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The Minister will, again, not be surprised to learn that I want to press the ambition for children who are in care and leaving care to have the right of access to full and proper support until they are 21. If it is appropriate for them to stay with a foster carer they should be able
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to do so, but if that is not appropriate they should have alternative proper, effective support. The Bill gives us an opportunity to stretch out and to aim high. An ambition must be seized when the opportunity comes, and we in the House must take the opportunity now to agree that until the age of 21, young people need access to support. The Minister said at the beginning of her speech that most young people do not leave home and stop receiving parental support until the age of 24, so specifying the age of 21 does not strike me as over-ambitious.

Members have commented on how poor educational outcomes are among children in care in comparison with other children. Only 12 per cent. of looked-after children achieve five GCSEs or the equivalent, compared with 59 per cent. nationally, and only 6 per cent. of children who were looked after at the age of 16 had entered higher education by the age of 19. In 2006, 35 per cent.—one third—of looked-after pupils did not sit any GSCE examinations or GNVQ equivalents.

Some children take a little longer than others to achieve success, perhaps because they have rather more problems to overcome than others. The time when children are sitting GCSEs or A-levels is also the time when those in care are most likely to be leaving it. A quarter of children leave care in their 16th year, at a time when they are sitting exams. Very few children—a tiny fraction of the total— are still in care at the age of 18, but how many are still sitting A-levels when they have reached their 18th birthdays? For most children that is not particularly unusual, but for children in care it means that they will no longer have access to full and proper support from a local authority.

Fostering Network has given me the example of a foster parent fostering a young person who arrived as a teenager. He had suffered significant trauma but had managed to deal with it, had settled and was beginning to succeed. This young man became head boy at his school and was studying for A-levels in the hope of going to university. When he turns 18, however, all support from the local authority will cease, at the time when he will be doing his A-levels. In order to provide stability for him, his foster carer is spending almost £20,000 of her own money to convert the loft so that he can stay with her while she fosters other children. That is a phenomenal commitment, but she should not have to do it, and many foster carers could not do it. That story provides an incredibly convincing argument, however, for making sure that young people can access effective support from somebody who is totally committed to their success.

It is great that people will have access to advisers, but what about somebody they can phone up at night or at the weekend so that they can tell them about things? That is what makes the real difference when people are looking for support. What about that tiny fraction of people in care who go to university, and who need somewhere to go home to, or someone to ring up when they have a problem? Also, what about those other young people who should be going to university, or on to vocational training or further education? We must make sure that they have access, too. We do not need pilot projects to tell us that people do better if they have got someone backing them up. All Members of this
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House know that people do not make it on their own. We have a duty to make sure that we give these young people access to proper support when they need it, especially when they have had a bad start anyway and they need our intervention more than others.

When Fostering Network first came to talk to me about this, I thought I should be focusing on some of the other cases that people had been bringing to my attention, such as the 17-year-old who was pregnant and very vulnerable, had been placed in a hostel for homeless people and been told she could not get accommodation until the baby was born, or the 15-year-old I was made aware of who was taken out of foster care and instead was put into bed-and-breakfast accommodation. I thought I should be focusing on them, but then I realised that I was suffering from a lack of ambition, because all these young people should be getting access to support up to the age of 21. They all need the same thing. We must stretch our ambitions, because if we do not, we will not deliver for the more vulnerable children who are in care and who are finding it difficult and do not have people to intervene for them. I ask the Minister to address this matter with serious intent so that we can bring it forward.

We should not rely on pilots, but instead act on what we already know and use the evidence that there already is. In 2006, Joseph Rowntree research showed that 36 per cent. of young people reported being homeless at some time in the year after leaving care, and the Rainer Home Alone report found that almost one in six care leavers had unsuitable accommodation. We should give them access up to the age of 21 to someone who can help them get into proper accommodation and do all the things that a mum or dad or friendly relative can do when young people are trying to set themselves up in their own home and work out how to live in an adult world.

The Minister will not be surprised that I also wish to bring up the matter of support for children in care who cannot handle it and who have run away. When Lancashire police set up their “mountains into molehills” project, they used some very effective computer systems to track the reports that they were getting about children who had gone missing. They found that they were spending more than £6 million a year on investigating reports and that each report was costing them in the region of £1,000 to investigate, and when they did further analysis they found that the majority of the reports were about young people under 18 and the majority of those were about people in the care of the local authority who were consistently running away. One young girl did so 78 times—a cost of £78,000 in police time that did not benefit her. However, when the police got together with the local authority and the care homes and identified which children were at risk, and started working with the care homes to do something about why they were running away and to deal with that, running away incidents reduced radically. We have had the same finding from a number of different authorities; Leicester police force found exactly the same thing. What they are telling us is that if we work effectively to identify children at risk and then work with care homes to identify why this is happening, we can put it right and prevent these young people from getting involved in all the things that some of them get involved in. The evidence to the all-party group that held hearings on
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this issue showed that many of those young people were not just running away from something; they were being targeted by predatory adults and running to something. They were being groomed—and these were children in the care of a local authority.

I want to follow up the intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey), who has been working very actively on this issue, by asking the Minister a question. Will he ensure that inspection processes involve reports of instances of running away and of assaults, and that they take proper account of what is going on in care homes and of whether these things are being dealt with effectively?

Today, we have had the wonderful launch of the young runaways action plan, which is giving support for all young runaways, but unless we make sure that care homes and their staff understand that they have a key role to play and that it will be supported but also monitored, we will not make the proper change that we can make, if we are ambitious, for children in care.

Finally, will my hon. Friend the Minister give some further thought to children in custody? We have had quite a focus on the fact that a child in care is more likely to end up in custody than in university. I have had what is in many ways the privilege of working with some of the people at the young offenders institute in Thorn Cross, in my constituency. I have been really impressed by the dedication of the staff there, who have been working extremely hard to make sure that young offenders in that institute are in the first instance safe, but also have the opportunity to understand why they are there and how they can stay out in future. Those are absolutely crucial things. I would be far happier, as everybody here would, if we could be far more effective, so that young people do not get themselves into that position. However, I want to know how the Bill is going properly to support vulnerable young people in custody, so that they have access to a social worker who is not travelling a long distance and is perhaps unable to get there, but who is there and can develop a relationship with them, and who can be interested in and supportive of them in the long term.

I also want to know how we are going to ensure that young offenders have access to the kind of things being done at Thorn Cross, where the Cheshire fire service has a fire cadet programme. Young people learn about social responsibility, meet role models whom they can look up to, and are getting involved in doing good in their local community. It has been a very effective programme. As effective, in many ways, has been the programme from the Halle orchestra, which has been working with young people and involving them in music. When they are in a position to leave the institute, it tries to match them up with a youth orchestra or a band, so that they have a different peer group. Such things are really important in making a difference for young people.

Thorn Cross has developed lots of relationships in the local community, allowing young offenders opportunities to use some of the skills that they are learning. Some of them have never had any opportunity for education before, and they are getting NVQs at the young offenders institute and then going out into the community and helping voluntary organisations, thereby putting something back in. This is a really important issue and I am raising it so determinedly because we have got to be ambitious to protect the safety of young
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people in custody, who are young people in care, and to provide them with every help and encouragement to stop offending.

The report by Anne Owers, Her Majesty’s chief inspector of prisons, which was published in February, stated:

She continued:

I hope that the Bill will ensure that far fewer young people from care go into custody and that there is every opportunity for any young person who has committed an offence, in order to prevent any future offending. I recommend the Bill.

8.55 pm

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Warrington, South (Helen Southworth), to whose indefatigable and outstanding work, in particular on behalf of runaway children, I should like to pay the warmest possible tribute. I was delighted also to hear the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) reiterate her commitment to securing a ban on smacking, and for the avoidance of doubt I can say that if such an amendment to the Bill is tabled, I, for one, will be pleased to support it.

I hope that hon. and right hon. Members will understand if I reserve my most effusive words for my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr. Timpson), who is newly arrived in this place. It is customary, on occasions such as this, that hon. and right hon. Members, irrespective of party, should reflect upon the strengths of the Member and of the speech. In these circumstances, that poses no difficulty for me, because I echo the generous but thoroughly justified tributes that have already been paid to my hon. Friend. He spoke with wit, with eloquence, with passion and with wisdom— wisdom and discernment born of a direct experience of the care system, a hands-on involvement that gave him the knowledge that allowed him authoritatively and pithily to contribute to debate on the Bill. I, for one, welcome him as a new colleague and look forward with interest and respect to his future contributions to our proceedings, and I suspect that I will not be alone in thinking in those terms.

I welcome the Bill, which is an excellent measure. Doubtless, as so often these days, I shall contribute in my non-partisan way, which will provoke great suspicion and a certain amount of excoriating criticism from people who think that it is absolutely to be expected that one should try to behave in as tribal a manner as possible. For my own part, I have really no interest in
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doing so; when a measure is good, I believe in saying so. I think that this is a good measure, in terms both of purpose and, predominantly, of content, and the Government should be applauded for what is, unquestionably, an advance.

I hope that the Minister for Children, Young People and Families, who knows the very high esteem in which I hold her, will not take it amiss if I choose, therefore, to focus my remarks not on the excellent contents of the Bill, about which much has been said, but on those additions to it, or amendments of it, that in my view could make it better still.

I must say that I enthusiastically endorse what has been said by the hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble), which was underlined in interventions by the hon. Member for Stourbridge (Lynda Waltho) and others, including the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke), about the merits of—indeed, the requirement for—the insertion of a commitment to independent advocacy. That is not, in any sense, to belittle or dismiss the important improvements in arrangements in relation to independent reviewing officers. Much thought has been given to that subject, it has been open to consultation, Ministers have reflected on the matter, and Lord Adonis conducted himself in the other place with a diligence and breadth of mind that most of us who know him have come to expect from him.

I simply put it to the Minister of State that the role of the independent reviewing officer is important, but it is a discrete role. The role of the independent visitor is important, but it is a separate function. The role of an independent advocate should be established, valued, supported, extended and made an entitlement for people in care because of its own merits. It seems to me that the significance of the role of the advocate is that he or she would be genuinely separate from, uninfluenced by and independent of the decision-making process that his or her services on behalf of the child or young people could hope to influence.

Ministers have said that, yes, they can see the merit of advocacy, but they seem to be slightly timid and apprehensive about making a commitment to independent advocacy an entitlement. The argument has already been powerfully made. I think it could be contended quite forcefully—I am not a lawyer; I say that as a matter of some very considerable pride—that article 12 of the United Nations convention on the rights of the child would probably make a potent case in support of the establishment of independent advocacy. Moreover, I feel that particularly strongly in relation to those children in care who have special educational needs. The House will be conscious of the fact that that is something to which I attach great importance.

There has been a litany of statistics already in the debate; I simply want to underline one figure that was included in an earlier speech: 28 per cent. of children in care have statements of special educational needs, as compared with 3 per cent. of the school population as a whole. The hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood, in a compelling speech, gave the example of those children who have communication difficulties. They might have learning disabilities; they might also suffer from severe physical disability, but they might
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not. I want to underline the fact that children or young people with speech, language or communication difficulties of a significant intensity should be regarded as suffering from a disability every bit as anxiety provoking, debilitating and potentially life or potential limiting as would be a physical impairment or a mental disability. For children who probably know what they want, know what they need, know what their interests are, know what they want to be done for them and know how they wish to contribute to its being done to be unable themselves to articulate it is quite the most breathtakingly frustrating state of affairs. For such children, the right to independent advocacy could make a decisive difference.

The Minister of State has probably heard me make the point before that in relation to special educational needs—I respect the fact that the Government do not agree with me on this point—I feel that local authorities are in a virtually omnipotent position, in the sense that they assess, decide, pay for and more often than not provide what the child gets by way of special educational needs provision. My own view—it is shared by some although not by all contributors to the special educational needs debate—is that it would be wise to separate the assessment of need from the funding of provision. Whether or not that is desirable, I put it to right hon. and hon. Members that, if the average child with SEN is in a bit of a difficulty in negotiating with either a recalcitrant or simply a cash-strapped local authority, we should think how much worse it is for a child in care who does not even have the advantage of a parent or parents articulating, advocating, agitating, lobbying and campaigning on his or her behalf.

In those circumstances, there is a compelling case for independent advocacy, and I would go further, as did the hon. Members for Stourbridge and for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood, in saying let there be an extension of looked-after status from those formerly described as being in care to those who are permanently resident a significant distance from home within the education system. Decisions will be made on their behalf. Events are unfolding. Judgments have to be made. Advocates are required. It is not too late for the Government, during the passage of the Bill, to reconsider their position.

What I am bothered about above all is the concept of the unchallenged omnipotence of the public authority. Against that, one needs a counterbalance.

Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): Does my hon. Friend suspect that there are occasions when the outcome of an assessment can be informed by the availability of funding to provide the right treatment?

John Bercow: There is absolutely no doubt that some judgments are determined on the basis of available resources rather than on the extent of the need. If I am to be fair to the Government, I must say to my hon. Friend that in probably any imaginable system some regard will have to be paid to resources. There has to be some limit; it is not possible to satisfy every demand. It seems to me, however, that the difference at the moment is that there is an inbuilt incentive to keep costs down and perhaps in some cases, inadvertently and subliminally, to put the issue of the purse before the requirement of the child or young person.

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