Clause 34

Education and Skills Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:00 am on 21st February 2008.

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Parenting contracts

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

I beg to move amendment No. 33, in clause 34, page 18, line 11, at end insert—

‘(2A) Prior to entering into a parenting contract the local education authority shall ensure that parents’ needs are assessed by the appropriate local authority adult services.’.

Welcome back to the Chair, Mr. Bercow. You seem to be doing overtime at the moment, but you are very welcome. There is something rather incongruous about clauses 34 and 35 and about the use of parenting contracts and parenting orders to enforce the duty that the Bill imposes on 16 and 17-year-olds. That goes back to our earlier debate about what age constitutes maturity and the beginning of adulthood, and that is particularly pertinent to these provisions.

Sixteen-year-olds are regarded in law as old enough to marry and have children, so they could become parents themselves, only to find that their own parents are subject to a parenting contract about them. It is unrealistic to expect parents to rein in, or change the behaviour of, 16 or 17-year-olds who have decided to opt out of education and training. There might have been parenting problems while the children were growing up, and those problems might have contributed to the fact that the young person is no longer participating in education or training. It is naive and unrealistic to think that applying a parenting contract or order at this stage would help to tackle the issue, because it would be too late.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (14-19 Reform and Apprenticeships)

I, too, welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Bercow. I hope that I can assist my hon. Friend by reminding him that when he and I, in harness together, put it to the Minister in a Committee on a different Bill that parenting contracts should have greater statutory force at an earlier age, the Government resisted our overtures, so the current proposals are indeed incongruous.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

My hon. Friend makes a good point, and I am grateful to him for intervening. As he says, it will be too late to introduce parenting contracts, which would need to have been put in place when the children really were children.

Last year, 13,278 parenting contracts were made as a result of poor school attendance, which is 89 per local authority, using the Minister’s assessment of quantum. Some 2,535 contracts were made as a result of exclusions from school, which is just 17 per local authority. I suspect that the number of parenting contracts that will be issued as a result of the clause and as a consequence  of 16- and 17-year-olds not participating in education or training will be small. It will certainly be smaller than the 89 and 17 per local authority issued in respect of children of compulsory school age.

Amendment No. 33 adds a new subsection to clause 34, requiring local authorities to ensure that the particular needs of the parents are assessed by the adult services department before a parenting contract is proposed or entered into. The amendment was inspired by the Princess Royal Trust for Carers, which is concerned that young people who are carers, responsible for sick parents or siblings, may find themselves in breach of the duties to participate in education or training because of the burden of their own responsibilities.

The trust believes that before local authorities begin the enforcement process and approach the parents of those carers, they should assess the needs of the parents themselves, who may be ill or incapacitated. Community services may have proved inadequate, thus necessitating care by their children. In those cases, the local authority or primary care trust may have failed to fulfil its statutory duty to provide care for the parents. As the trust states in its briefing, the fact that there are so many young carers

“points to the fact that the current provision of community care support often does not meet the needs of families, requiring children to step into caring roles that can be incredibly demanding, including night-time care, intimate care, help with medication and taking responsibility for the safety of someone who is at risk of self-harm or substance overdose.”

I am sure that the Minister will agree with our concern over the problems faced by young carers, and I am sure that it is a simple oversight that has resulted in the Bill failing to include such provision. If the Government do not accept the amendment, down the line we will see officious local authorities proceeding with parenting contracts, apologetically explaining that their hands are tied by the legislation. I trust that we will receive a sympathetic response from the Minister, and, at the very least, a promise of a Government amendment along similar lines on Report.

Photo of Stephen Williams Stephen Williams Shadow Secretary of State (Innovation, Universities and Skills)

It is nice to be back in Committee, and I thank the Minister for his warm welcome. I am representing my party while my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil is engaged on business elsewhere.

I broadly support what the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton said. One of the most moving meetings that I have had in the period of almost three years in which I have been a Member of Parliament was with a group of young carers, organised by the Princess Royal Trust for Carers in Bristol. The children present ranged in age from the quite young, who would not be affected by the Bill, to the late teens, who would be. Some of them had had incredible responsibilities placed on their young shoulders, as in many cases, they looked after a parent with multiple sclerosis or a terminal disease, or a sibling—a responsibility to which the hon. Gentleman did not refer.

Often teenagers have onerous home responsibilities that are not recognised or taken into account during the period of compulsory school attendance to the age of 16. As a result, more time and consideration may be required if, for instance, they have not done their homework, they turn up late for school, or they need to make phone  calls during the day. There is plenty of evidence showing that the existing system of compulsory education does not take into account the special requirements of that group of young people.

Once those young people reach the age of 16 or 17 and have to take part in compulsory education to meet the requirements of the legislation, they may not be able to fulfil their domestic responsibilities to assist in the care of their parents or siblings. It would then be unreasonable for the state to impose a duty and a contract on the parent to allow their child to be away from home when they are dependent upon their child for part of their home care. The debate about whether it is fair that the parent should be dependent upon that child is for another time, but the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton gave a good common-sense example to show that it could be detrimental to the rights of the parent if their child were obliged to attend college or go to the workplace when that they are dependent on the child for domestic assistance.

Photo of Gordon Marsden Gordon Marsden Labour, Blackpool South

I have considerable sympathy with the concern that the hon. Gentleman has articulated, but I would be interested to know what evidence he has that local authorities that have to deal with attendance issues in the pre-16 period are unsympathetic to the circumstances in which young carers find themselves.

Photo of Stephen Williams Stephen Williams Shadow Secretary of State (Innovation, Universities and Skills)

I know from the questions that the hon. Gentleman asked when we both served on the Education and Skills Committee that he takes a close interest in these matters. My evidence came directly from the young people I met, who thought that their schools were not sympathetic to the requirements placed on them by their home duties. We have received written evidence from the Princess Royal Trust that the absence of a child who is a carer from school is often categorised as truancy, and we have had debates in Committee and elsewhere about what is authorised and what is unauthorised absence. There is already a problem with the way in which those children are categorised by the local authority, and we do not want that problem to be replicated later in the system. The amendment responds to concerns that the measure would put an onerous duty on the parent to ensure that their child attends college. That could be going too far, so I wish to support the amendment.

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

I shall begin by saying a few things about the principle of parent contracts and orders, then move on to address the amendment. It is worth pointing out to the Committee that we already have parenting contracts and orders for over-16s with regard to behaviour. It is only the duties limited to school attendance that apply to compulsory school age. As we discussed when we debated whether it is appropriate to impose a duty post-16, the principle is established that the period between the ages of 16 and 19 is a transitional period between childhood and adolescence, and it is appropriate in certain circumstances to look at parents’ responsibilities for people of that age.

Photo of Angela Watkinson Angela Watkinson Opposition Whip (Commons)

The amendment raises the issue of circumstances in which there are two parents in the equation. There is the first generation  parent: the parent of the teenager. If the teenager concerned is a 16-year-old girl who is herself a mother, she, too, is a parent and has parenting responsibilities. If that girl does not remain in the family home and is living in hostel accommodation or a council flat, under the terms of the Bill, is that a sufficient and reasonable excuse for her not to be engaged in education or training? Where does the responsibility lie for the continuing education and training of the teenage girl? Does it lie with her parents?

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

Order. I think that I have the drift and, more importantly, I think that the Minister does, too.

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

Yes, I think so, and I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving me an opportunity to seek to clarify that issue. In such circumstances, it is important that the mother of the young child, as opposed to the parent of the young mother, should receive appropriate support. There should be no enforcement against her unless that support is in place and a programme is available such as care to learn, which assists young parents with child care when they want to access college courses. All of those factors would need properly to be taken into consideration by the local authority in fulfilling its duty to enable young people to fulfil their duties.

It would be extremely unlikely that an authority would think it appropriate to use a contract or an order for the parent of a young mother. The test set out in subsection (2)(b) is that

“the authority considers that entering into the parenting contract would be desirable in the interests of the young person’s fulfilment of that duty.”

The test is whether it would be useful in assisting the young person, and the Committee must take that into account in its discussions on parenting contracts. There may be cases in which parents obstruct young people in the fulfilment of their duty. For example, they might insist that the young person remains at home looking after younger siblings or they might indulge in some form of antisocial activity late into the night that keeps the young person awake. It would be appropriate to reach an agreement with such parents—and that is what a parenting contract is—to set out quite clearly that they have a responsibility to ensure that their children get a reasonable night’s sleep so that they can participate in their college or training course.

Naturally, I agree with the sentiment and intention behind the amendment in respect of carers. It is critical that the local authority assess the support needs of young carers. A cross-Government review of the national carers strategy is under way, and provides an opportunity to reassess the support available to young carers. Young carers have been consulted and stakeholder bodies with knowledge of the issues are fully engaged. We look forward to receiving the detailed recommendations later this year. In the interim, to help secure early progress, we announced in the children’s plan our intention to build on our existing plans for family pathfinders. Up to six pathfinders will be extended to test the provision of more effective support for families with young carers.  The aim is to achieve better provision by ensuring that support is organised so that children in the family do not fall into inappropriate or burdensome caring roles in the first place. Pathfinders will provide invaluable learning on these issues, which will be shared across all areas, and £3 million is available over the next three years to support that goal. We are also funding the Children’s Society and the Princess Royal Trust, which the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton mentioned, to deliver a programme of training for services that support young carers and their families. That training is due to roll out across the first set of regions early this year.

We expect local authorities to assess the needs of the parent before entering into a parenting contract. Guidance for local authorities on parenting contracts for non-attendance of children under 16 says that they should consult other agencies involved, identify issues and carry out an assessment using the common assessment framework. However, it would not be appropriate to make that a statutory requirement. It will be for local authorities to judge what is appropriate in each case, having regard to guidance and to any assessment that they have carried out regarding the parent and the young person. They may be well acquainted with the family’s circumstances, for example, as a result of the involvement of other local authority services, so such an assessment might not always be necessary. Requiring local authorities to carry out an additional assessment when they have recently completed an assessment of the family would be an additional and unnecessary burden. It is better to retain flexibility by keeping the provisions as they are at the moment.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools) 9:15 am, 21st February 2008

Does the Minister think that communications between the statutory bodies that deal with such problems are adequate, given the Victoria ClimbiÃ(c) tragedy and subsequent tragedies of a similar nature that have happened in recent weeks?

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

I think that they can always be improved, and we are gradually doing so. We have made really good progress on safeguarding young people, which will be improved further by the data sharing that we so much enjoyed discussing on Tuesday. That will allow agencies dealing with young people to see which other agencies have had access to them. If they are part of the same local authority, there is even greater potential for people to be aware of what is going on in a particular family, through case conferences and so on. I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s intention, and I stress that I expect local authorities to conduct assessments, but I urge him to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

I am not persuaded by the Minister’s response. He seems to be relying on the assertion, to repeat his phrase, that “We would expect parents’ needs to be assessed” and that there is a statutory requirement to consult other agencies. However, there is not a statutory requirement to assess the needs of these particular parents. I am afraid that I do not have the same trust as he does in the communication abilities of the people who should take that responsibility.

Even now, after the Every Child Matters agenda has been implemented across local authorities, at vast expense and with a reorganisation of their departments, we still  have the problem of people not communicating, highlighted in recent news stories. A baby was tortured to death, and despite scores of incidents of involvement of health professionals, no action was taken by a local authority children’s services department. I do not believe that the Minister is right to rely on what happens in local authorities. He says that they may well be acquainted with a family’s circumstances, but they may well not. It is important that there is a statutory requirement on local authorities, before they start issuing parenting contracts, to assess the needs of parents, who may well have medical needs that are not being addressed by social services.

The Minister referred to clause 34(2), which states that a local authority in England

“may enter into a parenting contract with a parent of the young person—

(a) if the parent is resident in England, and

(b) the authority considers that entering into the parenting contract would be desirable in the interests of the young person’s fulfilment of that duty.”

He interprets that as applying if a parent is keeping their child up at night or doing something negative to prevent a 16-year-old from participating in education or training, but that is not the only possible interpretation. In fact, the most common interpretation is that there is a positive duty on the parent to do something to help the young person into education or training. In the circumstances that my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster gave—a young mother living in separate accommodation—it would be naive to expect that parent to have influence over the young person and persuade them into education or training.

I am not convinced, and I do not think that the Minister has convinced other members of the Committee, so I wish to press the amendment.

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

I do not usually seek another go, but I stress that the clause states that the local authority

“may enter into a parenting contract”.

It is not required to do so. Subsection (6) states that a parenting contract

“does not create any obligations in respect of whose breach any liability arises in contract or in tort”,

so a person cannot be sued for breaching it. Subsection (3)(b) mentions

“a statement by the local education authority that it agrees to provide support to the parent”.

In many cases, the contracts are a valuable way to clarify support. If a parent has problems such as not receiving sufficient local authority support, contracts can be positive.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

Order. We cannot have an intervention on an intervention.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

I am grateful to the Minister for intervening and will happily give way to my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Conservative, North East Hertfordshire

I think that I have the basic idea of what parenting contracts are about, but I wonder whether it would be possible for the Minister to circulate some examples of contracts that he thinks might be useful. Are they simply about parents trying to force the child to go to college? What exactly is the nature of the contract?

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

My hon. Friend makes a good and valuable point, and I hope that the Minister will intervene on me to respond to it.

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

I am grateful, Mr. Bercow, and I know that interventions should be short.

I tried to give one or two examples earlier. We introduced the contract, like the orders, mostly as a mechanism to deal with parents who are obstructing young people fulfilling their duty through their behaviour or by asking them to do things that are unreasonable when they have another duty to perform. But, as I said, there may also be circumstances in which it would be helpful for the local authority to clarify the support that they will give to the parent, as the support the parent should give to the child.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

I feel like a middleman in an important dialogue, but I will now address the point that the Minister made about subsection (3)(b), which states that a parenting contract should contain

“a statement by the local education authority that it agrees to provide support to the parent”.

He is right to cite the subsection, but the contract can include a statement of support for the parent only if the local authority is aware of the needs of the parent. I therefore see no harm in simply adding to the clause the phrase:

“Prior to entering into a parenting contract the local education authority shall ensure that parents’ needs are assessed by the appropriate local authority adult services.”

Such a requirement would not add burdensome assessment. If there are no needs and if both parents are healthy, it will be a two-minute job, which is less than the 10 minutes that the Minister is requiring every employer to spend on assessing new employees who start work with them. It would not be burdensome, nor would it detract from the clause; in fact, it would enhance it. Therefore, I would like to press the amendment to a Division.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 6, Noes 10.

Division number 20 Nimrod Review — Statement — Clause 34

Aye: 6 MPs

No: 10 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.

Clause 34 ordered to stand part of the Bill.