Local offer for care leavers

Children and Social Work Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 12:00 am on 13th December 2016.

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Amendment proposed (this day): 27, in clause 2, page 3, line 10, at end insert—

‘(6A) The Secretary of State must publish a national minimum standard for a “local offer for care leavers”.

(6B) When developing a national minimum standard for the purpose of subsection 6A the Secretary of State must consult relevant agencies responsible for the provision of services under subsection (2).” —

This amendment would introduce a national minimum standard for a local offer for care leavers, which is to be developed in consultation with relevant parties.

Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.

I remind the Committee that with this we are discussing the following:

Amendment 26, in clause 2, page 3, line 20, at end insert—

“(e) unaccompanied asylum seeking children up to the point that they leave the United Kingdom”

This amendment introduces an additional definition for “care leavers”.

New clause 13—

“Review of access to education for care leavers

‘(1) The Secretary of State must carry out an annual review on access for care leavers to—

(a) apprenticeships,

(b) further education, and

(c) higher education.

(2) The first review must take place by the end of the period of one year beginning with the day on which this Act is passed.

(3) A report produced following a review under sub-section (1) must include, in particular, an assessment of the impact of—

(a) fee waivers,

(b) grants, and

(c) reduced costs of accommodation.

The report must be made publicly available.”

New clause 16—

“National offer for care leavers

‘(1) The Universal Credit Regulations 2013 are amended as follows—

(a) in regulation 102(2)—

(i) in paragraph (a) after “18 or over” insert “and paragraph (b) does not apply”;

(ii) in paragraph (b) after “16 or 17” insert “or is a care leaver within the meaning given by section 2 of the Children and Social Work Act 2016 and is under the age of 25”;

(b) in regulation 103(2)—

(i) in paragraph (a) after “18 or over” insert “and paragraph (b) does not apply”;

(ii) in paragraph (b) after “16 or 17” insert “or is a care leaver within the meaning given by section 2 of the Children and Social Work Act 2016 and is under the age of 25”;

(c) in regulation 104(2) after “18 or over” insert “and section (3) does not apply”.

(d) in regulation 104(3) after “16 or 17” insert “or is a care leaver within the meaning given by section 2 of the Children and Social Work Act 2016 and is under the age of 25”.

(2) The Working Tax Credit (Entitlement and Maximum Rate) Regulations 2002 are amended as follows—

(a) in regulation 4(1), Second Condition, after paragraph (b) insert—

“(c) is aged at least 18 and is a care leaver within the meaning given by section 2 of the Children and Social Work Act 2016, and is under the age of 25, and undertakes not less than 30 hours work per week.”

(3) The Housing Benefit Regulations 2009 are amended as follows—

(a) in regulation 2, in the definition of “young individual”, in each of paragraphs (b), (c), (d), (e) and (f), for “22 years” substitute “25 years”.

(4) The Local Government Finance Act 1992 is amended as follows—

(a) in section 6(4) (persons liable to pay council tax), after “etc)” insert “or 10A (care leavers)”;

(b) in Schedule 1 (persons disregarded for purposes of discount), after paragraph 10 insert—

“Care leavers

10A (1) A person shall be disregarded for the purposes of discount on a particular day if on the day the person is—

(a) a care leaver within the meaning given by section 2 of the Children and Social Work Act 2016; and

(b) under the age of 25.”

(5) The Council Tax (Exempt Dwellings) Order 1992 is amended as follows—

(a) in Article 3, Class N, after paragraph 1(b) insert—

“(c) occupied only by one or more care leavers within the meaning given by section 2 of the Children and Social Work Act 2016 who are under the age of 25.”

(6) A statutory instrument containing regulations under this section may not be made unless a draft of the instrument has been laid before, and approved by a resolution of, each House of Parliament

Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Labour/Co-operative, Walthamstow

I will be brief; I am sure that over lunch Government Members have had a chance to contemplate the argument that I made. I am conscious that Opposition Members who have joined us might want to be reminded of them. There are three points that I want the Government to come back on if they are not going to accept our amendments. First, the idea of a basic minimum standard for care leavers. If we are not to have a minimum standard, how does the Minister intend to ensure that all care leavers are given a level of service that we can be proud of?

Secondly, on the Minister’s approach to dealing with young asylum seekers who are not part of this legislation at the moment, the amendment seeks to bring them in scope to make sure that they are given equal protection. As I said earlier, turning 18 does not stop someone being vulnerable overnight. Finally, how do we deal with the specific issue of financial management problems that many care leavers face, particularly the problems that are well documented in the benefits system? If the Minister does not intend to accept our amendments to support care leavers through the benefits system and to make sure that we recognise those problems and the cost to us of not recognising those problems, what plan does he have to address those issues? At this point, I shall let others take the debate forward.

Photo of Tulip Siddiq Tulip Siddiq Shadow Minister (Education) (Early Years)

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow for her passionate speech. Even though she was interrupted mid-flow, she has summed up very well. It will not come as a surprise to the Committee that I wholeheartedly endorse her speech and the amendment on the national minimum standard for care leavers. I want to point out that we cannot just rely on local authorities to make specific decisions, because there are different standards across the country for different local authorities, as I saw as a councillor before entering Parliament.

Various policy concerns can be addressed by introducing a national minimum standard, but I want to focus specifically on people’s mental health, especially that of vulnerable people leaving the care system. One early study of care leavers in England that I found interesting found evidence of a range of mental health problems for care leavers. One in five care leavers reported long-term mental health problems. Everyone here will be aware of the stigma surrounding mental health. One in five is probably not a true reflection of how many mental health problems there really were among care leavers, because some of them would not want to report problems for fear of being stigmatised.

The mental health problems that the care leavers spoke about included eating disorders, bipolar issues, depression and serious phobias that haunted them later in life. In addition, there were shocking statistics: a quarter of care leavers reported heavy drinking on a regular basis and two thirds admitted that they used drugs regularly. It is no surprise that many of the care leavers who spoke about their experiences said that their mental health problems originated in the life that they led before they, in a sense, entered adulthood. They said that a lot of their mental health problems came from the poor housing that they had experienced and the lack of finance and intimate relationships in their life.

The NSPCC rightly pointed out in its 2014 report that leaving care is an extended process rather than a single event, which I wholeheartedly agree with and which speaks to our amendment. Care leavers face the significant challenge of psychologically moving forward towards adulthood, often trying to make sense of their past life experiences. With the withdrawal of care services, support services and care placements, they have to test out the reliability of their network of friends and family. The shadow Minister has made the point over and over again that we should not have a postcode lottery when it comes to care and the future of care leavers. Nor should we have a lottery of personal circumstances, where those who are lucky have a network of family and friends to rely on, but those who are not often fall into either depression or a life they would not have wanted to lead.

The Opposition acknowledge that multiple changes to someone’s living circumstances will affect them, but change cuts across every aspect of the lives of care leavers; we need to be aware of that, because we are dealing with the most vulnerable people in society. Those changes relate to their finances, access to housing and search for jobs, and care leavers confront those challenges while experiencing a withdrawal of care placements and social support services as they turn 18.

I point to a few stats from the Children’s Society that I thought were particularly striking: 63% of care leavers entered the care system because of abuse or neglect, which is a figure that should put us all to shame; 50% of children in care had emotional and behavioural health that was considered normal, while 13% were borderline and 37% gave cause for concern. I am sure that everyone agrees that those statistics are worrying. They should trouble us all, and they should compel us to act in the interests of the nation.

National minimum standards will allow for a fairer system overall, for which the cost will be wholly outweighed by the benefit of ensuring that the most vulnerable people across the country are treated equally. I trust that Members across the House and from different parties will agree with that after hearing some of the shocking statistics that I have outlined.

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Labour, Birmingham, Selly Oak

I will briefly comment on the part of clause 2 that relates to the local offer, before turning to the amendments and new clauses. I will try not to detain you for too long, Mr Wilson.

I am not really clear on the local offer. The Minister has a great deal of experience of the local offer; he pioneered the approach in the Children and Families Act 2014. I am not entirely sure how different what he proposes in the Bill is from the offer in that Act. I took the trouble during the lunch break to look at the rather helpful report from the Children’s Services Development Group entitled “The Local Offer, Children and Parental Rights”. It has a nice foreword by Mrs Gillan, who is the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on autism. You will be delighted to know that I will not read the report to you, Mr Wilson, but there are some things in it that are worth noting.

The offer, as it exists in the Children and Families Act, was intended to help local authorities to identify gaps in provision and to make sure that they were addressed, and the report assesses how successful that has been. It found that there are significant variations in the offers made across the country, with some quite good examples in east midlands, Yorkshire and the Humber, and some very poor examples in the west midlands and the south-west. It also found that less than 4% of local authorities have a named person whom anyone trying to understand the local offer can contact, while less than half of all local authorities listed independent specialist schools on their website, despite that being a requirement that the Minister set out in the Act. There is also a significant variation in the information that is provided on those websites. The Children’s Services Development Group says that a best practice guide for local authorities and a mandated template for the local offer would be helpful.

I draw the Committee’s attention to that because the Opposition suggest that it would be helpful to the local offer in the Bill if there were minimum standards by which we could judge the progress of the Minister’s proposals. I asked him to look again at the experience of the local offer in the Children and Families Act and to check whether there is a risk that local authorities will simply seek to replicate that kind of approach in this piece of legislation. I am not saying that that approach is useless, but I am sure the Minister will share my disappointment that it has not been as successful as anticipated in its operation so far.

I turn to the question that my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn has just been tackling about the needs of children leaving care. The Minister and I obviously got into the wrong place before lunch when I thought that he was telling me that I should not be too concerned about the educational and mental health outcomes for children leaving care. If that is not what the Minister was saying, I am more than happy to accept that.

However, I took the trouble to go back and have a quick look over lunch at some of the things that we know. I looked at the report by Saunders and Broad which examined long-term mental health conditions—the very things that my hon. Friend has just been talking about—with a greater propensity among children in care and leaving care, who suffer from depression, eating disorders and phobias.

I looked at the mental health and wellbeing report produced by the Select Committee on Education in the fourth Session of Parliament. The first line of that report says:

“The mental health of looked-after children is significantly poorer than that of their peers, with almost half of children and young people in care meeting the criteria for a psychiatric disorder”.

That report, as the Minister knows, went on to recommend that child and adolescent mental health services should be made available for all looked-after young people up to the age of 25, in recognition of the distinct issues which this vulnerable group of young people experience as they attempt to leave the care system.

I also looked at the situation on employment. As I understand it, these are the Government’s figures: three-quarters of care leavers are inclined to leave schooling without any formal qualifications. Of the Government’s study of 26,340 former care leavers aged 19, 20 and 21, 40%—nearly 10,500 young people—were not in employment, education or training, compared with 14% of all 19 to 21-year-olds. The percentage of care leavers who could be described as NEETs has risen by 1% in the past two years.

To be fair to the Minister, I think he was talking about the improvements that he can show. It is fair to say that his own figures show that there has been a 1% rise in the number of care leavers who are able to access higher education, compared with the figures for 2014 and 2016. This is hardly a picture showing that things are okay and that we should feel relaxed about the progress that has been made. It tells me that things are far from okay; they are quite dire for some young people who enter the care system. They enter the care system expecting us, as their corporate parents, to do a better job for them. That is why we have taken them into care in the first place. They enter the care system with us saying that, as a result of making that order, we are going to make their life better. If at the end of that process their educational opportunities have not improved significantly, their mental health situation certainly has not improved and may in fact have deteriorated, it seems to me that we are failing these young people.

We are looking for a bit more beef and detail from the Minister. This is about an order that will actually make a difference for young people; from my point of view, it is certainly not about trying to score points. As I said earlier, I think we share the same broad ambition, but we have before us the replication of an approach that we saw in another piece of legislation for which he has a great deal of responsibility and that no one—I assume that includes the Minister—would describe as having been an outstanding success to date. Unless there is some attempt to learn from that experience in what we are doing now, all that is going to happen is that we are going to go round the same old loop. As I said this morning, the shelves of social work offices and establishments are littered with pieces of legislation that have the same impact. We are looking for something that will move things forward a significant step, so will the Minister give serious consideration to the amendments?

Photo of Kate Green Kate Green Labour, Stretford and Urmston 2:15 pm, 13th December 2016

It is a pleasure to join the Committee, Mr Wilson; I was unable to attend the sitting this morning.

I shall speak particularly to new clause 16 and the proposals on social security support for young care leavers. I am sure that when my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields introduced the new clause this morning, the Committee discussed how the need for special arrangements for young care leavers arises from the likelihood that they will not have family resources to fall back on in the way that other young people leaving the family home would. It is particularly difficult for young care leavers to find appropriate accommodation in areas such as my own, where accommodation costs are especially high. I am keen to reinforce the points made about the need to review the application of housing benefit rules for such people.

First, it is important to recognise the need for stable accommodation for young care leavers as they move into adulthood. If they do not have the resources to be sure that they can undertake a secure tenancy arrangement, all the other attempts to route them into a secure future will be undermined.

Secondly, if such young people—who may have considerable emotional and interpersonal difficulties, and difficulties with relationships with others—have to share accommodation with people whom they do not know very well, perhaps with complete strangers, they may find that an exceptionally difficult situation in which to adapt to adult life. It is therefore of all the greater importance that they should be able to have their own accommodation or property: we should take this opportunity to exempt young care leavers from the more restricted housing support available to young people more generally. Such support requires them to share accommodation, which would not be appropriate for young care leavers.

Although progress has been made over recent years, in many local authorities it has been necessary to place care leavers outside their home borough. The new clause offers the opportunity to ensure that, when successful attempts have been made to bring young people back in-borough, as has been the case in Trafford, which I represent, and housing costs are high in that borough, which they most certainly are in mine, young people, having been brought back into their home borough, are financially able to sustain accommodation so that they can remain in a community where they have relationships and contacts.

We must also recognise the importance to both education and employment of ensuring an adequate source of income for young care leavers. As I said, they do not have access to family resources to bail them out from unexpected expenditure or debt, so it is right that we should have a social security system that is sufficiently generous to ensure that they are not put in a position in which financial unsustainability undermines the achievement of the social outcomes the Bill envisages promoting for young people.

If the Minister is not able to take our suggestions for a generous interpretation for social security on board in his answer today, I hope that Ministers from the Department will be willing to explore the issue further with colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions. Will the Minister give us an indication? We all know that these are not imagined problems for these young people; they are very real.

Photo of Edward Timpson Edward Timpson The Minister for Schools

I thank the hon. Member for South Shields for her amendments on clause 2, particularly about the local offer and care leavers. I am also grateful to her and to the hon. Members for Walthamstow and for Birmingham, Selly Oak for being generous in their reading of the motivation and spirit behind the clause.

Far from being relaxed about the outcomes for care leavers, I am as determined today as I was the first moment I set foot in this place to do all I can to improve their prospects. That is reflected in the fact that we have the Bill before us, as a product of what can be a difficult bargaining arena, with many other Departments wanting to get legislation before Parliament. Through that renewed effort—as well as the cajoling and persuasion needed—we managed to make this a key priority for the Government, which is why it has now come before the House for the necessary scrutiny.

This group of amendments would seek to provide additional support to care leavers. I do not hesitate to agree that these young people do need help and support, but I do not consider the amendments to be the best way to provide that additional support. I will respond to each amendment in turn to explain why.

Amendment 26 would extend the definition of care leavers to cover all unaccompanied asylum-seeking children up to the point when they leave the UK, in the event that their asylum application is not granted. I recognise that the amendment seeks to safeguard a particularly vulnerable group of young people. I assure the Committee that I appreciate the sentiment and desire behind that. We know that local authorities are now looking after increasing numbers of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children and supporting more care leavers who were formerly asylum-seeking children.

Bearing those points in mind, I want to make an important clarification. Most care leavers who were formerly unaccompanied asylum-seeking children have refugee status, humanitarian protection or another form of leave to remain or an outstanding human rights application or appeal. That means that they qualify, like any other care leaver, for the support under the Children Act 2004 care leaver provisions, to assist their transition into adulthood. In addition, they will benefit in the same way as other care leavers from the improvements to the framework contained in the Bill, including the local offer for care leavers.

It is only those leaving care whom the courts have determined do not need humanitarian protection, who have exhausted all appeal routes and rights and subsequently have no lawful basis to remain in the UK, with the court having said there is no barrier to their removal, who will need, in those circumstances, to be supported to return to their home country, where they can embark on building their lives and futures, with assistance from the Home Office in the form of financial and practical support. The Government believe that that is the right approach for that specific and clearly defined group, whose long-term future is not in this country but who need support and assistance before they leave.

Photo of Edward Timpson Edward Timpson The Minister for Schools

The hon. Member for Walthamstow wants to intervene. I know she will be disappointed that that is the Government’s position, as it was on the Immigration Act 2016, but it is important to set out the very clear difference between the much larger group of care leavers who have not exhausted their appeal rights and those who have.

Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Labour/Co-operative, Walthamstow

I simply ask the Minister whether he can clarify the difference between the description that he has just given and that in amendment 26, which states

“unaccompanied asylum seeking children up to the point that they leave the United Kingdom”.

That is exactly the group he is talking about. He seems to be making the same case as we are—these young people should get the relevant support and help that we are talking about.

Photo of Edward Timpson Edward Timpson The Minister for Schools

I am explaining the current situation. As the law stands, the local authority will continue to provide the same care-leaving service for those children and young people until all their appeal rights have been exhausted. There will be a period following a decision during which every effort will be made to repatriate them to their country of origin. Of course, that will not happen immediately after the courts have made a final decision.

The local authority can, of course, continue to provide ongoing and further support in such circumstances, which may include the continuation of a foster placement or continuing support from a personal adviser, where it considers that appropriate. The Department for Education and the Home Office will continue to work with local authorities and relevant non-governmental organisations on the development of the regulations and guidance required to implement the new arrangements for support set out in the Immigration Act 2016. Those regulations will be made under provisions that will be subject, in due course, to debate and approval in both Houses of Parliament under the affirmative procedure, which I suspect will be the forum for Opposition Members to continue pressing on the issue. I have set out the Government’s position and the rationale behind it.

New clause 13 would require the Secretary of State to undertake an annual review of care leavers’ access to education. I reassure the Committee that we already publish such information, and I will set out the measures we have already taken to better support care leavers into education, employment and training. As the hon. Member for South Shields said, the high proportion of care leavers who are not in education, employment or training is a long-standing problem.

Of course, there are many reasons for the NEET rate being higher for care leavers than for young people in the general population, not least the impact of pre-care experiences. That is why, earlier this year, we published “Keep on Caring,” our new cross-Government care leaver strategy. One of the five outcomes we set out in the strategy is to improve care leavers’

“access to education, training and employment”.

A number of new measures were announced in the strategy that are designed to turn that ambition into reality, including: a commitment to provide funding for a new approach to helping care leavers into education, employment and training by using social investments to fund “payment by results” contracts that reward providers only when care leavers achieve positive outcomes; and a pilot work placement programme to provide care leavers with opportunities to work in central Government Departments.

Care leavers have already been recruited to work in the Department for Education, the Department of Health and the Department for Work and Pensions. Indeed, a new member of my private office is a care leaver, and she has been a fantastic acquisition for the team. Through our new care leaver covenant, we are also encouraging organisations from across society to offer work opportunities to care leavers and to work specifically with FE and HE providers to set out a clear offer of support for care leavers studying in further and higher education.

Financial support is also already provided to care leavers in education. Where care leavers are in higher education, there is a duty on local authorities to provide a 2,000 bursary to help with the cost of studies and a requirement to provide accommodation during university holidays. Care leavers in further education can also receive financial support through the 16-to-19 bursary, for which care leavers are a priority group. The bursary provides up to 1,200 a year to support the cost of their studies. Through DWP’s second chance learning initiative, care leavers are able to claim benefits while studying full time up until the age of 21.

The Government also publish data on the activity of care leavers aged 17 to 21, which previously were not available. The data identify the proportion of care leavers at each age point who are in higher education, other non-advanced education, employment or training, and those who are NEET, which provides the information necessary to track progress over time and will be a key way of ensuring that we can tell whether our changes are having the desired impact.

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Labour, Birmingham, Selly Oak

The Minister is describing the various things that the Department is doing to try to improve the situation. Does he recognise that a problem that young people themselves regularly identify is the number of school changes they experience as a direct result of being received into care? The Barnardo’s study says that care leavers are saying that they have experienced five changes of school, which makes life difficult for them. Does he have any plans to encourage or persuade local authorities to seek to restrict those movements between schools, which is clearly impairing these young people’s education?

Photo of Edward Timpson Edward Timpson The Minister for Schools 2:30 pm, 13th December 2016

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. About 11% of children in care still have three placements—that is placements, rather than schools—or more per year. We already have priority school admissions for children in care, so there is no excuse for their not getting the right school.

I want to ensure that as part of the fostering stocktake we are now undertaking, which is a fundamental review of how fostering is working, we also look at stability—an issue raised by Opposition Members—and, specifically, its impact on children’s ability to form close and strong attachments, to build a social network around themselves and to have a strong and stable education, so that they can achieve what they are capable of in that environment. Part of that will be being clearer about what local authorities can do better, so that they can enhance the prospects of creating the stability that we know is a core ingredient of successful time in care.

I encourage the hon. Gentleman to look at the direction of the fostering stocktake and at how we can better ingrain stability in decision making, particularly at the very start of when a child enters care. Often, that first decision on the school or placement has a consequential fall-out for the child or young person if turns out not to be the right one.

Amendment 27 would require the Secretary of State to develop and publish a national minimum standard for the local offer for care leavers. Although I fully appreciate the intention behind the amendment, I should point out that there is already a set of statutory duties in the Children Act 1989 that defines a minimum level of support for care leavers. Under those provisions, local authorities must provide a personal adviser for care leavers until the age of 21, and the Bill extends that support to the age of 25.

Local authorities must develop a pathway plan for their care leavers and provide assistance, both in general and specifically, to support them with education, training and employment. Care leavers are also entitled to request support from an advocate. The local offer is designed to include care leavers’ legal entitlements and additional discretionary services and support that the local authority may offer, with the legal entitlements being the minimum offer that must be provided. Beyond that—the hon. Member for South Shields will have anticipated my saying this—producing a prescribed local offer runs the risk of stifling creativity and creating a race to the bottom.

The issue gets to the nub of where we part company on the right approach. A prescribed local offer would not take account of local needs or circumstances—we want the opposite to happen, with local authorities actively providing the best possible offer and tailoring that to their local situation. We have already seen, in the likes of North Somerset and Trafford, that one outstanding care leaving service is a key beacon of good practice. To that end, local authorities will be required to consult care leavers, as well as other persons or bodies who represent care leavers, before publishing their local offer. That will ensure the offer is informed by the views of those who will use the services set out, as well as those providing the services and supporting implementation.

The risk with minimum standards is that everyone does the minimum and no more. To ensure local authorities are encouraged and helped to go beyond the minimum standards required by the law, officials at the Department have developed a prototype local offer that sets out the kinds of things local authorities can consider when designing their local offer, rather than specifying exactly what it should include. A copy of that prototype was sent to Committee members, and the intention is to publish it.

That in part answers the questions from the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak about practice guidance or a template from which local authorities can start to craft their own local offer. I am happy to share the prototype with him if he does not have a copy. It gives a clear direction of the areas local authorities need to cover, as a baseline for the development of their own local offer, but it does not prevent them from ensuring they provide one that meets the specific needs of their own population.

Some hon. Members asked how the SEND local offer may be different. I should say at the start that I disagree with the characterisation of the impact of the local offer for special educational needs and disabilities. That came out of a very substantial process involving young people and parents to identify what they were looking for from the new system. That was during the heady days of the coalition, when Sarah Teather was in this position, so it has a lot of history behind it. I do not know whether that reassures the Committee but, be that as it may, over the last two years of implementation we have seen the SEND local offer starting to embed and develop. We now have inspections of the new SEND system by Ofsted and the CQC. One example is a 2016 report on Enfield, in which Ofsted and CQC found:

“The local offer is informative and very helpful to parents and young people. It includes a wide range of information to help them identify where to get support and how to access available services. Over the last six months, increasing numbers of people have used the local offer to gather information.”

Representatives from parent-carer forums and SEND organisations

“are actively engaged in further improvements such as improving the local offer and making it more accessible to users.”

Brian Lamb, author of the 2010 Lamb inquiry, looking at parent-carer forums as the formal conduit for parents’ engagement, reported that around two-thirds of those surveyed were fully engaged in general strategic planning or in developing the local offer and that that was leading to significant changes in local authority practice in some areas. I accept that the measure has yet to achieve the desired effect right across the country, but the roots have been planted and we are getting evidence from those inspections of the difference that it is making in the engagement between families and services.

Finally, I turn to new clause 16. It seeks to introduce a national offer for care leavers that would include reducing the length of benefit sanctions under universal credit; making care leavers eligible for working tax credit; extending the exemption from the shared accommodation rate of housing benefit up to the age of 25; and exempting care leavers under the age of 25 from paying council tax.

I am familiar with the issues raised under the national offer and have had a number of meetings with the Earl of Listowel, who raised this issue in the other place. I have also had detailed conversations with the Minister for Employment, and I understand the concerns that have been raised around benefit sanctions.

Just last week, jobcentre staff were reminded about the challenges that care leavers can face. An article was featured on the DWP intranet, available to all staff, explaining the specific circumstances that care leavers can face and reminding work coaches—the interface between care leavers and the benefits system—to take account of any relevant circumstances and flexibilities when deciding whether a sanction was appropriate. What happens at that moment between the work coach and the care leaver could make the difference between that young person progressing towards employment and a retrograde step: it being more difficult for them to gain employment because of how a sanction has been applied.

The article also tells staff about the ambitions we have for care leavers as set out in “Keep On Caring”, the refreshed cross-government care leaver strategy, and clearly lists all the DWP support available to care leavers. I thank the Minister for Employment for taking this action. We will continue to work together to reassure the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston that we want to see what more we can do, so that the experience of the care leaver in that situation is much better.

At the heart of that is identification. If those who first see a care leaver coming into a jobcentre are blissfully unaware that they have come from the care system, inevitably, they will potentially miss taking a very different approach from the one they end up taking. Although we have a flagging system in the jobcentre computer network, it is based on self-identification. We want to do more work to see how we can ensure that, before a care leaver comes into contact with the benefits system, that is already flagged, so that we can get more consistency in the approach taken by jobcentres. Of course, we want to work towards no care leaver having to move straight into the benefits system. That is why the work to improve their opportunities for education and training and the expansion of the role of the personal adviser are all going to be important. However, these flexibilities can only be considered if Jobcentre Plus staff are made aware of a care leaver’s status in the first place. We will work hard to make sure that the situation improves on the ground.

On eligibility for working tax credit, I remind the Committee that we are currently rolling out universal credit—in case anyone had forgotten. That will replace the current system of means-tested working age benefits, including tax credits; it will replace tax credits for all new claims by October 2018. It is designed to simplify the benefit system and to provide in-work support and incentives to work for all claimants aged 18 or over. However, it is important to note that the requirement for workers to be aged 25 or over will not apply with universal credit. Care leavers aged 18 and over in low-paid work, who are currently unable to claim working tax credit, will be able to claim universal credit, subject to the normal rules on taking account of earnings. I have a case study, which I am happy to share outside the Committee, of a 19-year-old care leaver, which demonstrates the impact that will have. Those people will receive uplifts in the new system that they do not get in the system we have at present.

On the exemption from the shared accommodation rate, I have real sympathy with the hon. Lady’s arguments. I reassure her that this is something that we are looking at. As she said, we are exploring the evidence regarding the need for this change and have asked the Children’s Society to provide examples of how the current rules impact on care leavers, in the hope we can make some progress.

Photo of Kate Green Kate Green Labour, Stretford and Urmston

I want to return to what the Minister said about the different treatment, under universal credit, of care leavers under 25, compared with working tax credit. Can he say how many care leavers are currently in receipt of working tax credit? Presumably, as they come to adult age and as new claimants, they are predominantly being moved straight on to universal credit at the end of the benefits system. A small number may remain in the situation where they would be eligible only for working tax credit. Can the Minister say how quickly they can be migrated to universal credit?

Photo of Edward Timpson Edward Timpson The Minister for Schools

I do not have those figures to hand. One of the issues I raised earlier is around identification and knowing who is accessing benefits and is also a care leaver. We need to improve that information, hence the additional data we are now collecting as a Department. That will give us a more granular understanding of who these young people are and how they have come into contact with the benefits system. I will write to the hon. Lady with more details about that, so she has as much information as we can give.

It is important we start to understand where this leads, what the destination inevitably is and what we could have done in the intervening period to make the direction in which a young person goes different. I am happy to give the hon. Lady further information about that.

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Labour, Birmingham, Selly Oak

This is a minor point on the same sort of area. As I understand universal credit, where that applies to the youth obligation, that obligation will be available to young people only in areas where universal credit is fully operational. In those circumstances, what will be the provision for youngsters leaving care? We could end up in a situation where youngsters leaving care in some parts of the country will be entitled to a different set of opportunities from those in areas where universal credit is fully operational. Has the Minister had an opportunity to look at that, or will he look at that and come back to us? It has not been presented quite like that, from my understanding.

Photo of Edward Timpson Edward Timpson The Minister for Schools

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point. Any roll-out as wide and as significant as universal credit is going to have various knock-on effects, depending on what other initiatives fall off the back of those changes. I will take that away and talk to my colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions to see whether that has been factored in as part of the roll-out through to 2018.

I want to reiterate that care leavers cannot currently claim working tax credit. Anyone over 18 on universal credit will be able to claim in-work benefits. We want to ensure that care leavers are aware of that and that they get the necessary support that falls off the back of that change.

I turn to the issue of paying council tax. We believe, as a long-standing position, that local council tax support is and should be a matter for local authorities, hence the Government giving councils wide powers to design council tax support schemes that protect the most vulnerable. We know that authorities such as Birmingham and Wolverhampton have already taken the decision to exempt care leavers from council tax and I applaud them for doing so.

I want to highlight to councils the support already provided by other authorities around the country to exempt or discount council tax payments for care leavers, because that is a demonstration of what can be done with a bit of creative thinking and understanding of the economic benefits as well as the social and emotional benefits for that young person. I have, therefore, agreed with the Department for Communities and Local Government to write to each local authority, highlighting the local offer for care leavers that will be introduced through this clause, and the flexibility to use the council tax system to provide financial support to care leavers.

I hope that I have covered all the points raised by hon. Members and that the hon. Member for South Shields is reassured by what I have said about the extensive support already available to care leavers and the work that is under way to provide more. On that basis, I urge her to withdraw her amendment.

Photo of Emma Lewell-Buck Emma Lewell-Buck Shadow Minister (Education) (Children and Families) 2:45 pm, 13th December 2016

I will be brief in my closing comments. With regard to new clause 13, it appears that the Government are taking some steps in the correct direction with their “Keep On Caring” document. It looks like endeavours are in place to get some action on these long-standing issues, so I am happy not to press new clause 13. However, I would like to put the rest of my amendments to a vote.

With regard to amendment 27 and new clause 16, the fact remains that every care leaver deserves the same provision across the board. They deserve to know what that provision is and financial support is key to that. I acknowledge that the Minister has worked with the Department for Work and Pensions, but I have a strange feeling that the DWP perhaps does not share his sentiments or drive for these issues.

On amendment 26, on unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, I do not feel that the Minister has addressed or acknowledged that those children are being treated differently from other children. Therefore, I would like to press those three to a vote.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

The Committee divided:

Ayes 7, Noes 10.

Question accordingly negatived.

Amendment proposed: 26, in clause 2, page 3, line 20, at end insert—

“(e) unaccompanied asylum seeking children up to the point that they leave the United Kingdom”—

This amendment introduces an additional definition for “care leavers”.

The Committee divided:

Ayes 6, Noes 10.

Question accordingly negatived.

Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 3