I shall take my jacket off while introducing my amendment, Mr. Williams. I welcome you to the Committee—your liberal strictures are greatly welcome. We made quite a lot of progress on Tuesday, some of which you witnessed in preparation for today.
We now come to clause 10 and a small probing amendment in my name and those of my hon. Friends. The Government inserted clause 10 in Committee in the Lords to place a duty on local authorities
“to take steps that secure, so far as reasonably practicable,” accommodation that meets children’s needs within the local authority area. We have debated at length the desirability of children in the care system staying as close as possible to their home environment, friends and family.
Before the hon. Member for Stafford jumps up, let me say that my party very much welcomes the clause, which is good and positive. However, we would like to add to it a requirement that the accommodation be “appropriate”. We go back to the principle behind the phrase “have regard to”. It is slightly woolly to ask local authorities, with all the pressures that they face, merely to fulfil a minimum requirement to
“have regard to the benefit of having...a number of accommodation providers”.
The Under-Secretary might say that everything will be covered in regulations, and it would be good to have that clarity, but we do not have the regulations before us, so we can only speculate as to their contents. It would therefore be helpful to add “appropriate” to new section 22G(4) of the Children Act 1989, which is inserted by the clause.
As we have discussed, continuity and stability of accommodation are important to a child from a traumatic background. If a local authority merely has regard to the benefits of making sure that there are a number of bed and breakfasts available in its area, that will not provide the stability and quality of accommodation that many of these young people need, particularly if they have special needs. A case has been made that children with acute and complex needs require the most appropriate care placements, but the wording of the clause does not suggest that local authorities need to—although obviously they would like to—go beyond simply ensuring that accommodation providers are available in their area.
Calling the hon. Gentleman my hon. Friend demonstrates that I have a lot of sympathy for his argument, but I would draw his attention to subsection (2)(b), which I was extremely pleased to see included, because it uses the words
“meets the needs of those children.”
I hope that he will press the Minister on what that means and what local authorities need to do to fulfil that duty.
“meets the needs of those children” can be taken in different ways. Accommodation that meets children’s need to have a basic roof over their head might not meet their need to have accommodation appropriate to their disabilities, for example. Alternatively, children might have a mental health problem or learning disability that would be sensitive to the people accommodated around them, whether inside or outside the care system where they are placed. There is a need to meet not only their need for basic accommodation, but their needs relating to how they are to live in that accommodation and with the people around them.
I should appreciate the Minister’s interpretation of how local authorities will be required to do more than just have regard to the existence of sufficient accommodation, but will have to make sure, as far as is practicable, that the accommodation is appropriate for the young person—that it meets their needs and is appropriate to them in terms of the environment where they are expected to live, both physically and mentally, and in terms of the people around them.
Diolch yn fawr—thank you—Mr. Williams. [Interruption.] Despite the sighing of the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham—perhaps I could call him my hon. Friend, if not my right hon. Friend, which would be out of order—it is a pleasure to see you in the Chair this morning.
The Government inserted the clause in the other place to place on local authorities a general duty to take steps to secure, as far as is reasonably practicable, sufficient accommodation in their area that meets the needs of the children they look after. In doing that, they must have regard to the benefit of having a number of accommodation providers in their area sufficient to enable them to perform their duty. That means that local authorities will have to be able to justify the decisions that they make to provide the sufficient accommodation without commissioning any from third parties.
I understand the sentiments outlined by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham, which inform the amendment, but the amendment is unnecessary, because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, South hinted, the clause already makes it clear that any accommodation provided for looked-after children must be capable of meeting their various needs, and must by implication be, in the words of the amendment, “appropriate”.
Indeed, the existing regulatory framework sets clear requirements for accommodation if it is to be considered appropriate for looked-after children. All children’s homes and fostering services must be registered under the Care Standards Act 2000. They must comply with regulations and meet the national minimum standards. All children’s homes are inspected against those national minimum standards by Her Majesty’ chief inspector of education, children’s services and skills.
Fostering services are responsible for approving individual foster carers and ensuring that they provide an appropriate environment. Standard 6 of the fostering services national minimum standards requires fostering services to make available
“foster carers who provide a safe, healthy and nurturing environment.”
A robust system is already provided in that way to ensure that all accommodation for looked-after children is of an appropriate standard.
On the hon. Gentleman’s point about specialist need, we recognise that it will not always be reasonably practicable for every local authority to make provision in its area to meet every type of potential need; but for those particularly complex needs that require highly specialised care, we would expect local authorities to work together to commission the necessary provision on a regional or sub-regional basis. We have been supporting such collaboration through regional commissioning pilots. I am sure that later in our consideration of the Bill we shall discuss some of those complex needs and placements of children.
It is, however, important to note that we are not saying that we believe that complex needs cannot be met by placements in area. Indeed, in the development of the short break pathfinders, there are several good examples of innovative solutions to problems of providing accommodation, albeit on a short-term basis, for children with complex needs. We expect the learning from commissioning and developing those to be shared and disseminated to help local authorities to develop provision for all children, including those with complex needs, within their areas, so that more children can stay in their area, if it is appropriate. We are setting up a programme of peer support for local authorities and children’s trust partners so that they can learn from each other about effective commissioning practices. I understand that this is a probing amendment.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Williams. I want to ask one question before the Minister sits down. It relates not to severe disability needs, but to those authorities that place large numbers of children outside the authority because of a lack of places. Will there be a time scale by which authorities will be judged on providing accommodation within their boundaries for young people who do not have complex disability needs?
When the Bill comes into force, the sufficiency duty in the clause will come into effect. We will expect all local authorities, as far as is reasonably practicable, to be able to meet all the needs of looked-after children in their area. As I outlined, we understand that in some cases it may not be possible to meet all the complex needs of looked-after children within area; in such cases we will expect local authorities to work on a regional or sub-regional basis to meet those needs, and we have been piloting such arrangements. As for the time scale, local authorities should be doing that when the Bill comes into force.
Bore da, Mr. Williams. The Minister has referred to co-operation between local authorities. From time to time in London authorities and perhaps elsewhere in the country, young people leaving care are given council tenancies in another local authority area without the knowledge of that local authority. Such young people may not have the social or life skills to sustain an independent home successfully, and often they get into trouble with the police. It would be helpful if the local authority and perhaps the police in the area that they moved to were informed, so that problems could be headed off, rather than dealt with reactively after they arise.
I commend the hon. Lady on her able demonstration of the language of heaven. She makes a very good point. When good practice is followed, the scenario that she describes should not arise. Some of the Bill, along with the broader “Care Matters” implementation agenda, is about trying to effect the sort of change in practice on the ground that she wants, but that cannot be achieved entirely through statute. There is good practice around the country in dealing with people who want to live independently at a young age. We are trying to limit young people doing so further by giving them other options through the Bill and the “Care Matters” agenda.
Some local authorities are using innovative practices to avoid the situation described by the hon. Lady. I saw a very good example in south Gloucester, where a trainer flat is used when a young person is considering moving out into the community. They are given a short three-week tenancy in a flat owned by the local authority to try out living on their own. To be frank, some young people then realise the difficulties of paying bills, having to live with neighbours and the sheer loneliness of having to cope alone. Some accept wiser counsel and decide it is right to stay with their foster carers or wherever they have been living, just as many young people in other families would do. The average age of young people leaving home is 24, not 16, 18 or 21. That is the sort of good practice that we want to encourage.
In the clause, our aim is to ensure that young people are not placed a long way from their support mechanisms, friends and peers, and normal educational establishment, and that there is a lever to put pressure on local authorities to provide appropriate accommodation within area wherever practically possible, as the amendment emphasises. On that basis, I ask that the amendment be withdrawn .
I am grateful to the Minister for that explanation and also delighted to welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster, who has also made a mark with her expertise on the subject. She might want to elaborate on her point when we debate new clause 19, which we are about to do, as it is also germane to that proposal.
The Minister has helpfully given reasons why he thinks the amendment unnecessary, but perhaps it might find its way into the welfare checklist that the Minister for Children, Young People and Families graciously suggested might form the basis of the guidance that will be issued with the Bill to elaborate on what is meant by “appropriate accommodation”.
There is one point on which we do not want to be too constrictive, and it applies particularly to London and large metropolitan boroughs. There is clearly a strong practical case for keeping children close to their home environment in large rural counties, but there might be a case for transgressing the borders of London boroughs simply because of the lack of specialist accommodation available. A number of London boroughs have no children’s homes of their own, so rather than specifying rigidly that accommodation must be within a borough’s physical boundaries, it would be sensible to have the capacity for joint commissioning across London boroughs to provide a specialist accommodation provider or to commission from a private, independent specialist provider. I am sure that the Minister does not intend the Bill to be so constraining, but it is important to keep the child closer to the home and a familiar environment wherever possible.
The Minister gave examples of step-down accommodation and trainer flats, and further examples of that flexible good practice should be greatly encouraged. As with the Childcare Act 2006, which the Minister for Children, Young People and Families and I debated in Committee, it is the local authority’s duty to ensure that there are sufficient suitable child care places in its area. Quality is also a factor, as the local authority must ensure that child care places are of sufficient quality, just as it must do with regard to the quality of appropriate accommodation in this context.
The Minister has given helpful clarification and, on that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 19—Appropriate placement—
‘When deciding the appropriate placement for a child in a children’s home the local authority must have regard to the proximity of other similar premises.’.
I shall kick off the debate by speaking to new clause 19 and then we can have a stand part debate. The hon. Member for Stafford will probably pick me up on a few things, as is his wont.
The theory behind new clause 19 is born of practical experience, and my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster will be aware of similar things. A few years ago, I was approached by the local police and councillors in my constituency of East Worthing and Shoreham because there had been what has been described as an explosion in the provision of independent children’s homes. We are not unique, as that typically happens in seaside resorts around the country. Hon. Friends representing areas such as Thanet and Fylde, as well as coastal towns in Kent at the end of railway lines, have seen an enormous influx of children from the care system, who have been placed there by boroughs—particularly London boroughs—because they do not have sufficient accommodation.
Typically, there tends to be some cheap accommodation available in those towns and, as has happened in Worthing, an independent provider will take over a residential house. If such a house has six or fewer residents in it, it does not require planning permission for change of use. So, we are seeing a big increase in the number of small independent children’s homes in places such as Worthing, Thanet and Fylde. If the place is suitable for the children and there are no knock-on effects of what I call clustering, that increase need not be a bad thing. In my constituency, however, unsuitability and clustering have had a negative effect.
I visited a children’s home, just outside Worthing, in an old farmhouse, which the estate had rented out to an independent children’s home company. It was looking after children from Somerset and London, and I think there was somebody from Newcastle. Children, most of them from an urban environment, were bunged down into a remote farmhouse in the middle of the Sussex countryside. A bunch of farmers came to see me to say that there had been a spate of crime and vandalism in the area, which was being attributed to some of the children from the home. When I visited the home it had been smashed up; there were lots of boarded-up windows and farm equipment had been damaged. At that time—things have since greatly improved, and the Commission for Social Care Inspection and others have inspected—the place was not properly monitored, and there was a serious question mark over the qualifications and calibre of some of the staff put in to deal with those children with particular difficulties. The children wanted an urban environment and found themselves stuck out in the country with no bus service. More sensitive placement consideration might have avoided that problem.
The following year, the chief inspector of police in Worthing approached me to say that 27 per cent. of crimes in the previous month had been attributed to a handful of young people who resided in children’s homes in Worthing. I do not in any way want to tar all children in care with the propensity to get into trouble—that is clearly not the case—but where they are not properly looked after there is greater propensity for them to get into trouble and fall foul of the law.
A lot of children’s homes of six or fewer children were springing up close to each other in residential areas, and there was a lot of mixing between the children in those homes, which was causing a problem. Again, it is down to ensuring that placements are appropriate and that the placed child is properly monitored by the social worker responsible within the placing authority. We shall come to some amendments on that. It is also down to ensuring that the homes are run properly, and that depends on inspection and quality of care.
In Worthing, there was an enormous backlash from local councillors and residents, who got up petitions and demonstrated against yet more such homes appearing in our town, particularly in a limited residential area. That produced an unfortunate backlash against children in the care system, who were perceived as having been dumped in Worthing and not properly looked after.
My hon. Friend the Member for Upminster mentioned placing authorities. I think that I mentioned on Tuesday that the head of children’s services in West Sussex says that 42 children from West Sussex have been placed in the care system outside the county, most in specialist placements. However, she estimates that we have at least 700 children from outside West Sussex in the county. The authority should be notified of such placements, but often it is not. We have tabled amendments to tighten up that procedure.
A delegation from Worthing went to see the then Minister, Lord Warner, about issuing stronger guidance to ensure that placing authorities properly notified the receiving authority that they had a child residing in their area who was the responsibility of another authority. That is clearly still not happening, because authorities can only estimate the number of such children, let alone know of any particular requirements and needs that they might have.
New clause 19 would provide that an authority, when placing a child in a residential home, could not just say, “Here’s a place.” It would have to have some regard to—the language could be even tougher—the fact that that home might be in an area where there were lots of other homes, and that that clustering might have a negative effect. A placing authority would have to have a proper discussion with the host authority, and the authority or council area could say, “Look, this is excessive for that particular area.”
At the moment, things are completely un-joined up. In places such as Thanet, Worthing and Fylde—and in many other local authorities around the country, I am sure—that is a problem. It is not in the best interests of the local communities to have to pick up the problems, or of the local police, who must deal with problems if they become a justice matter, or of the local social services, which must pick up the problems even though they are not responsible. Most importantly, it is not fair to the children and young people themselves, who are often placed in inappropriate accommodation far away from home but in proximity to other people in similar accommodation with whom it is not appropriate for them to mix in certain circumstances.
The new clause might have the opposite effect. Has the hon. Gentleman not considered the fact that the language he has used might say, in the minds of some, “Actually, it’s a good idea to have them all in the same area; it keeps them all together.”? It might have the wrong result.
That is an interesting observation from the hon. Gentleman. That is certainly not the intention, and this discussion will send out a strong signal that it is not. All practical experience of such authorities shows that that is the last thing they want. They want a message that they have some power or leverage to say, “Hold on, we don’t think that’s appropriate here.”
At the moment, authorities cannot reject a home for six or fewer people on planning grounds unless there is some enormous change within the home. In terms of change of use, an application for planning permission is not required—people can just get on with it within the strictures of the inspection regime. I take the hon. Gentleman’s point technically, but from our deliberations the opposite must be true.
I do not like using the terminology “have regard to”, but as the Minister is always reassuring us that it is perfectly adequate, perhaps he will be more amenable, considering the wording of the new clause, to placing it in the Bill so that local authorities have some clout in resisting what has turned out to be a major problem for Worthing and other authorities.
It is a great pleasure to serve on a Committee chaired by you, Mr. Williams. In plain English, I like your knowledgeable yet relaxed style of chairing proceedings.
The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham was absolutely right when he said at the beginning of today’s proceedings that, in relation to clause 10, the Government yet again deserve great credit for an excellent piece of new law. I give them a gold badge for that one, because accommodation is a key area of concern to everybody with an interest in the welfare of children in the care system.
As hon. Members know, I chair the associate parliamentary group for looked-after children and care leavers. I have been attending meetings for 11 years now and have chaired the group for about two and a half years. We have debated many times the shortcomings in local authorities’ ability to accommodate children in ways that are good for those children.
I shall give an example from as recently as March this year. We had a discussion about accommodation and, sadly, we still heard story after story of what went wrong. One story that sticks in my mind is that of two young care leavers in my audience. They were brothers who had been taken into care by the local authority at different times and ended up living in different placements. When their time in care came to an end, each was treated differently. The first one to leave care was found accommodation with friends; he knew them well and was comfortable and happy there. He settled in well and got a job, and there was a good support system around him.
That young man’s brother was placed in a shared flat with someone who was well-known in the locality as a top drug dealer. That boy—he was still under 18—was put under immense pressure to take drugs, to sell drugs, to run and to fetch money for the drugs. In the end, he chose absolute homelessness rather than stay there. No one checked the accommodation before he went there and no one listened to his concerns when he was placed there. In the end, he had to make a stark choice and he chose homelessness, rather than being dragged into the drugs trade. Clause 10 tells us that local authorities must “have regard to” meeting the needs of children and have a suitable range of accommodation available for young people. That is most acceptable.
The explanation given for new clause 19 by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham reminded me that the starting point for the debate, on this clause and many others, is the immense range of quality services offered by local authorities. We have heard some superb examples—we hear of them also at meetings of the parliamentary group—of local authorities doing their utmost to keep families together.
If that is not possible, local authorities try to ensure that young children in care are placed somewhere that allows them some community ties—as close to home as they can manage—which perhaps allows them to keep in touch with grandparents, other family members and friends, and even to try to keep the same school, health services and so on, so that if the opportunity arises to rehabilitate those children back to the family early, the support systems are all still in place.
If that is not possible and children have to spend their time in care until it is time to leave—when they become adults—they still have connections with some people so that they can return to a community that still has some support for them.
At the other end of the scale, authorities such as the one alluded to by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham seem to be too easily persuaded to place children out of area and a long way from home. That breaks those community ties and, because of the distance involved, the chance of blood relatives thinking that the children might be rehabilitated. It also leaves youngsters cut off from everything they know, everything they are familiar with and the few supports that they have. No wonder we hear stories of youngsters going off the rails and misbehaving in those areas—they have been cut off from all support. That is bad practice, and the clause brilliantly puts local authorities under a duty to consider keeping children in area if they can. That will be important in driving up standards.
A couple of amendments to clause 10 that were not selected for debate, one of which was mine, would have drawn Ministers’ attention to those young people who have come to the end of their time in care because they are no longer children. Under the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000, the local authority will still have some obligation to have regard to their well-being afterwards. I hope the Minister says that local authorities will still be obliged to ensure that looked-after children who have left care are in suitable accommodation.
I shall tell of a recent conversation showing how important proper accommodation can be. Many Members who spoke on Second Reading mentioned the lobbying that day by the Fostering Network, and many foster carers were in Westminster. I spoke to a woman who had brought up a girl as a foster child for many years and who came to love her as a daughter. Despite all the obstacles that the care system put in her way, the girl flew through her GCSEs and A-levels, and finally got to university.
The foster mother was proud of all that the two of them had been through together, so many obstacles having been overcome to get to that position. She then learned that although the girl had accommodation on campus during term times, when she was not at university she was on her own—without accommodation and with no help. The foster mother was so outraged that she gave up being a foster carer and the income that it brought in, converted the girl’s flat into lodgings and rented it to her at whatever state benefit she was able to get to help to pay for it, so that the girl could use it during the breaks.
That went well beyond the call of duty on the woman’s part, and it was done because of the bond of love that had grown between the two of them. However, such events should not be happenstance. We know how few looked-after children get to university; it should not be down to one individual’s bravery and kindness for that child to continue there. That is a good example of accommodation going wrong for youngsters.
Because of my post as chairman of the all-party group, I hold myself out as willing to visit local authority services and meet users. I went to north Staffordshire—the county that I am from—to meet some recent care leavers. True enough, they were all still in touch with the leaving care team, and so were getting contacts, advice and so on. However, several of them told me that they were in a flat, getting housing benefit to pay the rent and did not have a job.
When three of those people had told me the same story about not having a job, I said, “Don’t you think that in this day and age you are in a bit of a dead-end position? You are in a flat, your rent is paid for you, but you have no job and you are not getting any skills. Wouldn’t you rather get skills at a further education college, get a job and make your own way in the world?” Each of them said, “My adviser advised me that the safest thing for me was to stay unemployed and have my rent paid.” That is the local authority that is looking after them advising them to do the opposite to what any of us would want for our children—certainly what I would want for my children—and what the Government want for our country.
There are poor services for people aged over 18 for whom we still have a responsibility. The clause deals with massive improvements in the situation of looked-after children in respect of accommodation. Will it apply to children who have left care but for whom we still have a responsibility, albeit perhaps not the full legal responsibility of looking after children? Nevertheless, that responsibility continues from their time in care.
I, too, congratulate the Government on clause 10, which is the result of excellent work in the House of Lords. I refer to it as “evolution”, which is sometimes a good way to reach the point that one wants to reach.
I am pleased to speak after the hon. Member for Stafford because he expressed the post-care concerns so well. All sorts of things may come along whereby a young person just needs to touch base as much as anything, so the provision is needed to get that extra advice. Sometimes, a small amount of support is needed, but, without it, somebody can start on a downhill path, which would be unfortunate if we were getting all the other building blocks in place. We want to ensure continuity.
I agree with the comments made by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham. I am uncertain about the wording of his new clause, but I think that the points he is making are valid. I have received representations from other parts of the country—the north, in fact—about local children’s services not being informed when children are placed in their area. We return again to the point that that may be in the guidance, but there is so much evidence of it not happening in certain circumstances that it and the guidance perhaps need to be looked at.
I am also concerned about placing young people a long way from home in residential children’s homes, if, unfortunately, there may be an element of antisocial or minor criminal behaviour—perhaps because the children are labelled and get judged more harshly. One way or another, a proportion of children end up in the local youth justice system. Multidisciplinary working between the youth offending team, where the children are placed and the local authority that has placed them is important. A lot more needs to be put in place to ensure that that is happening.
Finally, I return to the point of my intervention, which I obviously did not express well. My concern is about not the legislation kicking in for children with severe disability needs, but the fact that boroughs with little provision—few foster carers and no residential care—that place children outside their area could just go on saying, “We haven’t got the foster carers or the places. We haven’t even got them in the next borough along.”
I cannot see what will trigger the search for foster places nearer home, because boroughs that are not wholeheartedly signed up to the current agenda could hide behind the term “reasonably practicable”. I realise that that is the only phrase that can go in the Bill, but I was looking for the Minister to say that there would be guidance and that we would not prolong a situation in which large numbers of children are placed outside their local authority area. It is not that these children have specialised needs, but that the authorities that send them away are not doing enough to provide local accommodation.
I echo the comments of my hon. Friends and other hon. Members by saying that it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Williams.
I welcome the clause, which represents a radical change for children who are looked after by local authorities. I particularly echo the concerns about authorities placing children out of area. Warrington has a large number of young people placed from out of area, so I have considerable experience of young people who do not have access to the support that they need. Another issue is that local authorities that place looked-after children are unable to get the information that they need about the relevant networks and what is happening in and around care homes.
I have several points to put to the Minister. He will not be surprised to hear that, as the chairman of the all-party group on children who run away or go missing, I have received representations from a large number of children who have discussed their experiences. There is no question but that there is a significant need for local authorities across the country to provide emergency accommodation in their areas. How will the general duty on local authorities to secure sufficient accommodation address that need? I ask that particularly in light of the review on access to emergency accommodation, which he and his Department have established for this year.
The Minister will recall the “Stepping Up” report by the Children’s Society, which specifically addressed the issue through extensive consultation with local authorities. Of the 69 authorities that replied to the request for information on emergency accommodation, only 20 indicated that such accommodation was available for young runaways in their area. Of those 20, none felt that provision fully met the need in their area, while six felt that it mostly met local need and three that it partly met it. That is a fairly radical gap that needs to be addressed rapidly if local authorities are to meet the duty in the Bill.
I should remind the Minister that that duty will be valuable not only for those young people who run away from something that is a danger to them and who need somewhere safe to go because they cannot be returned home, but for the small number of looked-after children who need a breathing space because their needs or issues with the local authority placement must be addressed before they are given more long-term accommodation. Will the Minister also tell us how emergency accommodation meets the needs of children and young people who seek a safe haven from sexual exploitation or trafficking? How will local authorities address those needs under clause 10?
I add my voice to that of my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford on the need for young people to have suitable accommodation on leaving care. Many of those young people are under 18 and will be given direct consideration under the clause. I refer the Minister back to clause 9, which inserts new section 22C into the Children Act 1989. Under section 22C(6)(d), in addition to placement in foster care and local authority children’s homes, a placement means
“subject to section 22D, placement in accordance with other arrangements which comply with any regulations made for the purpose of this section.”
Under clause 10, will local authorities have a duty to provide accommodation under section 22C(6)(d); and, if so, will that accommodation come under the requirements of new section 22G(2), inserted by clause 10, that it should be in the local authority’s area and meets the needs of the children?
Will the Minister discuss the issues relating to location of accommodation? A problem raised time and again by young people who have run away from local authority care, local authorities and police officers is that a local authority has placed them in accommodation in close proximity to known problems, such as drugs or sexual exploitation. Sometimes, children are placed in close proximity to a registered sex offender.
If I can beg your favour, Mr. Williams, perhaps I can draw your attention to new clause 36, which covers some of the questions that have been raised by other hon. Members. We hope that it will be selected for consideration later in Committee proceedings.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Williams. I would like to make several points about new clause 19. First, the distances between the foster home, the local authority and the family home should be taken into account. If the child has been plucked out of an adverse situation or, worse still, if legal action has been taken to safeguard the welfare of the child, a placement close to home may not be ideal. Conversely, where quick reassimilation into the family home is desirable, the child should not be placed too far away.
For many local authorities in London, placing children within the capital is not always ideal or possible. As a result, many children are placed in other counties. When that happens, it is much more difficult for a local authority to maintain the level of communication and support needed to help families through such a challenging process. We must also be aware that children’s behaviour can be different—I am not saying that it is good or bad—if they are moved to rural or coastal parts of the country from the centre of London. Finding the right placement is a hands-on job that requires the full attention of those in the local authority. If the child is moved too far away, they may simply fall under the radar, with detrimental consequences.
Since there are no geographical limits on where children are placed or where homes are set up, the chance of one street containing several homes owned by different individuals or local authorities is increased. That is not desirable and could spell trouble, as children in care are often damaged or vulnerable in some way. Pooling large groups of such children is not conducive to their emotional or social development. It might even exacerbate problems that should be in the process of being rectified.
I echo the comments of hon. Members in welcoming you to the Chair, Mr. Williams, for this most important Committee on a Bill that, once enacted, will transform the outcomes of looked-after children for many years to come.
The new clause deals with accommodation—a matter on which a great stride is needed. As we know, many young people in care have experienced great disruption in their lives. I am particularly concerned about children leaving care and those up to the age of 21. Often they have experienced such disruption that everything breaking down at the point when they move on can sometimes mean the end. It can determine their future and their transition to successful adult life.
In a memorandum to the Children, Schools and Families Committee, on which I serve, Dr. Roger Morgan, OBE, the children’s rights director, drew our attention to the views of young care leavers who had had various care experiences. They described having to wait in bed and breakfast accommodation for months before any flat or suitable accommodation became available, but many of them—almost 300 young people were interviewed—were worried that their accommodation after leaving care was unsafe. They did not feel safe or secure when they were there.
It is telling that many of them had been put into accommodation shared with people whom they would never have been encouraged to be with while they were in care. That seems ridiculous. Some were given flats that were completely unsuitable or even dangerous. The majority felt that insufficient time and regard were given to their future welfare and that they had almost been disposed of—moved on and regarded as no longer a problem. One young person said that she had been living in a hostel with “a load of fellas” and drug addicts, and a group of three young women reported that when they left care, they were placed in a hostel well known for prostitution.
A variety of safe, secure accommodation is vital for that age group. Protocols with housing authorities are necessary to handle appropriate accommodation applications and there should be arrangements to sustain young people in accommodation, including assistance with simple things such as reporting repair needs and getting into those systems. Often, the unsuitability of the property and the young people’s inability to deal with making it suitable makes the whole thing break down again.
The Bill is important, and the clause is an important part of it. However, if we are not careful, we will miss a trick in extending safe and secure accommodation to such young people. Risking their success risks their safety. The protections that we want for young people must be extended to the older age group. That is why I support the comments made by both my hon. Friends. I hope that the Minister will take my considerations on board.
We have had a good debate on clause stand part and on the new clause. It emphasises the fact that, as hon. Members have said, the Government are introducing an important new duty in clause 10.
Clause 10 places a general duty on the local authority to take steps to ensure that, as far as is reasonably practicable, there is sufficient accommodation in its area to meet the needs of the children it looks after. That is a reflection of our ambition to enhance the range and choice of suitable and quality placements for looked-after children, and goes hand in hand with our commitment to ensuring that more children are provided with accommodation in their local area, and are placed in a different area only if the reason for their being placed in a different area is to meet their particular needs. To take the point of the hon. Member for Isle of Wight, in fulfilling this duty, local authorities do not need to take into account those children for whom an in-area placement would be inconsistent with their welfare.
By requiring local authorities to consider the benefits of having a number of accommodation providers as well, the clause makes it clear that they cannot fulfil this duty simply by presuming that they can provide sufficient accommodation entirely by themselves. In addition, the clause highlights the need to have a range of accommodation that it is sufficient to meet the different needs of children who, as we know, have very diverse needs.
The new clause does say, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, West appropriately, astutely and typically pointed out, that
“When deciding the appropriate placement for a child in a children’s home the local authority must have regard to the proximity of other similar premises.”
As my hon. Friend pointed out, the drafting may be a little vague for the purposes of legislation, but I understand the intention behind the new clause and the hon. Gentleman’s purpose in proposing it.
I will return in a moment to the point about care leavers aged between 18 and 21 made by the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole and my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford. The aim of the amendments made by the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000 is to ensure that all care leavers between the ages of 18 and 21 have a personal adviser to provide ongoing advice and support, and the Bill extends that personal adviser beyond the age of 21, for as long as a young person continues in education or training started before the age of 25.
The personal adviser will work with the young person to develop a pathway plan which sets out the young person’s needs, including for accommodation and any assistance that they require with that. Importantly, the focus of the pathway plan and any local authority assistance is to enable and support the young person as an adult to arrange and secure their accommodation, rather than just to do it on the young person’s behalf.
We recognise that there is a lot more to do in relation to care leavers over the age of 18. As hon. Members will be aware, we recently announced—last week, in fact, with my hon. Friend chairing the meeting of the lobby by the foster carers alliance—the 10 local authorities that we have selected to pilot the “Staying Put” 18-plus family placement programme. The programme is designed to enable young people to remain with their former foster carers when they are adults, so that they can leave home in a way more typical of other young people, whose average age when they leave home is around 24, rather than 16, 18 or even 21. If the pilot demonstrates improved outcomes for care leavers, as we expect and hope it will, we are planning to take action in the next comprehensive spending review period to ensure that any care leavers who make that choice can reasonably expect to remain in a family placement beyond the age of 18.
In addition to the “Staying Put” pilots, we are taking forward a range of proposals from the White Paper to improve support for the transition into adulthood. For example, those who have been in care and who go into higher education will be eligible for a personal adviser and a bursary of a minimum of £2,000, in acknowledgment of the fact that care leavers face greater financial difficulties than others.
Too many young people are pushed into independent living too early and without proper support. The “Care Matters” White Paper included a comprehensive set of commitments to improve the quality of care provided to looked-after children and care leavers. The Bill already contains a provision to ensure that local authorities can move looked-after children from foster care or children’s homes into unregulated places such as supported lodgings, which hon. Members have mentioned, only after a full review of the care plan. That will involve determining whether the child understands the implications of any suggested move and whether they will be provided with the support that they need.
We expect the legislation to reduce the numbers of looked-after children leaving care at 16 or 17, and that is desirable. It is therefore not sensible to require local authorities to develop long-term strategies to build up a stock of accommodation for what we expect to be a diminishing group of young people.
Will my hon. Friend specifically address the issue of whether new section 22C(6)(d) will be included under clause 10? If it is in the Bill, it should be included; if it is not necessary for it to be in the Bill, I would perhaps accept that it should not be.
Yes, I was coming to that, but as my hon. Friend has given me the opportunity to mention it now, let me say that clause 10 will include the arrangements in new section 22C(6)(d). I hope that helps my hon. Friend.
My understanding is that clause 10 does include new section 22(6)(d) without the need for us to make a further amendment, but I will return to that if I am wrong. Perhaps I can clarify the point later in my remarks if inspiration reaches me. [Interruption.] Indeed, it might well be on its way right now. Yes, proposed new section 22C(6)(d) is included in clause 10, but perhaps I can clarify the issue further for my hon. Friend later if I need to. On her other point, provision will have to be in area, where reasonably practicable.
The whole point of clause 10 is to give local authorities responsibility for providing sufficient placements in area, where that is reasonably practicable. Our aims is to ensure that the days of dumping—as the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham put it— looked-after children out of area are over. The Government want not only to send out the message that such practices are unacceptable, but to legislate to make it clear that it is the responsibility of local authorities to provide sufficient accommodation in area, where reasonably practicable.
The phrase “reasonably practicable” is not a get-out clause in any way, shape or form, and it obviously refers to some of the points that have been made relating to London, provision across boundaries and the need to take a sensible approach. As for the idea that it is acceptable to dump large numbers of looked-after children out of area, it is clear that the clause consigns that approach to history. I am sure that that will be welcomed throughout the Committee.
I refer—I hope this is the right provision—to proposed new section 22C of the 1989 Act, headed “Ways in which looked after children are to be accommodated and maintained”. Subsection (6)(d) specifies
“subject to section 22D, placement in accordance with other arrangements which comply with any regulations made for the purposes of this section.”
At what age does that cease to apply?
I will refer to the hon. Gentleman’s remarks later, rather than attempting to answer now, just in case I get it wrong, although I think I know the answer to his question.
New clause 19 would require local authorities, in considering whether to place a child in a particular children’s home, to take account of the location of other children’s homes in that area. I understand the point that the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham makes, and his concern. He has obviously come across some pretty bad practice in his constituency experience and is concerned about the negative impact that the clustering of children’s homes could have with respect to antisocial behaviour or criminal activity.
We recognise that, statistically, children in care are more likely than other children or young people to be subject to a final reprimand or warning or to be convicted of a crime, largely because they experience many of the same risk factors as young offenders, including abuse and neglect, instability in their lives, poor educational outcomes, poor parenting and higher rates of mental health problems than the wider population.
However, it is important to remember and to emphasise—we should always do so when we are talking about young people and, in particular, looked-after children—that the vast majority of looked-after children do not get involved in crime. The number who are involved in criminal activity is still small. Nevertheless I accept the hon. Gentleman’s point and do not want to gloss over it at all.
The existence of other children’s homes in the area is not the key issue. What matters is that the placement meets the needs of the child and that the child’s welfare is paramount in decisions about care planning. In providing accommodation for children whom they look after, local authorities must determine the most appropriate placement on the basis of a comprehensive assessment of each child’s individual needs. Before taking any decision regarding the child’s care, they should as far as is practicable consider the views of the child concerned, as well as those of the child’s parents or other relevant people. The placing authority should be satisfied, in making the placement decision, that the placement is appropriate, capable of meeting the child’s needs and, where possible, in line with the child’s choice.
Where a looked-after child has been identified as having the risk factors that make them vulnerable to antisocial or offending behaviour, the system needs to work effectively to support them and ensure that the risk factors are properly addressed. The child’s care plan should set out how their needs will be met, and that is likely to include information that influences the type and location of their placement.
Where a looked-after child is placed in a children’s home, a key role for the home is to provide a supportive and structured environment with appropriate rules and expectations about behaviour. All providers of children’s homes are expected to comply with regulations and meet the prescribed national minimum standards for the operation of the home and the care provided. That should and does include the management of the children’s behaviour.
The chief inspector of education, children’s services and skills already has a range of enforcement powers that may be used in cases where children’s homes fail to meet the standards expected of them. We are including in the Bill measures to strengthen those provisions, such as allowing the chief inspector to restrict new admissions to homes that are found to be performing poorly. We are funding other steps to improve the quality of residential provision, such as the development of training and professional development standards for all residential care staff. It is not in anyone’s interest for children to be provided with accommodation in homes that are not properly equipped or organised to manage antisocial behaviour or to support each individual child to fulfil their potential. As part of the review of the national minimum standard, we shall consider also how best to encourage providers to engage positively with their local communities and with other agencies. It is very important that that takes place, for the very reasons that the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham mentioned: often in communities, there is a lot of misunderstanding about children in care and about the presence of children’s homes in an area.
Alongside such supportive placements and good care planning, we need a youth justice system that focuses on prevention—I commend my right hon. Friend the Minister for Children, Young People and Families on her work in that area—and provides appropriate sanctions to steer young people away from the criminal behaviour that concerns hon. Members. That is why the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 will introduce the youth rehabilitation order—a community sentence for juveniles that can be tailored to meet young people’s assessed needs—and why we in the Department for Children, Schools and Families are working closely with the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice to publish the youth crime action plan this summer, a central theme of which will be the prevention of youth crime. I shall move on to make some other remarks, but I hope that the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham feels that he does not need to press his new clause.
The hon. Member for Isle of Wight asked about age: 18 will be the appropriate age.
The hon. Member for Stourbridge made some important points, but I got the impression that they were in respect of post-18-year-olds, so the question is, what is happening to children post-18?
The duty to accommodate looked-after children applies under clause 9 up to 18 years old. I referred to the “Staying Put” pilots that we are running to try to make it the norm for children to stay in their foster care placements up to 21 years old. However, many issues and questions—legal, practical and others—need to be addressed. Of course, young people can stay with their foster carers beyond 18, but foster carers have brought to our attention the practical difficulties with such accommodation, which we considered when developing the pilots. The right approach is for us to ensure that we understand all the issues before we roll out such a policy nationally.
The problem that the Minister cited was with girls—young women—who had taken up recommended accommodation and found that it was not foster care but an independent home because they were post-18. Are we now being told that that cannot be done? I get the impression that we are.
I hope that I have not given the hon. Gentleman that impression at all. Local authority good practice when looking after the needs and interests of care leavers should not involve placements in the kind of inappropriate accommodation to which hon. Members have referred. I cannot emphasise that enough.
I was saying that the statutory duty in the Bill applies up to 18 years old, but that we are piloting approaches that will enable care leavers to stay, for example, with their foster carers beyond 18—with the appropriate practical support. I am not saying that it is good practice for any care leaver to be placed and not have the support of their local authority beyond the age of 18. They should not be placed in inappropriate accommodation, and it is absolutely part of the local authority’s duty to plan appropriate accommodation with the young person after they leave care, at whatever age.
I welcome the “Staying Put” pilots, which were discussed on the Floor of the House when they were introduced. I would like the Minister to address further a point that I made then. There is evidence from similar schemes in Northern Ireland, which have been wonderful and successful. Given that evidence already exists, are we not hanging back a bit too much? I understand the need for evidence, but we need to move quickly. Does he have an end date in mind, or a time by which a decision will have been taken? It cannot be soon enough for those children.
I sympathise and empathise absolutely with the point that my hon. Friend makes, but I should tell her that the scheme in Northern Ireland is relatively new, limited in scope and not universal in application. The evidence is still new and untested in terms of what has happened in the Northern Ireland context. Obviously, however, we are looking at it with interest, as we will look at the evidence from the “Staying Put” pilots.
I have tried to make it as clear as possible that as soon as we have the opportunity to evaluate the “Staying Put” pilots, which are commencing as we speak, we will look to seek the necessary resources to roll the scheme out nationally, provided that the evaluation shows that any legal or other practical difficulties that may have been thrown up can be overcome.
Bristol is one of the cities that have been selected to run the “Staying Put” pilots. I welcome that because I have been approached, as several of my hon. Friends have, by foster parents who have been in the difficult situation of feeling that they have to turn someone who is all but a member of their family out on to the streets when they reach a certain age.
I want to press the Minister further on evaluation. I am concerned that we will not necessarily always be able to assess until several years down the line whether the arrangements made for young people under the “Staying Put” pilots were appropriate and what was the impact on their lives. We cannot immediately arrange for them to stay with their family and say after several months that that is working fine. There might be longer-term consequences.
Will the Minister give us an idea of the time scale for the evaluation, or will it be a running evaluation with an assessment after six months? Will the evaluators then stay in touch with the young people to see how the arrangement has worked out for them?
The assessment will not be about whether the arrangement is suitable for the young person. It will be about the practical, financial, tax, benefit and other issues that may be thrown up by the arrangement under the pilot to continue to pay foster carers for keeping young people in their homes beyond the age of 18, rather than using the supported lodgings approach.
The supported lodgings approach is often used, but it often pays a lower rate, which causes financial difficulty. If there is mutual agreement, there is no reason why foster carers cannot continue to accommodate young people leaving care. In doing so, they are entitled to supported lodgings allowance, but often that is inadequate.
Therefore, the issues raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East are not the issues that we are worried about. Where the young person and the foster carer both want it, it is often in that young person’s interest to stay in the placement beyond 18. We are, however, trying to address the often unanticipated difficulties that making such a change throws up.
The Government have occasionally been criticised, possibly rightly, for rushing to legislate and not trying to find out what the unintended consequences of legislating might be. It is right that we base our policy on clear and properly evaluated evidence, although we should do so without unnecessarily delaying a radical and appropriately progressive policy change, which is ultimately what the Bill represents. I hope that that reassures my hon. Friend on that point.
Care leavers over the age of 18 have a sole entitlement to mainstream accommodation, as do other vulnerable groups of young adults. Housing services in a local area are responsible for making those arrangements, but they should work closely with leaving care services to ensure holistic planning to meet the young person’s needs as identified in their pathway plan.
I have half an eye on the green screen up there, Mr. Williams, so I will try to deal with the rest of the points that were raised during this excellent debate. In relation to the duty to children placed out of area, the Arrangements for Placement of Children (General) Regulations 1991 require local authorities to notify the local authority for the area where the children are being placed, which meets the points made by the hon. Members for Mid-Dorset and North Poole and for East Worthing and Shoreham about local authorities often not being aware of that.
I hope, however, that clause 10 will significantly reduce the instances of looked-after children being placed out of area by providing local authorities with a legal duty to have sufficient accommodation within area.
The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham referred to a particular case about an isolated home. Clause 10 is specifically intended to help to tackle the issues of increasing provision of accommodation within the local authority area that the children are from, so that they can be looked after there, rather than dumped away from their homes.
The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole also asked how that statutory duty would bite on local authorities. Clearly, local authorities will be expected, under statute, to assess current and projected needs for looked-after children in their area, and we will ensure that it is clear that they have to do that. They will have to plan and design secure services that can meet those needs, and they will have to engage with potential providers and service users as necessary to continue, review and monitor those services. That role will, of course, be inspected and made absolutely clear during that inspection.
I will deal with one or two other issues. My hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, South raised an interesting point that we mentioned earlier. She will be fully aware that we are reviewing the whole question of the provision of adequate emergency accommodation, because she was closely involved in the young persons action plan. We absolutely acknowledge that children need safe places to go when they run away from home, until the reasons for their running away are addressed.
As my hon. Friend is aware, the review of the existing emergency accommodation is well under way to try to identify its strengths and weaknesses, and ultimately to address them. The action plan sets out a further commitment to support the development of the commissioning and provision of emergency accommodation for young runaways, including those who are running away from care. As she knows, we will consult local authority and partner organisations, as well as young people, to inform all that work.
On that basis, I think that clause 10 should stand part of the Bill and suggest that the new clause is unnecessary.