Clause 16

Children and Young Persons Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:45 am on 1st July 2008.

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Duty of local authority to ensure visits to looked after children and others

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

I beg to move amendment No. 13, in clause 16, page 13, line 6, leave out ‘representative of the authority’ and insert

‘a registered social worker or equivalent appropriate professional representing the authority’.

Photo of Hywel Williams Hywel Williams Shadow PC Spokesperson (Education), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Health), Shadow PC Spokesperson (International Development)

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 14, in clause 16, page 13, leave out lines 23 to 25.

No. 16, in clause 19, page 15, line 24, leave out ‘representative of the authority’ and insert

‘a registered social worker or equivalent appropriate professional representing the authority.’.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

Mr. Pope has transmogrified into you, Mr. Williams, and we are delighted that you are here overseeing our proceedings again.

These are probing amendments, and I would be grateful for the Minister’s response to them. They are particularly concerned with the quality and continuity of the visiting and monitoring of children who are placed away from the responsible local authority area. We will return to that subject under clauses 18 and 19.

The purpose of the amendments is to put in the Bill a more detailed requirement that it should be a registered social worker or equivalent appropriate professional representing the authority, rather than simply “a representative of the authority”, which can cover a multitude of sins. Indeed, I would be grateful for the Minister’s thoughts on to what exactly the terminology “a representative” might extend.

We are talking in many cases about children with complex requirements, particularly if they are placed in children’s homes with specialist facilities. For all the reasons we have been debating with regard to the Bill, it is absolutely essential that the most appropriate person—an appropriately qualified person—is responsible for the child, and provides a key link between that child and the placing authority when decisions are made about that child’s future. It is therefore reasonable to expect that the person who is making the visits, and who will be the direct contact with the child in the care system, should be of significant status—they should be a registered social worker or equivalent—not just a trainee or somebody from a different department who is nominated as the authority’s representative. It should be somebody who is completely au fait with the procedures that put that child in the care system in the first place; with the procedures that may ultimately get the child out of the system; and with the level of care and facilities available to that child to assist their progress and ensure, for example, that the child gets access to the sort of schooling that to which we want them to have access. There are further measures in the Bill to ensure the continuity of the school placement and so forth. It is perfectly realistic that that person should be a registered social worker or an equivalent professional.

A point I made, and which I will make again under clause 18, concerns the large number of children who are placed out of area. Kent estimates that it has 1,250 children in care who were placed in the county by other authorities, and the latest estimate I have for my own authority in West Sussex is some 700. It is therefore essential that children who are placed at a distance have the same standard of visitor as they would expect, and to which they would be entitled, if they were placed within the local authority’s area.

I raised the issue of the use and attraction of volunteer social workers, particularly as a preventive measure, for liaison with families. I am not trying to row back and exclude the use of volunteer social workers, but the responsible person who makes the decisions and will have the contact should primarily be a registered social worker or someone of an equivalent professional standard. However, that does not exclude volunteer social workers from performing the role of visitors.

The amendments are probing, but the underlying reason for tabling them is to ensure that children are not “dumped” and get a worse service and less monitoring than they would if they were placed in the local authority area. That is particularly important, given that many children who are placed away from home are there because they need a more specialist placement. They inevitably have greater needs, which may change, and therefore we require someone of that status who is in regular contact with them and can make decisions based on first-hand experience.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Children, Young People and Families) 12:00 pm, 1st July 2008

May I say croeso and welcome, Mr. Williams? Thank you for joining us midway through this morning’s proceedings. As you ghosted into the room so will I ghost in for the first half of the clause and deal with the amendments, and my right hon. Friend the Minister for Children, Young People and Families will deal with clause stand part and new clause 7.

I agree with the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham that as a general policy it is desirable that the visits should be conducted by a social worker. However, I am concerned that the visits could give rise to problems, and that is why new section 23ZA(5) of the Children Act 1989 requires the local authority to ensure that the visitor has the necessary skills and experience. The supply of social workers has an impact on the extent to which local authorities can comply with that sort of duty, and we have to take account of such practical issues in regulations on the frequency of visits. It would be irresponsible to do otherwise. However, unless the visits are regular and frequent they are unlikely to deliver the policy objective of providing effective long-term supervision of the child’s placement, and of enabling the local authority to respond quickly to any change of circumstances. That means that local authorities must be given more discretion as to who they can appoint to visit the children. We will set out in regulations further details about the functions of the local authority representative and the frequency and circumstances in which the visits should take place. Further details will be provided by statutory guidance.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Children, Schools and Families), Shadow Minister (Education)

New section 23ZA(5) is all about ensuring that the person who is chosen has the necessary skills and experience to perform the functions of representative. Different local authorities could interpret that in many different ways. Will the Minister consider that point in the regulations that he issues?

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Children, Young People and Families)

Yes, indeed. It is important that we make that clear, but that is not an attempt to dilute the importance of the necessary skills and experience. It is simply that there are circumstances where it may not be either practical or in the interests of the child for the person visiting to be a qualified social worker. For example, the relationship that an individual has with a child may be vital, and the child may have expressed a wish to be visited by a particular individual who is not a qualified social worker but with whom they have established an excellent relationship. It is also possible there will be times when a visit from somebody with a particular specialism is appropriate, for example, regarding the child’s transition to independent living. That person might not be a qualified social worker, but they would have the particular skills or experience relevant to the child’s circumstances.

Photo of Helen Southworth Helen Southworth Labour, Warrington South

With reference to the move to independent living, does the Minister expect that one circumstance in which a visitor would need to visit a looked-after child would be to look at the accommodation into which they had moved to ensure that it was suitable and met their needs fully, and to discuss whether they were coping with the accommodation and other circumstances?

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Children, Young People and Families)

Yes, I would. That is an important point. We discussed earlier the fact that sometimes a young person’s understandable enthusiasm for a place of their own in that transitional period to independent living can quickly pale when they find themselves living alone and paying bills and, sometimes having to cope with the sheer loneliness. At that point, they might be at their most vulnerable, and we have to take such matters into account. We will make it clear that it is vital that children should be visited by local authority representatives who have a good knowledge and understanding of the issues relevant to them.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Children, Schools and Families), Shadow Minister (Education)

A further concern is whether that person, if he or she is not a social worker, can access the wide range of services that may be needed for the child and contribute to the relevant multidisciplinary teams.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Children, Young People and Families)

Yes, they will be able to do so. Rather then set that out in primary legislation, we believe that it is more appropriate to set out in the statutory guidance the detail on what skills and attributes the visitor should have. Obviously, one of them is the ability to access such resources, as the hon. Lady said. We expect that in most circumstances the visitor would be a qualified social worker—we will make that clear—but there may be cases in which that is neither possible nor appropriate.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

On that point, under what circumstances does he think that that visits from a registered social worker or an equivalent professional would be appropriate?

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Children, Young People and Families)

To repeat what I said earlier, there might be circumstances in which a young person would prefer to be visited by an individual who is not necessarily a qualified social worker, but with whom they have established a particularly good relationship. If a person was suitably qualified, it would be wrong for them not to be able to visit a young person if that young person had expressed such a preference or where a particular specialism was needed, as in the circumstances that I discussed with my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, South, including the child’s transition to independent living.

We all accept that resource issues come into play, and we have to be realistic about that. Under certain circumstances, for example, an urgent safeguarding issue involving a child might have to take priority over a routine visit to another child who is settled in a long-term placement and making good progress. In such cases, it would be wrong for a visit not to be undertaken simply because someone was not available as a result of having to deal with an urgent safeguarding problem involving another young person. There are circumstances in which such decisions have to be made, but we would expect a qualified social worker to undertake visits under normal circumstances: that would be the norm. For those reasons, it is important that the visitor has the right skills and experience both to provide the support and advice that the child needs and to establish an effective relationship with the child.

Photo of Edward Timpson Edward Timpson Conservative, Crewe and Nantwich

There are circumstances in which a child has developed a relationship with an individual, and hopefully they have been involved in the process to  select that individual to assist them. We know from experience, however, that that person sometimes has to move on, so consideration has to be given to who will take on that role. Will the statutory guidance make provision to assist that process to ensure that the visits do not dry up and that a new person is appointed to take on that role?

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Children, Young People and Families)

Yes, we will make it absolutely clear what the frequency of the visits should be. We will also make it clear that the visits should not dry up under the circumstances outlined by the hon. Gentleman and that their frequency and regularity—this is an important part of the principle behind the clause—should not decline.

For the reasons that I have outlined, it is important that visitors have the right skills and experience to provide the support and advice that the child needs and to establish an effective relationship with the child. The Bill seeks to ensure that that is the case by giving local authorities a limited degree of flexibility, but we will also ensure that the regulations and guidance support local authorities in achieving that aim. On that basis, I hope that the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham will withdraw his probing amendment.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

I began by saying that these were probing amendments, and I was heartened by the Minister’s opening comment that it was essential that visits should be conducted by the social worker. That is a useful starting point.

The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole talked about qualifying new section 23ZA(5), and the amendment would strike it out on the basis that we define who an appropriate person is. If we keep new section 23ZA(5), and the Government do not accept the amendments, I hope that the regulations will define a visitor’s necessary skills and experience. The Minister said that the child might have formed a relationship with somebody who is not a registered social worker. Although it might be decided that it is in the child’s best interests for that person to be a link person, a responsible social worker clearly needs to make the decisions. If a non-registered social worker is performing the visiting duty, that role should be subcontracted out by the responsible social worker. Although the person doing the visiting may have formed a helpful bond with the child, they may not necessarily be qualified to make or advise on the decisions that must be made about the child. A fully registered social worker must be the lead individual. If the visitor is someone below that level of qualification, the regulations should set out how the reporting mechanism is supposed to work.

I am also heartened to hear that the regularity, frequency and circumstances of the visits will be set out. Again, my experience when I go round some of the homes and speak to children in the care system is that there is an enormous postcode lottery in the way in which their social workers visit them, depending on which authorities they come from.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Children, Young People and Families) 12:15 pm, 1st July 2008

To expedite matters, I can confirm that the registered social worker would supervise the visitor if the visitor is not qualified as a registered social worker.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

That is very helpful. That also provides a role for a volunteer social worker as well, according to the criteria that I have set out. I note the Minister’s comments about giving a limited degree of flexibility to authorities. There will be exceptional circumstances in which an urgent visit is required, and a registered social worker is not immediately available. Again, if it is to be done in regulations we are, as usual, talking slightly in the dark. We have not seen the regulations, but it must be made clear that it is in exceptional circumstances that it will not be a registered social worker performing this role.

I have seen different children in the same children’s home receiving quite a wide disparity of service from their responsible placing authority regarding social worker visits. It is a key requirement to ensure that that child does not feel neglected and detached from the person who is making decisions about their future. If we can get some regularity now, it is greatly to be welcomed. I am grateful for the Minister’s clarification. On the basis that he will take up some of those points in the guidance, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Hywel Williams Hywel Williams Shadow PC Spokesperson (Education), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Health), Shadow PC Spokesperson (International Development)

With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 7—Assistance for looked after children in custody—

‘(1) The 1989 Act is amended as follows.

(2) After section 23ZB (which is inserted by section 17) insert—

“23ZC Assistance for looked after children in custody

(1) This section applies to—

(a) a child looked after by a local authority who is taken into custody;

(b) a child or young person being held in custody who was previously being looked after by a local authority;

(c) a child or young person who has been released from custody but who was, prior to his or her detention, being looked after by a local authority; and

(d) a child or young person—

(i) who is of a description prescribed by regulations made by the appropriate national authority; and

(ii) in relation to whom the regulations impose the duties in this section on a local authority.

(2) It is the duty of the local authority—

(a) to ensure that a person to whom this section applies is visited by a representative of the authority (“a representative”);

(b) to arrange for appropriate advice, support and assistance to be available to a person to whom this section applies.

(3) The duty contained in subsection (2)(b) only applies to a young person aged 18 years or over if that person seeks the relevant advice, support or assistance.

(4) The duties imposed by subsection (2)—

(a) are to be discharged in accordance with any regulations made for the purposes of this section by the appropriate national authority;

(b) are subject to any requirement imposed by or under an enactment applicable to the place in which the person to whom this section applies is held in custody.

(5) Regulations under this section for the purposes of subsection (4)(a) may make provision about—

(a) the frequency of visits;

(b) circumstances in which a person to whom this section applies must be visited by a representative; and

(c) the functions of a representative.

(6) In choosing a representative, the local authority must satisfy themselves that the person chosen has the necessary skills and experience to perform the functions of a representative under this section.

(7) In this section—

“held in custody” means held in detention by the police, prison service or other court authority and “taken into custody” and “released from custody” shall be construed accordingly;

“the appropriate national authority” means—

(a) in relation to England, the Secretary of State; and

(b) in relation to Wales, the Welsh Ministers.”’.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

New clause 7 stands in my name and those of my hon. Friends. I do not want to dwell on it. It was tabled and debated in another place, where it was moved by the noble Lord Ramsbotham, who has great expertise in this subject. It was supported by other noble Friends and noble Lords. Lord Ramsbotham received some assurances from Lord Adonis, but it would be useful to have further clarification from the Minister about what happens to children in the care system who go into the custody system. We should ensure that some continuity of care is available for them, because there is a perverse incentive to consider.

I do not suggest that this happens, but hypothetically there is an incentive for a children’s services authority to offload a child in care into the custody system. All of a sudden that child is no longer a financial burden on the children’s services department, but becomes the responsibility of the custody system, be it in a young offenders institution or whatever. We know that the number of young people in young offenders institutions has risen enormously. Around 3,000 young people are effectively in prison at the moment. We also know that the recidivism rate for inmates of young offenders institutions, particularly those who are sent there on sentences of less than 12 months, is 92 per cent. That is alarming. Basically, sending young people into young offenders institutions is a rapid escalator to a career of crime. The recidivism rate for alternative forms of justice is substantially lower. We have to be a lot smarter in our thinking about how we deal with many of those young people.

Photo of Angela Watkinson Angela Watkinson Opposition Whip (Commons)

We all know that there is a wide range of reasons why young people are looked after—they have not all suffered ill treatment or neglect, for example. It occurred to me when I looked at new section 23ZA (2)(b), which places a duty on the local authority

“to arrange for appropriate advice, support and assistance to be available”,

that there may be occasions on which a family member—a mother, for example—might be well placed to give support. If a family member could not give “advice...and assistance”, he or she could at least give emotional support to a young person in custody, which would help to alleviate feelings of abandonment or rejection and to maintain those essential family ties whenever possible.  Of course, that would have to be done when it was felt to be appropriate and beneficial to the young person, and when they were anxious for it to happen.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

My hon. Friend makes a good point. She will know as well as I do about the experiences of young men in young offenders institutions. I visited Feltham a few months ago, which was fascinating if rather depressing, and some of the young offenders shared their experiences with me. Interestingly, the worst possible offence that one can commit against a fellow inmate is to “diss” their mother—I shall not repeat the fairly graphic terms in which one can “diss” someone’s mother that were relayed to me. The staff say that 90 per cent. or so of the visitors will be mothers or girlfriends, and there is an almost complete absence of fathers and father figures who keep in contact with, or keep a watching eye over, their children. That is the harsh reality of where many of the offenders come from.

We also know that up to 50 per cent. of the people in young offenders institutions are products of the care system. It is relevant to the sort of people whom we are talking about that they have the right sort of support if they have to go into the custody system. Those people also need the right sort of continuity of support. They might have been making some progress with the support outside, and they will need to re-engage with it when they leave the custody system to alleviate the possibility of becoming one of the 92 per cent. who go back into a more severe form of the system in due course.

Those are shocking figures and stopping young people getting on that escalator into the justice system is a real challenge facing all of us, as is putting the escalator in reverse for those who are already on it. To mix metaphors, we do not want it to be a slippery slope—I think that the Committee gets what I mean. That is the challenge facing us.

The new clause, the argument for which was better articulated by Lord Ramsbotham in another place, with fewer mixed metaphors than I would use, seeks to specify that the person in the care system who is responsible for the child in care retains and continues contact and support if that child goes into the custody system. It is crucial that the parents—meaning, more often than not, the mother, as my hon. Friend said—should be part of that. The Youth Justice Board could tell us that in about 60 per cent. of cases, a parent attends the case conference and keeps in touch regarding what will happen to the young offender. Of course, there is another important conference before release takes place. Parents should be fully engaged in the process, as should the person outside the family—that could also go for extended family members, depending on the young person’s circumstances.

From the response of the Government in the Lords, I do not anticipate that the Minister will suddenly say that the new clause is great.

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy PPS (Rt Hon Douglas Alexander, Secretary of State), Department for International Development

I am interested in what the hon. Gentleman says about young offenders. I have visited Ashfield young offenders institution, which is fairly close to my constituency, on a number of occasions. I cannot recall the figure offhand for the number of parents who get involved in case conferences, but it is certainly very low—10 per cent. comes to mind, but I would not want to put that on the record because I  am not sure that it is correct. One problem is that, geographically, the institution covers a huge area, so it is very difficult for parents to maintain contact with the young people. Talking to some young lads due for release, I found that those who had lost contact with their families did not know what was going to happen to them when they were about to be released, and the idea of having somebody who is—

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy PPS (Rt Hon Douglas Alexander, Secretary of State), Department for International Development

Yes, Mr. Williams. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that having that link, whereby somebody maintains contact with the young person when they are released from the system, is the right way to make progress because it cannot be assumed that they will go back into the bosom of their family and friends?

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

I completely agree. The hon. Lady has obviously had the same experiences as me when visiting her local youth offenders institute. The figures that I had were much higher than 60 per cent., but again there is a postcode lottery, and of course there is a postcode lottery given that young people can be placed well away from home.

I am talking about the pure practicalities of family members being able to maintain contact with the child. That is why it is even more important that there is a responsible officer from the children’s services department and that there is continuity of responsibility, particularly when the young person is about to come out. Too often, not enough good work goes on in prison, but we know that some good work takes place there—depending on how long the young person is inside—on drug treatment, alcohol abuse, learning disabilities and so on, which improves the chances of young people being able to get back on their feet, only for all those support mechanisms to be taken away when they are on the outside. They fall off a cliff, in effect, and revert to where they were before they went into prison.

It is essential to have a responsible officer who sees the young person before they go into the custody system, if that is where they are going to end up and they cannot be kept out of it, who monitors their progress, the treatments that they might be receiving, the developments that take place and their achievements while they are in the custody system, and who then takes them on when they are outside the custody system. The new clause is designed to achieve that. I think that the Minister will agree with the principle of it; it is just a question of how we bring it about in practice. This new clause, championed by Lord Ramsbotham, would be one way of ensuring that children in the care system who go into custody receive the assistance that they need to keep them out of the custody system in the future and to give them a decent chance of getting back on their feet when they come out. It would allow them to have all the other things that other children in care might expect and, we hope, because of this Bill are more likely to achieve.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Children, Schools and Families), Shadow Minister (Education)

We are having a very important discussion on the clause and new clause. This has to be one of the most critical things that we need to address given the very high percentage of young people in custody who were in care at some point. Correspondingly,  there may be very low literacy levels and mental health conditions among that group of people. I heard the other day that data are not routinely collected on looked-after children in custody. I ask the Minister whether that is the case. I presume that some data must be collected, but surely we should have quite detailed work on this if we are to provide the level of support that young people need.

I agree that there is a need for a qualified social worker following through and keeping in contact with the young person. In this case, it is a question not just of visiting but of the ability to make ongoing assessments of the young person’s needs. It is very important that it is an holistic assessment, considering all the issues that might apply to a young person in custody.

In conjunction with the Youth Justice Board, there are now some social workers based in young offenders institutions, but I still think that we need a continuity of contact with the social worker, as described by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham. If a care order is attached to a young person in custody, there is a responsibility to keep track of them to some degree, but if the care placement is voluntary, I am not sure that the same provisions apply. Nevertheless, it is an important situation in which we particularly need to give greater support to children and young people. I would like some clarification on that point.

Over the past few years, we seem to have progressed quite a lot in getting social services even to be responsible for young people in custody. It has taken High Court judgments to move the agenda on, and the Howard League for Penal Reform has been very much involved. We have moved on, but the outcomes for young people who enter the custody system are still very poor. The Bill offers an opportunity to address every possible issue.

I agree that however a child enters the care system, it is important to work with all the other services to ensure that that young person is supported when they come out. I spoke to a local youth offending team early last year. They explained the difficulty of housing young people who have come out of custody. Because family accommodation is not available, the traditional route is YMCA accommodation. However, I understand that such accommodation carries out risk assessments. I discovered that our local youth offending team has had to place young people coming out of custody in bed and breakfasts, which I suggest is undesirable. My plea—there are so many strands to the problem—is for continuity and an holistic approach. That approach should include social services, local youth offending teams and housing services into the bargain and see the process as a whole.

Photo of Beverley Hughes Beverley Hughes Minister of State (Children, Young People and Families; Minister for the North West), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Children and Youth Justice) (and Minister for the North West) 12:30 pm, 1st July 2008

I certainly agree with Opposition Members that looked-after children who then go into custody are a vulnerable group, and that they can face many serious practical problems getting back on their feet and establishing themselves again in their local communities when released. I agree that they are at high risk of reoffending, although I did not recognise the figure of 92 per cent. given by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham. The one-year reconviction rate for young people who have been in custody is about 77 per cent., which is still very high.

Because of that, the Government will publish a youth crime action plan before the recess. One of its central themes will be strengthening the resettlement process. In terms of that special group of young people who have been looked after in one way or another, I recognise absolutely that we need to take the opportunity in the Bill to ensure and strengthen continuity of contact and what follows from that contact—it should not just be a social visit but a visit with a purpose.

I recognise that the amendment is intended to improve how such young people are supported. I do not think that there is a problem with the spirit of the amendment, but there is a problem with some of the detail, and I shall explain that. The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole asked me about information on children in care who are in custody. Hitherto, that has been limited. We have established a system that tells us how many placements of children in care cease because they are admitted to custody. The first year’s figures, for 2006-07, will be released in the not too distant future. That will be the first time that we have had authoritative figures on the number of children who went into custody from care whose placements have ceased.

Clause 16 provides a clear statutory framework to ensure that local authorities maintain contact with all looked-after children, wherever they live. That includes all the children referred to in section 23ZC(1)(a) of the 1989 Act, proposed in new clause 7. Clause 16 also enables us to ensure through regulations that the duty to visit is extended to include children that are provided with voluntary accommodation by the authority but who lose their looked-after status when sentenced to custody in a secure training centre or a youth offenders institution, because they are no longer accommodated by the local authority. That is all the children referred to in section 23ZB(1)(b) of the 1989 Act, proposed in the new clause.

Photo of Helen Southworth Helen Southworth Labour, Warrington South

Will the Minister address something that is of particular concern to me and which we have talked about a number of times? The clause will be beneficial in many ways. Will she confirm that it will not do away with the right of young people in custody, determined through the courts, to have access to a trained social worker under their entitlement to stay safe? The Minister is well aware of the successes at Thorn Cross young offenders institute in my constituency, which for three years has had a social worker based there. It has seen a radical reduction in the self-harm of young people, but it has also been working as part of a team to ensure that young people have good and effective training while there and good opportunities for effective resettlement when leaving custody?

Photo of Beverley Hughes Beverley Hughes Minister of State (Children, Young People and Families; Minister for the North West), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Children and Youth Justice) (and Minister for the North West)

My Department, jointly with the Home Office, is funding a pilot scheme on the provision of dedicated social workers on-site in a number of young offender institutions, with a view to local authorities taking up the provision nationally. I shall certainly correct myself if I am found to be wrong, but I am not aware that a right of access to a social worker has been declared and enforced by the courts for young people in custody. However, if my hon. Friend is thinking of the pilot, then yes it is showing some beneficial results.

The entitlement of care leavers to local authority services should be unaffected by a custodial sentence, and I think that it would be impossible for a local authority properly to discharge its duties to care leavers in relation to the preparation and maintenance of the pathway plan, the appointment of the personal adviser and the maintenance of contact unless the care leaver is regularly visited by a representative of the authority. As I said to the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole, that is not a social visit. It is a visit for a purpose—to assess and to ensure that things that need to be done for that young person are mobilised and put in place.

We made a commitment in the other place to use existing powers in relation to care leavers to require visits to relevant children—that is, those aged 16 or 17 wherever they may be living—and that will include the children referred to in proposed section 23ZB(1)(c) of the 1989 Act. We plan to do the same in relation to former relevant children in due course, as and when resources allow.

The difficulty with the new clause is that the regulation-making power that it contemplates is drafted in extraordinarily wide terms. Potentially, it allows the Government to require visits to be made to any group of children in any circumstances—for example, those living in their family home—and because “young person” is not defined it could similarly permit regulations to require adults to be visited in specified circumstances. It would put on the statute book an almost untrammelled power, with the potential to ride roughshod over the rights of children and young persons and their families. For instance, it could allow a local authority to visit someone who may have been in voluntary care for a few weeks when a baby, only for that youngster to be in custody at the age of 15. One may still want to visit that youngster, but we need to think carefully about the boundaries.

Not only does new clause 7 add nothing substantive to the duties and powers already proposed in clause 16, but it has some significant gaps. For instance, it would not require local authorities to visit those children who acquire looked-after status by virtue of being taken into custody of section 21 of the 1989 Act, for example, if they are remanded to a children’s home. This group of children, on the other hand, will benefit from the new mandatory requirement on local authorities to arrange visits to all its looked-after children. So it has some very wide powers in one sense but also some significant gaps in others.

Referring to other aspects of the amendment, we intend that the person responsible for visiting a formerly looked-after child in custody will be an officer of the local authority’s children’s services and, where possible, a qualified social worker known to the child and familiar with his or her background. That support will be in addition to the role of the separate youth offending team worker responsible for planning how the child will serve the rest of the sentence in the community.

There has to be effective co-ordination for this group of children with the shared support from children’s services and the youth offending teams. The new visiting requirement now provides a mechanism to ensure that this happens and puts an essential safeguard in place, so that they are not allowed to be forgotten by local authority children’s services.

The Youth Justice Board and the Prison Service support our intention to achieve a step change in the quality of support provided to looked-after children in custody by children’s services and for local authorities to do for a child in custody what any reasonable parent would do—visit them and make plans for their release. That is what we expect local authorities to do and how we expect them to behave when they have a looked-after child who goes into custody. Clause 16 allows for that, it requires it to happen. Having heard our approach, I hope hon. Members will not press the new clause.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

I said that this was a probing new clause to try to tease out some further detail which the Minister has given us.

The right hon. Lady said that it would be impossible in her view for a local authority to discharge its duties without the responsible social worker visiting, keeping contact and developing the care plan while the child was in custody. That sends out a strong message because at the moment that does not happen. It is important that that expectation is rammed home loud and clear, that simply because a child is effectively off the local authority’s patch in the custody and responsibility of someone else, that the responsibility of the local authority is not diminished. In many cases it becomes more important to make sure that they are fully aware of what is happening to that young person within the young offenders institution, or wherever it may be, and that their care plan can be adapted to take care of them when they come out.

Given the greater cross-departmental working between the DCSF, the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office—she and I were at the reception last night for the Youth Justice Board—I hope that in practice that there will be greater joined-up working between the youth justice system and the children’s services departments of local authorities, as I know is her intention. I heard the encouraging words of the Secretary of State who spoke last night. Unless that message is sent out loud and clear, that in practice local authorities are expected to keep a watch on their charges as much when they are behind bars as when they are in their authority area then it is not going to happen. It is a useful discussion. We have teased out further detail than we had in the House of Lords, so on that basis I am happy to ask to beg leave to withdraw the new clause.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause16 ordered to stand part of the Bill.