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Dr. Peter Brand (Isle of Wight): Fewer hon. Members are in the Chamber this evening than attended the Committee deliberations. That is clearly a measure of the general support for the Bill. At the risk of going over old ground, I want to say that I support proposed new subsection (1) of the amendment, although my argument is not that advanced by the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond). Clearly, in an ideal world, an unruly 17-year-old in care can become a
Mr. Hammond: The hon. Gentleman presumably accepts that the law sets a watershed for people at the age of 18. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, people who attain majority are regarded as competent adults.
Dr. Brand: Clearly, I recognise the law, but perhaps my definition of competence differs from the hon. Gentleman's. According to my definition, a competent person can make well-informed decisions for himself about how to lead his life, and can do so without support. I would be worried if all parts of the amendment were accepted. The local authority would then have a licence to have nothing more to do with a particular young person. I would be as worried if parents suddenly said to their child when he or she turned 18, "Never darken our doors again; we have no interest in you." There is a great difference between the requirement to receive all one's sustenance, benefits and means of sustaining oneself from the ages of 16 to 21, as the Bill provides for leavers, and the duty of caring about the outcome of the decisions that they make in their lives.
Mr. Hammond: The hon. Gentleman has just referred to 16 and 17-year-olds. We are not talking about them, but about 18-year-olds. Will he concede that an 18-year-old who wished to distance himself from his family would be entitled to expect his family not to harass him, if that was his clearly expressed wish?
Dr. Brand: Absolutely. I would not give licence to parents to harass, either. However, there is a great difference between continuing care and harassment. I hope that the Bill does not give a power to harass.
What concerns me--which is why I support the first part of the amendment--is that the powers that the Bill gives local authorities over young people who are over 18 are greater than those of the average parent. If young people are in education or are in need of benefit because they are not self-sustaining in the work place, their only means of support is not--as it is for children with parents--a benefits system into which everyone can plug, but through their local authority.
In Committee, I moved an amendment that the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge described as a wrecking amendment. When young people--it does not matter to me whether they are 17, 18, 19 or 20--become disaffected with the local authority and refuse to accept its help, is there a mechanism flexible enough to ensure that they are supported in a legitimate way? That is what my amendment was designed to test with the Minister, because I am extremely concerned that when young people who cannot go to a Benefits Agency office, do not qualify for social loans and refuse to be in touch with their local authority take flight, their only means of support is through drug dealing, prostitution or stealing.
We had some discussion on this in Committee. The Minister talked about exceptional arrangements or, by regulation, listing exemption groups. However, having reread Hansard, I am not sure whether that exemption can
Mr. Hutton: The hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Dr. Brand) is in the classic Liberal Democrat position. He supports some parts of the amendment but not others. Unfortunately, the rules of the House do not allow him to choose which parts he supports. He either supports the whole package or he does not.
Dr. Brand: I am always happy to be rebuked and to learn, but I thought that one of the opportunities available on Report was to explore further with Ministers their approaches to amendments and the Bill. That is why I am happy to support only part of an amendment. How I will vote is a matter that will become clear should we be called on to do so.
I must begin from where I would not choose to start by correcting the assessment of the Bill made by the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge. It is not true to say that we did not envisage this part of the Bill extending to people aged 21. We always saw it that way. The argument in the other place was over whether that should be made explicit in the Bill or implemented through the regulation-making powers that we had originally said we wished to use. His description of a Bill whose character and nature had been fundamentally changed by the amendments accepted in another place is not right. As is made clear in the Bill and in the document, "Me, Survive, Out There?", we always had those points in mind.
Secondly, and more substantially, the hon. Gentleman fundamentally misunderstands this part of the Bill, and his concerns are therefore misplaced. He characterised the local authority in conducting its responsibilities as an intrusive arm of the nanny state that would harass and monitor people in some covert, police-style operation. That is completely inaccurate. We do not expect local authorities to exercise their functions and duties in that way.
We argued that point on Second Reading and in Standing Committee, and I am sad that we seem to have seen no progress in the hon. Gentleman's thinking on it over the summer. However, his friends in the other place did not raise that argument at all, although they had plenty of opportunity to do so. He seems to have got his arguments into a twist. His perfectly understandable arguments about civil liberties are misplaced.
I must also argue with the hon. Gentleman's amendment on the grounds that his attempted solution to the civil liberties deficit that he says that he has identified would be likely to make matters worse rather than better. We explored the reasons why that should be in Standing Committee, as the hon. Member for Isle of Wight has rightly said. The attempted solution might in fact operate as effective encouragement to some local authorities to
I understand the hon. Gentleman's arguments, but they traduce the duties that we want local authorities to have for young people. He misdescribed, in particular, the way in which we expect the duty to keep in touch to operate. We shall deal with that through statutory guidance, which we intend to issue as soon as we can. We shall consult the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues on the nature of that duty.
The hon. Gentleman did not address the point that we are trying to strike a balance. The hon. Member for Isle of Wight, to his credit, did mention that, and, to be fair, the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge alluded partly to it. We accept that we are striking out into new territory. The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge and his party had 20 years in which to address deficiencies in the system for leaving care, and did not do so. We have tried to strike a balance between the needs of young people leaving care, who are often vulnerable, socially excluded, damaged youngsters, and what we expect of a responsible parent--in this case, the local authority.
Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South): Does my hon. Friend agree that the amendment misses the point that a vulnerable young person of 18 may want nothing to do with the local authority, which will in turn be unsurprised by that. Two years later, at the age of 20, having grown up a bit, the person may seek support. It is not unusual for 18-year-olds to leave home wanting nothing to do with their parents, but for the same people, in their early 20s, to realise that they have cut off all support and seek to return in some way. We must build into the Bill the possibility of rapprochement, should the young person want it.
Mr. Hutton: I agree. My hon. Friend may be interested to know that a recent assessment by the National Children's Bureau, which was published in September, showed that young people who have left care often admit, when they look back, that they were far less ready to live independently than they had thought at the time. Under the amendment, it might be difficult, once the young person has taken an option, for the local authority to discharge the responsibilities that we expect a good parent to deliver.
The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge was right to say that a competent adult may say that he or she wishes to lead his or her own life exactly as he or she chooses. The Bill will not stop any young person doing that. We are concerned with the duties that a corporate parent, acting as a good and reasonable parent, should have. The hon. Gentleman is a parent himself, and I cannot imagine that he would accept a situation in which he would make no effort to keep in touch with one of his own children should something happen that resulted in that child not wanting to remain in touch. I should certainly wish to remain in touch. No matter what the
The hon. Gentleman's concerns are misplaced, and he has misdescribed the nature of the duties, particularly the duty to keep in touch. He has characterised that duty as if it were some covert, police-state duty, which it clearly is not. We shall ensure that it is not when we issue statutory guidance.