Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mrs. Spelman: I am grateful to hear the Minister's clear reassurance that there will be some streamlining in the number of advisers who will be working with vulnerable young people and his identification of funds to finance additional training. I have been reassured on both those points.

31 Oct 2000 : Column 641

5.30 pm

There would have been no need to debate the amendment had we seen the draft guidance. One of the problems throughout our consideration of the Bill has been that quite a lot of detailed background information has not been available. Of course, three months have elapsed since we debated the Bill in Committee, but I hope that this evening's debate, which has highlighted some of the Opposition's concerns, will serve to inform the Government as they draft the guidance, to which we wish to contribute by dint of their invitation to us.

To be realistic, we are unlikely to see any draft guidance until it is pretty well in its final stage, so perhaps tonight's debate has served the purpose of enabling us to make a contribution, even if we have reiterated some of the points that we made earlier this year. We feel that they are important and we look forward to seeing the draft guidance. As we have had some reassurances on streamlining, funding and training, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 2

Additional functions of local authorities in respect of certain children.

Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge): I beg to move amendment No. 1, in page 4, line 30, at end insert--

'23CA.--(1) Any person aged eighteen or over who makes a valid election not to be treated as a former relevant child shall not, so long as such an election is in force, be a former relevant child for the purposes of this section.
(2) The Secretary of State may by regulations make provision as to the procedure for the making and withdrawal of elections under subsection 1.
(3) In respect of a person in respect of whom a valid election is in force, a local authority shall not discharge any of the duties in subsections (2) and (3) of section 23C.
(4) Subject to subsection (1C), a local authority may in respect of any person in respect of whom a valid election is in force offer services or assistance of a type required or permitted to be provided under this Act to former relevant children, but shall be under no duty to do so.'.

I cannot allow the Bill to progress without raising what I believe to be an important issue, although in anticipation of what the Minister will say, I have to confess that we debated the matter on Second Reading and in Committee.

The Bill originally focused on children aged 16 and 17. During its passage through the House its scope has been considerably extended to place on local authorities all sorts of duties in relation to people over 18 who left care before reaching that age. We have broadly supported the Government in those changes to the Bill. Indeed, our noble Friends were partly instrumental in making the changes in the other place. However, I fear that in their enthusiasm to ensure that the Government facilitated proper support for care leavers over 18, those in the other place may have lost sight of a rather important and fundamental principle: when we talk about people over 18, we are dealing not with children but with adults who have to be treated as people capable of making decisions for themselves, with all the respect that that implies.

In his reply to the previous debate, the Minister spoke about his desire to build a consensus around this and other measures that seek to protect children. We fully support

31 Oct 2000 : Column 642

that view, but I would suggest to him that to be durable, a consensus must be not merely a consensus between the different views represented in this place at any particular time, but must sit comfortably with the traditions of our legal system.

The Bill places on local authorities a requirement to maintain pathway plans in respect of former relevant children--people who were relevant children when they left care and who are now over 18. It also requires local authorities to keep in touch with former relevant children and to re-establish contact with them if that contact has been lost. I acknowledge, as I have done before, that that would be a positive measure for the vast majority of children leaving care and we welcome it, but upon becoming adults some children leaving care may wish to put their past behind them and sever the link with the local authority that looked after them during their childhood. The Minister may think that it is right or wrong, helpful or unhelpful, in their best interests or otherwise, but the point is surely that as adults they have that right. The intentions of others, and the outcomes, may be good, but we should not subject a singled-out group of competent adults to compulsion, simply because something is for their own good. We do that only when people's competence is in question.

The essence of the Bill is to normalise the position of care leavers as far as possible and make their treatment as close as possible to that of other, perhaps more fortunate, individuals, and not to single them out for compulsory treatment in a way that marks them apart.

Currently, we have no way of knowing how assiduous local authorities are likely to be in seeking to keep in touch with former relevant children. Without wanting to be too cynical, I must say that much may depend on the financing mechanisms yet to be announced. Local authorities may take a relatively assertive line in seeking to discharge their statutory duty to take reasonable steps to stay in touch with former relevant children and to re-establish contact if it is lost.

We raised these issues on Second Reading and in Committee, and the Government argued that an opt-out, allowing an adult who is a former relevant child to choose not to be included in the provisions, would allow some local authorities to avoid their responsibilities under the Bill. Clearly, we do not want that. A balance needs to be struck. Local authorities must not be given a route that is open to abuse, but fully competent adult care leavers who do not want to participate further in the scheme must be given the right to free themselves from contact with their social services authority. There was a consultation conference on the Government's document, "Me, Survive, Out There?". One of the comments recorded in response to a question about whether it was right to have a plan was:

We believe that that is right when we are talking not about 16 and 17-year-old children but about 18-year-old adults. The amendment would modify the statutory duty on local authorities to allow for the making of an election by an adult who is a former relevant child, in a manner to be prescribed by the Secretary of State. That is important, because it addresses the Government's legitimate concern about creating a loophole through which recalcitrant local authorities might escape. The Secretary of State would

31 Oct 2000 : Column 643

prescribe the way in which the election was made, and indeed the way in which it could be withdrawn. An election in force would relieve the local authority from its obligations to maintain or re-establish contact, and to maintain a pathway plan and appoint a young person's adviser, and indeed would prevent that authority from pursuing those duties. It would not prevent them from offering other types of assistance.

I must draw attention to an error in the amendment. The reference to subsection (1C) should be a reference to subsection (3). The numbering changed between the blue and the white copy, but the subsequent reference in the amendment was not changed.

The amendment is not in any sense intended to be a wrecking amendment. It would recognise the real and important difference between the treatment of care leavers who are still children--minors--and of those who are have attained majority. In the first instance, the local authority must take on the role of the parent and discharge that duty diligently; in the second, the local authority's role is to be supportive, where such support is welcomed by the individual.

This is the third time that we have discussed this matter. I have as yet heard no case for requiring local authorities to maintain plans for, and to keep in touch with, competent adults who have expressed through a mechanism to be defined by the Secretary of State a clear wish to the contrary. The amendment would recognise the fundamental right of a competent adult to choose to be left alone by a local authority.

As I have said before to the Minister, it is imperative that the Bill be in accordance with the spirit at least of article 8 of the European convention on human rights, which gives the right to privacy and respect for family life. Therefore, a person who has attained the age of majority should be able to express a desire not to be included in the scheme proposed by the Bill.

My attempts to argue that case on two previous occasions were met with torrents of abuse--not from the Minister, but from Labour Back-Bench Members. Perhaps their absence today means that they have decided that they have lost the argument. However, nothing is more typical of the tendency to interfere and nanny people--so unhelpful in creating good and durable legislation--than this attempt to coerce competent adults into something that they may express a desire not to have.

A moment's reflection shows that it would be wrong for a local authority to monitor competent adults against their express wishes. I thought about the matter at some length over the summer recess, and could think of no circumstances in which it would be morally right to do so. I hope that the House will think carefully again about the implications of what the Bill proposes.

Next Section

IndexHome Page