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Prisons

That the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998 (Amendment of Section 10) Order 2000 (S.I., 2000, No. 2024) dated 25th July 2000, a copy of which was laid before this House on 26th July, be approved.

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Investigatory Powers

That the Regulation of Investigatory Powers (Notification of Authorisations etc.) Order 2000 (S.I., 2000, No. 2563) dated 20th September 2000, a copy of which was laid before this House on 22nd September, be approved.

That the Investigatory Powers Tribunal Rules 2000 (S.I., 2000, No. 2665) dated 28th September 2000, a copy of which was laid before this House on 29th September, be approved.-- [Mrs. McGuire.]

Question agreed to.

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Orders of the Day

Children Leaving Care Bill [Lords]

As amended in the Standing Committee, considered.

Clause 1

Further duties of local authorities towards children whom they are looking after

5.2 pm

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden): I beg to move amendment No. 11, in page 2, line 16, at end insert--


'( ) The Secretary of State may by regulations specify persons or classes of person who are and persons or classes of person who are not suitable to act as personal advisers under the provisions of sections 19C, 23B(2), 23C(3) and 23D(1).'.

Three months have elapsed between Committee and Report. I am sure that all hon. Members need to cast their minds back to the issues that were raised three months ago. The gap means that the Government have had extra time in which to reflect on some of the excellent points that we made in Committee, and it has also allowed for some fresh thinking by us.

The Bill has a strong measure of support from all parties. We recognise that the system fails care leavers dismally. The facts are worth repeating for any hon. Members who did not participate in earlier stages of our consideration of the Bill, or for whom July is a long time ago. Seventy-five per cent. of young people leaving care have no educational experience and 50 per cent. are unemployed. I am especially struck by an appalling statistic--that up to 25 per cent. of young women leaving care are pregnant or have a child. We, as a corporate parent, are not doing a good job for care leavers. That is the reason for the Bill.

On Report, we want to press several amendments and hear the Government's views on them because they cover points that, on reflection and careful re-reading of all the records of proceedings for the Committee stage, would leave the Bill less effective than it would be if we could persuade the Government to accept the amendments.

Amendment No. 11 would add the provision:


We believe that that is important. As parliamentarians, I am sure that we know that care leavers are among the most vulnerable people in our society. We therefore need to be extremely streetwise about putting them in a position of trust with a personal adviser. We have all learned some hard lessons from our experience of children's services, especially in north Wales and in other parts of the United Kingdom where it has been revealed that unscrupulous individuals prey on children.

We need to understand that the role of personal adviser is one that could be attractive to unscrupulous persons who seek to prey on vulnerable children or young persons. The purpose of the amendment is to strengthen that understanding. We remain concerned about the specific training and qualifications required of young persons' advisers. It is a particular concern of the National Children's Bureau.

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It was made clear by Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, on Report in the other place, that in his view the majority of personal advisers would be drawn from persons who now work with children in care or those leaving care. That was put forward as a point of reassurance to their Lordships. Lord Hunt was saying that those still concerned about the matter need not be.

I still have two residual concerns. Although there are planned changes to the training and development of social workers under the Care Standards Act 2000, it has been acknowledged by the Government that child development has been an area in the training of social workers that may not have had the full attention that it requires. That will be especially important in relation to the new role of personal advisers. If the majority of them are to be drawn from the group of people whom we would now regard as social workers, we need to be sure that in the course of their training attention is drawn to child development. Understanding the needs and predicaments of young persons leaving care has much to do with understanding how children behave, particularly when they have had poor experiences of family life and bad experiences from the past, which they carry as luggage when going forwards.

That is why we endorse the concern of the National Children's Bureau that the training and qualifications of personal advisers should be spelled out more clearly. Although Lord Hunt sought to reassure their Lordships that the majority of personal advisers would be drawn from among those who already work with young persons in care or leaving care, a minority of others could come from completely different walks of life. That is desirable, but some of them may be volunteers. We need to be sure that even those who volunteer to undertake the important role of personal adviser are trained and qualified to do the job. We would regard somebody as not suitable if he or she did not have appropriate training.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): I warmly welcome the amendment. Would the regulations that my hon. Friend has recommended be subject to the negative or affirmative procedure?

Mrs. Spelman: As my hon. Friend knows, and as we discovered at an early stage, as parliamentarians we need to have a belt-and-braces approach. It is not enough in this instance to let things go through on the nod. That is one of the motivations behind the amendment. We feel that there is too much latitude for inadequacy in training people for the important role of personal advisers. They must be qualified and they must be suitable.

Save the Children Fund is another charity that has a real concern. It has said that there could be a situation in which a personal adviser has a conflict of interest. The example that it has given could genuinely arise. If a personal adviser is a social worker and an employee of the local authority, it is possible that he or she may be under considerable pressure to stay within a budget. That is not unusual for a local authority employee. That may compromise the preferable choice that that personal adviser would make in addressing the need of the care leaver for suitable accommodation. The fact that Save the Children Fund recognises that there is a conflict of interest

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should lead us all to reflect on the matter. A conflict of interest could be an important reason why someone might not be suitable for the role of personal adviser.

Another important practical consideration has come to light through the work of charitable organisations, which have a great deal of experience in this area. The National Children's Bureau has said that there is no mention in the Bill of the links between advisers of young people who are involved in other recent Government initiatives, such as the youth support scheme which will be established by the Learning and Skills Bill. There is a risk that young people may face a veritable army of advisers. For example, they could find themselves with a social worker, a personal adviser, a case supervisor, a home link worker, a foster carer and, indeed, a Connexions adviser, although that role might double up with that of personal adviser. I invite hon. Members to put themselves in the position of a vulnerable young person who has so many different people to answer to for his or her actions, to consult, to take account of and to get to know. In addition, that young person has to cope with changes in personnel as those advisers change.

It is fair to ask the Government to reassure us that the approach will be streamlined. There is a danger that an array of different people will intervene in a young person's case when it is crucial that that person does not become another statistic in a system that has failed him. The arrangements must remain personal. Young care leavers will undoubtedly view an array of such people as representing the establishment, for which they may not have the warmest regard. There is a danger that young people will feel no more cared for and supported than they were before.

We should reiterate that children have a right to expect unsuitable advisers to be screened out. I hope that the Minister will reassure us that protective measures exist in other parts of the legislation. We know that terrible mistakes have been made. In Committee, I cited the example of how, almost by chance, a local authority uncovered the fact that an employee of another local authority, who held a position of enormous trust looking after vulnerable children, had a criminal record. It took more than a year for the local authority that employed him to do anything about the fact that he was in charge of children despite having a criminal record that would render him completely unsuitable for working in close proximity with children. The criminal record was only uncovered when the individual applied to Wandsworth council to become a foster parent. The council ran the proper checks and discovered that he had a criminal record, of which Lambeth council was completely unaware. We are talking not about theory but about mistakes that happen in practice. Children were let down in that case and we must ensure that they are not let down in the same way again.

All the evidence surrounding inquiries into the running of children's services in which there have been problems has taught us that some local authorities do not have a good track record in this area. I would be the first to acknowledge that great steps have been taken to protect children. People who have contact with children should now be rigorously checked. I have first-hand experience of that because, wisely or unwisely, I volunteered to help with the Sunday school in my local parish church. I have been interested to go through the whole process that requires me to declare whether I have a criminal record,

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a health reason why I should not work with children or have had a different name in the past. I even have to supply my birth certificate. I therefore know that checks are made even when an individual is volunteering, but I am nevertheless concerned about the fact that the appointment of a personal adviser relies on such checks by local authorities.


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