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Joan Ryan (Enfield, North) (Lab): Foster carers from my constituency came to the House today and wanted to make it clear to me that they support this Bill, as I do, and I pay tribute to them for the good work that they do. The one point that they really wanted me to press with my right hon. Friend—it relates to stability, the ability to stay on at school and associated issues—is their support for the “staying put” scheme, which is
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coming out in pilot form today. They are very keen to know when it might be rolled out nationally, and they are very supportive of that proposal, as, indeed, I believe many Members of this House are.

Beverley Hughes: I thank my hon. Friend for that and I join her in paying tribute to the fantastic work that foster carers do. I know that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State met a group of foster carers today to talk about the “staying put” pilots, and he announced the 10 areas. We want to see rapid progress as far as we can, and it is important that we look at the legal and financial barriers that need to be overcome, which is why we are piloting in the first instance. However, the direction of our intention beyond the pilots is very clear: to see a need for young people to be able to stay in foster placements well beyond the age of 18.

Lynda Waltho (Stourbridge) (Lab): There is already ample evidence, particularly from Northern Ireland, of how successful these schemes can be. Foster carers from Dudley whom I have met are looking for a roll-out even sooner and wondering why the pilots are necessary, because there is ample evidence to show that something similar to the “staying put” scheme works already.

Beverley Hughes: The scheme that my hon. Friend mentions is itself still relatively new and we are waiting to see the results, but as I said, the Government’s intention is clear. I and my colleagues accept the argument that, at a time when most of our children leave home, on average, at the age of 24, it is very reasonable to expect that children who have come into care need to stay in their placements beyond 18. How quickly we can go will depend on the pilots and on resources, but that is our direction of travel.

The Bill seeks to improve stability in every aspect of a child’s care. Clause 9 will make sure that local authorities pay greater attention to the educational impact of care placement decisions. We will use regulations to prevent any upheavals in years 10 and 11, when children need to focus all their attention on GCSEs, unless there are exceptional circumstances for the child. We also know that children placed out of their local authority area often do less well than those placed closer to home, so clause 9 will also restrict out-of-authority placements, subject, again, to the best interests of the child. Clause 10 will require local authorities to commission, plan and provide sufficient placements in their area. In addition and as I mentioned, this morning my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State announced the areas for the “staying put” pilots, which will allow young people to stay on beyond 18, with the agreement of all concerned.

Of course, the best way to improve stability is by preventing children from going into care in the first place. Children have told us that, when they cannot stay with their parents, they want to be cared for by family and friends wherever possible. The Bill therefore requires local authorities to give preference to placements with relatives where that is in the child’s best interests, and to give support to family carers. Clause 24 enables authorities to exercise wider discretion over cash payments to those caring for children in need. Clauses 36 to 38 remove some of the barriers for kinship carers applying for residence and special guardianship orders, and extend residence orders until the child reaches 18, rather than the present age of 16.

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Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): Does the Secretary of State see this provision, which I very much welcome, as a way of alleviating some of the legitimate concerns that Members throughout the House have had regarding grandparents in a position of care?

Beverley Hughes: Yes, and that is true of all those provisions, including the ones I mentioned on cash payments and giving preferences for placements. During the consultation I talked to many grandparents, and I am aware, as the hon. Gentleman doubtless is, of heart-rending stories that people told of how matters were made really difficult by the current arrangements in many local authorities. We want to make sure that such things do not happen, because if children can live with grandparents and that is in their interests, that is by far the best place for them to be. We want to make sure that practice changes in this regard.

Clause 25 gives statutory underpinning to short breaks for disabled children being developed over the next three years through the £359 million “aiming high for disabled children” programme.

Finally, alongside improving the experience of those in care, we must also raise their aspirations and those of everyone caring for them. Schools must understand the unique learning needs of children in care and have the capacity to help them fulfil their potential—whatever their starting point. Clause 20 will make sure that there is a designated teacher in every school to give children in care the encouragement and personal support they need to realise their talents. Clause 17 will require local authorities to make arrangements for an independent, trained volunteer to be appointed to visit any looked-after child if it is in their interests. As I said earlier, we want more looked-after children to set their hearts on going to university, and to achieve that ambition. We know that financial barriers can also be a deterrent, so clause 21 will make a bursary available, of a minimum of £2,000, for every child in care who goes to university.

Bob Spink: The right hon. Lady said “finally”, but she has not yet mentioned clause 2, which deals with adoption. Using this Bill, is there anything that we can do to ensure that children are not denied a stable and loving family because of political correctness getting in the way—to ensure that potential parents are not denied children because of factors such as obesity, age, being of the wrong race or even being too posh?

Beverley Hughes: I am struggling to understand what the hon. Gentleman is referring to, because clause 2 is in the set of clauses dealing with social work practices. If he would like to speak to me afterwards or write to me about the matter, I shall do what I can to clarify his particular concern.

Bob Spink: I thought that the clause deals with the functions of the adoption agency and the responsibility of the county councils in that respect.

Beverley Hughes: The local authority’s functions in relation to adoption are excluded from the functions that social work practices will have; that is the reference contained in the clause, and it is very specific.

To return to the first point that the hon. Gentleman raised with me about going to universities, I can tell him that for young people who are in, or who want to return
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to, education or training, clauses 22 and 23 extend the existing duty to appoint a personal adviser for young people up to the age of 25.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): Does the Foyer movement have a role to play in this, because, in a sense, it has worked as a bridge for young people who may not have been in care but who obviously find themselves in difficult circumstances? The movement has worked closely on an individual level with those young people, and its successes are often there for us to see when young people go on to university. Will that be enhanced by the Bill?

Beverley Hughes: I am great supporter of the Foyer movement. I agree with my hon. Friend that it makes a great contribution, mostly in preventing certain young people from having to be taken into care and accommodated by local authorities and in providing young people who are leaving care with a supported situation that can help them move to independence.

We owe it to children in care to do everything possible to overcome their difficulties, to help them on the road to health, happiness and success, and to enable them to have a good childhood and a promising future. The measures in the Bill, together with those in the White Paper, can transform the experience and the prospects for children in care, now and in the future. I commend the Bill to the House.

6.42 pm

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): We certainly welcome the Bill. This is another year and another children’s Bill, and, as with previous such legislation aimed at protecting vulnerable children, we will support it. This latest and long-awaited Bill deals with probably the most vulnerable group of children and young people in the UK—those in the care system. As the Minister has rightly said, it has been a scandal for too long, and remains so, that the treatment of, and outcomes for, children in the care system are woefully poor. Those children have been the victims of systemic neglect and of an institutionalised paucity of expectations for too many years, and it is vital that the Bill marks a major turning point in reversing that.

I welcome what the Minister has said about the change of culture that is required, and I share her praise for social workers and foster carers, many of whom have lobbied us today about their vital and dedicated work. Some 61,000 children are in care in England and Wales, 42 per cent. of whom will return to their families within six months. However, we should not forget the estimated 350,000 adults who have spent part or all of their childhood in foster or residential care in this country. For many of them, the experience will become a generational legacy, as their own children end up in the care system, which happens all too often.

We have heard about the scandal of outcomes for children in the care system in areas such as education. Despite the public service agreement targets, the priority action toolkits for key stage 4 looked-after children, the Education Protects programme, life chances funds and so on, the achievement of children in the care system on basic measures such as the achievement of five good GCSEs is still too poor. Worse still—the Minister alluded to this—the gap between children in the care system
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and mainstream children has widened over the past few years. All standards have gone up, as measured by GCSE achievement, but the gap in achievement between those who are and those who are not in the care system has widened. Furthermore, the increase in achievement has not been nearly as fast for those in the care system as for all children, which is deeply worrying. In addition, children in the care system are more than 10 times more likely to be excluded from school. Some 33 per cent. of them end up not in education, employment or training; just 2 per cent. of them go on to university; and 27 per cent. of them have statements for special educational needs compared with just 3 per cent. of all children.

The same thing is happening in the justice system. Some 25 per cent. of people in prisons came through the care system, and the figure is anything up to half of those in youth offender institutes. Such children are four times more likely to smoke, drink under age and take drugs, and last year, 9.5 per cent. of over-10s in the care system were cautioned for or convicted of an offence. Not doing something more urgently about this situation is a false economy, because by the age of 19 a persistent offender will have cost £164,000 every year. That figure includes the cost to the victim, the court costs, the cost of prison and benefits and the cost to social services, which is an enormous cost not only to society but, most importantly, to the individual involved.

We must also consider teenage pregnancy rates—one in four women leaving care is either pregnant or already a mother—and health statistics. Children in the care system are more than five times more likely than children in general to have a diagnosable mental illness, and many still do not receive the health checks that they are supposed to receive within the first 14 days of coming into the care system. Some two thirds of those children will have at least one physical health complaint. Perhaps the most tragic and disturbing statistic is that last year no fewer than 100 children in the care system died, which was an increase on the figure of 95 in 2004. We often talk about children who are killed at the hands of their carers or parents—the relevant figure is about one or two a week—but more children are dying within the care system for a host of reasons.

The system is there to protect those children from the ravages of deprivation and health inequalities, so those figures are deeply disturbing. The Bill is desperately required and very welcome, but there is an urgent need to translate its good intentions and good directions into actions and results. We will do everything possible to speed the Bill’s implementation. It has enjoyed close and positive scrutiny and improvement in the other House. I pay tribute to Lord Adonis, who has great personal experience of children in care, to my noble Friend Baroness Morris of Bolton, who has great expertise in and dedication to this area, and to many other Lords who brought about constructive improvements to the original Bill. They, like the Minister, are all too aware of the challenges that we all face in helping children in the care system, because the effects of failure will impact on the whole of society and are not restricted to the cost of more than £2 billion a year of children in the looked-after system.

We welcome much of the Bill, such as, for example, the rewriting of clauses 7 to 10, particularly in respect of the mechanics of placement and the preference for
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placement with extended family members, which should be, but is not, happening already. We also welcome the references to proximity placement, which has been discussed since Sir William Utting’s report in 1997 suggested a 20-mile radius cap. Although kinship placements are supposed to be the preferred option in this country, only 1 per cent. of social worker-instigated placements ended up with kinship carers, compared with 45 per cent. in Denmark, for example.

We need to maintain continuity of school and education. The poor outcomes are not surprising, given that the social exclusion unit reported that 29 per cent. of children had undergone three or more educational placements during secondary school and that 25 per cent. of children had been in six or more care placements during the same period. We also support the Bill’s hierarchy of kinship care placements locally to retain a familiar environment. We are talking about providing appropriate foster carers locally or, ultimately, in a residential home, where the appropriate care can be made available, especially for those with complex needs.

We recognise that residential children’s homes, which look after about 6,500 children at the moment—they tend to look after older children—have a place. They may be more appropriate as the first port of call, but the average cost of some £2,100 a week in those residential homes is leading to some local authorities cutting placements, although those fees include contracting for psychiatric and other specialist services in many cases.

We need to take on board the shortage of skilled foster carers as well. On any day in this country, 50,000 children are living with 43,000 different foster families. Just last month, local authorities said that they urgently need at least 5,250 more foster carers to come forward this year, with the worst shortages in Manchester and the north-west. That results in thousands of children being sent to residential homes or being forced to travel miles to temporary placements and siblings having to live apart from their brothers and sisters, according to the Fostering Network.

We welcome the greater specifications for visiting children far away from home in the residential placement provisions contained in the Bill. We welcome all those measures, not least because many of them were included in the 2005 Conservative manifesto, “Action for Vulnerable Children”. [ Interruption. ] I am sure that hon. Members want to participate in the shared congratulations. As the Minister has rightly said, all of us have campaigned on those issues for many years. However, we must recognise that what counts is not just passing the Bill, but the effectiveness with which it is put into action, backed up by resources and implemented by professionals at the sharp end who are appropriately trained, appropriately motivated and free to get on with their jobs.

This week, we remember yet again the death of Victoria Climbié more than eight years ago, because the social worker who was responsible for her welfare has had her appeal upheld by a tribunal, but how much have we actually learned post-Victoria Climbié? Is the whole system of children protection now in better shape to protect children from death and injury at the hands of parents or carers, or to give children the best second chance of a successful and stable upbringing when taken into care? If it is in better shape, why are so many
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children still dying before they can be taken into the care system or even after that? Is the system sufficiently flexible either in care or with the birth family?

This is a good Bill. Lots of work has been done to improve it, but there are a number of areas where it can be made better and will stand a better chance of working in practice, and we will table amendments to that effect. I hope that the Government will continue to engage with us in a constructive manner, as they have in their lordships’ House. In particular, we want an amendment that will put a welfare checklist at the forefront of the Bill. There are concerns that many of the measures in the Bill do not go far enough and that many local authorities will only do the minimum to comply, not least given the constraints on spending, because of all the other children protection requirements that the Government are rightly introducing, and the more thinly spread funding for children’s centres, which are now competing for funding within children’s services budgets.

We suggest a checklist at the beginning of the Bill mirroring section 1 of the Children Act 1989, which forms the heart of that legislation and which remains an important benchmark today. For every case, the actions of the local authority or other agency that acts for looked-after children would be expected to measure up against a checklist of considerations designed to be in the best interests of individual children, and such bodies would be accountable for that.

We will table an amendment to propose the post of a chief social worker. That measure was recommended by the Conservative party commission on social workers, which reported last October and which I chaired. Such a person would be the public face of social workers, akin to the chief medical officer or the chief veterinary officer. We have such an officer for animals, for goodness’ sake, and we should have one for people who deal professionally with children as well. The officer would be directly responsible to the Secretary of State and advise on ways to promote the image and perceptions of social workers among the public and on how social workers can do a better job and be held accountable when that is not the case.

Too often, the perception of a social worker is as someone whose first contact with a vulnerable family is the knock on the door to initiate proceedings for a child to be taken into care. They are caricatured as child catchers. Not only is that deeply demoralising and not in the interests of social workers, but it is certainly not in the interests of the children and vulnerable families with whom they work and with whom they need to establish a relationship of trust and empathy in difficult circumstances. Such a role is used in New Zealand, and I have had a long conversation with Marie Connolly, who is the chief social worker for New Zealand. There are signs that that post has done a lot of good for the perception and standing of social workers in that country.

We revealed yesterday that one in five of the 76,000 social workers in this country have signed off work for 20 consecutive days or more in the past five years. That is not good for the profession, and it lies behind why we still have high vacancy rates. My local authority has vacancy rates of about 20 per cent. for child social workers, yet those people are absolutely integral to the success of child protection legislation and the Bill, and we need to do more to boost their position.

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