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Yes, my hon. Friend has put the point better than I have so far. He is correct: legislation is by its nature inflexible and prescriptive and in the amendment we are trying to introduce an element of flexibility into the Bill, particularly on attendance and methods of learning.
The amendment would introduce into the clause a requirement that the Secretary of State produce regulations that set out a more flexible set of duties to which a person with significant caring responsibilities would be subject. The duty to participate in education or training would remain, but arrangements could be made that were more suitable and adaptable to their circumstances.
Amendment No. 6 is designed to deal with similar problems faced by a young person of 16 or 17 who has a child of his or her own, with all the responsibilities that come with having and raising a baby or young child. The Government’s Green Paper “Raising Expectations: staying in education and training post-16” says at paragraph 5.44 on page 41 that the Government
“want to support teenage parents to engage in learning. This depends on their being able to access childcare and provision that fits their circumstances.”
In the next paragraph, they say
“The Care to Learn scheme supports childcare costs with funding paid directly to the childcare provider. This will continue and we will consider what else needs to be done to ensure teenage parents have real opportunities to participate.”
The purpose of amendment No. 6 is to draw out from the Minister the results of the Government’s consideration and to ask what he has concluded also needs to be done to ensure that teenage parents have real opportunities to participate? With teenage pregnancies continuing to rise, there is clearly a real concern. Between 1999 and 2005, the number of 16 and 17-year-olds becoming pregnant rose from 39,247 to 39,804. When girls aged between 13 and 15 were added, the total rose from 46,655 to 47,277.
The Green Paper says that:
“Of course expectant mothers will need some time off before and after the birth. There would need to be flexibility in this to respond to individual circumstances and we would need to ensure enough local discretion to allow for this.”
That discretion— that flexibility, as my hon. Friend put it—is not yet incorporated into the Bill. That is what the amendment is designed to remedy. The Green Paper goes to say that
“For mothers of compulsory school age, guidance sets out that the normal period of time”— that is, time off school—
“is maximum 18 weeks, but we know that sometimes where good provision is in place they are able to engage earlier than this. For example, within specialist units the expectation is often six weeks. We will consider what guidance we should set for local authorities about this.”
It would be enormously helpful if the Minister gave us some idea about the guidance that he is considering.
The Prince’s Trust has expressed its concern about teenage mothers and the effect that the duties imposed by the policy of participation to the age of 18 will have on them. In its written submission in response to the Government’s consultation, the Prince’s Trust says:
“Supporting childcare for young mothers to enable them to continue education or training is critical.”
Referring to the six-week period alluded to in the Green Paper, the trust says:
“Six weeks off to have a baby is clearly not enough time; it should be more in line with maternity leave practices for those in employment, with them re-entering education at a later date.”
“School-age fathers also have educational and emotional needs and this should be addressed to instil responsibility.”
The purpose of amendments Nos. 5 and 6 is to incorporate into the legislation a mechanism to enable the Secretary of State to introduce some form of flexibility for young carers and teenage parents. Such provision is not in the Bill as it stands. Clearly, the Government are aware of the matter; the purpose of the debate is simply to draw out from the Minister more details of how they intend to respond to the very real needs of both these groups of 16 and 17-year-olds.