Care of young persons up to age 21
‘After section 22G of the 1989 Act (which is inserted by section 10) insert—
“22H General duty of local authority in respect of former relevant children
(1) It is the duty of a local authority to provide accommodation for persons who are—
(a) “former relevant children” within the meaning of section 23C(1) and who have not attained the aged of 22, and
(b) “relevant children” within the meaning of section 23A(2).
(2) Section 22G shall apply in relation to the persons mentioned in subsection (1) as it applies in relation to the children mentioned in subsection (3) of that section.”’.—[Helen Southworth.]
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
I am conscious that I bring with me the admirable support of not only my hon. Friends the Members for Stafford and for Stourbridge, but the 198 Members who signed early-day motion 1413, “Support for young people in care in transition to adult life”, which I tabled. It notes that many young people in care are moved into independent living at 16 or 17, when the average age at which young people in the United Kingdom leave home is 24. In practice that means that many vulnerable young people do not receive sufficient support to enable them to make the transition into adult life successfully. It calls on the Government to take steps to ensure that all these vulnerable young people have access to effective support including, where appropriate, the opportunity to remain with their foster carers until they are 21.
The reason why so many hon. Members believe it is essential that the opportunity of this Bill is seized to ensure that there is effective support for young people who are making steps into independent living from care is that the Bill is intended to enable those who enter the care system to achieve the aspirations parents have for their own children, and to reduce the gap in outcomes between children in care and their peers.
The Bill sets out many excellent measures to revolutionise care for children who are looked after by local authorities, but there remains a huge gap between the aspirations within the Bill and the practice for young people who, from the age of 16, are moving into independent living. There is a particular issue for young people who at the age of 16 or 17 move from foster care or from a local authority or private children’s home into other accommodation. The current practice in operation in many, if not most, parts of the country is that when young people leave the care of the local authority and leave the protection of the “parent”, they are left alone to resolve their problems themselves because they have moved accommodation.
Although the Ministers have made it clear in the Bill that they have admirable aspirations to ensure that local authorities provide accommodation for young people in their care, the practical fact remains that many young people of 16 or 17 are at best encouraged, and in some cases left with no alternative other than, to leave care and move into the supported services available through local authority housing services, rather than through children’s services.
I draw the Committee’s attention to the children’s rights director’s report of February 2006, “Young People’s Views on Leaving Care”, in which Dr. Roger Morgan made it clear that the consultation that he undertook demonstrated that this is an issue of serious concern to young people. In his top 10 list of things that most worry young people about leaving care, drawn up by consulting young people, among the problems such as loneliness and not being able to cope that hon. Members have already mentioned is the serious problem of:
“Leaving before being ready to do so—‘Should have a say in when to leave care’”.
Other concerns are:
“Having nowhere/no-one to come back to”; “Being put in some ‘dodgy’ places... Becoming homeless”,
“‘Not being able to settle anywhere’—having to keep moving around”.
The report demonstrated that young people are leaving care at significantly younger ages, typically around 16 or 17 years old. For them, the reality of leaving care is “harsh and uncertain”. The report said:
“A common theme amongst those young people consulted was in their having remarkably short periods of notice to leave, together with their sheer lack of preparation to do so”.
It went on:
“One young woman told us she had received no notice of having to leave care, had no plans drawn up prior to leaving and did not have any form of written plan.”
It is a sad fact that that young woman is not the only one. Hon. Members in the Committee and outside have received considerable evidence from young people leaving care that they have not had proper support and that they have been put into dodgy places. In some cases, they have been put in hostels where the majority of other residents are people who are leaving prison or have convictions for drug offences or prostitution. These vulnerable young people are being left to cope alone in that sort of accommodation.
I accept that provisions are made in clause 9 for other placements, but there is no way of measuring by inspection the suitability of those other places. It should not be beyond the wit of this House to produce a reasonable checklist that says what is suitable accommodation and what is dodgy. If 16-year-olds can work it out for themselves, we ought to be able to work it out on their behalf. We have a duty to do so.
The aspirations stated in the new clause refer not only to relevant children, but to young people who have previously been relevant up to the age of 21. That is an important thing to write into the Bill. Much legislation over the past few years has demonstrated the right of a looked-after child to be protected up to the age of 18 if it is needed. We have seen that 41 or 42 per cent. of young people have left looked-after status to go into independent living before the age of 18. In many cases, they have gone into wholly unacceptable accommodation. It is unsurprising that they do not have the opportunities that any parent would want for their child in such circumstances.
Many hon. Members want to see the aspiration of the opportunity for a young person to make a proper transition into independent living written into the Bill. We would then not have to look at opportunities that might emerge from future pilots. We already know that, for many young people, the opportunities to carry on in further education, higher education, training or work all depend on having a safe place to live and somebody they can turn to and talk things through with.
Finally and briefly, I would ask that we please focus on this problem, because it is something that many Members of this House expect us to address, either in this Committee or elsewhere.
I thank my hon. Friend for her work and my other hon. Friends who have campaigned very assiduously on this issue. Unfortunately, her new clause is technically defective, because unless an appropriate consequential amendment is made to make an exclusion from the definition of a child who is looked after in section 22 of the 1989 Act, it would have the effect of making all relevant children looked after. Notwithstanding that, I think that she wants me to talk a little about these issues.
I am always pleased to meet my hon. Friend, although I was going on to give the other reasons why we do not need the new clause and, of course, there was no implied criticism of her at all in relation to the point that I was making about the technical drafting of the new clause.
In the case of the hon. Gentleman, although I extend my sympathy to him for having been in the same job for the past seven years, I had thought that, by now, he would have learned how to draft an amendment or new clause in the correct manner.
Our three priorities are: making sure that children do not have to leave care before they are ready to do so; making sure that all care leavers have access to an appropriate range of accommodation options when they leave care, and providing the right support for care leavers so that they can make a successful transition to independent living.
The Committee will be glad to hear that I will not go through all the measures that we have discussed and are introducing, both in the “Care Matters” implementation plan and in the Bill, in relation to young people leaving care and accommodation. There are a number of measures that should have a significant impact in reducing the numbers of relevant children who need accommodation. Clause 9 will ensure that there is thorough scrutiny whenever a local authority plans to move a child to move from a placement with foster parents or in a children’s home to any other arrangement, which is likely to be accommodation that is less supported, whether that is a hostel or supported lodgings.
As we have already discussed in our consideration of the Bill, we would expect the IRO to provide a robust challenge to such a proposed change to the placement arrangement if there is any doubt about the young person’s informed consent to the move, or any doubt that such a move is not in their interest. We are committed to using existing regulatory powers to introduce a new requirement for personal advisers to visit young people where they are living, mirroring the new visiting duty for looked-after children in clause 16, to reduce still further the practical differences between the services that local authorities must provide for looked-after children and relevant children, including the financial incentives that local authorities may have had previously to force children out of care before they are ready. We want to stop there being any incentive at all for local authorities to do that, and to ensure that they absolutely understand what their duties are. Obviously that has been a large part of the discussions that we have had in relation to the Bill and to the wider “Care Matters” implementation plan.
As part of our revision of the Children Act guidance, we will be issuing statutory guidance to IROs in 2009. The focus of case reviews should be the provision made by the local authority to meet the full range of the child’s needs. For relevant children placed in unregulated placements, such as supported lodgings, hostels, or, as is sometimes the case, their own independent accommodation, it is essential that the review examines whether or not their accommodation is suitable and whether or not they are being provided with all the support that they need.
If that review process identifies problems, then the review meeting provides the opportunity to find the appropriate solutions. That will require that leaving care services establish real partnerships with housing and youth homelessness services. Housing services and children’s services must adopt a shared strategic approach to the provision of housing and support pathways for young people. That was the strong message in the guidance, “Joint working between Housing and Children’s Services: Preventing homelessness” published by my Department and the Department for Communities and Local Government in May this year.
When I visited South Gloucestershire a few months ago, I met a young person in care and what one young lady said about what her brother had said years before was interesting. She said that her brother had said that being in care meant “homelessness”. Ultimately, that was what it meant to him and his friends; we are determined to bring that to an end. I and hon. Members have seen how that situation can be transformed, and we need to ensure that that is happening more widely around the country. We are committed to supporting young people in their transition into adulthood. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, South will be holding us to account as we try to strength the guidelines. Her new cause is unnecessary and has technical deficiencies, and I hope that she will agree to withdraw it.
We have already commented on the technical difficulties within the amendment. I hope that my hon. Friend will agree to meet Members to look at the issues further. In light of the indications that we have received from the Minister and of the time that we have available to us over then next few months before Report, I will review what he as said. However, first I shall remind him that in the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s 2005 report, “Life after care”, 36 per cent. of young people reported being homeless at some time in the year after leaving care and that Rainer’s “Home alone” report found that almost one in six of care leavers were in unsuitable accommodation, with a number in unsafe accommodation. We urgently need to demonstrate that the Bill as drafted is capable of delivering what it needs to for young people up to the age of 21 to ensure that they can make an effective transition into independent living. On that basis I will withdraw the amendment, but 198 Members want to see the Bill working effectively. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.
I obviously learnt nothing in my two years in the Government Whips Office. I am a rather defective Minister. I thank you, Mr. Pope, and your colleague, Mr. Williams, for chairing the Committee. I apologise that perhaps his presence meant that some of us, including the hon. Member for Upminster, occasionally lapsed into the language of heaven and I particularly apologise to the Hansard writers for that. I hope that the Committee will agree that we, including the hon. Member for Ceredigion, made a valiant effort to pronounce the very difficult English constituency names of colleagues correctly during the proceedings. I also thank the officials, the Clerks, the Hansard writers, the Doorkeepers and the police for their assistance during our deliberations.
We have had an extremely useful Committee stage. The Bill has been altered, if not through direct amendment, by indications that my right hon. Friend and I have given either about strengthening regulation or about amendments to other legislation about which hon. Members have raised important points. The Committee has had a right and proper scrutiny process, which has improved the Bill. I would like to thank all Committee members, particularly my right hon. Friend the. Member for Stretford and Urmston and my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester, who, being in the Whips Office and not being allowed to speak, does not get enough recognition. He has helped us to get through all the clauses in time, as we have this afternoon.
I would also like to thank Members of the Opposition parties and particularly their spokespersons, both of whom I have debated with before. I thank the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole for her elegant choice of clauses and amendments to support. The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham said that he did not come into politics to be elegant. I wrote that down when he said it. You may have noticed at that point, Mr. Pope, one or two titters on this side of the Committee, because as the hon. Gentleman was saying that some of my hon. Friends behind me were passing around a copy of a new magazine called “Total Politics”. In that magazine there is an article on political elegance, with a quote, which is highlighted:
“And wear braces only if you want to look like a twit.”
Heaven forefend that the hon. Gentleman should think that I am getting at him. That is a quote from his hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan). He made that contribution to an article entitled “Dress to the Right, Sir?” I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me for pointing that out to the Committee, but it was he who said that he did not want to be elegant. That is just as well, considering his hon. Friend’s comments. With that, I would like to conclude, and to thank you once again, Mr. Pope, for your chairmanship.
Further to that non-point of order, Mr. Pope, I also add my thanks to you and Mr. Williams for your unassuming, understanding and accommodating chairmanship, which has allowed us perhaps to range slightly more freely through some of the clauses. May I also thank—I was going to thank the Minister but I am not entirely sure that I should now. One would look even more of a twit if one was not wearing braces and one’s trousers ended up around one’s ankles. That is another matter, which I shall take up with my sort of hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton later in the Lobby.
We have had a constructive debate on a universally welcomed Bill, which has been improved by the debate in another place and by the undertakings and discussions in this Committee. We have had some disappointments and some anticlimaxes, although not quite of the ejaculatory nature that the Minister suggested earlier. I also thank my hon. Friends. It is always worthwhile being on a Committee where just about every member contributes. In the past, there were times when like muppets they sat there and, under strict instructions, said nothing. There are some regular suspects—if I can put it that way—on the Committee who have been very involved in children’s legislation for many years, for almost as long as I have, and they made valid contributions born out of their great experience.
I give my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight. It was good to see him back in Committee, making his first contribution since his recent health problems. I also give my thanks to our Whip, my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster. It is always good to have a talking Whip—try stopping her, with her knowledge of this subject. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove who has been with us on children’s legislation before, and particularly my new hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich, who is no longer a Committee virgin which is always a good hurdle to get over.
It was almost frustrating that it was hard to find something to vote on—but we did. However, on Report we might find more reasons to vote. There is some time now for the Government to reflect on many of the suggestions that were made in the Committee. They have undertaken to look again at certain things. They have undertaken to reflect on some of the debates that we have had on the guidance that will be issued with this and accompanying legislation. I therefore look forward to returning on Report, when we might have further progress to report towards ensuring that the Bill is as good as we could possibly hope for, to at last address the problems of some of the most vulnerable people in our society, namely children in care. They have had a lousy deal for some time, and I think that we all agree that the time has finally come to give them the deal—the support and services—that they so much deserve.
I would also like to add my thanks, particularly to you, Mr. Pope, in the Chair. It has been obvious that you are very interested in the material, and that has given an added dimension. I thank Mr. Williams as well. I thank the Clerks and everyone else who has contributed to our proceedings. I give particular thanks to the Ministers, who have been very courteous, receptive and perhaps responsive—we shall see on Report. I have to say of the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham that I just hope he does not have too many sneezing fits, particularly in inappropriate places.
We have had good debates, and I hope that we would all agree that it has been a privilege to serve on the Committee considering this very important Bill. The fact that so much work was done in the other place has enabled us to deal with some of the outstanding issues in quite a lot of detail. That has been a good thing. I just hope that we really will change things for the better and make a difference with this Bill.
Thank you for those kind remarks and thank you also for being a well behaved Committee, with the exception of the debate on clause 1 stand part, when Mr. Brennan and Mr. Loughton were very naughty boys—that is particularly to be deprecated in front of an impressionable new Member.