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5.15 pm

During the Committee stage of the Care Standards Bill, we learned of the terrible dearth of social workers. They are in short supply, and much of the legislation that we have passed requires them to do more and more. There is a huge demand for their skill, and I should hate the need for them as social advisers to be compromised because of a shortage of time for checks to be made. The amendment will help to ensure that local authorities take seriously the process of establishing whether a person is suitable to act as an adviser.

I want to make another practical point about timing. The Minister explained in Committee how changes in the checking procedure could be helpful, but there is no doubt that there will be a time lag between the establishment of the Criminal Records Bureau and local authorities needing to know whether someone is suitable, and has passed the police checks.

On 26 October, a ministerial answer to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) suggested that the new bureau would be in a position to issue criminal records certificates by around July next year, but the Minister involved said that detailed planning was continuing. That leaves a bit of doubt in my mind. I know that the time is coming, but the needs of care leavers have been clearly identified and the role of personal adviser is key to the success of this part of the Bill. There must be a huge temptation to get the system going, perhaps before the establishment of the very best protection which we hope will be afforded in future. I should like the Minister to reassure me that there will be no gap during which unsuitable persons might be appointed.

We understand how crucial advisers are to the workability of the system. I cannot emphasise that enough. They will be responsible for ensuring that care leavers' pathway plans develop and for adjusting those plans to young persons' changing needs. An adviser will have a close relationship, involving trust and understanding, with a vulnerable care leaver. Advisers will represent the human face of what I have described as the corporate parent. As I said earlier, as a corporate parent we have not done very well in the past in relation to the group that we are discussing.

If the Minister is receptive to our amendment, we shall, I hope, help to remove elements of risk that might cause unsuitable people to gain a position of influence, and to aggravate an already bad situation. A number of care leavers fall through the net, causing the sad statistics that I cited earlier. They may become unemployed, they often become homeless, some become pregnant, and some have young children.

We tabled a similar amendment in Committee, but the Minister rejected it, saying that the Government did not want to be too prescriptive and wanted to leave the matter to the discretion of local authorities. As I hope I have made clear, we remain anxious about the discretion of

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local authorities. We feel that our amendment would strengthen the Bill and would leave less room for manoeuvre.

One of our major concerns with the Bill is that we have to take quite a lot of it on trust. The Government stated that they would resolve the matter that we are concerned about through statutory guidance, but the question is: what will that be? We do not know. It is yet another example of an empty box. We are being asked to agree the contents without having seen them.

We were invited by the Minister to help him to ensure that the guidance was correct. How can we do that without knowing what it is? Perhaps we shall hear what it is and perhaps that will give us some reassurance. I look forward to hearing what he has to say.

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Mr. John Hutton): I am grateful to the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) for the spirit in which she has moved her amendment. She started by saying that we all had to remind ourselves about the nature, scope and range of the Bill. That is true for those on the Government Benches, as I am sure it is true for those on the Conservative Benches. A long time has elapsed between the Committee stage of the Bill and Report. We all know the reasons for that, but the hon. Lady showed her customary grasp of the detail. I congratulate her on that.

The hon. Lady is right to say that there is a powerful sense of deja vu about the debate: she made exactly the same speech in Standing Committee. I do not want to antagonise her, but my response is likely to be similar to my response to her amendments then, although I shall try to deal specifically with the particular reassurances and assurances that she asked me to give in relation to two particular concerns. One was about the relationship between the young person's adviser and the Connexions service that the Department for Education and Employment and the Department of Health strongly support and encourage. The other was about the progress of the Criminal Records Bureau and the facility that local authorities will have to check the names of potential young persons advisers against the database that the bureau will maintain.

As I said in Standing Committee, the hon. Lady's argument with the Government is one of process rather than substance. I do not think that her argument is one of substance in relation to the role of young persons advisers, their training, qualifications and suitability to do the job. As I understand it, her argument is essentially that she would prefer those issues to be dealt with by regulations--she is right; if we took that action it would be subject to the negative procedure--instead of setting the procedures for appointing young persons advisers and the detail around that in guidance.

The hon. Lady was slightly wrong to say that I suggested in Standing Committee that all those matters would be left purely to the discretion of local authorities because, as she went on rightly to say, I made it clear that we intended to issue statutory guidance to local authorities on how that discretion should be exercised. Of course, that is guidance that local authorities are required to follow. We are aware, as she is, that substantial issues of policy and consistency need to be addressed around the appointment of that new person--the young person's adviser--who will have, as she rightly said, an important and substantial role in overseeing the implementation of the new arrangements.

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What is clear--I agree with the hon. Lady--is that the young person's adviser must be able to build the right relationship of trust with young people. The Government believe that there is no monopoly of those skills and characteristics in any given professional group, or in the public, private or voluntary sectors. In our consultation document entitled "Me, Survive, Out There?" we produced a fairly comprehensive and long list of people who could potentially act as young persons advisers. We must allow for flexibility in the system, so that individual needs and circumstances can be best met.

I believe--I made it clear in Standing Committee and I repeat it--that that is not a suitable matter for regulation, but that statutory guidance is a better mechanism to build in the flexibility that we want. We shall be clear that we envisage a wide field for potential young persons advisers and that the critical point in each case will be whether they are able to work successfully with the individual young person. I believe--it is a matter of common sense, and I am sure that this is where most Members would want to draw the line--that those judgments about suitability are best made through local recruitment and selection processes.

As for defining groups that may not be young persons advisers, that issue has been largely overtaken by the Protection of Children Act 1999, which, subsequent to our discussions in Standing Committee, became law on 2 October.

The hon. Lady was right to say that it is important that vulnerable young people, such as those who have been looked after, should be protected from unsuitable people. I am confident that the legislation will do that. We have taken account of that need and safeguards are already in place--such as police checks, to which the hon. Lady referred and about which I shall say a few words in a moment, and the provisions of the 1999 Act.

We do not envisage that young persons advisers will be recruited to specialise in different age bandings. Indeed, the ideal will be that a young person keeps the same young persons adviser from 16 to 21, or whenever he or she stops receiving support from his or her responsible authority. Consequently, young persons advisers must be able to work with the entire age range, and recruitment will have to take account of the safeguards in place to prevent unsuitable people from working with children. Therefore, I do not think that there is any need to make separate regulations for that purpose as amendment No. 11 invites the House to do.

The hon. Lady asked two specific questions and expressed a particular concern about the Connexions personal advisers. The role of the Connexions personal adviser and that of the adviser appointed under the Bill clearly will be largely similar. It is proposed, therefore, that the advisers for young people aged 16 and over living in and leaving care should usually be their Connexions adviser.

The precise nature of the relationship between the employing authority--for example, a social services department--and the Connexions service is still a matter for consideration. We are examining the details of that relationship. Additionally, proposals are being developed for a major training programme for Connexions advisers, to include those who are appointed as advisers for the purposes of the Bill.

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As for the training of young persons advisers who are not going to be Connexions advisers, we made it clear in the "Me, Survive, Out There?" document that local authorities would be able to use an element of their children's special grant--the quality protects money--to ensure that young persons advisers receive the training that we all know they need to receive.

The project remains on target for the Criminal Records Bureau to begin issuing greater numbers of certificates by about July 2001. Meanwhile, the Home Office is examining possible methods of minimising delays in local police forces. I think that it is very important, for reasons that the hon. Lady has rightly identified, that police checks are conducted as expeditiously as possible. That is a basic safeguard which we expect to be in place.

I hope that the hon. Lady is reassured by the particular responses that I have made on the Criminal Records Bureau and the Connexions advisory service. She is less likely to be satisfied with my arguments on why we prefer to deal with the matter in statutory guidance rather than in regulations. However, I think that it would be wrong to characterise statutory guidance as an ineffective tool. It is not ineffective--it has proven its worth on many occasions and in many settings in which Governments of all persuasions have used the section 7 route to provide guidance to local authorities.

The hon. Lady asked me specifically about how she could know whether the guidance would be appropriate. The fact is that the guidance is not yet ready. If it were, we would certainly let her see it, so that she and her right hon. and hon. Friends could comment on it. I meant what I said in Committee: when the guidance is ready, we shall certainly seek her view and that of other Conservative Members on the appropriateness of that guidance tool. We shall do that not because of nostalgia or sentiment, but because it is the right thing to do.

We want to ensure that consensus on the Bill is maintained. The hon. Lady identified consensus as one of the strong characteristics of our proposals and we are anxious to maintain that. I am sure that she will not mind me saying, however, that we do not think that Conservative Members necessarily have a monopoly on wisdom in the matter. She said that I asked her to help out, but I think that she might have misinterpreted that, as we have very strong ideas about what we want the guidance to cover. Nevertheless, we should certainly welcome her advice and opinions and those of other Conservative Members.

I therefore cannot recommend my right. hon. and hon. Friends to accept amendment No. 11. However, I hope that the hon. Lady has at least been reassured about our intentions on maintaining proper and effective safeguards and that the legitimate points she has made on training and suitability will be properly dealt with in the guidance that we shall be issuing.

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