. We do not tend to ring-fence much these days. If you want to make council tax exemptions, that is up to you: go ahead and do it”, so it is encouraged, but without any additional resources. Of course, if it is paid for out of local authority resources, something else has to fall by the wayside, so it could be one step forward and one step back for people in that local authority area.
I would like some detail about what North Somerset, Birmingham and Cheshire East have done and how they have accommodated that within their existing spend. That is an important point, because, as the Children’s Society said:
“Almost half of local authorities in England fail to offer care leavers financial education support and debt advice”, leaving vulnerable young people at risk of falling into debt as they enter adult life. Everyone wants to avoid young people being hampered in that start. I had not heard of the noble Earl’s example before, but we certainly do not want the corporate parents sanctioning the young people for whom they have legal responsibility.
I also highlight the importance of allowing care leavers to claim the higher rate of local housing allowance, because of the punitive financial effect that occurs when people reach the age of 22, when they switch from the local housing allowance single occupancy rate to the shared accommodation rate. That is effectively about £33 a week in subsidy for rent, which is a large amount for many people living on the borderline and cannot be pushed aside lightly.
Those two aspects, and the other two to which the noble Earl referred, which I shall not repeat, make the point eloquently. We need a national offer because we cannot rely on local authorities to have either the willpower or the spending power to do what they should for young people leaving care. With that in mind, I am happy to support the amendment and look forward to the contributions of other noble Lords and the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I support the amendment, to which I have added my name, and am grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, for moving it. It covers a great deal of important ground. As I said earlier, I attended the briefing by the Children’s Society last week, where some of the statistics provided were compelling. I agree with much of what has already been said and will have to amend my speech as I go along.
Often, care leavers moving into independent accommodation are managing their money for the first time. They find this very challenging due to the lack of financial education prior to reaching the age of 18. They have very low levels of income and often fall into debt.
As we have heard, working tax credits are not available to care leavers at a time when they have full responsibility for running a household for the first time. Some will have apprenticeships, but the apprenticeship rate is £3.40 an hour—no doubt based on the assumption that young people in apprenticeships live with their parents. This is hardly likely to keep care leavers out of debt.
A study undertaken by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation shows that, as the noble Lord, Lord Watson, said, 57% of care leavers have difficulty managing their money, and almost half of local authorities in England fail to offer adequate financial education for care leavers. We have already heard about the exceptionally high number of care leavers being sanctioned under universal credit.
The amendment proposes a national offer of a range of support for care leavers to help them towards the age of 25. Some will not necessarily need that support for that long, but others will take time to get to grips with their responsibilities and budgetary control of limited resources. Council tax exemption until age 25 appears an easy way to assist. As we have heard, very few local authorities exempt care leavers from council tax. However, 1,800 young people are currently exempt from council tax where local authorities have recognised that additional help is needed for this vulnerable section of our community. The costs are not great to individual authorities. Cheshire East Council estimates that it costs it £17,000 per annum in total—a small cost compared to the relief it brings to young people struggling to get to grips with living independently.
The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, said that he had heard from Jack, and so did I. Jack is now a care leaver in his early 20s who was in care from four to 18. Jack felt that lots of money was thrown at looked-after children on activities—in his case, frequent trips to Alton Towers, clothing allowance and pocket money. He felt that that was far more money than a normal family could afford for their children. As a mother, I echo that. I could not afford to take my children on frequent trips to Alton Towers, although they would very much have liked that. He said that it cost more to keep him in care than to send him to Eton. When he left care, however, he did not even have enough money for the bus or heating. Jack’s view, which I thought was very practical, was that his activity money would have been better used after he was 17 to fund driving lessons.
I share Jack’s view that some of the money currently spent on looked-after children could be used to much better effect. I am conscious that we in this House may not impose additional financial burdens on the Government, but the Bill is starting here. We must find ways to support these young people who, as care leavers, are disproportionately represented in our prison and probation services. Reprofiling the money currently spent might be one way to achieve the aims of the amendment.
I support the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, in his amendment, and we on this side of the House are prepared to support him in a Division on this critical issue if necessary.
My Lords, I add my strong support for the amendment, which was moved by the noble Earl with a mastery of succinctness and clarity across the issues he covered, backed up by the other noble Lords who spoke. There are powerful arguments for the amendment.
We have just been talking about the importance of relationship education and support. That is exactly what care leavers typically do not have—by definition, if you like. Think of the degree of support that your Lordships have had to give to your children at the age of 19 to 24 and beyond. I see some smiles on your Lordships’ faces, and I could smile myself and put a price tag on it. It does not exactly run into millions of pounds, but it feels like it.
Giving a bit of extra help to those at that stage in their lives has a great deal to be said for it. Even if it cannot be given in all four areas set out by the Children’s Society in its briefing, some, at least, should be considered very carefully—I add that it is a Church of England society. I think the work it has done here is a model of professionalism. My right reverend friend the Bishop of Durham spoke to this on Second Reading, but he cannot be here today and I am happy to pick up the baton from him.
We are dealing with a group of people who typically have very little support—support we almost assume that our own children need at that age—and is often not there, so we must help with anything we can do. Earlier, I heard the Minister say that the danger with having a minimum or national standard is that it would interfere with what is provided locally. It is not either/or; it is both/and, surely. I did hear somebody on the television just a few days ago saying there is an important role for the state. I agree with the Prime Minister on this, and I think that there is a role here for national standards and encouragement.
Wonder of wonders, Cheshire East has been mentioned. It is a Conservative-run authority, blazing a trail, but should we leave it to a postcode lottery so that some authorities do this and some do not? That is very discouraging if you see it in those terms. While this is led by local authorities and a local offer, it does seem to me there is a strong reason for having a certain degree of national offer and national minimum standards. I think that is the spirit behind this amendment, and I strongly support it.
My Lords, I support the amendment. However, I would like to put a very specific question to the Minister to which I would welcome a reply. The Minister will recall that, when you stand at the Dispatch Box, you speak for the Government, not just your department. When this Bill began, there was another Government he was speaking for, but he is now speaking for a new Government. That new Government have expressed great concern about helping those who are just getting by. This group of people are barely getting by and in some cases are not getting by. What this amendment does is provide a proposition which this Government—not the previous Government—need to consider. Can the Minister say whether this issue has been put to the new Ministers in the Department for Work and Pensions and DCLG? It would be very helpful to know whether this Government have considered this issue at a ministerial level and what their view is.
My Lords, what I would like to say follows on very well from the noble Lord’s very pertinent question. I am happy to support this amendment, which was moved so ably by the noble Earl, Lord Listowel.
“The prospects for young people leaving local authority care should be an overarching priority for government. Despite positive policy and legal developments, they continue to face unacceptably high risks of destitution and poverty”.
Destitution in 21st-century Britain for an extremely vulnerable group of young people really is unacceptable. As the noble Lord said, they are not getting by. In many circumstances, it is simply not possible for them to get by.
This amendment addresses some of the key policy drivers behind these very serious risks. The Government are rightly requiring local authorities to promote the best interests of care leavers up to the age of 25, yet their own policies fail to do so. I can see no justification for what surely must constitute double standards. There is a degree of acknowledgement of the arguments put earlier during the process of the Bill and of this case in Keep on Caring, which is very welcome, but I urge the Minister to go further today.
As already noted, no doubt cost will be cited. However, the costs are not prohibitive. Also, this needs to be considered in the context of another Joseph Rowntree Foundation report regarding the costs of poverty. It calculated that around two-thirds of total local authority expenditure on children’s services is attributable to poverty-related problems.
At earlier stages of this Bill, I quoted yet another Joseph Rowntree Foundation report, which looked at the links between poverty and the abuse and neglect of children. I quoted that report, which said:
“Poverty often slides out of focus in policy and practice”.
This amendment puts poverty back into focus and it addresses the severe poverty experienced by many extremely vulnerable care leaders.
My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords for this amendment and their contributions to this debate. The amendment would introduce a new clause setting out a national offer for care leavers. The national offer would first comprise an exemption from council tax until care leavers reach the age of 25. Secondly, it would extend care leavers’ exemption from the shared accommodation rate in housing benefit to the age of 25. Thirdly, it would amend the eligibility rules so that care leavers aged under 25 are able to claim working tax credits. Fourthly, it would limit the application of benefit sanctions to care leavers under universal credit. I understand the intention behind this amendment and I agree that it is important that care leavers have the financial support they need to lead independent, successful lives. However, I am not convinced that this amendment is the best way to provide that financial support. I will deal with these issues in turn.
We believe that local authorities are best placed to make decisions about council tax support schemes. Instead of mandating exemptions from the centre, we have provided local authorities with the flexibility to design their own support schemes to meet local need. This is about giving local freedom so that resources can be spent in the best way. We do not want to give blanket exemptions or discounts because of the impact this will have on local authority revenues and other council tax payers who may equally struggle to pay the tax. The latest briefing from the Children’s Society shows that more local authorities are deciding to exempt care leavers from paying council tax. North Somerset, Birmingham, Wolverhampton, Cheshire East and Milton Keynes have all introduced council tax exemptions in the last few months. We expect that the local offer will drive more local authorities to follow suit.
Equally, however, local authorities may decide that it is more appropriate to provide care leavers with other forms of financial support. Some local authorities, for example, provide care leavers with free travel passes or with help to buy clothes for interviews. These are all clear examples of local authorities taking their role as corporate parents seriously.
I recognise the intention behind extending care leavers’ exemption from the shared accommodation rate until the age of 25. As the noble Earl will be aware, discretionary housing payments continue to be available by local authorities which provide support for those individuals who need additional financial help with housing costs. The Government have already committed £870 million in discretionary housing payment funding over the next five years. Your Lordships will appreciate that that is a significant amount of money to help those who are vulnerable and who require additional help with housing costs. However, we have made a commitment in the care leaver strategy to work with the Department for Work and Pensions to explore the costs and benefits of an extension to age 25, as proposed in the amendment. We do not currently have data that tell us how many care leavers would be affected by this change and therefore I do not believe that it would be appropriate to make a change to the law until this issue has been reviewed further. As part of that, we have asked the Children’s Society to provide some real-life case studies to illustrate the impact of moving to the shared accommodation rate.
With regard to amending eligibility rules so that care leavers aged under 25 are able to claim working tax credit, noble Lords may be aware that universal credit will replace the current system of means-tested working-age benefits with a new, simple, streamlined payment. Under the new arrangements, the requirement for workers to be aged 25 or over to be entitled to claim the working tax credit element of universal credit will not apply.
The noble Earl said that care leavers under 25 will still be disadvantaged when universal credit is introduced. That is not consistent with the information provided by the DWP, which has been clear that age-related conditions will not be applied to universal credit. I would be happy to meet the noble Earl to discuss this point further.
Additionally, as part of the national rollout for universal credit, the Department for Work and Pensions will ensure that care leavers are able to make a claim to universal credit in advance of leaving care. They will also have access to universal credit advances where they need help to manage until they receive their first payment.
We recognise the impact that benefit sanctions can have on care leavers’ lives and we share noble Lords’ wish for sanctions on care leavers to be reduced. Jobcentre Plus has introduced a marker that allows care leavers to be identified on the system and receive additional help. We want to ensure that as many care leavers as possible benefit from the support that is available. We do not think it is in care leavers’ interests to remove them entirely from the requirements expected of other jobseekers. However, we already have the flexibility to tailor requirements based on the circumstances of each individual.
The purpose of sanctions is to encourage claimants to comply with reasonable requirements, developed in agreement with their job coach, so as to help them move into and prepare for work. Reducing sanctions on care leavers is therefore best achieved through closer working between local authority leaving care teams and work coaches at Jobcentre Plus. There are many examples of effective local protocols that can help care leavers to understand the conditions around the receipt of benefits. These include the Barnet hub model, which we promoted in our care leaver strategy published in July. I believe, however, that such protocols are best designed locally.
I understand what noble Lords are trying to achieve through Amendment 13. I agree that it is vital that care leavers have the financial resources and support that they need. However, I think that we need to balance this with making sure that we do not unintentionally lower our aspirations for care leavers. Although noble Lords are right to say that care leavers are vulnerable groups, I believe that we would do them a disservice if we did not encourage them into work, as we do with other young people. The real key to helping care leavers is to promote their life chances by supporting them in accessing and staying in education, employment or training in the way that Jobcentre Plus already does, or through the 2nd Chance learning scheme or priority access to the Work Programme. More help and support will be available to care leavers through the new youth obligation scheme and expanded universal support.
I met the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, earlier today, which helped greatly in clarifying and understanding his issues of concern regarding benefit sanctions. I would like to meet him again to discuss his concerns about this further but, before doing so, I will speak to Ministers to see whether there is scope to apply a less stringent sanctions regime for care leavers.
I would also like to draw attention to the care leaver covenant, which will provide a way for government at the national level to make a commitment to support care leavers. Central government departments will be able to set out and update their distinct offer to care leavers. I believe that this will be the most appropriate way to clarify the role of central government departments in supporting care leavers, rather than setting out a “national offer” in legislation. We will announce more details about how departments can sign up to the covenant in the new year.
The noble Lord, Lord Warner, asked about the new Government’s intentions. Noble Lords will be aware that, as part of the Keep on Caring strategy, we are considering our care leavers strategy and how to ensure that care leavers have the financial support they need. I remind noble Lords that this is a programme for the whole Parliament and we will continue to consider these issues. In addition, as the noble Lord will be aware, our new Secretary of State is prioritising social mobility, and she has recognised that improving the outcomes of care leavers is an important part of that agenda.
Finally, many noble Lords have talked about Jack’s experiences while in care. My officials have also heard from Jack and have organised some work experience for him in the department. We continue to talk to him and to listen to his experiences.
In the light of the points I have made, I hope that the noble Earl will feel reassured enough to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply and I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate: the noble Lord, Lord Watson, the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester and other noble Lords. I appreciate their contributions.
I am grateful to the Minister for his interest, his sympathy and his offer of a meeting, particularly to discuss sanctions. However, I am most concerned that this amendment may be lost if not agreed today.
Listening to the debate, I particularly thought of the recent report from CoramBAAF which looked at the rates of teenage pregnancy among young women in care and leaving care. It pointed out that they are three times more likely to become pregnant and that, when they do, they are more likely to keep the child because they are looking for someone to love them. They want to give birth to and hold on to the child and have the love of the child. In this case we may often be talking about young families coming out of care as well.
We have to do more to break the cycle of young people leaving care and so often falling into debt and financial hardship, not being able to make the most of the opportunities that the worlds of training and work have to offer. This is fundamentally about fairness and pulling out all the stops to help care leavers achieve their full potential.
Before I conclude, I want to say how glad I am to hear that the Minister has found a work placement for Jack. I look forward to hearing how that develops. However, I am afraid that I must beg leave to ask the opinion of the House.
Ayes 179, Noes 188.
My Lords, I will speak first to Amendments 14, 15, 16 and 18.
In Committee, I was pleased at the support Clause 3 received and to see that the importance of making available the support of a personal adviser to all care leavers was widely recognised. In most family situations support tapers away as children and young people get older and gain more independence. The support we provide for 16 and 17 year-old care leavers clearly needs to be greater than it would be for the majority of 21 to 25 year-olds, and the legislation should follow that approach.
At the same time, we know there are some care leavers whose lives remain chaotic during their early 20s and who need quite intense support to bring stability to their lives, and others who will need support on specific things at specific times—for example, on release from prison, if they have a child, or if they lose a tenancy. In Committee, we spent some time considering whether making a personal adviser available on request was adequate to meet the needs of these young people, and whether if support were once declined there would be subsequent access to it. We recognise that no care leaver should feel that they cannot receive support between the ages of 21 and 25 because they had perhaps indicated at an earlier stage that it was not needed. In light of that, I am proposing amendments to Clause 3(7) to expressly clarify that local authorities must proactively offer support to every care leaver at least every 12 months. I trust noble Lords will welcome these amendments.
My Lords, I rise to move Amendments 17 and 19. The purpose of Amendment 17 is both to ask to ask the Minister to clarify the intention behind subsection 3(b) of new Section 23CZB and to highlight a potential loophole which could risk local authorities opting out of their duties to former relevant children. It would appear that the intention behind that subsection is to enable a local authority to cancel the appointment of a personal adviser if at any time a former relevant child says that they no longer want one. However, the wording of the subsection is ambiguous. The phrase “if earlier” leaves open the possibility that a local authority might interpret it in a way that would enable it to refuse advice and support to a former relevant child who had previously said that they did not want a personal adviser but at a later stage requested advice and support. This opens another possible loophole of local authorities requesting that former relevant children sign a form on leaving care at 18 to say that they no longer need support. Would the Minister therefore be kind enough to clarify the Government’s intention and resolve any possible ambiguity in the wording of the legislation?
My Amendment 19 is made completely unnecessary by government Amendment 18, and so I propose not to press it.
As I understand it, the noble Lord is asking us to clarify that when we say that care leavers will have the right to this every year, they will have the right to it every year and there is no way that local authorities can get out of it. That is our intention, and if it is not clear in the legislation then we will change it. I think I can give the noble Lord the assurance he needs: we do not think there should be any way that local authorities should invite an 18 year-old to contract out of this right.
I do not wish to prolong this, but it is practitioners who have raised this question with me because they are unclear. Although young people have the right every year, it is an opportunity basis that they are considering.
I am sure that we can clarify this. I myself felt that the idea someone would have a one-off chance was not a good one. Therefore, as I said, the intention is that they will get a regular chance—at least every year—to change their mind if they have previously said no. I do not think we should allow any way for anybody to get out of that. I am happy to talk to the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, outside the Chamber to clarify that. I am sure that we can resolve this.
Moved by Lord Nash
15: Clause 3, page 4, line 5, leave out “requests” and insert “informs the local authority that he or she wishes to receive”
16: Clause 3, page 4, line 6, leave out “following duties” and insert “duties provided for in subsections (3) to (6)”
Amendments 15 and 16 agreed.
Amendment 17 not moved.
Moved by Lord Nash
18: Clause 3, page 4, leave out lines 26 to 30 and insert—“(7) Where a former relevant child to whom this section applies is not receiving advice and support under this section, the local authority must offer such advice and support—(a) as soon as possible after he or she reaches the age of 21, and(b) at least once in every 12 months.”
Amendment 18 agreed.
Clause 4: Duty of local authority in relation to previously looked after children
My Lords, in Committee we promised the noble Lord, Lord Watson, that we would consider his amendment at Grand Committee to ensure that the current drafting of Clause 4 fully captures those with parental responsibility where the child has left care under special guardianship or child arrangements orders. Following further consideration, the Government have decided an amendment is necessary to Clause 4, and I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Watson, for bringing this to our attention—I am rather disappointed that he is not here to hear me say that, but I hope the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, will pass on my thanks.
The amendment will make it clear to local authorities in England that they must make advice and information available to any person who has parental responsibility for a previously looked-after child for the purpose of discharging their duty to promote their educational achievement. Unlike adoption, where only the adoptive parents have parental responsibility, parental responsibility in respect of children named in special guardianship and child arrangements orders may be shared with the child’s birth parent or parents. This amendment is therefore important to ensure that all those with parental responsibility are not excluded.
I would like also to speak to government Amendments 21, 24 and 27, which are technical amendments to Clauses 4 to 6 that will ensure that children who were previously looked after and adopted under the Adoption Act 1976 are also within the scope of the new duty on local authorities and schools to promote their educational achievement. These “older” children will be in secondary education, and they too should have access to the virtual school head and the designated teacher. I hope that noble Lords will accept these government amendments.
Before hearing what noble Lords have to say on other amendments, perhaps it would be helpful to noble Lords, and particularly to the noble Baroness, Lady King, if I say that the Government will table an amendment to the Bill in the other place to bring children adopted from care outside England within the scope of Clauses 4 to 6.
My Lords, it was my intention to speak to Amendments 22, 23, 25, 26 and 28 in my name and that of the noble Baroness, Lady King of Bow, and other noble Lords. However, I am delighted to hear what the Minister has just said. To explain to other noble Lords who may not be familiar with the effect of these amendments, I should say that they refer to the educational entitlements of children adopted from overseas to make them equal to those of children adopted from this country. I must declare an interest in this subject because I have a much-loved adopted Chinese granddaughter, although she would not benefit from these amendments since she and her family live abroad.
From a peak of 25,000 adoptions a year in the mid-1970s, the number of adoptions fell in England to only 3,000 in 2011. But the new focus on adoption of the previous Government and of the current Government has made a very big difference. The number of adoptions is going up again, and they are extremely resilient, as shown by a certain amount of research. Only 3% of them break down, which is less than those where children are put under special guardianship. In acknowledging the need for the numbers of adoptions to grow, the application has been made easier and shorter. However, before those reforms took place, many would-be adopters turned away by local authorities had to adopt internationally if they were to have a family, particularly if they wished to adopt an infant. A number of international adopters, including my son, would willingly have adopted in the UK but were turned away, sometimes because of their ethnicity.
There used to be a view that children adopted from abroad did not come from the care system in their country. That may have been the case some time ago but that has changed. Indeed, Martin Narey, who had previously claimed that that was so, has changed his mind in view of changes in all those countries. Most of the children come from care in the countries from which they are adopted. That means that they have exactly the same traumatic experiences that children adopted from care in this country have, and therefore they have exactly the same needs. Those children have already benefited from several elements of the adoption support fund, but until today they had not benefited from the educational advantages that were given to children adopted from this country. So I am delighted that the Minister has indicated in what he has just said that he has accepted that those children need the same advantages in education. We are talking about children who are all British nationals, all with a similar experience of neglect and abuse and all adopted from care. The only difference is that in some cases internationally adopted children might also have experienced deeply inadequate medical care and malnutrition in their country of birth, so actually they may be worse off than children adopted from care in this country.
The Minister suggested that amendments would be tabled when this Bill goes to another place, so I look forward to seeing that. That will remedy the fact that we have up to now condemned a very small number of British children who have suffered neglect and abuse to lives much less successful than they might have been. I hope that will now change. I thank the Minister and the noble Baroness, Lady King of Bow, for suggesting these amendments.
My Lords, I do not wish to detain the House on this amendment—I will detain the House on a later amendment instead—but I want to sincerely thank the Minister for the excellent news that he has brought. As the noble Baroness said, it is only a small number of British children, but they are British children. As an adoptive parent, however you adopt your child and wherever your child comes from, you expect them to have the same life chances in Britain, because that is, I hope, what Britain is about.
“there being no person who has parental responsibility for the child”— in other words, looked-after children. I refer in particular to looked-after children in custody, of whom the noble Lord, Lord Laming, in his report, estimated that there were approximately 400 at any one time, 100 of whom were on remand. Although this is not in itself a large number, it adds up to slightly less than half the numbers of children currently in custody. This ratio accentuates the need to consider their position.
Currently, all children remanded into custody are automatically granted looked-after status for the duration of their time on remand. Children in care retain this status throughout their custody. However, in Grand Committee the Minister suggested that this could be removed by other clauses in the Bill. Looked-after children in custody show greater levels of mental health needs than other incarcerated children, need greater levels of emotional and practical support, and respond less well to behavioural incentive schemes and resettlement planning. As a group, they already face problems in engaging local authority support, and it would appear to be at best counterproductive to enable local authorities to opt out of their duty to support those looked-after children who happen to be in custody. This is yet another cross-government matter, and I wonder whether the Department for Education has discussed the possible effect of this with the Ministry of Justice, which aims to reduce reoffending.
My Lords, I, like my noble friend, am very grateful for government Amendment 20, which we fully support. The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, and my noble friend Lady King spoke eloquently about children adopted from care outside England who are now resident in England, and on the need for educational equality. We, too, very much welcome the Minister’s intention to bring forward amendments in the other place. Obviously, they will come back to your Lordships’ House in the new year.
The noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, made a very telling point about the particular challenges of looked-after children in custody. At heart, it is a question of whether the Minister’s department’s intention is consistent with that of the Ministry of Justice. It would be very helpful if, between now and Report, the Minister would enable some discussions to take place with the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, just to make sure that there is absolute consistency, because I very much take the point that he raised.
My Lords, I join in welcoming government Amendment 20, which seems to fill an important loophole. In passing, as I did not have an opportunity in the previous grouping, I also thank the Minister for his previous amendments, which are important and which we raised in Committee. As is so often the case, the Minister listens and takes action, and I am grateful to him when he does so, as he did earlier and in this case.
My Lords, I thank noble Lords for their interventions on Amendments 22, 23, 25 and 26, which concern Clauses 4 to 6 about promoting the educational achievement of previously looked-after children. I am grateful to the noble Baronesses, Lady King and Lady Walmsley, and the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, for these amendments, which would require local authorities and schools to also promote the educational achievement of children adopted from care outside England.
Government policy has been clearly focused on continuing to support very vulnerable children who were looked after by our care system before starting new lives through, for example, adoption. Making a commitment to continue to help them, and the wonderful parents and guardians who give them a secure and loving home, remains a top priority. Support to succeed in education is an important element of this because we know that there is an attainment gap to address.
I understand that some children adopted from outside England will have been in an equivalent form of care prior to adoption and that they, too, are vulnerable. This is in addition to moving to a new country and a new culture. The Government have acknowledged this by extending access to the adoption support fund to these children and their families so that they, too, can get access to much-needed therapeutic services. The Government would like to do more for these children and agree with noble Lords that extending the remit of Clauses 4 to 6 to require local authorities and schools to also promote their educational achievement would be a positive step.
There are, however, a number of important practicalities to consider: for example, how we define eligibility and how a parent proves eligibility. This is because there is much variation between the care systems of other countries. I hope that noble Lords will agree that it is important that we ensure that the eligibility criteria closely match the criteria for children in this country in order to come within the scope of Clauses 4 to 6. As I said, the Government will table a government amendment to this Bill in the other place to bring children adopted from care outside England within the scope of Clauses 4 to 6.
I am also grateful to noble Lords for their Amendment 28, which proposes a new clause to extend existing educational entitlements given to previously looked-after children in England to children adopted from care outside England. These entitlements include priority school admission in the early years and the pupil premium plus. None of these entitlements is provided for in primary legislation so it would not be appropriate to consider this amendment for inclusion in the Bill. The Government will, however, give full consideration to the position of these children when reviewing these policies.
Amendment 29, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, concerns the important issue of parental responsibility for children who would otherwise be at risk of harm. I appreciate the sentiment behind this amendment, which intends to require local authorities to seek care orders under Section 31 of the Children Act 1989 for all children who are suffering or are likely to suffer significant harm and for whom nobody holds parental responsibility. The noble Lord rightly wishes to ensure that such children are cared for and protected under Section 31 of the Children Act 1989. I believe that such support can be provided under current arrangements.
An example of one such group would be children being accommodated by a local authority under Section 20 of the Children Act. The local authority will have legal responsibility for the child and will be able to do anything necessary to safeguard and promote the welfare of that child. This also grants the child entitlement to the same statutory safeguarding and care support services as any other looked-after child, including those being supported under a Section 31 care order. This means that local authorities have the same duties towards them to draw up and review their care plan, for which they must appoint an IRO. Whether or not a child is on a care order under Section 31 or accommodated under Section 20, the local authority must safeguard and promote the welfare of those children and in particular promote their educational achievement. They must also, for example, make them aware of their right, if they want it, to independent advocacy or an independent visitor.
We must bear in mind that courts do not make care orders lightly: before they do so a local authority has to show that a child is suffering or likely to suffer significant harm. It is always at the discretion of the local authority as to whether it feels it necessary to apply for a Section 31 care order for a child. On the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, and referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, about clarifying the position with the MoJ, I would be delighted to meet the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, to discuss that further. In conclusion, I hope on the basis of what I have said that noble Lords will not press their amendments.
Amendment 20 agreed.
Moved by Lord Hunt of Kings Heath
30: Clause 8, page 8, line 42, leave out from “child’s” to end of line 2 on page 9 and insert “or a person with parental responsibility for the child;(ii) long-term foster care, with a connected person, existing foster carer or other person;(iii) adoption, with an existing foster carer, foster to adopt carer or other person;(iv) long-term care not within sub-paragraph (i), (ii) or (iii);”
My Lords, I will speak to my own amendment and perhaps come back when we have had a debate on the other amendments in the group. This takes us back to an interesting discussion that we had in Committee about fostering and the risk that fostering will be placed in a lower hierarchical category in relation to the provisions of the Bill. Let me say at once—if the Minister is paying attention—that I welcome the issue of the clause, looking at the long-term needs of the child, and developing a plan that will assess their current and future needs and a permanent plan to meet those needs. We all agree that this clause places these issues at the forefront of decision-makers’ minds when assessing the care plan. Clearly, it is important to ensure that all permanent options benefit from this clause. That is why all options should be written explicitly into the Bill.
What is concerning, particularly to those involved in fostering and the fostering network, is whether we can get clarity in the law to avoid some options, particularly adoption, being seen as more important than others in a hierarchy of care. I do not at all underestimate the importance of the need to encourage more adoptions. I have no doubt that this is the right way to go. But it should not be at the expense of prioritising adoptions over fostering.
A legal framework is in place. A legal definition for long-term foster care was introduced subsequent to the passing of the Children and Families Act 2014. The Care Planning and Fostering (Miscellaneous Amendments) (England) Regulations 2015 amended the Care Planning, Placement and Case Review (England) Regulations 2010 by providing for the first time a legal definition of long-term foster care and setting out the conditions that must be met. This step rightly strengthened the importance of foster care as a permanent option for children and young people in care.
As the Government have placed long-term foster care on a legal footing, the opportunity should be taken in this legislation to include it as a permanent option. The Children Act 1989 Guidance and Regulations Volume 2: Care Planning, Placement and Case Review June 2015 includes reference to the range of options for permanence and this could be used as a basis from which to amend new subsection (3B) to reflect the range of options for permanence that already exist in law—all of which can deliver good outcomes for individual children.
In Committee in the House of Lords, the Government said that the amendment would duplicate wording in Section 22C of the Children Act 1989 that sets out how looked- after children are to be accommodated by local authorities. That is something that I would like to clarify with the Minister. The fostering network disagrees with this because it believes that Section 22C(6) of the Children Act 1989 does not mention long-term fostering and the term has no legal meaning prior to the Care Planning and Fostering (Miscellaneous Amendments) (England) Regulations 2015 that I referred to. Section 22C(6) specifies only the range of ways in which a looked-after child may be cared for, including foster placements. It does not focus on permanence. As the Bill stands, Clause 8 is inconsistent with the statutory guidance on permanence planning. My amendment would ensure that all permanence options were recognised with equal status across all relevant primary and secondary legislation. We should bear in mind that currently three-quarters of looked-after children are fostered, so this is an important question.
I understand that I have raised some technical issues, but the core importance of this is the need to avoid a hierarchy of care. In addition to responding to the technical questions that I have raised, if the Minister can say that there is no intention of having such a hierarchy, it would indeed be very helpful. I beg to move.
My Lords, my Amendment 31 in this group adds the child’s wishes and feelings to the list of matters that must be included in the local authority’s Section 31A plan under the Children Act 1989. Permanence has just been mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt. The permanence provisions of a care plan must be considered by a court before a care order is made—or in some cases not made. The court must additionally consider contact arrangements and the views of parties to the proceedings about contact. The child is a party in care proceedings, so his or her views would be elicited about contact. To ensure that their wishes and feelings are elicited and reported on all aspects of permanence, it is necessary to specifically include this in Clause 8.
The Department for Education has defined permanence as follows:
“Achieving permanence is multifaceted. It requires children to experience not only physical permanence in the form of a family they are a part of and a home they live in but also a sense of emotional permanence, of belonging and the opportunity to successfully build a strong identity. Legal status may also impact on children’s sense of permanence”.
Without an explicit and specific requirement, it would be quite possible for the part of a care plan dealing with permanence to omit the child’s wishes and feelings about the relationships they value, their sense of belonging and stability and their hopes and dreams for the future. This is not to give undue weight to the child’s wishes and feelings or to place unrealistic expectations or pressures on them; it is just to ensure the child’s rightful place at the centre of proceedings as a human being whose lived experience, wishes, feelings and perspectives should be at the heart of the court’s consideration.
In Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Nash, said that,
“this principle is already captured in existing legislation”.—[
However, he referred to provisions in Part 3 relating to local authority consultation duties in respect of the children they look after. This issue is separate from the court’s consideration of the permanence provisions of the child’s care plan. It could be argued that the court’s duty in respect of the permanence provision coalesces with its general duty under the welfare checklist to have regard to the ascertainable wishes and feelings of the child concerned—considered, of course, in the light of his or her age and understanding. However, this is one of many aspects of the checklist; there is a whole long list of things. My amendment seeks to ensure that the local authority seeks and reports on the child’s wishes and feelings specifically on the permanence arrangements, in addition to their wishes and feelings on any other matter affecting them.
Statutory guidance on care planning already refers to the child’s wishes and feelings, so placing the child’s wishes and feelings into this part of the legislation accords with national policy, professional standards and children’s rights under the UNCRC. So I hope that the Minister will be minded to accept the amendment.
My Lords, my motivation in trying to change the law as outlined in Amendment 34 was driven by painful insight. After meeting hundreds of foster families, I realised a strange fact: I had never met a single middle class foster family. Of course they exist, but they are not the norm. The norm is that low-income families foster Britain’s most vulnerable children, and that when children with more complex needs are not attractive to prospective adoptive parents, it is the same low-income foster families that often step in to adopt. So it really would be unforgivable for us to further reduce the income of those families who, after all, are looking after our most vulnerable children on behalf of the whole country, by restricting the child benefit payable to adopted children, for whatever reason.
I am delighted that the Government listened to the extremely powerful contributions made on all sides of the Committee and accepted our argument. I am genuinely grateful, in particular, for the personal intervention of the Minister—who, as far as I am aware, made this decision purely on the basis of the arguments placed before him. God knows how rare it is for Ministers to make decisions purely on the basis of the arguments. That is obviously not a party-political point but a realpolitik point. Having been a parliamentarian and immersed in realpolitik for two decades, it gives me real pleasure that my last speech in this House for very many years, since I am shortly taking a leave of absence, will be a speech accepting this concession. In fact, some noble Lords will know that I should have left already, but I have never been great at making an exit, especially if I have concessions coming—and it turned out to be more than one.
It is not an exaggeration to say that I received the overwhelming support of all sides of the House when I tabled this amendment, as well as the Minister’s constructive response, along with that of his colleague Edward Timpson MP. Those factors combined have made this particular change in the law one of the highlights of my two decades in Parliament. Some may say I should have had a few more highlights, if I am so excited, but it is absolutely good enough for me because, after all, what this change means is that we will not increase financial disincentives for families that want to adopt children currently in care. Of all the subjects I have pursued in Parliament, this is one of those closest to my heart, because I look at my three adopted children every day and marvel at what happens when you give children a chance. That is what this concession does today. So I shall bow out from Parliament by saying thank you, sincerely—it has been a privilege to influence debate.
My Lords, I want to flag up an issue around the wishes and feelings of children, as raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley. At a recent conference I was listening to a researcher who was herself a birth family sibling—so she had many foster carers move through her family. One of the fostered children in the family just disappeared one day without any notice to her. She emphasised the importance not only of listening to the voices, wishes and feelings of the child in care, but also to those of the children in the adoptive family or in the foster family. We must make efforts to understand the wishes and feelings of those children, partly out of respect for them but also, very often, because a foster placement or an adoptive placement might break down if the wishes and feelings of those siblings are not respected. If they do not welcome the child, if they feel that the stranger is an intruder into their home, coming between them and their parents, they can very easily undermine the ability of that placement to work. I just wanted to flag up that point.
I welcome the fostering care stocktake that is going on in the Department for Education, which I hope will answer some of the concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, about parity of esteem for adoption, fostering and residential care. All these are important options. We want to find continuity of care for young people, wherever they are in the care system. I just wanted to flag up that point and I look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, my name is attached to Amendments 30, 31 and 34. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady King of Bow, that there have been Ministers in this House who have made concessions on the basis of the evidence before them; the noble Lord, Lord Nash, is not unique in this, although I am very grateful for the concessions he has made.
Let me start with Amendment 30. Going back in time to when I first became a director of social services in the mid-1980s, and having never, I have to confess, even been in a social services department in my life before, the very first briefing I was given by these luckless social workers who suddenly found that this strange man had been placed in charge of their department was on the importance of permanence and that if I did nothing else in my time as a director, I must promote planning for permanence. That has stuck with me as a big issue. The second briefing said: “You cannot rely on adoption to deliver permanence. Everybody likes to adopt babies and young children but you will find, oh dear director, that there are going to be a lot of children, from the age of 10 and moving into the teenage years, for whom you will have to plan for permanence, and adoption is not the issue”.
Any social worker starting out in their career over the last two or three years could be forgiven for thinking that the real answer to permanence is adoption. The points made by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, are critical: if we believe in permanence as the aim of what we are trying to do—as we all do—we must not give any signals that longer-term fostering is not a perfectly valid option in planning for permanence. We must not delude ourselves, or allow ourselves to look as though we are deluding ourselves to the social work profession, that adoption is the only answer and that, somehow, longer-term fostering is an inferior option for permanence planning. So I hope that the Minister will think about that and what the impact of all this is on the profession, working day in, day out, on the front line trying to deal with and provide a more permanent solution for many of these children. We need an amendment of the kind that has been framed in Amendment 30 to restore the balance.
We discussed the issue in Amendment 31 pretty extensively in Committee. In those discussions I recall that the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, with all her experience in the family courts, said that all too often the voice of the child was absent from our legislation and court processes. She made much of that then, and there is an opportunity now, with Amendment 31—which, if I may say so to the Minister, is just five little words—to put clearly, fairly and squarely in the legislation an amendment that gives the voice of the child some recognition in the legislation. It will not cost the Government anything, so the easiest thing for the Minister to do shortly would be to stand up and say, “I accept Amendment 31”. He will then go out of this Chamber at the dinner break even more flushed with success and encouragement from the Members of your Lordships’ House. As the noble Baroness said on Amendment 34, this is a straightforward way of removing a disincentive to taking siblings into adoption. I am glad that the Minister is going to make a concession on that, but if he is in for one, why not go for a couple of others as well?
My Lords, I shall speak to Amendments 30, 31 and 34, which concern the decision-making process about how a child becomes looked after and where they should be placed, and the state benefits which families of adopted children should be entitled to. There is also the matter of wishes and feelings. I am very sorry to disappoint the noble Lord, Lord Warner, but I understand that after very helpful discussions between the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, and my officials, she—or somebody on her behalf—plans not to move her Amendment 31. I believe she now recognises that it is not necessary, although my officials found the meeting with her extremely helpful. The child’s wishes and feelings are taken into account by local authorities when a child is looked after. This is a legal requirement under Section 22(4) of the Children Act 1989. When any decision is taken with respect to a child who is looked after, the local authority must ascertain their wishes and feelings.
Amendment 30, tabled by the noble Lords, Lord Watson, Lord Hunt and Lord Warner, proposes new wording for the permanence provisions of care plans in the context of care proceedings. As I stated in Committee in response to such an amendment, I recognise the concern that adoption should not be seen as more important than other long-term placement options. In answer to the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, I can state clearly that there is no intention to create a hierarchy here between placement options. We want all children in care, or entering care, to find placements that provide stability and suit them. This is what we mean by permanence; there are different ways to achieve it for different children.
Clause 8 seeks to improve the decision-making process about where a child should be placed whether that be adoption, with a special guardian, with foster parents or in a children’s home, by having particular regard to the child’s needs and how any placement options would meet those needs. The amendment seeks to explicitly set out in Section 31 of the 1989 Act a list of placement options, such as foster care. However, all placement options, including foster care, are already included within the current legal definition for permanence provisions. Section 22C of the Children Act 1989 and the accompanying statutory guidance sets out clearly how all looked-after children, including children subject to care orders, are to be accommodated and maintained by local authorities. This includes a hierarchy of placements with parents, relatives, friends or other persons connected with the child, kinship foster placements, local authority foster carers and placements in children’s homes.
Local authorities and courts are very clear about what placement options they need to consider during care proceedings. Amendment 30 is therefore not necessary and would not add to the existing legislative framework. It would simply duplicate what is already set out elsewhere in the Children Act 1989, which is something that Governments always try to avoid. As the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, said, Section 22C clearly says that foster care is an option set out for local authorities and courts to consider, and this includes long-term foster care. Local authorities and courts understand this, and I am advised that no one is confused in practice on the issue. On that basis, I hope the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.
Amendment 34, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady King, and the noble Lord, Lord Warner, proposes a new clause so that child-related benefits would be payable to adopted children regardless of any limit on the number of children to whom those benefits are usually payable. As noble Lords will know, the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016 legislated for the child element in child tax credit and universal credit to be limited to two children from April 2017. I was delighted to announce in my letter to noble Lords on
I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady King, for her kind words. As the noble Lord, Lord Warner, said, I may not be unique in listening to rational arguments but I may be unique in being incapable of resisting the noble Baroness’s charms and the powers of her arguments. I am sure that we will all miss her and I wish her and her family all the best in California. I hope that it will not be long before we see her back on those Benches.
Amendment 32 would simply ensure that Clause 9 will now apply to adoption agencies in Wales, whereas the previous draft of this provision applied to courts in England and Wales and adoption agencies in England. It will also mean that the provision of the new duty will come into force at the same time in England and Wales. The department has agreement from the Welsh Government to lay this amendment, in anticipation of the Assembly scrutinising the required memorandum and before agreeing a legislative consent Motion.
In conclusion on all the amendments that have been discussed, I hope the noble Lords, Lord Ramsbotham, Lord Watson, Lord Hunt and Lord Warner, will feel reassured enough to withdraw or not press their amendments, and that the House will support the Government’s amendment.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister and join him in congratulating my noble friend Lady King on her new adventure, if I may put it that way. I also congratulate her on her success in persuading the noble Lord to change policy, which is very welcome indeed.
On Amendment 30, I hear what the Minister says about the technical arguments, which I hope are reassuring. He clearly said that there is no intention to create a hierarchy of care, which is very welcome. He also said that he thought that no one in practice at field level is confused. I do not disagree at all with the emphasis that the Government have given to improving adoption procedures, but there is a possibility that practitioners may feel that fostering is no longer seen as an equal option. The guidance that will be issued by his department when the Bill is enacted will no doubt give an opportunity to make that point. I am very grateful for the response and beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment 30 withdrawn.
Amendment 31 not moved.
Clause 9: Adoption: duty to have regard to relationship with adopters
Moved by Lord Nash
32: Clause 9, page 9, line 11, leave out subsections (1) to (3) and insert—“In section 1(4) of the Adoption and Children Act 2002 (matters to which court is to have regard in coming to a decision relating to the adoption of a child), in paragraph (f) (relationships), after “relatives,” in the first place it occurs, insert “with any person who is a prospective adopter with whom the child is placed,”.”
Amendment 32 agreed.
Consideration on Report adjourned until not before 8.29 pm.