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Reference has been made to the educational provisions of the Bill. I welcome what has been said about the designated teacher. The Government will want to take care to ensure that it is not automatically assumed
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across the country that, for example, the post should be taken up by the special educational needs co-ordinator. It might be advisable for that to happen, but it should not be assumed as a matter of course. If the SENCO already has an extensive miscellany of responsibilities and rather limited time in which to fulfil them, there might be merit in having somebody else perform that role.

There could be a need for training. That will involve a cost. It will require backfilling so that that member of staff can go away and receive the necessary training, advice, instruction and practical experience before coming back to deliver. There is thus a world of difference between the proclamation that such a thing should happen and the observable evidence on the ground that it is happening, but I am sure that the Minister is aware of that. We have to start somewhere and I welcome the inclusion of that measure in the Bill.

I share the concern that there is a mismatch between the commitment to an entitlement for those going into higher education provided for in clause 21 and the reference in the context of those seeking to go into further education to assistance to enable them to do so. Those words were not chosen accidentally. They clearly denote a difference in terms of the intent and scale of ministerial commitment. Let me be absolutely clear: the Government are right on higher education, and the measure is consistent with the agenda of trying to raise aspiration, to lift young people up and to say that there should not be some sort of artificial ceiling. Of course, historically, the figures for participation in higher education by those in care have been lamentably low. Although they have somewhat improved of late, they remain grossly unsatisfactory. That has been the case under successive Governments.

I do not knock the commitment that the Government have made. Moreover, I think that the chosen figure of a couple of thousand pounds is not entirely arbitrary. It has been chosen on the basis of the expected debt levels of someone coming from care into higher education and so on and on the financial disincentive that the present arrangements apply. That makes sense, but we are in danger, if we do not amend the Bill, of discriminating against those who want to go into further education, vocational training or apprenticeships. I cannot see any merit in doing so.

Comment has already been made on the fact that large numbers—by far the majority—of people in care leave before the age of 18. If they are still in care and leave at the age of 19, if memory serves me 30 per cent. enter the not in education, employment or training—or NEET—category. There is a concentration of need among those leaving the system who are uneducated, untrained, unqualified, often historically and currently unwell, and unable effectively to equip themselves to contribute to their own personal fulfilment or the strength of the economy or public services. We ought to be saying, “Let’s support them if they want to go on to further education.” Not to do so constitutes unwarranted, if unintended, discrimination, for the reason that I gave. I put it to the Minister of State and the Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, the hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan), that that seems illogical.

One could be forgiven for thinking, if one were a cynic—but I do not because I am not—that the Government were minded to provide higher education
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funding on the grounds that there will not be that much take-up, so the cost to public funds will not be all that high. That would be an unworthy basis on which to operate, but the Minister is nothing if not worthy, conscientious and dedicated, so I do not think that that can be the reasoning; however, that is how it looks to the cynic. We should make a comparable commitment to those seeking to go on to training, further education or apprenticeships; we will then be applying an equal standard to both categories.

I add my support to those who say that it was right for the Bill to have been amended in the other place, courtesy of the efforts of my noble Friend Baroness Morris of Bolton. I agree with new clause 7: it seems entirely right that the list of organisations subject to a public duty to promote the welfare of the child or young person should include what was the Border and Immigration Agency and is now the UK Border Agency. If right hon. and hon. Members look at the Children Act 2004, they will see a plethora of organisations that will be subject to a duty to promote the welfare of the child, although their primary purpose is something other than the promotion of that welfare. We are talking about the national health service, the education service, children’s service providers, the Prison Service, the probation service and the police service. To my knowledge, it is no longer argued about any of those that the imposition of that duty would somehow prevent them from fulfilling their primary purpose, or would dilute their effectiveness in seeking to do so. If they can combine their wider responsibilities with the fulfilment of that duty, I see absolutely no reason why the UK Border Agency should not be able to do so.

The Minister has distinguished experience in other Departments, including the Home Office. I ask her not to let the Bill be driven by the preconceptions or apprehensions of the Home Office. I appeal to her to be bold. There is sometimes a concern that one has to appease the red-top tabloids—that the media are obsessed with the level of immigration and that, to some extent, one has to diffuse the tension, allay the anxiety and remove the opportunity to be beaten with the tabloid stick. The Government should be bold about that. There will be cross-party support if the Government accept the Bill as amended in the other place.

What is more, public opinion on such matters is more sophisticated and enlightened than colleagues sometimes suppose. Yes, people are concerned about uncontrolled immigration, and it is right that that should be addressed, but they are also concerned about the rights, treatment, entitlement and pursuit of the welfare of children. No one is more vulnerable than a child who has been trafficked into the country, or who is a persecuted, timorous, frightened but hopeful asylum seeker. I appeal to the Government to consider the matter. In other respects, they have tightened up on judicial review; if they are worried that it will not be possible to return children to their countries of origin under any circumstances, that fear is not justified. I appeal to the Minister at least not to close the door on the subject, but to consider the merits of cross-party discussions and an agreement to retain the Bill as it is.

I agree with what has been said by other hon. Members about extending the provision of foster care, as requested by the Fostering Network and the national organisation that offers advice and support on the subject. I am not
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sure that we need so many pilots. The Northern Ireland Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety operates a miscellany of schemes, the results of which are clearly observable. There is a patchwork of other such provision in other parts of the country, too. We should not delay for the sake of delay. If we think that there is a reasonable evidence base, let us go with it. The cause is progressive, and it should be celebrated.

My final point is about the architecture of the Bill. I do not cavil at it, but it carries an implication. As Members will notice if they look at the Bill clause by clause, of the 45 clauses no fewer than 13 provide for secondary legislation such as order-making powers and statutory instruments. One of the two schedules allows for such provision, too. That is sometimes necessary—sometimes it is not—and that is the case in many instances in the Bill. Fair dos—I am content with that—but if substantial parts of the Bill are to be dealt with later by secondary legislation, and we are advised that many of those provisions will be subject to the negative procedure of the House whereby, unless there is a specific request to debate them, they are not debated, there is an obligation on Ministers to try to introduce draft regulations before the Bill completes its passage through the House.

That is an habitual war cry on my part, but the difficulty otherwise is that we are to some extent voting for a pig in a poke. I would like to know more of the positive detail of that secondary legislation. Let us see it. It is a good Bill, and it is under the stewardship of an immensely capable ministerial team. I wish it well, but it can be made a little bit better, and I hope that my comments are taken in the constructive spirit in which they are intended.

9.16 pm

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): I must be brief. Like other Members, I heap praise on my noble Friend Lord Adonis, who simply played a blinder in the other place. He presented a decent Bill well enough, but he listened carefully to constructive and, I thought, convincing arguments made by peers and, as a result, he agreed to make numerous changes that improved the Bill immensely. He made changes such as placing the new duty on the Secretary of State to promote well-being, and the new duty on local authorities to plan a range of accommodation for those in care; and he agreed to the right to breaks from caring for disabled children. Those were major improvements; I just want more in this Chamber.

I chair the associate parliamentary group for looked-after children and care leavers, the ethos of which is to bring looked-after children and care leavers to Parliament, and enable people to speak directly to politicians and other decision makers. As chair, I hear the same complaints over and over again: drift in care planning; too many moves in care; the knock-on effect of educational under-achievement; unmet health care needs; poor preparation for leaving care; too many children leaving care inappropriately at 16; a lack of suitable accommodation after leaving care; and the basic fault of not listening to looked-after children, and not giving effect to what they say. Although the faces before me change, the messages continue.

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Understandably, young people ask why, when we have identified the problems, politicians do not do anything about them. I therefore hope that the Bill provides an opportunity to do what they want us to do. The Government have not been inactive for 11 years—in fact, they deserve a lot of praise for what they have done for children in the care system. I remember the Quality Protects initiative; today, we have the brilliant Care Matters agenda; and, of course, there is the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000. More generally—and it is important to place looked-after children in the context of all children—we have had the excellent Every Child Matters agenda and the children’s plan.

At the end of March, the Government, the Association of Directors of Children’s Services and the Local Government Association published an implementation plan called “Care Matters: Time to deliver for children in care”, which provides all the tools and advice that people could possibly need to do a good job, and that brings me to the Bill, which gives them the job to do.

For me, the starting point is to avoid the use of care if at all possible in every case. That is not just about early intervention, as we have heard tonight, but about a child-friendly society. It is about eradicating child poverty, and making our communities much more supportive of parents and the difficult work that they do in bringing up children. If care is necessary, we should try to make it involve short-lived interventions that result in the successful return of children to their families. I use the world “family” in the broadest sense of the term, including kinship care. In particular, like other Members, I support those brilliant grandparents who care not only for their children, when they thought that they had seen the last of them as adults, but for their grandchildren.

I detect in clause 36 a helpful little step in the right direction in respect of the entitlement to apply for a residence order, but what is really needed to make care, such as kinship care, work effectively is properly structured support, including the ability of agencies to pay carers for bringing up children. I welcome in clause 24 the slight change in respect of cash payments that can be made to such people, but I am talking about help with the legal costs of getting the residence order and with the social security benefits that are constantly denied to the grandparents but that the parents would have received, and with all the other obstacles that are placed in people’s way when they are doing brilliant work on society’s behalf.

There is also no explicit provision for sibling contact. Although the local authority is required to allow contact, the authority is not required to facilitate it. Roger Morgan, the children’s rights director for England, who has been mentioned already, recently published the views of 433 children on improving care standards. The fourth main recommendation from the children was:

The Bill carries across the provisions in the Children Act 1989 relating to a duty on local authorities to accommodate together siblings

However, we must look at using this legislative opportunity to strengthen the duty on local authorities both to place children together, unless it is not in their best interests to do so, and to support sibling contact as part of their corporate parenting function.

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Children may go into care from an abusive or neglectful environment. Distress, emotional trauma or more profound mental health issues might reasonably be anticipated, and those problems must be identified and addressed. The choice of an appropriate placement depends on that assessment, and work that is done early to provide mental health care or to promote emotional well-being will often make a major difference to a child’s life. The National Children’s Bureau reminds us in its briefing—perhaps surprisingly—of the many physical illnesses and conditions that are missed when children entering care are assessed. Those factors convinced me that effort and money must be invested in the physical and mental health care and emotional well-being of looked-after children to ensure sufficiently high standards of care for all looked-after children. On the question of how to achieve that, perhaps we can debate in Committee whether more is needed through the letter of the law, through regulations or through guidance.

On the question of foster care or residential care, two out of three children who go into public care are fostered. The majority of fostered children return to their own families within a year—clearly, a very successful outcome. However, foster care is not the right solution for all looked-after children; it depends on the assessment of each child’s individual needs. When foster care is the right choice, none the less, there must be an adequate supply of foster carers to meet the demand—that is, not only enough foster carers to meet total demand, but enough to match individual needs. Issues about pay and support for foster carers also need to be addressed if more children are to enjoy positive experiences in foster care placements. Support should encompass a system for investigating allegations against foster carers that is fair to complainants and fair to the foster carers themselves.

Some constraints are beyond the control of foster carers, such as local authorities pushing children out of care at 16 and the current legal age limit of 18 for a foster care placement. We politicians must do more to remove those constraints. Children in residential care were often, in their early lives, powerless in their families, so they may depend on their residential care worker to be their best advocate. All social care staff should be given professional development and support to enable them to be the most effective and efficient advocates for the children in their care. Their work must support what is done to intervene in, and help, families, even before children become legally subject to the duties of local authorities.

It is vital that we make social care work more attractive so that we can get away from the current situation, with which we are all familiar, of a high threshold of intervention in families because of a lack of overall social care capacity. That, in turn, should help to prevent the high turnover that such children often experience.

I have been asked to be brief, so I shall make just two additional points. First, many Members have called for the support of advocacy for children, and I very strongly support it. Secondly, it is absolutely terrible that youngsters are taken out of care without preparations for independent living, or taken out of care at 18 and put into a home that is not at all suitable for them. Many then fall into the kind of difficulties that we have heard about, involving all the depressing statistics cited at the beginning of the debate.

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This Bill is our one opportunity to get things right for the next generation and, I hope, for all the future generations of children who will come into contact with the care system. Let us ensure that we do good job of it.

9.24 pm

John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD): As time is limited, I will aim to say everything that I want to say in about three minutes to allow for three minutes for another speech.

Hon. Members will be aware that I chair an organisation called Justice for Families, which concerns itself with failures and miscarriages of justice in the family courts. This debate is like “Groundhog Day” in that we are again talking about all the various processes such as kinship caring that we wanted to achieve years ago, but that still do not happen. In essence, that comes down to a failure of accountability. Tomorrow morning, as part of an all-party group of MPs, I will table two new clauses, one of which deals with how people take advice in the family courts and the accountability of the process while maintaining confidentiality. The other deals with how we scrutinise the decision-making process in the family courts. We will not be allowed to attack that particular aspect, which is covered by section 31 of the Children Act 1989. That section is in part 1 of that Act, while parts 2 and 3 are covered by the Bill and can therefore be amended.

It is important to listen to people such as the hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble), who obviously understands what is really going on in this very complex process. Unless we find a mechanism for making all the practitioners—not just the good ones—follow the law, do things the right way, use independent advocates and avoid people perverting the course of justice by threatening to take their money off them, we will be wasting our time producing new statute, because it will be ignored by the worst practitioners. Another problem is that those practitioners are required to follow the Government targets, although I accept that the Government scrapped a lot of those targets from 1 April. The critical issue is one of accountability and following the law. Unless proposals for that are included, we will have all the nice, fine words but things will continue in the same vein.

9.27 pm

Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): I am most grateful to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) for allowing me a couple of minutes to squeeze in my speech at the end of this very consensual debate.

I would like to pick out two aspects of the requirement on local authorities to provide suitable accommodation. That will be a great challenge in many cases. Occasionally, I find that 16 and 17-year-olds have been given council tenancies, but these young people do not have the life skills, personal responsibility or discipline to be able to cope with living independently. We need to find other ways of giving them a halfway house between being a child and an adult and giving them the support and back-up of an adult.

The other aspect is the requirement to provide respite care for families with children with very special needs. I think particularly of children on the autistic disorder
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spectrum, whose families desperately need the opportunity for respite care. That accommodation will have to be tailor made and very specific to the needs of children who do not respond well to change and the unfamiliar, with highly trained staff to look after them so that those families can enjoy their respite without having to worry about whether their children are being looked after properly.

There are two special challenges for local authorities in providing accommodation for young teenagers who are not really mature enough to live successfully on their own without being a nuisance to their neighbours and in providing respite care for those who look after children with very special needs.

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