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I wholeheartedly welcome the announcement in the Green Paper that the designated teacher is to be put on a statutory footing—a matter that he did not mention in his statement but which appears in the Green Paper and for which we have called for some time. I also welcome the announcement that young people will be able to remain with their foster family until they are 21. Many young people in care have had a fractured
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experience of education, meaning that it often takes them much longer to complete their studies. The extension of fostering recognises that and the fact that care in a family setting does not normally end at 16. Similarly, I want to welcome the increased emphasis on academic achievement of young people in care, through priority in admissions and bursaries for university.

Surely, however, one way to encourage schools to take young people who may struggle is to target money on the pupil. Why have the Government not adopted a pupil premium to ensure that schools can provide the extra help that vulnerable young people need? Will the Secretary of State confirm that the new requirement on schools to prioritise admissions of looked-after children will apply throughout the school year and not just at the beginning?

I welcome the proposals for training and salaries for foster carers—something that we have called for some time. I also welcome the acknowledgment that too often potential carers from within the family are overlooked. Are the Government looking at better allowances for kinship care? When placements change, the only stable figure is often the social worker. What are the Government doing to ensure that there is less churn of appointed social workers for individual children?

The Green Paper announces that the Government will encourage councils to provide free leisure activities for young people. Will the extra money be provided to councils to ensure that that is possible, even where services have been outsourced to another provider? Will the Secretary of State confirm that the extended schools programme will be available free of charge to looked-after children? Do the Government have any plans to reintroduce the programme that provided foster homes with a home computer?

Finally, one of the greatest tragedies of looked-after children is, as the Secretary of State acknowledged, the fact that so many, so early in their lives, find themselves on the wrong side of the law. It is perhaps ironic that immediately after this statement there will be another one on overcrowding in prisons. Let us hope that this Green Paper marks a new chapter for some of the most vulnerable in our society.

Alan Johnson: I thank the hon. Lady for her comments and for her welcome for many parts of the report. I shall pick out the issues that she raised when she went beyond praise, and important issues they are. The first was the issue of targeting money on individuals. The whole problem of children in care is that there are so few of them that they do not register on the system. Part of the idea behind the virtual head teacher and Ofsted inspecting every school in the local area every three years is to ensure that children in care do register. I do not think that this is an issue about finances. Martin Narey, the chairman of Barnardo’s, made it clear this morning that, unlike most political issues with which he has dealt, this is an issue about systems rather than finance. That is at the core of the problem in terms of the help that we give to children in schools.

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I will take away the issue of better allowances for kinship care; it has not been drawn to my attention and there may be a legal point. However, it fits well with the idea that if there is an opportunity to use a family member to avoid a child slipping into care, we ought to grasp it.

Ensuring less churn is part of the current work on social workers’ pay and conditions. We must look at how social workers can bid for work, with the local authority being the commissioner. Social care workers often want to stay dedicated to looking after children but too often are diverted on to paperwork and bureaucracy. If social workers can continue to do what they want it will help with churn.

The issues of home computers and free extended schools will be addressed as the Green Paper goes through. They were very good suggestions, if I may say so.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) (Lab): Sometimes quite simple things can make an enormous difference. Will my friend have a word with the Department for Work and Pensions about benefit offices’ increasing use of telephone conversations held in open offices? This constitutes a barrier for young people who often do not want to discuss difficult questions about their private lives in front of an office full of benefit claimants.

Alan Johnson: My right hon. Friend—

Mrs. Dunwoody: No, hon. Friend.

Alan Johnson: I did not even get an “honourable.” My hon. Friend makes an important point about discussions with the DWP. I will raise it, just as we have raised the issue about foster carers who decide to keep a child past the age of 18 and find that this has an adverse effect on any benefits to which they are entitled. This issue needs to be discussed across Government, which is why the Green Paper was produced by a cross-Government working party.

Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald) (Con): I welcome many of the changes that the Secretary of State has announced, but it is one thing to enable and another to motivate. I talked recently to a foster mother who has fostered several children and who told me that when they reach 16 she advises them to stay on for sixth form and to be aspirational. However, along comes a social worker who tells them that now they are 16 they are entitled to independent accommodation and various benefits. It is not realistic to expect the degree of maturity required to choose education and pocket money over what looks like immediate independence. Can the Secretary of State assure me that the presumption will be that children will stay on, instead of the false motivation to leave education at 16?

Alan Johnson: The right hon. Lady is absolutely correct. The motivational aspect is one issue, and another is what is cheaper for the local authority. Persuading the child to move to an empty flat round the corner is less expensive than leaving them with foster parents. That is why we intend to pilot the
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presumption that a child will stay on past 16 in care and with their foster carers past 18. It is no good talking about the importance of listening to the child if they are insistent on moving away, but if we can get the motivational aspects right, we can create the climate in which the child can make a more mature decision, assisted by a social worker whom they have grown to trust because they have not been chopped and changed every five minutes. If we can achieve that, it will lead to different decisions being made by the child.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): The care leavers whom I met last week were clear that they want to see more help for families, more foster carers—so that they have a better choice and can stay in a stable home with the foster carer of their choice—more contact with social workers and more account taken of their views. The personal commitment of my right hon. Friend is beyond question, as is that of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Children and Families, but will he ensure that alongside the theme of stability that runs through the Green Paper he will add the themes of consistency of approach, by everybody who deals with the children and young people in that vulnerable group, and of listening to them? In the associate parliamentary group for looked-after children and care leavers that I chair, there are many youngsters who are bright, thoughtful and full of ideas to whom we should listen. They can certainly make a contribution to decisions on how they are looked after.

Alan Johnson: I join my hon. Friend in congratulating my right hon. Friend the Minister for Children and Families on her commitment to this issue. Continuity is part of the stability argument, because continuity leads to stability. I therefore agree with the need to ensure continuity and I welcome my hon. Friend’s comments about the voice of the child. The voices of children not in care, expressed through school councils and the like, are becoming an increasingly important way to instil citizenship and impart ideas about how democracy works at classroom level. That is even more important for children in care.

My hon. Friend has a long background in this issue and he will have heard many heartbreaking stories about teachers telling the whole class that a child is in care. The teacher thinks that they are doing a good thing for the child, but it can be embarrassing or stigmatising for them. We need to listen to the child and what they think that the state and local authorities should do, because that is crucial to the whole exercise. The Green Paper will involve our talking to children in care now, and going into prisons—I say that in front of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, who is in his place—and talking to prisoners who were in care to find out what went wrong. We have an enormous job to do in listening to the voice of those who have been in care and those who are in care at present.

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): Will the Secretary of State say something about what his Department can do to turn off the tap of the flow of children coming into care in the first place? I am talking about practical examples. For example, a number of community family trusts across the country face obstacles, but they are not looking for more money from the Government. Those organisations do
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very good work. Frankly, we are being left behind by other countries that are making inroads into the problem; divorce rates have halved in some American towns. Will the Secretary of State say a little about that subject, too?

Alan Johnson: One of the countries that we have looked at is the United States. That is where the idea of functional family therapy comes from, in which there is serious concentration on conciliation; people are given an intensive three months to tackle the problems. That is a specific idea from the US. There is a lot of best practice in local authorities around the country. I went to a centre on Meliot road in Lewisham last week with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Children and Families, where we saw an initiative that has been under way for the past 20 years. It is on a very small scale because of the size of the centre’s accommodation, but it works very well, as it concentrates on the interventions that can be made to prevent children from slipping into care in the first place. A large part of the Green Paper is about how best practice, both on this issue and others, can be adopted by local authorities around the country.

Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood) (Lab): I very much welcome today’s statement by my right hon. Friend, especially his emphasis on recruiting and training specialist foster carers, so that there is a match with the children for whom they care. In that context, will he pay special attention to the needs of children with disabilities, which are often profound? Recruiting people who can look after those children is a delicate, important task. They need specialist training and appropriate reimbursement, but they also need a package of measures—they need adaptations to their home, so that they have a long-term resource for looking after children with disability. They are often a forgotten group in the care system, and I hope that my right hon. Friend will address their needs.

Alan Johnson: I agree with my hon. Friend. The idea is that third-tier foster carers will be trained, supported and given help, including with changes to the house, to enable them to deal with the most difficult cases, particularly of disabled children. My hon. Friend makes—and has made over several years—all those points. When she finds the time to look at the proposals, she will see that that is exactly what we are seeking to do.

Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): I welcome the approach to education and the incentives to go on to university, but what further help with training opportunities can be offered to those care leavers who wish to enter employment? Could there be an entitlement, or incentives for employers to provide such opportunities?

Alan Johnson: First, of course, there is the 14-to-19 agenda, which seeks to address that issue for all children. Children in care would be a particular part of that. There is the entitlement to a level 3 qualification for all 19 to 25-year-olds—I am talking about general issues now, but I shall come on to the specific point about children in care—and the initiatives around “Train to Gain”. In addition, we all await the Leach report. Specifically for children in care, we found—
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once again in Lewisham, but it is also happening in Barnet and other local authorities—that there are initiatives through which children in care are offered help during that crucial period into work. They are offered training, and—in Lewisham—a certain number of jobs. The effect is that Lewisham now has a lead officer who was herself in care for 14 years but came through that process, and now does a very good, worthwhile, professional job. There are all kinds of ideas out there to reduce the number of children in care who are not in employment, education or training, which must be an absolute priority of the Green Paper.

Mrs. Sharon Hodgson (Gateshead, East and Washington, West) (Lab): My right hon. Friend is absolutely correct to say that children in care are our responsibility, and that we cannot continue to fail them. When children are in care, society is their parent. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, as good parents, giving children in care treats or rewards to aspire to good behaviour or good grades, as we do with our own children, may go a small way towards preventing them from turning to petty crime to obtain desirable items that our own children, and their peers, take for granted?

Alan Johnson: My hon. Friend is right. I am not pretending that part of the £500 that we will give the social worker will go straight on the latest whizzy toy—some of us would not give our own children that immediately—but if the child wants music lessons or to go ice skating on a Saturday morning, the social worker has a sum of money that they can use rather than having to go through a bureaucratic paper chase. All kinds of ideas are emerging, such as those from the music profession for providing children in care with free music lessons. Proportionately, only very few children are in care—about 0.5 per cent. of the child population—so those things are do-able, if there is a co-ordinated infrastructure to allow an integrated approach, which is what “Every Child Matters” gives us.

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove) (Con): I applaud the Secretary of State’s desire to improve outcomes for looked-after children. He asks for ideas; is he considering the use of state or private boarding schools as a placement for those young people? That might improve the educational outcome of many and will add to their stability in many ways. It might also unleash more foster parents, including grandparents, who would be able to share care in the holidays and share the burden with the school.

Alan Johnson: Yes; we have a pilot with nine local authorities involving 50 boarding schools—both independent and state—because that is seen as a possible addition to our armoury for looking after children in care.

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Prison Estate

4.11 pm

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (John Reid): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement updating the House on developments in the prison population over the summer recess, and setting out the steps that I am taking to ensure the necessary prison capacity now and in the future.

The Government have kept and will continue to keep our commitment to tackling crime—reducing it by 35 per cent. in nine years—and tackling the causes of crime. We have 2.5 million more jobs, the lowest level of unemployment for decades, 1,000 Sure Start centres and a significant reduction in social deprivation—attention to the early years of life, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills has just outlined. We shall continue that commitment to tackling both crime and the causes of crime.

Public protection has always been our first priority. We have consistently supported tougher sentences in the course of protecting the public. Even today, in another place, we are tabling an amendment to the Violent Crime Reduction Bill to increase sentences for those caught in possession of blades or sharp instruments. That has been a constant message over the past decade and has been reflected in the growth in the proportion of people sent to prison and in the increase in the length of time for which they have been imprisoned—in short, making the sentence and the punishment fit the crime more appropriately.

To match that growth we have already built more than 16,000 prison places in nine years—approximately the same amount as the previous Conservative Government built in 18 years. Labour has built at twice the rate of the Conservatives. However, I have never hidden from the House our continuing need for more prison places to keep pace with the requirement.

In July, I published the document “Rebalancing the criminal justice system in favour of the law-abiding majority”, in which I said that

That was set out in terms in the document. I said, too:

I also said:

I said:

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