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Mrs. Spelman: I am sure that those listening will be encouraged to hear the return to a consensual tone. I am encouraged to hear that the Government are not lukewarm, as the Minister said, about advocacy.

I want to impress on the Minister a practical point that arises from what he said. Perhaps he will take this as an informal contribution to the consultation, although the official Opposition do not usually participate in Government consultation processes. The phraseology that he used suggests that when the relationship breaks down between the personal adviser and the care leaver, and the care leaver wants to make a complaint, he or she will not have adequate protection, unless the complaints procedure under review is altered or the guidance is changed.

The Minister said that care leavers will have access to advocacy services if they require it, but who decides whether they require it? If it is the personal adviser who decides whether the care leaver requires independent advocacy services, there will be insufficient arm's length

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or independence for the care leaver to have confidence in the system. All the charities that are concerned about independent advocacy may be disquieted by that as well.

Mr. Hutton: I am extremely grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way and allowing me to correct a misapprehension. I am trying to preserve our position as we have not yet made a decision on the new arrangements, but whatever they are, we want them to command the confidence of young people. We shall make sure that that is the case. The important principle is that the young person feels that the system serves his or her interests, and we shall ensure that it does.

7 pm

Mrs. Spelman: That is a bit better, and I am encouraged. I am glad that I gave way, as the Minister has shown clearly that he has understood that it is extremely important that the care leaver feels that he or she has unfettered access to independent advice when the chips are down and a complaint is made. That would not be the case if the person against whom the complaint was lodged were in a position to make a decision about whether independent advocacy services should be rolled in. It is certainly satisfying to hear the Minister's clarification of that point. I accept that he wants care leavers and all those involved in this process to have confidence in the system. His reply makes it a lot easier for me to beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 6

Exclusion from benefits

Mr. Hammond: I beg to move amendment No. 24, in page 9, line 24, leave out subsection (3).

Mr. Deputy Speaker: With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 9, in page 9, leave out lines 26 and 27 and insert--


'is
(a) disabled within the meaning of section 120(2) of the Care Standards Act 2000, or
(b) a mother of a child under four years of age.
(3A) Where the Secretary of State provides by regulations that this section does not apply to a person by virtue of subsection (3)(b) he may provide by regulations such conditions as he shall determine to be in the best interest of that person and her child and if that person fails to comply with those conditions she shall cease to be a person to whom this section does not apply.

Mr. Hammond: May I start by drawing the House's attention to a typographical error in amendment No. 9, which refers to section 120(2) of the Care Standards Act? In fact, that reference should be to section 121(2) of the Care Standards Act. I am advised by the appropriate authorities that in a case where a typographical error is made but the meaning is clear, there is no reason why we should not debate the substance of the issue. If necessary, there will be opportunities later to correct what is written in the amendment. Responsibility for the error is entirely mine, so I apologise, I apologise, I apologise.

Mr. Hutton: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. In the light of what the hon. Gentleman said about

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his amendment, will you confirm that although he acknowledged that there is a typographical error on the Order Paper, we shall be debating the wording that the hon. Gentleman proposed, not that which he originally intended?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: The House will have heard what the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) said about his amendment. Technically, however, we must debate what is on the Order Paper.

Mr. Hammond: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Clearly, the Bill will have to go back to the other place as Government amendments have already been accepted, so there will be an opportunity to correct the technical error in the Order Paper later. I hope that the Government will not seek to shelter behind a technicality in a debate about an important issue of principle. The House should discuss the important issues in the amendment, not the technicality of what is obviously a typographical error.

Clause 6 removes the right to means-tested benefits, consisting of income support, housing benefit and jobseeker's allowance, for 16 and 17-year-old care leavers, bringing their position broadly into line with that of other 16 and 17-year-olds. That is entirely consistent with the Bill's objective of providing a concept of support that is broader than entitlement to cash benefits. Of course, we accept that that support may, and almost invariably will, include a cash element. However, that should not be an entitlement, as it should be negotiated between the young person and the young person's adviser, who will seek to put together a package of measures that provide proper support, in the broadest sense, for that young person.

We accept a point that the Minister made many times in presenting arguments for the Bill, and agree that the rigidities of the social security system and the sheer difficulty of navigating a way through it mean that it is often not the ideal way of dealing with the needs of particularly vulnerable young people. Care leavers clearly fall into that category. Under the present system of support available to non-care leavers, there is an entitlement to benefits for disabled young people and young people who are lone parents when they live at home with their families, meaning their own parents.

In introducing clause 6, the Minister's intention is to give the Secretary of State powers to exempt groups from removal of eligibility for benefit so that they can be brought more into line with the treatment of other young people who are not care leavers. My amendment and our debate are triggered by a separate issue that the Minister raised in Committee, when he indicated that his intention was to go significantly further than matching the support that other young people receive. He said:


The Minister therefore indicated that exemption from the provisions of clause 6, which removes the entitlement to means-tested social security benefits, should be extended to 15-year-old girls who are pregnant when they leave care. That does not bring the position of care leavers

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into line with that of non-care leavers; it sends a confusing signal to some vulnerable 15-year-olds. The Minister's own consultation document, "Me, Survive, Out There?", reports that some studies show that between 25 and 30 per cent. of 16-year-old girls leaving care are already mothers. I have not been able to find a figure--it may not be available--that tells us how many of those girls are pregnant at the time of leaving care.

Whether we like it or not, some young people will see the loss of entitlement benefits as a negative thing. There is a consensus in the Chamber, as there certainly was in Committee, that the package of support, consisting of cash benefits and non-cash support, available under the Bill will, on an objective basis and from an adult perspective, be superior to that which might otherwise be available under the means-tested social security system. The Minister, myself and other hon. Members who have taken part in our debates all agree on that.

Although the Minister disagreed with me strongly in Committee, the removal of an entitlement to cash benefit, which will be replaced by a discretionary benefit payable by the local authority that will be negotiated with the young person, will not be seen by all young people as positive. Indeed, if the Minister considers which young people might feel that removal of entitlement benefits and replacement with discretionary support packages was not beneficial or did not suit their particular desires at that stage of their life, he will find that the most vulnerable young people are the most likely to see merit in trying to hang on to cash benefits.

We accept that care leavers who are disabled or lone parents who live at home with their own families constitute a special case. Before the summer recess, I tabled amendment No. 9, which seeks to limit the Secretary of State's powers to those groups and exclude the group which, as the Minister revealed in Committee, the Government intend to include. I spent some time in the summer consulting various outside bodies about the issue. The need to discuss a wider issue became clear to me and I therefore tabled amendment No. 24.

If the system of support for which the Bill provides is so superior to the means-tested, social security support, which it will withdraw, why would we want to give the Secretary of State the power to exempt from that arrangement those who are perhaps most vulnerable--those who are disabled or lone parents? Many organisations that deal with disadvantaged young people have made the point that the benefits system does not tackle the complex needs of vulnerable young people well, even if they can find their way through it.

It may be better to provide, if appropriate, a cash-based support system, but within the structure that the Bill establishes. That would obviate the need to create exemptions from clause 6. The underlying ethos of the Bill is that those for whom it provides should be better off than they would be outside the system for which it provides, despite the change in the level of entitlement to cash benefits.

Amendment No. 24 would achieve the objective of dealing with the cash needs of vulnerable groups of care leavers within the architecture of the Bill. It recognises the need for special support for those groups, and that a system that is more cash based may be appropriate for some. However, that system can be provided within the scope of the Bill. I hope that the Government can accept the logic of that argument and support the amendment.

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We would find it unacceptable for the Secretary of State to have discretionary powers to exempt groups from clause 6 without specifying them in the Bill. The Minister, who is in charge of the measure, told us clearly in Committee that he believes that those powers could apply to young care leavers who are pregnant. We would resist that. It would have a more pernicious effect than exempting care leavers who are disabled or lone parents. It would send a negative and undesirable signal to vulnerable 15-year-old girls and would contrast starkly with the Department's campaign to discourage sexual activity among the under-16s.

Positive, continuing contact between the care leaver and the young person's adviser would be less likely if young people did not perceive that they received their stream of benefit payments--in kind or in cash--through that medium, but were able to gain access to them through the entitlement systems of the social security structure. The Government's consultation document, "Me, Survive, Out There?", made no reference to including pregnant care leavers in the category that should be exempted from the withdrawal of cash benefits. I hope that the Minister will be able to agree this evening that there is no need for powers to exempt categories from clause 6. If he is unable to go that far, I hope that he will agree that the Secretary of State should not have the power to exempt pregnant 15-year-old girls simply because they get pregnant while in care.

From every discussion that I have held with the Minister, I believe that he must agree that that would send the wrong signal to a vulnerable and exposed group of young people. I am sure that he would join us in wanting to do everything possible to discourage inappropriate behaviour among 15-year-olds, whether in care or not. I hope that the Minister will acknowledge that the Bill, when read in conjunction with his comments in Committee, clearly gives a negative signal to 15-year-olds. We must tackle that tonight, notwithstanding the typographical error in drafting amendment No. 9.

I hope that the Minister will deal with the substantive points and acknowledge that there is a simple and adequate opportunity to make the typographical correction when the Bill goes to another place. I am confident that, if amendment No. 9 is accepted, my noble Friends will co-operate in ensuring that the typographical error is corrected.


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