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Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend): I was tempted to intervene earlier when my hon. Friend said that the Government were committed to appointing a commissioner for looked-after children. Waterhouse places no limit on the commissioner in respect of looked-after children or other children. When one considers that some children are not looked after, but on the at-risk registers, there is a strong case for the children's commissioner having a wider remit for the welfare of all children.

Mr. Hutton: My hon. Friend will be aware that in Wales, these issues will ultimately be the responsibility of the National Assembly for Wales. We have the primary responsibility to make legislation for Wales, but we do so in close consultation with the National Assembly. I am not sure that I agree with my hon. Friend's initial observation. The context of the Waterhouse report is specific and clear: it is about looked-after children. That is what Sir Ronald Waterhouse was investigating. It is certainly our view that the appointment of the commissioner in Wales and the children's rights director in England are consistent with the spirit of the Waterhouse recommendations.

Ms Shipley: I welcome my hon. Friend's statement about the commissioner in Wales. Does he agree that the rest of the United Kingdom also needs a commissioner?

Mr. Hutton: The establishment of the children's rights director in England will closely mirror the role of the commissioner for looked-after children in Wales. I understand that the National Assembly for Wales is still working on the details of what the new commissioner should do. There is a danger of focusing on job titles when it is more important to establish the functions of the children's rights director in England and the commissioner for looked-after children in Wales.

We are satisfied that the post of children's rights director is a significant breakthrough in children's welfare in England. We are happy to consult a wide variety of organisations on the director's precise role. Against the background of the appalling abuse and violence inflicted on children in north Wales, this is a significant step forward, and very much in line with the Waterhouse recommendations.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley): Is the Minister aware that some children's charities are concerned that there may be a difference between the commissioner and the director? I appreciate what he says about titles being less important than the responsibilities and duties of the position, so can he confirm that the duties will be exactly the same in England and in Wales?

Mr. Hutton: The hon. Gentleman is a late convert to the cause of devolution--he opposed the enactment of the Government of Wales Act 1998. He will be aware that the National Assembly for Wales is responsible for what the commissioner will do in Wales. It is not a decision

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for Ministers in my Department. Job titles should not dominate this debate. The most important thing is what the new officers will do to enhance the welfare and well-being of children. The hon. Gentleman will agree that it is more important to focus on the substance of the job rather than the title conferred by legislation.

Mr. Wigley: The powers of the National Assembly will be constrained by any statutory powers regarding the commissioner. Can the Minister assure us that, if it is the wish of the National Assembly, the commissioner can have a wider remit than just looked-after children, especially in view of the immensely worrying conclusion in the report that

Can he assure us that the statutory underpinning will not debar the National Assembly from conferring that wider remit?

Mr. Hutton: I think that I am right in saying that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales dealt with all those issues in the House a few days ago, when he explained that it was our intention to table amendments to the Care Standards Bill to allow the establishment of a commissioner for looked-after children in Wales and that we would look for the earliest opportunity to carry out the wish of the Assembly to establish a commissioner with a wider remit, in line with the manifesto commitment of the Labour party in Wales. I do not want to add to what my right hon. Friend said.

We have been concerned for some time about the support that care leavers receive from local authorties. Every year, about 5,000 young people aged 16 and 17 leave the care of local authorities. There has been an increasing trend to discharge young people from care early. The proportion of care leavers aged 16 to 18 who leave care at the age of 16 increased from 33 per cent. in 1993 to 46 per cent. in 1998. That is completely unacceptable and the trend must be reversed. It is undoubtedly one of the reasons why so many children leave care without a single qualification and why so many find themselves unemployed and ultimately homeless.

The Government believe that care leavers ought to be able to expect as much support from their "parent"--the local authority--as any young person would receive from their own parents. That is why the Children (Leaving Care) Bill gives local authorities a new duty to assess and meet their needs, from the essentials for living--accommodation and maintenance--through to their needs for development, including education, training, any special needs, and the ordinary skills that all children have to learn in order to be able to live independently: how to shop, how to manage a budget, how to cater for themselves.

The Bill obliges local authorities to provide a young person's adviser and a pathway plan for all eligible young people. The plan will map out a route to independence, including consideration of when they might be ready to leave care. The new financial arrangements ensure that there will no longer be any incentive to push young people out of care until they are ready to go, but they will not be forced to stay in care: the system will be built around their individual needs.

Beacon status has recently been awarded to four councils for their excellence in helping care leavers: Suffolk, Wakefield, Kensington and Chelsea, and

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Westminster. The specialist leaving care teams in those local authorities have excelled in developing effective partnerships with statutory and voluntary sector bodies to deliver high-quality services in housing, health and education; in developing innovative methods to assist care leavers in preparing and planning for adult life; in developing initiatives on education and employment for young people and providing basic skills training and intensive support to sustain them on college and training placements; and in involving young people in shaping and influencing the development of the services.

I want to pay a special tribute today not only to the staff working in those four authorities, but to all those people throughout the country who work so hard to promote the best interests of young people in care. Their hard work and dedication rarely get any mention when we discuss these issues. It is right that their commitment should be acknowledged today.

Mr. Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd): About six weeks ago, a worker in a care home who had been sexually assaulted by a young resident came to see me. I welcome my hon. Friend's support for people who work with children in care. What will the Government do to protect those who work in homes, often with disturbed children?

Mr. Hutton: It is ultimately the responsibility of the employer to provide a safe working environment for the employees, and we certainly encourage local authorities to do that. My hon. Friend represents a Welsh constituency, but he might be interested to know that in England we have convened a special advisory group to assist the Department in tackling issues of violence against social care workers. It is a high-powered group under the chairmanship of Chris Davies, who is a distinguished leader of social services in England. He is considering precisely those issues, and I hope to have a report from him soon about what further steps we can take to protect the social care work force in England. I do not know what initiatives are under way in Wales, as that is ultimately the responsibility of the National Assembly.

Social care workers do some of the most important jobs in our country, helping and dealing with some of the most vulnerable, and sometimes the most difficult, people in our society. They are entitled to look to us--we are ultimately responsible for their employment--to make their working environment safe. They do a difficult job on our behalf and we have clear responsibilities towards them.

We are determined that all authorities should give care leavers high-quality services. Local authorities were asked to explain, in their management action plans relating to this year's use of the children's special grant in England, how they were improving services to care leavers and putting in place plans to implement the new arrangements.

The new arrangements for young people in and leaving care will link closely with the development of the new ConneXions service for all young people aged 13 to 19, which was launched earlier this year. This new, joined-up, modern service will connect services provided locally to young people. It will radically transform the support that young people receive as they make the transition from adolescence to adult and working life. The ConneXions service will raise the expectations and aspirations of all young people, of all abilities and from all backgrounds,

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by ensuring that they receive the support and advice they need, when and where they need it, to make a success of their lives.

It is a flagship venture for cross-Government and cross-agency working; effectively, we are trying to "wire up" public services for young people.

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