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Sarah McCarthy-Fry: It is a great pleasure for me to open the debate. I am conscious that, as we are on Report, there have already been many hours of debate and deliberation, of which I was not part, given that I have only just joined the Department. I thank my hon.
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Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan) for his dedication and hard work in taking the Bill through its previous stages, and wish him well in his new post.

I shall introduce several Government amendments now and respond at the end of the debate to issues and questions that hon. Members raise. The first amendment grouping relates to three groups of children and young people: children who are provided with accommodation for three months or more under education and health legislation, the great majority of whom are disabled; children who are looked after or live with family and friends on the edge of care; and care leavers—relevant children who are 16 or 17 and former relevant children who are over 18.

I will start with the group of the children who are in accommodation arranged under health and education legislation. Amendments similar to new clause 6 were considered in Committee. The Government highlighted the serious defects in those amendments and explained why they would have no practical effect. I do not propose to repeat that explanation. However, we all share the ambition to ensure that social services are actively involved in a timely and appropriate manner when a decision to accommodate a child away from home is taken, so that consideration is given in every case to the child’s social care needs and to the needs of his family for support, to enable them to sustain their involvement in their child’s life.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): May I congratulate my hon. Friend on her appointment to what is a strong ministerial team in the Department? May I also compliment her and the Department on how wide-ranging the amendments are and on how good the support is for families when their child is accommodated, perhaps hundreds of miles away from their home? That support includes help not just with travelling to meet each other, but even with going on holiday together. The proposal is a commendable amendment by the Government, who have responded to concerns raised in Committee.

Sarah McCarthy-Fry: I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. It was important that the Government responded to the concerns that were raised in Committee. We considered our response when working with the Every Disabled Child Matters campaign—a campaign that I got involved in when I was first elected to the House and one that works so hard for disabled children. We worked with that campaign to see what more we could do to promote the welfare of that vulnerable group. I also had the opportunity to discuss the issue with my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge (Lynda Waltho) earlier this week, on my first day as Minister in the Department.

I am pleased to introduce the Government amendments, which will improve the well-being of the children concerned as part of a package that will make a significant contribution towards improving services for them. New clause 19 will require the local authority to have an appropriate tailored package of services suitable to meet the needs of children who are provided with accommodation under health or education legislation. In particular, the local authority will be expected to provide services that support the continuing active involvement of the parents in their child’s life.

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John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): May I be the first from the Conservative Benches warmly to congratulate the hon. Lady on her deserved elevation? It is good to know that a long period of labour in the Back-Bench vineyard has received its just reward.

In welcoming the thrust of new clause 19, may I gently say that it is not entirely clear to me—I do not mean to be pedantic; this is a serious point—why subsection (4), in contrast with subsection (1), says that the services “may” include the three categories set out? If the concept of the core offer to be applied universally is in ministerial minds, might it not be a good idea for the new clause to say not that the services “may” include those categories, but that they “shall” include them? That is a minor point, however; I wish the new clause and the hon. Lady well.

2.15 pm

Sarah McCarthy-Fry: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his warm and kind words. I am not quite sure where the vineyard comes from, but we will worry about that later.

The point about the services and the support package that we will provide is that we will consult further on statutory guidance and regulations to determine what that support package may be. There is therefore still an opportunity—we are not being prescriptive—and we may be able to look at the matter further.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): May I also welcome the hon. Lady, who has come from the Back-Bench vineyard? We know that the longer one leaves a wine, the more mature it gets.

I agree with the intention of new clause 19, but it is not clear whether the services referred to under subsection (4)(a) could be provided by relevant third sector organisations such as Youth at Risk and Regenerate, in respect of which I declare a non-pecuniary interest. Will the Minister consider allowing third sector organisations with a relevant interest in improving young people’s fortunes to facilitate in the kind of guidance and counselling referred to the new clause? Is she willing to accept representations from those voluntary sector organisations on how they might be able to facilitate the outcomes that the new clause is no doubt intended to achieve?

Sarah McCarthy-Fry: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his invitation and his warm words. I am pleased to be able to say, in the spirit in which we consulted when tabling new clause 19, that we want to consult as widely as possible on how the support packages will be put in place. It is Government policy to encourage voluntary and third sector organisations to get involved in the delivery of public services. Voluntary sector organisations very often enjoy the confidence of parents and others with whom they have worked for a long time, who do not see the barrier that they might sometimes see between themselves and those whom they may consider as authority figures. What the hon. Gentleman proposes is certainly something that we would consider when we consult on how the statutory guidance goes forward.

Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood) (Lab): I join hon. Members in congratulating my hon. Friend on her exciting new role. As president of Blackpool Advocacy, I mention independent advocacy virtually
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every time I stand up to discuss such issues. Will my hon. Friend look into the importance of offering accommodated children access to an independent advocate? When she liaises with third sector organisations, will she consult with those that represent independent advocacy services, which in my opinion are vital to so many young people?

Sarah McCarthy-Fry: I thank my hon. Friend for making that very valid point. My earlier point about parents and looked-after children having trust in the relationship and the people advocating for them is important. I will take that forward as we put the guidance together.

The duty to arrange social work visits in clause 19 provides ongoing supervision for the placement that the local authorities will put in place and will ensure that the local authority can step in when there is any significant change in the child’s circumstances. One of the most important services that local authorities can provide is to take all reasonable steps to maintain contact between the parent and the child. New clause 19 therefore specifically refers to services

and to

as my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) pointed out.

The Government expect agencies to work together when making long-term plans to accommodate children away from home. The existing requirement in section 85 of the Children Act 1989 for local authorities to consider their Children Act duties when notified that a child has been provided with accommodation by health or education is complemented by corresponding provisions in regulations made under part III of the 1989 Act and by education legislation and guidance, and is reflected at the structural level by the duty to co-operate in section 10 of the Children Act 2004, which underpins children’s trusts.

Effective inter-agency working is essential for such children. However, we recognise that in some cases inter-agency working arrangements are not as effective as they should be, so we will use regulations made under clause 19 to require a visit to take place within the first seven working days of a placement or notification of a placement, unless an initial assessment has already been carried out as part of the placement decision. That will provide the reassurance that children’s social care professionals will be involved right at the start of the placement. It remains primarily the responsibility of the home local authorities to assess and provide services to meet the needs of the children being placed out of area under health or education legislation. Amendments Nos. 8 and 9 make that position clear beyond doubt.

I recognise that, for many children in long-term placements, parental engagement may unfortunately be difficult to establish or sustain. We will therefore strengthen statutory guidance to provide greater detail on the considerations relating to parental involvement and children’s needs and on when it would be appropriate for the local authority to assume responsibility for providing accommodation under section 20 of the 1989 Act and thus for the child to become looked after.

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Kerry McCarthy (Bristol, East) (Lab): I add my congratulations to those that have already been expressed to the Minister on her appointment. Will she confirm that when that statutory guidance is being considered, there will be consultation not only with groups such as Every Disabled Child Matters, which are obviously important in this respect, but with the families of the children, so that the guidance does not become something that they feel is being imposed on them by the local authority and that they are very much involved in the detail of it?

Sarah McCarthy-Fry: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, which comes back to the point that I have made two or three times on the importance of trust between the parents, the child and those who are assuming responsibility and finding placements for them, and supporting them. I will be happy to ensure that we consult as widely as possible in order to put the statutory guidance in place.

This is a comprehensive package of measures that was developed in partnership with the Every Disabled Child Matters campaign, which many hon. Friends cited in Committee. As Every Disabled Child Matters says:

That is why the campaign wholeheartedly welcomes the amendment. As I have said, we will continue that constructive dialogue with Every Disabled Child Matters and other stakeholders, with parents and, of course, with hon. Members as we develop the regulations and statutory guidance.

As well as the Government amendments, hon. Members will discuss amendments relating to placement moves for looked-after children, support for kinship carers and strategies for securing sufficient fostering placements. In relation to care leavers, we will discuss support for voluntarily accommodated children who go into custody, reviews for relevant children and data collections relating to care leavers. As I have said, I will deal with all those issues when I respond.

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): First, I add my congratulations to those already offered to the Minister on her promotion and her joining the Department. It is an interesting brief that she has taken on, although we regretfully wave goodbye to the hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan), who was a doughty champion of children’s issues—both in his ministerial role and in respect of his general interest—on this and many previous children’s Bills. He and I sparred on a friendly and positive basis over many years. He will be missed.

I shall speak to the amendments in the order in which they have been selected and focus on those that stand in my name and those of my hon. Friends. I shall refer first to Government new clause 19 and the concomitant amendments, which we very much welcome. I would certainly be churlish not to congratulate the Government on having listened to the not inconsiderable lobbying
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from Every Disabled Child Matters and other interested parties. We supported the amendments in Committee, and the former Minister was sympathetic to what we were trying to achieve in doing so.

In Committee, I tabled new clauses 6 and 10, which endeavoured to achieve what these amendments are now achieving, and I am glad that the Government have found a formulation of words that has enabled them to add the proposals to the Bill. Ensuring that the welfare of disabled children in long-term residential placements is promoted and protected affects a relatively small number of children, but they make up an important and potentially vulnerable group and it is right that they should be given special consideration in the Bill, as they now are. That is why Every Disabled Child Matters has welcomed what the Government have done and described it as a dramatic step towards ensuring that all disabled children who live away from home are well supported.

We tabled our amendments in Committee in an attempt to require local authorities to consider whether disabled children in long-term residential placements should have the protection and support of looked-after children status and to retain the flexibility to ensure that the right solution was found for each child and family, but also to ensure that every child placed away from home in those circumstances had their safeguarding needs properly considered. It was not to be imposed on those children; it would have been done in consultation with the families to ensure that the right safeguards were made available to each and every child appropriately.

We welcome the amendments and, in particular, the practical support that I hope they will achieve in helping families to stay in touch with their children, for example, through help with transport costs—the Minister reiterated that point—and with essential advice and support to promote a strong relationship between disabled young people living away from home and their families. Strengthening the guidance as she has promised is welcome.

I echo some of the comments made by Labour Members, in particular the hon. Member for Bristol, East (Kerry McCarthy), who played a significant part in Committee. We must ensure that before the final regulations are devised, there is close consultation on them with the disability sector, but also with the families involved, because we are talking about a finite and easily identifiable group of children and their families.

Anne Main (St. Albans) (Con): May I ask that consideration be given to grandparents and that the terminology for families is looked at as broadly as possible? Too often, grandparents have difficulties maintaining access to grandchildren—in a divorce situation, for example—and the difficulties are manifold in situations such as those that we are discussing.

Tim Loughton: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is a key consideration that I am always aware of and which came up many times in Committee. When we talk about family, we are talking about not just the immediate family, but the extended family. As we know, grandparents are a lifeline in many cases, especially where there is a problem in relation to the child and the birth parents’ ability to look after that child. I am sure that the Minister will take that point on board as well.

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I welcome, too, the reference to strengthening the visitor role and, in particular, the immediacy of ensuring that a relevant professional visits and makes an assessment. Too often, the immediate concern is to find the placement and then the pressure is off, but finding the placement is only the first stage. We have to ensure that all the necessary support packages are in place, so I welcome the Minister’s comments in that regard.

However, all this also hinges on the availability of the appropriate professionals, especially properly qualified dedicated social workers. We know about the problems related to the shortage of and turnover in social workers, particularly in the area of child protection and those with expertise in children with disabilities. That came up many times in Committee and it is quite a specialist area.

Promoting the duty to notify will also be part of these considerations. Ensuring that the responsible authority has liaised properly with the host authority is a problem for children within the care system—both those who are disabled and who are not disabled—when they are placed out of area, as too many children still are. I hope that fewer will be as a result of other measures in the Bill. We welcome the Government new clause and the amendments that go with it.

Our own lead proposal is new clause 24 and I need to notify you now, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that we would like the opportunity to vote on it. Given how the system works, that vote will come later rather than at the end of this debate, as our new clause is not the lead amendment.

The new clause introduces a relatively new subject in terms of amendments to the Bill, but that subject has been of concern to me and my Conservative colleagues for some time. It involves the role of children in care in custody—a group that is very vulnerable and too large. Some 10,000 children pass through the secure estate for juveniles every year. At any one time, as we know all too well, approximately 3,000 children under the age of 18 are in custody in this country. It is not a good thing that we have locked up so many children and kept them off the streets; it is a sign of failure that they should have to be in custody in the first place. Many of us will agree that we need to think and act smarter as to how we divert those children from the custodial estate.

2.30 pm

According to the Youth Justice Board, 71 per cent.—almost three quarters—of children in custody have been in the care of or involved with social services prior to entering custody. That is an alarming figure, again showing the failure of the state as the corporate parent, as three quarters of its charges in the custody system will have been in the care of children’s services previously. That is an indictment of the system.

The “Care Matters” Green Paper noted that the majority of children in care—those under section 20 of the 1989 Act—lose their looked-after status on entering custody. The only children and young people with care status in custody are: those under a full care order of section 31; those classified as in need under section 17 of the 1989 Act by the local authority in which the establishment is based during their time in custody; those children on remand in secure training centres or secure children’s homes; those 16 or 17-year-olds who have spent enough time in care to be “relevant children”, which is the technical term; and finally, 18 to 21-year-olds who are former “relevant children”.

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