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Research has shown the importance of stability and continuity of care and its long-term effects on mental health. In a study carried out by the Royal College of Psychiatrists, adults who had been raised in stable foster homes and received specialist support from a dedicated fostering agency were found to be more socially well integrated.

John Bercow: It is always a pleasure to listen to my hon. Friend’s mellifluous tones, but surely the overarching theme of our consideration in these remaining stages is the rights, chances and outcomes of some of the most vulnerable children in our society. Before he concludes his remarks, I wonder whether, referring to his important exchanges on 16 June in the Second Reading debate, he would care to say something about the arguments powerfully articulated by the hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) for the independent advocate, which has not yet featured in our proceedings, but seems to me to be at the heart of the debate.

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Tim Loughton: My hon. Friend makes a fair point, which is somewhat separate from the point here, because, again, I do not believe that Mr. Speaker in his wisdom has selected any amendments to do with the independent advocate. Therefore, he would not want me to traipse down that path, but hon. Members on both sides of the Committee had some sympathy with the proposal to enhance that role, particularly for the most vulnerable children.

If social workers do not have the time to get to know children in care, they will be less likely to understand their true needs and to make effective decisions about the right type of care for those children. Furthermore, overstretched social workers find it harder to support children than those who look after them throughout their placements. Continuity and stability must surely be key, which is why we have tabled amendment No. 13.

Finally, you will be relieved to hear, Mr. Deputy Speaker, amendment No. 14 raises a new issue. It is a probing amendment, so I trust that the Minister or any of my hon. Friends will not ask me to flesh out too much of the detail.

Councillors and those in children’s services in various local authorities have mentioned problems with foster carers making adaptations to their houses or with housing a sufficient number of children, particularly in London boroughs. The shortage of foster carers is estimated at anything between 6,000 and 10,000 and there is a particular shortage of specialist foster carers to deal with complex needs and with some forms of disability, both physical and mental.

3 pm

Siobhain McDonagh (Mitcham and Morden) (Lab): I defer to everybody here—they are much more knowledgeable about this topic than me—but my concern regards potential foster children with physical needs and disabilities and the difficulties that foster carers have in claiming disabled facilities grants. Has the hon. Gentleman taken that into account?

Tim Loughton: That is part of the general principle behind the amendment. I am interested to hear the Under-Secretary’s comments on it and to hear how that might be conveyed to those responsible in the unlikely event of her not wanting to accept the amendment.

For local authorities coming up with strategies for looked-after children, it is not just a question of “Have we got the right number of foster carers and the appropriate services?” It is also a question of trying to get some flexibility in creating the environments that enable more foster carers to come forward, or that allow more current foster carers to increase their responsibility, such that they could accommodate more children at home if they made some adaptations. That might involve various grants being available, as the hon. Lady has just said. It would certainly involve some leeway on planning policies in some cases. I would go well beyond my brief if I tried to suggest that there should be a change in planning policy guidance of any description.

Housing and planning departments must be included within the planning for foster care placements in particular. I can think of one London borough where this has happened informally and, as a result, there is a much higher number of foster carers and the authority is able
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to make many more foster placements. More leeway could be allowed in terms of adaptations for children with disabilities or in the ability to accommodate more children, within the realms of safety; one is not trying to take risks. I wanted to place it on record in this probing amendment that housing and planning departments have a role in this as well, although one would not normally expect them to.

I am aware that I have taken up rather a lot of the House’s time but this is the largest grouping of amendments. There are some important amendments among them but I certainly would wish to pursue new clause 24 in a vote later today.

Mr. Kidney: There was a time when I thought that “Report stage” was a misnomer for this part of our proceedings, because—except for those who had been on the Committee—what had happened before, and what was to happen next, to the Bill concerned was a complete mystery to Members. I was pleased to suggest a few years ago to the Procedure Committee and to the Modernisation Committee that we should have a report for the Report stage. The Library now does produce a report, and there is one for this Bill.

The hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) mentioned advocacy. I can report back from Committee that the Minister of State said to me that the existing entitlement to advocacy to make a complaint or representation remained. In the case of a representation, that word should be read widely to mean as many things as people would like. The existing law gives quite good access to advocacy for youngsters. I know that the hon. Gentleman stressed the word “independent”, and there is still an argument about how independent some advocates might be.

As I said earlier, the Government amendments are welcome and deal with a number of points that were made in Committee. Much of the debate in Committee revolved around visits to children in care who had been placed a long way from their homes. To some extent, the amendments give some reassurance. In the Bill there is also a new restriction on how often local authorities will place children in their care beyond the borders of the home local authority. That is very welcome. The Bill requires that local authorities placing both beyond and within their borders must ensure regular visits to the child where he or she is placed. That will help.

Mrs. Siân C. James (Swansea, East) (Lab): I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware that constituencies such as mine have cases where children have been moved because of the lack of appropriate accommodation—in one case from Swansea to Essex, making visiting almost impossible. Could we try to ensure that such placements do not occur?

Mr. Kidney: My hon. Friend makes a good point about focusing attention on reducing the need for children to be placed a long way from home and on the importance of keeping contact between children and their relatives. Distance could become a serious obstacle to maintaining that relationship. My hon. Friend is quite right: we should try to ensure that there is an even spread of specialist provision around the country, so that the nearest site is not too far away.

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The amendments and new clauses in the group are about some special placements in a residential school, a residential health facility or a residential care home. The Govt amendments suggest that perhaps in the past there has not been enough attention on ensuring that the relationship between the child and his or her family is maintained strongly. The Government amendments are welcome in being so bold; they say that there shall be services for families to make sure those relationships are maintained. As I said, the amendments say that there should be help in keeping families in contact, including physical visits. Going further, there may be a case for holidays together, perhaps paid for or arranged by the local authority.

Another, technical, point—it is more related to the amendments at the end of the group rather than the new clause—is that quite often, as my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, East (Mrs. James) has just said, the placement is in another part of the country within the area of a completely different local authority. Perhaps another weakness in the care system in the past has been the lack of engagement between two local authorities when one is the child’s home authority and the other is where the child is currently placed.

In my area there is a well-known specialist psychiatric hospital with residential care for children and young persons. Children come from all over the country to be treated there. They will have come from homes in many local authorities around the country, and their families will be some considerable distance away. The Government amendment is welcome, because it stresses that the home authority is not able to wash its hands of a child because it has moved the child to a completely different part of the country and placed the child in the care of a specialist provider of treatment. It also stresses that there should be a good relationship between the home authority and the authority within which the child is currently placed. It will be to the benefit of families and children for there to be that acceptance by the two authorities that they must work together. For those reasons, I am a strong supporter of the Government amendments.

The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) mentioned my new clause 26, and I am pleased to urge the Government to do more to provide assistance to children and their families when a child is on the edge of coming into the care of a local authority. We know that, historically, the outcomes for children in care can be catastrophically bad in many situations.

Therefore, if there is a prospect of maintaining a child within loving caring relationships with blood relatives or friends who have known the child for many years, common sense tells us that in most cases that would be of benefit, and better than the alternative of care. In answer to this debate, I want the Government at least to say that it is their intention that the greatest possible effort will be made to ensure that children have the benefit of every possible alternative to care, when it involves family, friends and relatives, being considered, so that they can avoid the possible outcome of a poor experience in care. The Bill, of course, strengthens the requirement of local authorities to consider the importance of family and friends as possible alternative carers before considering a decision to take into care, and that is very welcome.

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There is a briefing in support of new clause 26 from the Family Rights Group, within which there is a case study about a grandmother who was bereaved and therefore living on her own, and who took responsibility for a young grandson because both parents were incapacitated by drugs and drink problems and unable to be the carers. That grandparent found there was an extraordinary lack of support in terms of finances, practical help, respite care, support groups and therapy for the child in her care, and she was left literally holding the baby.

That struck a chord with me in respect of a case in my constituency I have been involved with for most of the last 11 years, involving a grandmother in a very similar situation who often had to contact me because she did not have the money or the breaks for herself, or the support for her grandson, for whom she had accepted responsibility because neither parent could manage. She did not have access to the right mental health services for the benefit of her grandson until her Member of Parliament weighed in on her side. It should not be the case that an acceptable service will be provided for a relative who steps in in such a way only if a Member of Parliament gets involved. By putting my name to new clause 26, I am seeking to underline the fact that it should be routine for local authorities to look for relatives who might be able to save the child from having to go into care at all, and to assess what kind of support will be needed for such relatives to be able to cope and make sure there are happy outcomes for that child, not unhappy ones.

John Bercow: The hon. Gentleman speaks with considerable wisdom and authority on these matters, and I hope he agrees that support can take a multiplicity of different forms. Let us take a scenario in which it is judged most fitting and appropriate for a child or young person to be placed in a residential establishment a significant distance from the home of his parent or guardian. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if the parent or guardian wishes to see that child or young person and the feeling is mutual, it is important that poor socio-economic circumstances should not prevent that contact? To put it simply, does the hon. Gentleman agree that as a matter of course, not on the basis of a postcode lottery, transport costs ought to be paid or subsidised so that the good and healthy relationship that should subsist between parent and child is given the chance to be created and nurtured?

Mr. Kidney: Unreservedly, my answer is yes. By asking that question, the hon. Gentleman highlights a separate point about new clause 26 that I would like to touch upon. So far, I have been discussing the importance of a local authority giving assistance to family members to enable them to keep a child out of care altogether, but if a child ends up having to be in care, most of us would like that period of care to be as short as possible while any family problems are resolved, so that the child can be rehabilitated back into the family. If part of the period in care results in a placement a long way from home, perhaps for the reason of necessary specialist health care provision, it might be extremely important for the possible final outcome of the child being rehabilitated home that contact be kept up between the child and the family members who eventually will take over responsibility again for the care of that child on a day-to-day basis.
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Therefore, transport costs and other practical obstacles would be an important consideration for a local authority that was doing its job properly, because the alternative to doing its job properly would be to make it a self-fulfilling prediction that once the child was in care it would stay in care until adulthood. The hon. Gentleman has made an important point, with which I agree.

If the Minister intends to say at the end of the debate that she does not think there is any need for new clause 26 because the existing law says all that is necessary, in one sense I am inclined to accept her argument, because if every local authority fully implements the law—as the best authorities already do—there probably will not be a problem. However, I think she will agree that practice varies to an unacceptable degree between good and bad local authorities. Therefore, it is important for us to ensure that all authorities perform to an acceptable standard. One of the reasons why many of us try to insist on everything being written into the law is the fact that at least if something is in the law every authority knows it has to do it, rather than authorities simply being encouraged to do it, which might allow some of them to backslide. We would not want them to backslide on such an important subject.

3.15 pm

The Government already have a splendid policy document called “Every Child Matters”, and not long ago they launched the implementation plan for it, which, happily, explicitly includes a section on supporting children on the edge of care. That is on page 11 of the implementation strategy, and it says by way of introduction:

It goes on to emphasise that it is important for local authorities and social workers who are thinking about whether a care decision needs to be made to consider whether there are relatives or friends who are able to take the role of primary carers, to avoid that care decision being taken. It talks about analysing needs, supporting parents and parenting, and assessing whether there is a need for therapy. It also talks about the Government producing in due course a new framework for family and friends care.

I ask the Minister to say, in responding to our debate, that if new clause 26 is not necessary in law, that document on a new framework for family and friends care will, when it is produced, make it clear to every authority that they have to do the things new clause 26 proposes should be done. It would be useful to all those friends, family members, informal carers and grandparents who would like to be able to help in the future to know that there is some named contact or named part of a local authority team who they will always be able to get in touch with and expect a proper and constructive response. Therefore, perhaps the Minister will say at the end of the debate that there will be an emphasis on these matters in that document, when it is produced, and that there will be a named contact of somebody at the local authority to respond to the concerns of family and friends who want help in the upbringing of a child.

The implementation plan deals with many more issues as well, but at the end it says that there is a role for monitoring and evaluation of local authority performance. I agree with that. It stresses among those processes of
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evaluation and monitoring the role of the Children’s Rights Director, currently Roger Morgan. It is to be welcomed that he recently produced his annual monitor of what young people themselves think about the system of care in this country, and that in future he will produce that monitor in a particular format with six headings—subjects on which he will always obtain children and young people’s views. It is to be hoped that over time that will give us some good, reliable and consistent evidence about how things are going, and help us identity local authorities that are not doing so well.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman skip back to the issue of people in the family looking after children? I think that my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) mentioned the figure of 6 per cent. here, and for Denmark the figure of 40 per cent. What does the hon. Gentleman think is the reason for this difference between Britain and Denmark?

Mr. Kidney: The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) said that in only 4 per cent. of cases will a social worker place the child with family and friends for care. As he said, in some continental countries, the situation is very different. I hesitate to say that I know very much about practices in Sweden or any other country, but I have heard people from Sweden speak about how they do things differently there. I have also heard people from Germany, Denmark and Spain talk about how they do things. Each version has some attractions, but I am mindful of the saying that the grass always looks greener on the other side of the valley.

I do not know enough to answer the question that the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) poses, but we do have the recent investigation of our performance and the UN convention on the rights of the child. Perhaps it would be instructive to read some of the criticisms of this country revealed in that investigation, including the hostile attitude to children in some parts of the media, which may make the environment in which we work different from that in Sweden.

I support amendment No. 18, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, South (Helen Southworth), about independent reviewing officers. I will leave her to explain the amendment’s significance, but it seeks to address the situation of youngsters between 16 and 18, who are in a period of transition. We hope that they are being prepared for a life of independence after care, rather than pushed out of care too soon and with too little support. I hope that my hon. Friend will explain why we think that much more attention should be paid to that group, and much better arrangements should be made to support them. That is true especially with regard to their accommodation, so that they can successfully make the transition into becoming responsible adult citizens when they have eventually left care.

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