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8 pm

The Government should wait until they can treat all the people of the United Kingdom similarly on a reserved matter such as social security. Anything less undermines one of the important principles that was established when certain types of legislation were reserved for this Parliament.

Mr. Hutton: The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) started his remarks by expressing concerns about clause 6(7). I assure him that subsection (7) uses a standard form of words for social security legislation, and that its inclusion in the Bill is to allow the Secretary of State the flexibility to react flexibly to future developments. It also allows, for example, the Department of Social Security to pilot new benefit schemes. Therefore, there is nothing alien or fundamentally unsatisfactory about the clause. It is also certainly not in the Bill to exclude Scotland en bloc, as the hon. Gentleman said.

As the hon. Gentleman appreciates, the provisions of clause 6 will commence in England and Wales, but not in Scotland until Scottish legislation is in place. As I said, subsection (7) is simply a standard power in social security legislation to allow that type of flexibility.

The hon. Gentleman's remarks seemed to indicate a concern that the Government envisage that different groups of young people will be exempted from the Bill's benefits provisions in the different countries of Great Britain. I assure him that that is not the case. We intend to re-harmonise benefit provision across Great Britain as soon as it is feasible to do so. I also assure him, in answer to his question, that, on 5 July, Scottish Ministers gave a very firm commitment to introducing legislation providing for support for care leavers as soon as possible--in the next Session of the Scottish Parliament,

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I believe. Once that has been done, we shall be able to commence the use of the terms of clause 6 of the Bill in Scotland, as it will be commenced in England and Wales.

Mr. Hammond: Surely the Minister does not purport to be able to assure the House that the Scottish Parliament will pass such legislation.

Mr. Hutton: Of course not; that is a matter for the Scottish Parliament. However, the hon. Gentleman asked me when I thought that legislation would be presented to the Scottish Parliament. My information is that it will be introduced in the next Session of the Scottish Parliament.

In Committee, the hon. Gentleman made very clear his feelings about devolution. I think that Labour Members and some Opposition Members have detected where he and other Conservative Members stand on devolution. Although that is not a matter for this debate, I suspect that we shall return to it in the next few months.

The hon. Gentleman believes that some matters were reserved to Westminster to ensure that there could be no possibility of any variation in them across Great Britain. The Bill deals not only with devolved matters--support for children who are being looked after--but with reserved matters--welfare benefits. We have been very careful to keep in close touch with the Scottish and the Welsh devolved Administrations to be quite certain that they are content with the way in which to handle that new complexity. They are so content. We have also been at pains to ensure that no child is accidentally disadvantaged because of the Bill. We are confident that the Bill will achieve that aim.

The Government have made it clear that it is right in principle that social security benefits should be available on a common basis across the country. However, we recognise that there may be occasions when Edinburgh cannot legislate for the same provisions to our own timetable. We need, therefore, to consider the circumstances on a case-by-case basis to decide whether it is essential that the provisions are implemented countrywide. In this case, it is not essential. Rather, we prefer to proceed with implementation of legislation in England and Wales that will benefit very many children for whom the state is responsible and who have to date not always received the best care and support.

Consequently, as is obvious to everyone, there will be a transitional period in which benefit entitlement for 16 and 17-year-olds who have been looked after will be different on either side of the Scottish border. The Government agree that the sooner entitlement can be harmonised, the better. However, we do not believe that it would be right to deprive English and Welsh looked-after children of all the benefits of the Bill's provisions, which have received widespread support in both Houses of Parliament and more widely during the Bill's passage. The Government have also been at pains to ensure that, during the transitional period, no child will find himself disqualified for support when he moves across the Scottish border in either direction.

The principle is clear: we do not propose to hold up implementation in England and Wales. The practicality will be that the traditional period will be short. As I said, we have assurances from Scottish Ministers that they will legislate for Scotland at the earliest possible opportunity.

We had a long and extensive debate on this issue in Committee. I hope that I have been able to reassure the hon. Gentleman that we intend to proceed with

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implementation in England as soon as we can, from next April, because the benefits for English and Welsh children are very substantial. We hope to re-harmonise the situation in Scotland at the earliest possible opportunity. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

Mr. Hammond: The Minister talked about needing flexibility in the Bill to deal with future developments. However, it has been made very clear--I do not think that the Minister would deny it--that subsection (7) will be used to deal with the transitional phase.

It is simply not good enough for Ministers to wheel out the devolution slur every time we raise issues that are bound to arise as we all get used to dealing with the situation that has been created by the Scotland Act 1998. We are exploring what happens when the House is asked to consider legislation in which--this Bill may be the first such example--most of the provisions deal with devolved matters, for which the Scottish Parliament has full authority and jurisdiction, but one provision deals with a reserved matter.

We have to address the issues of timing and of United Kingdom Ministers' inability to give assurances on the passage of appropriate legislation in the other Parliament. I think that it was right to raise the issue. I also do not think that the Minister's comments on devolution and on my comments in Committee will bear scrutiny. By highlighting the issue, we are pointing up--and will continue to point up, whenever the need arises--the inherent instability of the devolution settlement and the need continuously to address such issues.

I entirely agree with the Minister when he says that he does not want to deprive Welsh and English children of the legislation's benefits simply because of any tardiness in the Scottish Parliament. I entirely understand his motivation in saying that.

In requesting to withdraw my amendment--although I am far from satisfied--I simply say that the Minister has today demonstrated the confusion in the Government's legislative programme. He told us that, when this Bill was being drafted, it was intended that it should receive Royal Assent and be implemented before the Care Standards Act 2000. Events, however, have been the other way around. One might think that the Government should be in sufficient control of their legislative programme to be able at least to determine which of their measures is implemented first. The Minister is now asking us to believe that he can give effective assurances--a nod and a wink--on what will happen in the Scottish Parliament.

The Minister may have different information from mine, but my understanding is that--although Scottish Ministers have been given orders by No. 10 Downing street that they have to have legislation mirroring this Bill as soon as possible--the arithmetic in Scotland and the views held there on the withdrawal of cash entitlement benefits from 16 and 17-year-olds are such that the Minister cannot predict with confidence that that legislation will be passed.

Dr. Brand: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there might be a Machiavellian plot to phase the transfer? If it

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results in a flood of care leavers moving to Scotland to go onto benefits, would that not be a powerful incentive for the Scottish Parliament to pass the same legislation?

Mr. Hammond: No, I think not. Having made the point--it has been made before, as the Minister rightly said--I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 7

Minor and consequential amendments

Amendment made: No. 22, in page 10, line 27, at end insert--
'(5) In the Care Standards Act 2000, in Schedule 4 (minor and consequential amendments)--
(a) in paragraph 14(4), the words ", as it has effect before the commencement of section 4 of the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000"; and
(b) paragraph 14(5) and (6),
are repealed.'.--[Mr. Hutton.]

Clause 8

Interpretation, commencement, extent, Wales and short title

Amendment made: No. 23, in page 10, line 29, after "from" insert "section 7(5) and".--[Mr. Hutton.]
Order for Third Reading read.

8.10 pm

Mr. Hutton: I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

At the heart of the Bill lies one simple but powerful idea--that children in care deserve the same chance to get on in life as any other child; but that has never been the reality. Very few young people in care have ever enjoyed the opportunity to thrive and develop. The facts speak for themselves.

Children in care make up 25 per cent. of those sleeping rough on the streets of London. Young men previously in care make up 22 per cent. of the prison population and that figure rises to 39 per cent. of those under 21. Fewer than one in three leaves care with a single GCSE pass, compared with 95 per cent. of children overall. That is not the failure of the child in care; it is a failure of the system of care. At long last, we are now beginning to address that.

The Bill, together with the other measures we have taken to strengthen and improve children's social services, will lay the foundations for new opportunities for young people in care to get a good education and a good job, to have a stake in and some hope for the future, and to enjoy the same on-going support and help that other children receive as they become adults and move towards independence. It has been in those areas that the care system has let down children in care, often with terrible consequences.

By passing the Bill tonight, we have the opportunity to say that we will no longer tolerate those failures in the care system, that we have acknowledged our responsibility to see to it that young people in care get a

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decent chance in life, and that what is good enough for our own children must, in future, become good enough for every child in care.

Children get only one chance in life to grow up--and for them to grow up safely and realise their full potential, they need the active care, help and support of their parents. The new duties and responsibilities placed on local authorities under the Bill will, I believe, help to ensure that looked-after children receive this from their corporate parents.

We all recognise that achieving those objectives will take more than a change in the law. Neither can we afford to be complacent about the scale of the challenge, which is real and significant, but the changes made by the Bill will provide a strong impetus to the new approach and culture that we want to see spread across children's social services, where we have higher ambitions for looked-after children so that social services provide young people not just with care, but with a real chance and opportunity in life, equipping them with the skills and knowledge that they need for their future success.

The Bill will allow local authorities to do all that for the children in their care and, backed by the new resources for children's social services in the spending review, we are now taking the necessary and essential steps towards meeting the collective responsibility that we owe as a society to looked-after children.

Many people have helped ensure that we have taken those steps forward--not only with the Bill tonight, but with the Government's other measures in this area. I should like to thank in particular my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson), for both his leadership and his commitment to children in care throughout his time as Secretary of State for Health. He, more than any other person tonight, is entitled to take credit for the Bill.

I should also like to thank young care leavers such as Marie Piper and Tommy Turner, who helped us to prepare the Bill and make sure that it addresses the concerns of children in care. Finally, I should like to thank members of the Standing Committee for their positive and helpful scrutiny of the Bill.

The Bill marks the beginning of a new deal for young people in care. It signals our determination not only to end the all-too-obvious failures of the past, but to build a new and brighter future for some of the most vulnerable and socially disadvantaged people in our country. It is a good and decent Bill and I ask the House to support it tonight.

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