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New clause 28 was tabled by the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) and I think that it is supported by the Fostering Network. It is about collecting information about youngsters who have been in care beyond the age of 18 and up to the age of 20, and it is designed to ensure that the Government collect the information about the staying put pilots,
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which regularly featured in the debates in Committee. Those pilots have enabled youngsters who are in foster care when they attain adulthood—and therefore their care ends—to stay in a successful placement with a foster carer beyond 18, and, crucially, for them to continue to receive support from the local authority, perhaps until they are established in a job or make a success of university education. In that way, their accommodation is not destabilised and the efforts that they and their foster carer are making are not undermined.

Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that we should seek reassurance from the Government that every local authority will ensure that children in care—especially those with educational needs—who attain the age of 18 are not automatically made to start living independently, but are allowed to remain in long-term fostering until they have completed their education or training? Should not that be a child’s right, rather than a local authority option to make that provision?

Mr. Kidney: I agree with my hon. Friend. The educational achievements of children who are, or have been, in care are historically poor, compared with their peers. Educational achievement is one of the many strong focuses of this Bill, and it includes provisions to strengthen the arrangements in schools to ensure that the special needs of children with a care background are taken into account in their education. His point reinforces the point that I have just made. If a young person, despite all the obstacles put before them, has made every effort to achieve good qualifications and has the ambition and drive to go to university—or to a college of further education to achieve vocational qualifications to improve their employability—we do not want a weakness in the arrangements for their accommodation to undermine their efforts.

I chair the associate parliamentary group for looked-after children and care leavers, and when we had a session on this issue, a foster carer told me about the attempts of a girl for whom she was caring to go to university, which were completely undermined because when she turned 18 she received no support from the local authority during the university breaks, when she came home and wanted to continue to live with her foster carer. In the end, the foster carer gave up being the foster carer—and therefore suffered financial loss—because she was so determined to see the girl through university. That was a commendable and brave decision, but not one that we, as responsible legislators, would wish to force on either of them.

John Bercow: The hon. Gentleman will be aware, because he is well briefed on all these matters, that the Commission for Social Care Inspection has described transition arrangements from secondary school to post-16 education as “a nightmare”. Pursuant to what the hon. Member for Tamworth (Mr. Jenkins) valuably said a moment ago, does he agree that in seeking to trigger an improvement in the quality of post-16 education services, we should be ready to draw on the expertise and commitment of the voluntary sector? In particular, we should recognise the responsibility to do what is educationally best rather than what is administratively convenient, and not simply dump children with real difficulties in often wholly unsuitable pupil referral units.

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Mr. Kidney: Again, I agree with the hon. Gentleman. There are some fabulous voluntary organisations that are active in that very sector. I make a plea to local authorities that may be doubtful about the added value of voluntary sector partners to recognise that they can make a huge difference to the quality of outcome for the young people concerned. Local authorities should embrace those partners wholeheartedly.

On balance, the Government’s approach of setting out the legal requirements plainly and supplementing them with the strong guidance, codes and forward planning in documents such as “Every Child Matters” is right, provided that we maintain evaluation and monitoring and that we chivvy the local authorities that do not perform as well as most others do. Having said that, I support new clause 19.

Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): May I belatedly add my congratulations to the Under-Secretary on her new position, to which we warmly welcome her.

I wish first to address new clause 19, amendment No. 89 and new clause 6. It is vital to ensure that the welfare of disabled children in long-term residential placements is promoted and protected. I welcome the process by which we have reached these amendments. We talked at great length about the possibility of looked-after status for children placed in long-term residential homes and other settings, both on Second Reading and in Committee, and we had a good response from the Minister in Committee. I may have retained some slight doubts, as I tabled the amendments again immediately after the Committee stage, but I am delighted that new clause 19 and Government amendments Nos. 8 and 9 are before the House today.

Clearly, it has been a productive summer for Ministers and officials, as they have continued their positive engagement with the Every Disabled Child Matters campaign on this issue. That organisation has said that new clause 19 and Government amendments 8 and 9, along with their accompanying package of regulations and guidance, are a dramatic step towards ensuring that all disabled children who live away from home are well supported and kept safe and that they maintain good contact with their families. That brings a warm feeling, and I hope that it all works.

Also important has been the clarification that local authorities will retain social care responsibility for children whom they place, and that will be especially helpful in ensuring that children’s needs are met. I welcome the Minister’s earlier assurance that the consultation on the regulation will be of the fullest nature, and that it will include a wide range of organisations and, of course, the families themselves.

3.30 pm

The debate has touched already on the role of visitors. Will the visitor always be a qualified social worker with experience of working with disabled children? As has been noted, it is very important that the two local authorities are truly engaged when there is a placement away from home. Despite current regulations, however, we know that the necessary notification does not always take place. What steps will be taken to promote and clarify notification duties when one local authority makes a placement in another local authority area?
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Nevertheless, I am extremely hopeful that the measures before us will offer a new level of protection and support for disabled children and their families. They represent a very exciting move forward.

The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) has said that he intends to press new clause 24 to a vote, and I can assure him that my colleagues on these Benches will be very pleased to support it. Among the many tragedies involving children, two are especially awful. The first is that 3,000 children are in prison, and the second is that a high proportion of them have been, or remain, in the care system. Those are very vulnerable children, and we have to give them every possible support. We must address as a matter of urgency the problem that some appear to fall through the net and out of care status.

Another reason why it is important to fill the gaps is that there can be nothing harder for a young person leaving custody than to find that there is no support when it comes to finding accommodation. That has to be one of the most difficult situations for a child to be in, and it is vital that we close what appears to be a loophole in the law. We must make sure that children in care leaving custody are supported in their search for accommodation.

I also welcome new clause 26. In Committee, there was a great deal of debate about the enormous importance of kinship caring. Lots of fine words were probably spoken about promoting kinship caring, and about the need to make sure that good practice was established and spread. Some local authorities are very good at that, but we need to make sure that every child has the same opportunities. As the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) said, we have to make the greatest possible effort to tackle the problems faced by a child on the edge of care.

In Committee, I was not convinced about the level of support that might be offered to kinship carers. Yes, there has been some movement in that regard: some money is to be made available, but I still come across kinship carers who, for whatever reason, are not foster carers and who are under considerable financial pressure. I feel that that problem needs further consideration, as does the question of the practical support that a grandparent might need when taking on the care of a child.

Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): My hon. Friend will be aware that clause 24 proposes the deletion of a local authority’s discretion under section 17 of the Children Act 1989 to make payments only “in exceptional circumstances”. That is a welcome step, but does she agree that we need further clarity about the sort of support that people—and especially grandparents—can expect from the local authority? Would not a further explanation from the Minister be helpful?

Annette Brooke: My hon. Friend makes a valid point. As he says, clause 24 was a welcome step but I do not feel that it is sufficient and I hope the Minister will be able to give us clarification and general support on that point.

New clause 28 is a probing provision, but it backs the strong cross-party support I felt for the desirability of 18 to 21-year-olds being able to stay on with foster carers. As has already been pointed out, because young
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people in care are particularly vulnerable and may have missed out on education, they may still need support between the ages of 18 to 21 while they complete education that might in other circumstances have been completed earlier. We all know that the average age for leaving home is now 24—I fear from personal circumstances that it is even higher— [ Interruption. ] Well, the returns get older and older. The average age first time around is 24, but in foster care it is 16 or 17. I could go on and on about this, but we all felt how desirable it would be to offer the proposed support, when a young person wants it.

Helen Southworth (Warrington, South) (Lab): Does the hon. Lady agree that stable accommodation is absolutely essential for any young person leaving care? Leaving care requires additional support in many ways, so does she believe that Ofsted should have the information she is requesting, to be able to make a satisfactory inspection of the performance of local authorities in supporting care leavers?

Annette Brooke: I thank the hon. Lady for that extremely helpful intervention. It is always useful when somebody takes something a step further than one had thought about oneself.

We all accept the desirability of the proposal. We have pilots and I am delighted that there is one Dorset, so I shall have some first-hand information. I understand from the Fostering Network that the statistical returns that local authorities are required to make at present cover supported lodging and ordinary lodging, and there is no definitive category for 19 and 20-year-olds who remain with foster parents. I put it to the Minister that it would be desirable to monitor how many young people are facilitated in staying with foster parents at that older age. It would also be a useful indicator for Ofsted.

John Bercow: I agree with what the hon. Lady said, but I notice that rather self-effacingly she suggested that her new clause was of a probing character. Given that the absence of data and of an obligation to collect such data constitutes a cloak behind which bad practice can be hidden from the public gaze, does she not agree that it is rather important that we adopt the principle that transparency—knowing what the situation is—will be the decisive trigger to spur improved performance in the future?

Annette Brooke: I thank the hon. Gentleman. Using the word “probing” does not undermine the importance of the proposal, but I wrote the original amendment myself and did not want to lose my argument because it was technically deficient—it is frequently pointed out to me that there is a technical deficiency. I do not really care about the technical deficiency; I think the point is important and I should like the Minister in her response to concentrate on the issue exactly as the hon. Gentleman suggests.

Finally, I sympathise absolutely with the objectives of amendment No. 13, although I am not quite sure about its implementation. Amendment No. 14 is extremely interesting and I shall make a judgment on amendment No. 18 when the hon. Member for Warrington, South (Helen Southworth) has spoken to it.

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Helen Southworth: I welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry) to her new post as Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families. She is joining a team that has proved to be extremely effective in working on behalf of young people. I am sure that she will not only enjoy her position but make an effective contribution to meeting the support needs of young people.

Government new clause 19 is incredibly welcome on two counts: first, because of how it has been developed, and secondly, because of what it sets out to do. It is extremely important that the people who use services are key in deciding how they are given support. We have seen exemplary practice in the development of the Government’s relationship with disabled young people and their families and carers in drawing up the new clause and in the direction of the Bill as a whole. I strongly recommend the methodology employed, which has brought disabled young people and their carers directly into the decision-making process. I recognise how important the measures introduced by the new clause will be to improving the quality of life of young people and their families.

I shall refer to new clauses 24 and 28 in my comments on amendment No. 18, as the amendment would enable many of the measures in the new clauses to take effect by requiring a local authority to offer the services of an IRO to any relevant child for whom it is responsible. The reason why the amendment is structurally so important in the delivery of the Bill’s provisions is that it would make fundamentally clear the right of a looked-after child to remain a looked-after child until an agreement is made that it is in their best interests to move on from looked-after status. It would also ensure that when they make that move, the transition is properly supported by a person who is qualified and experienced and has statutory powers.

Angela Watkinson: Judging by the hon. Lady’s comments, I am sure that she agrees with me that putting very young people—perhaps as young as 16—into council tenancies without any support is wholly inappropriate, when they have had a chaotic upbringing and lack the life skills or the self-discipline to live independently. That is precisely the sort of situation we want to avoid. They need real and continuous involvement of a social worker to ensure that they are coping in newly independent circumstances.

Helen Southworth: I am sure that the hon. Lady is as aware as I am of the fact that the majority of young people move into fully independent living at approximately 24. That is not to say that they are incapable of making decisions or acting to support themselves before then; it simply means that young people do not wish to be alone and unsupported. We should not leave unsupported young people who have been in local authority care and who are vulnerable because of that. I agree with her on the principle. Although we might sometimes wonder whether young people are capable of taking on those responsibilities, none of us is capable of living alone, in isolation—none of us is an island.

Independent reviewing officers are registered social workers who are independent of the management of the looked-after children’s cases that they review. They chair all looked-after children’s statutory review meetings,
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and from that position they can identify problems in the children’s care and any lack of clarity in the care plan. They therefore have a crucial role in promoting the best interests of the child.

The Children and Young Persons Bill strengthens and extends the role of the independent reviewing officer by introducing a duty on them to monitor the local authority’s performance of its function in relation to a child’s case. Amendment No. 18 would place a statutory duty on local authorities to offer the IRO’s services in monitoring the care and pathway plans of all young people up to the age of 18, regardless of where they live. That is incredibly important when one considers the young people whom we have identified. They include those who are moving on to independent living and who have lost looked-after status, and those serving a custodial sentence.

3.45 pm

I want to look at the needs of young people aged 16 to 18 who are moving on to independent living, including those to whom the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) referred. What is happening, in practice, to them? Why do the provisions matter? Why is it essential to the success of a pathway that such young people have access to an independent reviewing officer? At the moment, information on how many children become what is known as “relevant” rather than “eligible” children is in many ways inadequate, but recent data from the Department for Children, Schools and Families suggest that 26 per cent. of young people leave care in their 16th year, and 19 per cent. leave care in their 17th year. When those people leave care, they are no longer “eligible” children, but become “relevant” children—children who, if amendment No. 18 is made, would benefit from an independent reviewing officer. That means that more than 40 per cent. of young people in care would not, as the Bill stands, get the considerable benefit of access to an independent reviewing officer, but would if the amendment were made.

It is incredibly important to consider what is actually happening to those young people. Young people who leave care at 16 or 17 are likely to be particularly vulnerable. Many of them will have had difficulties with the care environment. They are moving out of support, but sometimes they feel that they are taking a step that gives them some control over their lives. The Rainer “Home Alone” report published last year says that housing continues to be a problem for those young people. To reiterate the statistics that we heard earlier, it says:

The report gives examples of the severity of the processes. One young person was described as experiencing

That girl had left care, aged 16, after six and a half years as a looked-after child.

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