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Hilary Armstrong: I certainly agree with that, and I sometimes think that we have denigrated residential
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care to damaging effect, because for some children it is the right experience. Wherever they are placed, the issue of where they come from and how it affects how they see themselves and how they behave in the world is the critical thing with which we have to deal. They must be able to get the confidence to know who they are, and be able to deal with that, so that they can deal with the rest of the world.

Finally—and this is probably controversial—it is too easy for local authorities just to let children go. I am pleased with what my right hon. Friend the Minister said about the “staying put” pilots, but we have to be more ambitious in future, and recognise that local authorities must take responsibility for a long time. They should not just agree that someone should keep a relationship with their foster parents, but should be legally charged if the child ends up in custody, for example. There should be incentives for local authorities to make sure that the child keeps out of custody. We should also think about rewarding them if the child reaches university or obtains a qualification that gives them the licence to work. We must be much more ambitious in how we look at local authorities’ responsibility for children in care, so that they take responsibility for what actually happens to those children, instead of taking the view that they just have them for a period and do what is necessary, rather than regarding their responsibility as an ambition to transform opportunities for that child. That is where I want to get to—it is ambitious—but I know that we are going the right way.

7.26 pm

Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): We would very much like to welcome the Bill, but obviously we are sad that it has been introduced against the background of extremely poor outcomes for our most vulnerable children for far too long. Thirteen per cent. of young people looked after for at least a year achieve five A to C GCSEs, against 62 per cent. of all children. Twenty-seven per cent. of the prison population was taken into care as children, as opposed to 2 per cent. of the general population. Children in, and leaving, care are at high risk of pregnancy—almost half of care leavers are mothers within 18 to 24 months of leaving care and, saddest of all, the children of children who have been in care are likely to be taken into care themselves.

However, there are many examples of good work and practice, and we need to make sure that there is much better access to good practice across the board. Our shared objectives today—and I believe that there will be a great deal of cross-party work on and support for the Bill—are about improving the life chances of a large number of young people. At any point in time, there are about 60,000 children in the care system. Some children are fostered on a short-term basis and can return to their families. Others go on to be adopted, and others are fostered on a long-term basis. It is particularly striking that 45 per cent. of children who enter care are adolescents. They are especially vulnerable, and they are not in the care system for long before being faced with the challenge of GCSEs.

I sincerely believe that we must be relentless in our ambitions for looked-after children, but we must be prepared to give support over a much longer period than has previously been the case in all local authorities.
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I am concerned, too, that a young person in our country is rarely taken into care after the age of 15. I hope that decisions are driven by what is best for the young person and their wishes, and not by local authority concerns about the cost of providing housing and other services.

In 2005-06, authorities in England spent a net total of £2.05 billion on looked-after children, compared with just £687 million on family support services—a ratio of 3:1. In a recent answer to a parliamentary question from my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws), the Minister provided figures that showed great variations in the number of children taken into care per 10,000 of the population under 18. For example, figures for 2006-07 show that Kirklees had six such children; Merton, four; and Kent, four. However, on the same basis, other authorities had figures as high as 24. The boroughs that I cited with the lower figures have a spending ratio nearer to 2:1. We must conclude that, at the very least, family support is one important factor in the equation.

NCH tells us that the annual cost of a mid-range, intensive family support service to prevent admission to care is just over £300,000, which provides support for 60 young people and their families. An average success rate of 80 per cent. means that accommodation is avoided for 48 of those young people. Compared with the average cost of foster care or a children’s home placement, it represents a large monetary saving. However, the greatest savings must be in respect of the value of the services to the people, which enables a child to remain with their own family and community, and in the contribution to long-term development and well-being.

Preventive family support services are all-important, as is ongoing support for vulnerable families and, indeed, support within the foster family, if that route is judged to be in the child’s best interest. I listened with great interest to the right hon. Member for North-West Durham (Hilary Armstrong), who seemed to be almost describing a bridge between the family and the care placement—whatever that would be. It is quite an exciting idea, which could be backed up by the family support measures that are, basically, in place in some areas. My challenge to the Minister is in respect of what can be done to spread further the good practice on early intervention, which, according to the statistics, is clearly so lacking in many places.

In previous debates about children and young people, I have often felt and said that every child matters except young asylum seekers and children in custody. As the Bill has progressed through the other place, there have been welcome moves to address a few of the issues. I welcome new clause 7, which should have been included in section 11 of the Children Act 2004 when it was debated. The Border and Immigration Agency should be subject to the duty to make arrangements to safeguard and promote the welfare of children who have been trafficked or who are seeking asylum, placing an equal duty on all services that come into contact with children, and further steps could be taken—for example, with the appointment of a guardian for every unaccompanied child in the asylum process.

As has already been said, looked-after children and care leavers are over-represented in the criminal justice system. About 40 to 49 per cent. of children and young people in custody have been in local authority care at some point, and 18 per cent. are still subject to care
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orders. In the other place, the Government provided some welcome assurances about the new duty that will be placed on local authorities to visit every child whom it looks after, and about ensuring that they provide improved continuity of care for those entering or leaving custody. That is such an important issue that I hope the Minister will today reassure us about monitoring and about any future guidance and regulations. There is a much wider debate to be had about the numbers of children in custody, about deaths while in custody and much more, but I shall refrain from entering on that today.

When looking at the whole care system, a good starting point is always the views of the young people themselves. I shall touch on some of the key messages from children which emerged from the 2006 report “Children’s Views on Standards” by Dr. Roger Morgan, the children’s rights director. One of the first messages was:

Our general discussions have already touched on that point, but it was brought out very succinctly by a young person. Another message was:

A further message was:

We in this country are pretty bad at giving feedback, particularly when children have made a request. Another message was:

One of the most important things that we must obtain from the Bill is the assurance for every child in care that there will always be somebody who is there to listen. That is the key relationship with the child. It might be at any time of the day, as we know from our family experience.

Mark Williams: Does my hon. Friend also see that role in a school context, to be undertaken by the designated member of staff? When we think of schools, we think about the undeniable need to raise expectations regarding academic achievement, but that pastoral role—that holistic approach—should also be developed by the designated teacher. Does my hon. Friend agree?

Annette Brooke: I do agree. That approach has been missing in many schools despite their having had guidance that there should be a designated teacher. We know that, in reality, it has not happened. Of course, the issue is not just about the academic side; underpinning that side is good pastoral care and appropriate care. We never know who the child or young person will find as their best confidant, but it is important to ensure that they find them.

Many aspects of the Bill attempt to address the issues that children and young people have raised, and I welcome the strengthening of the independent reviewing officer’s role. However, more may need to be done about
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the independent aspect and the extension, so that more looked-after children have independent visitors. Both proposals aim to further the interests of children, but in addition independent advocacy is crucial because it ensures that the child’s voice and rights are represented by a professional outside the system.

Early-day motion 1126, tabled by the hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble), has the support of 144 Members. Recently, the Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families concluded:

Lynda Waltho: I welcome all that the hon. Lady has said, but does she agree that the extension of looked-after status to disabled children is a trick that may have been missed? They are often in placements for 52 weeks a year. On the Children, Schools and Families Committee, we have both heard of stories in which the most vulnerable of vulnerable children do not receive their visits or anything until it is far too late.

Annette Brooke: I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. I shall certainly come on to that point, but at this stage I shall just say that independent advocacy is particularly important for those severely disabled children who may be forced by the severity of their condition to remain in a residential placement for most of the year. It is very important that their voice is heard, and in respect of children with extreme needs I can see that happening only when they have somebody who can work closely with them and almost tune in to how they feel about certain issues. That independent advocacy is vital, particularly when such children are far away from home.

As far back as 1997, Sir William Utting, in his report “People Like Us”, concluded that looked-after children needed independent advocacy as a source of protection and as a means of making their voices heard within an otherwise closed system. Most importantly, children and young people say that they want advocacy. A National Voice indicated that up to 90 per cent. of children it surveyed held that view. There are two aspects: the expression of a child’s views by those responsible for the outcome; and the representation of a child’s view and their rights by a professional advocate. Those are two very different things, and the role of the independent review officer never entirely covers both aspects. I would firmly come down on the side of those who have long argued for a statutory right to independent advocacy for looked-after children when significant decisions are being made in their lives. It is sometimes suggested that with all these adults in a child’s life, an advocate would be just one more, but I think it would help them to make sense of the roles of all those adults.

We have heard a lot about the work force, and of course social workers are absolutely key to the futures of looked-after children, who want a stable relationship with their social worker and find it very disruptive when there is a churn of temporary social workers in all the areas where there are shortages. The right training for social workers is absolutely vital.

I have some reservations about the proposal for independent social care practices. We do not know whether that will produce the outcomes that might be
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achieved—we do not have evidence one way or the other. I can therefore see the point of having pilots, but we are in danger of having more and more pilots with long periods before evaluation. In this case, I wonder whether we will get more social workers or end up with the displacement of social workers. As the Select Committee said, the pilots need to fill the evidence gap on social work practices. It is vital that they are properly evaluated and are not rolled out unless there is clear evidence that they will provide essential continuity and stability for looked-after children. The evaluation must also take account of any knock-on effects on our local authorities in terms of whether there has been any diminishing of services, perhaps because of an overall shortage of social workers. The jury is out on that.

We saw some welcome policy evolution in the other place. We started with the commendable objective that we wanted to have as many children placed within their own local authority as possible, but overlooked the fact that some children need to access highly specialised provision that will not be in the immediate area. We have reached a point where local authorities have a duty to secure a sufficient and diverse provision of accommodation for looked-after children in their area, to make decisions that are in the best interests of the child when there are out-of-area placements, to take on board the issue of schooling, particularly in the critical years 10 and 11, and to look on kinship as a preference when there is consideration of a child perhaps being moved away from its immediate birth family. I have long been committed to the idea that we should expand the use of kinship care, which is very patchy across the whole country. We need to be clear about what financial payments are made in those circumstances. I am sure that we have all had visits to our surgeries from grandparents who are struggling to cope because there has not been the necessary funding.

Mark Williams: Does my hon. Friend fear that some local authorities have hidden behind the term “exceptional circumstances” in the existing legislation in respect of their willingness to award grants to grandparents and others?

Annette Brooke: I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I understand the point that we do not want people doing this just for money; it has to be more than that. On the other hand, I hope we can make progress with regard to situations in which hardship is created or where it truly would be the solution that was in the best interests of the child.

The hon. Member for Stourbridge (Lynda Waltho) intervened on me about looked-after status for disabled children in long-term residential care. The situation strikes me as very odd. I have heard from parents whose children go into short-term respite care and are upset because that means that they have to have looked-after status. It is an interesting anomaly that we need to consider carefully in Committee. It is clear that in relation to long-term residential care there would be several benefits in having looked-after status—an allocated social worker, a care plan, a contact plan, a health assessment and health plan, and so on.

We have heard about the excellent work that is carried out by foster carers. I, too, had the great pleasure of meeting many foster carers this afternoon, and I can
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only praise them for the work that they take on. It is important to provide the necessary training and to professionalise their work. In particular, I would like to see more use of intensive fostering, which is used in Scandinavian countries and keeps children out of custody. That is important. We need to give more support to foster carers. An issue that was particularly raised with us today is that 30 per cent. of foster carers are faced with allegations at some time or another, and there is the peculiar situation whereby they appear to be presumed guilty right from the word go, entirely contrary to normal practice in this country. It is important that fees should continue to be paid. We heard about examples where once allegations have been made, even if found to be unfounded, not only are fees stopped but those allegations appear on a criminal record. That can affect foster carers’ futures. A full reason should at least be given of why the allegations were found to be unfounded. This is probably not directly relevant to the Bill, but I want to place on record the fact that it needs to be examined.

I emphasise the need to give more powers to foster carers, particularly those who are performing the parental role. When I was a chairman of education services in 1997, looked-after children would come to tell us how difficult it was to get permission for a sleepover. We have got through that problem, but now there are others whereby foster carers do not have the power to give consent for normal children’s and school activities. Action must be taken on that.

I was pleased to hear the Minister announce that one of the pilots is to be in Dorset, so I will be able to look at it first hand. I share others’ disappointment and frustration in the sense that we all think this is intrinsically a good idea and want to get on with it. I hope that the Minister will agree that as information evolves and the system is seen to be working, the pilots can be rolled out rather more quickly than might be the case if we were to wait three years for the evaluation.

I welcome the bursary that is offered to support looked-after young people at university, but there should be parity with further education and training. We want young people to take whichever route is the most suitable for them, and they are liable to be disadvantaged at this age.

On many occasions I have discussed the provision of therapeutic services for all abused children. In 2006, the then Department for Education and Skills said that of 60,000 children in care, 63 per cent. were in care because they had experienced some form of abuse or neglect. The long-term consequences of child sexual abuse include anxiety and depression, anger and guilt, difficulties functioning at school, poor self-image and difficulties with personal relationships and parenting. Adults who are being treated for mental health problems often identify childhood abuse as an influence. Research shows that 25 to 40 per cent. of all alleged sexual abuse involves young perpetrators, and the majority of those children and young people have been or are being sexually, physically or emotionally abused themselves. Therapy at an early stage could help to reduce the scale of the problems over time by breaking the cycle.

Therapy can transform children’s lives, but provision is inadequate and patchy across the country. As a consequence of my long-term mission in this area, I
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support the need to address disproportionately poor health outcomes more generally. I welcome the Government’s proposals to make guidance statutory for PCTs as well as local authorities, but I certainly want to explore in Committee how we can better address the significant physical, emotional and mental health needs of looked-after children. As far as their health is concerned, it is important to ensure that we have truly joined-up working at national and local level.

I shall also comment briefly on private fostering. In the Committee considering the Children Act 2004, I proposed a compulsory registration scheme for private fosterers. The then children’s Minister, the right hon. Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge), said in defence of the notification scheme:

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