‘and persons over 16 years of age but under 22 years of age who have received services under section 23C to 24D of the 1989 Act in the past five years.’.
This amendment is tabled in my name and that of the hon. Member for Upminster, our indefatigable Whip, who, I failed to mention earlier, cannot be with us today as she is busy whipping somebody else somewhere else. She will be bringing her qualities and great knowledge of this subject to us shortly.
This is a probing amendment—it is difficult to get something that is not a probing amendment in respect of parts of certain clauses, but we are trying. It is designed to tease out more about the arrangements whereby the Government clearly recognise the ongoing responsibilities to children who have come out of the care system and to tighten up the terms of the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000, which was welcome, although too many of our children leaving care still have a tough time. I am sure that the hon. Member for Stafford, who does such an excellent job chairing the parliamentary group on children in and leaving care, will have some comments to make.
The statistics remain alarming. Nearly half of all the young people in the care system will leave it at 16 or 17, compared with an average “flying the nest” age for children living with their families of 23 or 24. Those children are leaving the shelter of the care system—albeit it is still inadequate and some of the outcomes are still woefully poor—at a sensitive, fragile period in their lives. At 16 or 17 they may be leaving school, going through important exams or, hopefully, going on to higher education or training of some sort. They may face the problems of leaving the support mechanism that the care system has provided for many of them and getting appropriate housing and accommodation, let alone moving on to a job. I know that the Government recognise that and that the thrust of the 2000 Act was to achieve greater support after children leave the care system.
The amendment is intended to place the duty for promoting the well-being of children on those who have been responsible for them in the care system during the previous five years. We need to achieve greater flexibility. There is a black and white situation in respect of children in care in the UK: they are either in care or with a family. I mentioned earlier the number of children who come into the care system on a shorter-term basis and return to their families, but many children in care are completely cut off from family background and family members.
About 18 months ago, I visited Denmark with colleagues; we also went to Helsinki. There is much greater flexibility in the systems there. While in Denmark, we visited an impressive care home outside Copenhagen. Proportionately, many more children in the care system there are in residential homes. Adoption is virtually non-existent—only 20 children had been adopted in the previous year in Denmark. Although the Danes use fostering, they make far more use of residential children’s homes.
The particularly impressive children’s home that we visited housed children ranging from under 10—I think the youngest was 7 or 8—right up to 22, which is an enormous range of ages. They were looked after by fantastic pedagogue social workers from whom, as was said on Second Reading, we in this country have a lot to learn. Those social workers develop a great empathy with the children and are seen as friends and confidantes as well as being the children’s guardians. The children there are not encapsulated in a children’s home and cut off from the outside world. Each week, there is a dinner evening to which relatives are invited—perhaps the birth parents or other members of the extended family—to spend as normal a meal time as possible with the child or other residents of the children’s home. The children may spend weekends back at home or with an extended family member. There is a degree of flexibility.
If a child has to be taken out of the home environment, that need not be the be-all and end-all—the beginning of a slippery slope to permanent care proceedings being taken and that child going into long-term fostering or, ultimately, a long-term adoptive placement. We need greater flexibility in our system, which is why the amendment acknowledges, in the spirit of what the Government are trying to achieve in the Bill, that there should be an ongoing duty to promote the well-being of children who been involved in the care system over several years.
Life, particularly for vulnerable children who have endured traumatic conditions, is not a nice, smooth journey. There can be problems at school or in training that result in their failing to get the exam results or training qualifications that they need, so that, all of a sudden, they are faced with an uncertain future and crisis. Another typical problem is the housing that they have been given goes pear-shaped for some reason. Somebody who might have appeared confident at 16 or 17 when leaving the formal care system all of a sudden returns to a rather more chaotic lifestyle and needs support. They need to be able to go back to the social worker who was their support when they were fully in the care system, or to somebody at the local authority, in the housing department or whatever, with whom they can deal on an understanding basis.
The statistics show that within two years of leaving care, of the 6,000 young people who leave care in a year, 3,000 will be unemployed—half of them will not have a job and will lack the stability that might put them back on the road to having some degree of permanency and sustainability in their lifestyle. No fewer than 2,100 will be mothers or pregnant. The propensity of girls leaving the care system either to be mothers already or to become pregnant is deeply alarming. When we simply cast those young girls off without some ongoing monitoring by a social worker or somebody from the local health service, a sexual advice clinic or other agency, we fail them, even though we know they are, for various reasons, far more susceptible to becoming teenage mothers. The Minister has rightly highlighted teenage pregnancies as a major problem: we still have the highest level of teenage pregnancies in western Europe. Of those 6,000 people leaving care each year, 1,200 will be homeless.
These are deeply traumatic times and things do not all go smoothly, but it can be an erratic journey. What we are trying to achieve, which I am sure is what the Government are trying to achieve also—we are just trying to tease out some detail—is that there will be a flexible duty to promote the well-being of children in England after they have formally left the care system, until they are in a position to be able to stand on their own two feet, and that they have some sustainability and continuity in order to do that. That is the purpose of this probing amendment.
I am sure that the Minister will say, “No worries, it is all catered for elsewhere in the Bill,” and I would be delighted to take her at her word, but I would like an assurance that that is the intention behind the legislation. One criticism of the Bill is that it is full of good intentions. It is certainly going in the right direction, but in some areas it lacks the force to produce the delivery, which, as the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole said earlier, is crucial. What matters is not how many clauses we pass, how many new structures we set up, or how many people with shiny new titles and nice smart lapel badges we create, but the effect that they will have on the children who desperately need their support. That is what the amendment is trying to achieve.
I have a great deal of sympathy with everything that the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham has just said. I am sure that all of us in this room have visited projects that have shown what can be done. I have had the privilege of visiting a “Make the Difference” project in Tower Hamlets. That was excellent for the young people who were participating, dropping in, meeting regularly, but it did not necessarily ensure that those who had dropped out at 16 would feel confident to drop back into the varying arrangements that are available for young people. This is an important issue. I am quite sure that there is good practice out there in particular local authorities, but the problem is how to spread that good practice and how to change the situation so that we do not end up with young people in custody, homeless and all the other very sad consequences that often befall looked-after children when, for one reason or another, they have left the care system. I would like to hear what the Minister has to say about whether there is more that we can do in legislation to give a bigger push to the spread of good practice.
I am sure hon. Members are aware that the journey that we have been on over recent years, which culminated in the spirit within the children’s plan, has crystallised a process of developing a new way of working and looking at the needs of children and young people, putting them at the heart of everything that we are doing. What we want to do in the clause is to take the opportunity to reflect properly in statute the Secretary of State’s policy responsibilities for the well-being of all children in the country. Our intention in doing so is to demonstrate our long-term commitment to improving the lives of children and young people.
When we talked to children, young people and their parents during the children’s plan consultation, they made clear the positive value that they place on the experience of childhood as a whole. They talked about developing play, social and emotional skills and talent, for example, and how our young people can make an important contribution, as well as enhancing opportunities and building foundations for their success.
For many years the Secretary of State has carried out activities for the benefit of children and is already required by the Education Act 1996 to promote their education. The significant developments in policy over recent years under this Government, through the Children Act 2004, the Every Child Matters agenda and, more recently, the establishment of the new Department for Children, Schools and Families, mean that we want the Secretary of State to be able to look more closely at the needs of the whole child, and a wide range of matters affecting children’s lives, their health and their happiness. This is in addition to the educational needs that obviously remain very important.
Therefore, our commitment to children’s well-being recognises these changes to the Secretary of State’s priorities for children and is in line with similar duties on local authorities and, indeed, on schools too. It also reflects the Secretary of State’s general policy responsibilities in a manner that complements—I will explain this point in a moment—the operational responsibilities of local children’s services and brings a consistent focus on children’s outcomes at every level in the system.
We have considered carefully how this new provision will impact on care leavers. First, all relevant children who are 16 or 17 are children for the purposes of this provision and the Secretary of State will have the same duties to promote their well-being as he does to all other children. We also recognise that the Secretary of State’s responsibilities clearly extend beyond children to include some groups of particularly vulnerable young adults, such as former relevant children—that is, care leavers who are over 18. Therefore I think it is right that this clause includes explicit reference to this particular group, that the Secretary of State takes powers to make provision for them, and that this arrangement mirrors that of local authorities. We have actually modelled this clause on the parallel provision—that is, section 10 of the Children’s Act 2004—under which local authorities are required to co-operate with local partners to improve the well-being of children in their area. The same definition of well-being is used in this clause too, reflecting the five Every Child Matters outcomes.
In the same way as section 10 of the 2004 Act, this clause draws a distinction between the Secretary of State’s duties to all children and his powers to develop policies that promote well-being for particular groups of young adults. The way in which that was done in the 2004 Act, and the way we are replicating that now, is formally to recognise that the state’s relationship with a group of young adults is necessarily different from that which the state has with children who are wholly dependent and who have specifically little or no legal autonomy. It is clearly appropriate to use terminology in a sense that more closely reflects the partnership, in that context, that the state needs to develop with these young people—to ensure that services are provided in a way that supports their growing independence and recognises their right to exercise choice in whether to engage with these services or not.
I agree with all of the points that Opposition Members have made about the need to ensure at the local authority level that there is continuity for those young people who need it and I think—to answer the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham’s question specifically—the formulation of this clause and the power for young people over the age of 18, achieves the intention that he wants to see. It enables the Secretary of State to take action but it respects the transition that young people are making to adulthood.
It also reflects the current distinction that we have formulated for local authorities in section 10 of the current legislation and, indeed, in executing that power, we know that there has been a tremendous development in the extent to which local authorities now keep in touch with young people over the age of 18. In that group, 90 per cent of young people are in touch with local authorities, and the outcomes for them, whilst we are not yet satisfied with them, are clearly developing.
I hope that hon. Members would accept that, in formulating the clause in this way, we are reflecting what we have already decided in relation to local authorities. It is not in any way to reflect a lesser importance of these young people, but rather also to respect their position in life, moving into adulthood and reflecting the way in which we have framed the operational responsibilities of local authorities. With that, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw his amendment.
I am grateful for the Minister’s explanation. I thought that she was going to say, “This is a jolly good amendment, and we will accept it.” That would have been a turn-up for the books. However, we seem to be on the same lines.
My concern, however, is about striking a balance between recognising the particular vulnerabilities and requirements of 16, 17 and 18-year-olds coming out of the care system and respecting their transition into adulthood—as the Minister put it. Local authorities should not use that as an excuse by saying, “Well, we don’t need to trample on them.” As I have said, and given evidence on, those children are much more susceptible to greater problems than their rest of their cohort. I have some other figures on the health aspect: two thirds of all looked-after children were reported to have at least one physical health complaint, and 45 per cent. of those aged five to 17 were assessed as having at least one mental health disorder, compared with one in 10 of the child population overall. That is an enormous difference in vulnerability.
As we know, such problems, particularly mental illness, need to be addressed as early as possible, and there needs to be a continuum of care until somebody can stand on their own two feet. All too often, the child and adolescent mental health services—Cinderella services within the Cinderella service of the NHS—can be erratic and a postcode lottery. Certainly, if children in the care system are fortunate enough to access CAMHS—perhaps through being in a residential home where, as a result of the high fees charged, they buy in mental health services, because of the waiting list for, or lack of availability of, certain talking therapies locally—but then effectively enter the big wide world on their own, without support from the mental health services, we have a false economy. It will result only in that person being less able to stand on their own two feet during the transition into adulthood, as the Minister said.
My amendment was a probing one, and the Minister has made some favourable comments about how we are trying to achieve the same thing. However, this was a useful debate in emphasising that local authorities have a duty of care beyond what is in the Bill. Their duties do not become minimal when looked-after children leave the care system, and in may cases their role remains just as important for many years to come. On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
‘and to the provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.’.
This is one of those annoying little amendments that usually centres on the use of the word “must”, of which we have many. However, this is a slight variation. The genesis of the amendment goes back to debate on the Children Bill 2004, when my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing), who was helping me on the Front Bench, tabled an amendment to clause 8. The amendment would have replaced a provision about functions being discharged having regard to the need to safeguard and promote the safeguard of children with
'in a manner consistent with the objective of safeguarding and promoting' the welfare of children, which was rather punchier. “Having regard to” covers a multitude of sins. It does not necessarily mean that the agency that is bound to have regard to something has to do anything about it. It must only acknowledge that there may be a problem or that a service needs to be delivered. As long as it has regarded it, it does not need to follow it through. That terminology is too weak, and I fear that in too many cases it can be used as a get-out clause for not producing the goods.
The amendment is to clause 8(5), which contains the limp language that the Secretary of State,
“in discharging functions under this section, must have regard to the aspects of well-being mentioned” in section 10 of the Children Act 2004. We want to replace that with much punchier terminology that means something, so that the Secretary of State
“must discharge functions under this section in a manner consistent with the objectives of safeguarding the welfare of children as set out” in section 10(2)(a) to (e) of that Act. Those paragraphs contain the Every Child Matters imperatives of
“physical and mental health and emotional well-being; protection from harm and neglect; education, training and recreation; the contribution made by them to society” and
“social and economic well-being.”
Section 10 of the Children Act is a much more positive promotion than clause 8. It states:
“The arrangements are to be made with a view to improving the well-being of children” in relation to those various factors. We are trying to give the Secretary of State a bit more vim, stating that he must not just have regard to, but positively promote, the considerations in that section. I am therefore sure that the Minister will have no problem in saying that the amendment is worthwhile and constructive and will strengthen what the Bill is intended to do. I shall be surprised if she ducks that challenge.
I wish to speak briefly to amendment No. 26. It will not be the first time that I have spoken to such an amendment to legislation on children. As with our previous debate, we might get there eventually. It is always interesting to note that the UK played a leading role in drafting the UN convention on the rights of the child, and that the previous Government were an early signatory of it.
In October, the UK’s implementation of the convention will be examined for the third time by the UN Committee on the Rights of Child. It is not enough to sign up, it is all about implementation. One of the committee’s 78 recommendations made in 2002 was that the UK should incorporate the convention into domestic law. Although the amendment would not give children new rights that could be tested in the courts, it would introduce a children’s rights proofing process that we have not so far incorporated into our policy development and legislation. The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham and I were in a meeting about children’s rights not long ago, and a social worker said that one of the most important things that would make a social worker’s life clearer and promote the career would be working to a rights agenda. That was a telling comment, coming from somebody who actually works with children.
Of course, there are a number of articles of the convention, and I do not propose to mention many. However, I shall touch on article 12, which begins:
“States Parties shall assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child”.
I appreciate that the Government have made great moves forward in listening to children. Nevertheless, there are some issues in the Bill on which we think the child’s voice could be strengthened, in certain cases with the support of advocacy. The importance of having a guardian is another issue. A number of issues perpetually arise that would be tackled if we incorporated the convention into our legislation.
I would like to mention briefly that the UK still has a reservation on article 22 of the convention on the rights of the child, which relates to the protection of asylum-seeking children. I was quite heartened in January when the Government announced plans to re-examine that reservation. I would be interested to hear an update on that alongside the news that we have had this morning.
Many of the issues that we are raising through amendments would automatically come under consideration if we signed up to the UN convention. It is common sense that our children’s rights should be respected and that we should incorporate the convention into all legislation that touches on children’s issues. I commend amendment No. 26 to the Minister.
Mr. Pope, let me say that it is a great pleasure to serve on this Committee under your kindly but hawk-like, miss-nothing eye.
I will speak in favour of amendment No. 26. As the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole has said, this is not an amendment to incorporate the obligations under the UN convention on the rights of the child into UK law. In my view, that is a pity because I think that we should incorporate those rights. We have done some great work for children since 1997 with the target to eradicate child poverty, the “Every Child Matters” agenda, the “Quality Protects” programme for looked-after children, the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000 and now the “Care Matters: Time for Change” White Paper.
With the children’s plan last year, I think that the time is right to incorporate the convention into our law. Instead, as the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham said, the use of the language that the Secretary of State “must have regard to” is a backsliding and easy target for him to hit. I hope that my right hon. and hon. Friends the Ministers do not think it very demanding to expect Ministers to have regard to the convention’s rights when carrying out their duty to promote the well-being of children in England. After all, all Ministers sign up to the ministerial code, which states that they have an overarching duty to obey the law, including our international obligations. The UK has signed the convention.
Do the Ministers think that the amendment is a sensible first step on the route to the wider acceptance of the rights in the UN convention? When we agreed clause 7, there was an encouraging sign that we would do better for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. We are going in the right direction, and this would be another step in that direction. If there is a clinching argument that my right hon. and hon. Friends the Ministers will accept, it is that the General Social Care Council, which was established by the Government to set standards for conduct and practice in social care, supports amendment No. 26 and thinks that it should be passed.
I hope that no Opposition Member would ever accuse me of trying to duck issues. I share the spirit of what both amendments are trying to achieve. I hope I can convince hon. Members that the way in which we have formulated the well-being duty in clause 8 is intended to achieve the ambitions that they have set out.
It is important to remember that the definition of well-being in the Children Act 2004, which we are using as our basis, reflects the whole range of outcomes that we want for children. It includes their physical and mental health; their emotional well-being; their protection from harm and neglect; their education, training and recreational needs; their contribution to society and their social and economic well-being. Those are all vital factors in determining whether children have the enjoyable childhood that we want them to have as well as being prepared and supported so that they can succeed in later life.
Local authorities and schools already have a duty to promote the well-being of children as defined in these terms. In the clause, we are keen accurately to reflect the Secretary of State’s general policy responsibilities in a manner that complements the operational responsibilities of local children’s services and introduces a consistent focus on children’s outcomes at every level of the system.
The problem with amendment No. 4, as formulated, is that it would narrow the Secretary of State’s well-being duty to a focus on safeguarding alone and disregard the other key aspects of well-being. Of course, safeguarding is a top priority, and it was a key driver in “Every Child Matters”, but as I have just outlined, the outcomes that we want to see under “Every Child Matters” go beyond safeguarding into various other areas.
The clause is not phrased in weasel words. It says:
“It is the general duty of the Secretary of State to promote the well-being of children in England.”
What could be clearer? The hon. Gentleman has contributed positively to many pieces of legislation on children and other areas of policy, and he is experienced enough to know that the fact that subsection (5) uses the phrase “must have regard to” before pointing to the relevant sections of the Children Act means that the Secretary of State must exercise the specific duty in the clause in relation to sections 10(2)(a) to (e) of the Children Act. It is therefore a little unfair to suggest that the duty that we are trying to place on the Secretary of State to promote well-being falls short of our intention.
I am disappointed so far, but perhaps the Minister can tell me what weight she places on the phrase “have regard to”, as opposed to the phrase
“in a manner consistent with the objectives of safeguarding the welfare of children”,
which is in the amendment. Does she not acknowledge that the wording of amendment carries more punch and is stronger than “have regard to”, regardless of whether it refers to the duty in subsection (1)? The wording in the amendment is stronger. Local authorities have had problems with the interpretation of the phrase of “have regard to”.
I do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s premise. In legal terms, “have regard to” is equivalent to what he has outlined. Indeed, Opposition Members argued not long ago for a section 11 duty on the Border and Immigration Agency, so they were apparently happy to accept that having “regard to” the need to safeguard children was a strong enough formulation to impose on that agency and all the agencies listed in section 11 of the 2004 Act. Opposition Members accepted that the wording was strong enough in that situation, so I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that using the same terminology here—as parliamentary counsel will—gives us a strong enough formulation of the duty, particularly in conjunction with subsection (1), which makes very clear what the duty is.
For the avoidance of doubt, I should say that we argued for an amendment to the effect that the wording should not be “have regard to” for all the other agencies on the list, but the Government defeated us. We are just trying to be consistent in terms of what goes into the legislation; our current proposals do not signal any weakening of our intent with regard to the Border and Immigration Agency.
I was not a member of the Committee that discussed the 2004 Act, but Opposition Members need to think whether the phrase “have regard to” has weakened the pursuit of the objectives before us by the agencies concerned, because I do not think that there is any evidence that it has. The wording in the clause is the normal way in which we express such obligations legally. Taken in conjunction with subsection (1), it makes clear what our intention is.