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There is example after example of young people being placed in inappropriate accommodation that does not support their needs. As a Member of Parliament, I
have had constituents come to me who needed help because they were placed in unsupported accommodation. Young people have been placed in homelessness units with people who have drug dependencies and criminal records. Young people have been placed in a residential setting with people with whom, when they were looked after, they would not have been allowed to mix. Time and again, we all hear of examples of failures in the system for relevant young people. I am speaking of the experience not of most young people, but of a very sizeable minority. However, there are very vulnerable young people who experience extremely difficultand in some cases dangerousoutcomes. At that stage, what chance do they have to get an education, an apprenticeship or a job? That is the question that the Bill has to address, and this is our opportunity to do so. I hope that in answering the debate, the Minister will give us clear indications about how she will use the Bill and the regulations that support it to make sure that this set of issues is addressed.
We have to ensure that every young person who leaves care has a full review that determines whether they are a looked-after child or a relevant childwhat category they come into. I hope that the Minister will give a clear indication of how that process will take place and what the role of the independent reviewing officer will be. She has already saidin Committeethat no child would be able to leave a foster care placement or a residential placement for other arrangements without a review case having been held with the independent reviewing officer at which it has been agreed that it is in the best interests of the child to move into the alternative accommodation.
In addition to that, we need a clear and categorical commitment that no child can leave looked-after status and become a relevant child without a reviewing officer having decided that that is in their best interests. Furthermore, if there is a failure of accommodationbecause it is unsuitable, because it is temporary and permanent accommodation has not become available, because there is some failure in the tenancy or because the young person has problems with family or friends which mean that they need extra supportthere has to be a trigger mechanism that enables them to draw on transitional help, or, if necessary, gives them access to looked-after status again. At the moment, a young person does not have access to an independent reviewing officer when they have left care.
Angela Watkinson: I am sure that the hon. Lady is aware that there are occasions when a young person is referred by their local authority into a different area and the receiving local authority is not even aware of their presence. That is an obvious opportunity for things to go wrong and for there to be nobody to put the situation right.
Helen Southworth: The hon. Lady is absolutely right. There are measures in the Bill that will reduce the number of young people being moved out of area; that is an incredibly important and praiseworthy step. However, there will still be young people who are moved out of area. The hon. Lady has touched on an issue that I wanted to raise: that of young people in custody, who are frequently moved away significantly from their areas.
The current position is that if a young person moves into custody and is looked-after because of a court order, they will remain in receipt of looked-after status. If they go into custody having been subject to voluntary accommodation they will lose looked-after status at that point. Under the Bill, a young person with looked-after status cannot move into other accommodation and, if we get the commitment from the Minister, cannot lose their looked-after status unless an independent reviewing officer has decided that that is in their best interestsunless they go into custody. The amendment would give a young person in custody access to an independent reviewing officer and would mean that the independent reviewing officer was maintained throughout the process.
Most significantly, when the young person left custody the independent reviewing officer would have a role in the decision-making process as regards what was suitable accommodation for them. It is essential that we get an agreement from the Minister that relevant young people will have access to an independent reviewing officer. If a young person is to be able to change their way of life on leaving custody, it is essential that they have secure and stable accommodation. I must press the Minister to ensure that they have access to an independent reviewing officer during that process and that they will not lose the entitlement that they would otherwise have had to that officer reviewing the decision on where their accommodation should be when they come out of custody. It seems contrary in the extreme not to give those young people support in finding proper and stable accommodation.
Will the Minister give full consideration to supporting young people in custody in promoting contact between them and their families? It was exceptionally good to see that new clause 19 will give families proper support by working with disabled young people in retaining their relationships and having good, close contact. Young people in custody will frequently be the parent of the family themselves, so it is particularly important that they have contact and are able to maintain a caring relationship with their child which remains effective when they leave custody.
I hope that the Minister will clarify the position on visitors for young people in custody. We have seen laudable movements to ensure that disabled young people who are accommodated away from home will have within seven days a visitor who is a qualified social worker. Will the Minister also ensure that young people in custody receive the vital support of a qualified social worker as their visitor and that that visit is made at an early date within a specified time in regulations?
In relation to the new clause which deals with collecting information, we all know that independent accommodation and supported accommodation are essential to young people. Can we have an assurance that the general duty of a local authority to secure sufficient accommodation is applied equally to other arrangements along with foster care and residential placements? Will the Minister also ensure that national leaving-care accommodation standards are developed and introduced? The foyer movement has been very successful in doing this, as have most universities. In Lancashire, a project has been developed based around the university process for deciding
whether accommodation is suitable. It is not beyond our wit to do this, and will the Minister ensure that it is done in regulations?
In support of the general aim of the new clause, I ask that the Ofsted inspection process, where relevant children and former relevant children up to the age of 21 are accommodated, will have the information that was referred to, to ensure that when inspections are carried out it is possible to see whether the local authority is fulfilling its dutynot whether it transferred a young person to something that was suitable in the first instance, but whether that young person is still in suitable accommodation. That is essential if we are to ensure that every local authority achieves the standards of the best.
Finally, in reference to every local authority achieving the standards achieved by the best, some authorities are already providing access to an independent reviewing officer to relevant children leaving care. We all wish to see fewer children leaving care before the age of 18. We hope that the Bill will achieve that, but unless it is underpinned by access to a reviewing officer for relevant children by provisions in the Bill or in regulations that create a statutory duty and a right and entitlement for young people, we will find that young people in custody, or those who have moved into independent living where their accommodation has failed, will not get the effective support that they need. We will also find that young people who have moved back to family support or support of that nature, whose accommodation has failed or whose relationships have broken down, do not get the support they need to succeed. They must have access to an independent reviewing officer, so that they have someone speaking on their side, who has the knowledge and skills to do that, but who is part of the statutory framework, to ensure that those young people get the intervention they need to get a successful outcome.
Mrs. Humble: I would like to add my words of congratulation to my hon. Friend the Minister.
As someone who did not serve on the Public Bill Committee, I would like to explore the meaning of the new clause a little more. It is clearly welcome because it puts the focus on the needs of disabled children who are placed away from home, and on the importance of families continuing to have links with them. Reference was made to a visitor arriving within seven days. I would like to explore further the role of visitors and how they will communicate with the child and the family. Having met people who act as independent visitors in other circumstances, I found that most of them were qualified social workers. I wonder whether in this instance the individual will be a qualified social worker or will have some other form of expertise. I would like the person to have the ability to communicate with young people, who often find communication difficult. In the case of a young person with a severe disability, or other problems with communicating, it is vital that the visitor has the techniques and methods necessary to communicate so that they can listen to what the young person has to say and be a voice for that young person.
The thread of independent advocacy will run though my brief contribution. It is important that we remember that the role of the independent advocate is not the
same as that of a professional social worker, or a professional in some other realm. I am therefore interested in the way in which the role of the visitor fits into the scenario.
Will the visitor take on some of the responsibilities that I would expect of an independent advocate: acting as the voice of the child by communicating with the child; finding out whether young people are happy where they are and whether they want to raise any issues; bringing those matters to the attention of the appropriate bodies; and reporting back to the family? Or will the visitor look at the placement more from the point of view of a professional social worker, and examine whether a care planin some cases, a health care planis being properly followed? The young person and the family will need a clear idea of who the individual is and how that person fits in with other people with whom they may have been involved before the child is placed away from home.
There are too many cases of severely disabled children being placed a substantial distance from home and finding themselves unable to communicate properly with the people who care for them. They are miles away from the family, who often cannot afford to travel to visit, so the children are outside the protection of people who should be there to undertake it.
I hope that the new clause can properly reassure me and parents, and, above all, act in the best interests of the child. As framed, it seems to do that, but I would like more detail about the role of the visitor.
I have similar comments for my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, South (Helen Southworth) about amendment No. 18. She made important points about the role of the independent reviewing officer, who has a clear statutory function, which can be essential in the scenario that she outlined, whereby young people of 16 and over need support in accommodation and to consider their education and their future. However, those young people could also benefit from an independent advocate, who is not part of the statutory system. When the Minister responds to that amendment, I hope that she will also consider the wider network that young people may need at such a difficult time in their lives.
Although accommodation may be available for those young people, how much of it is suitable? In Blackpool, we have a lot of private rented accommodation, but not all of it is suitable for vulnerable young people without the support of professionals, who can offer advice and guidance and be at the end of the phone. Again, we could consider independent advocacy alongside the role of the professional to ensure that the voice of the child is properly heard.
I want to comment briefly on new clause 26, which my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) tabled. He began his contribution by referring to independent advocacy. I do not doubt that he is right that statutory access to independent advocacy is more than simply a complaints procedure because the Ministers predecessor and his officials told me the same thing. However, that does not apply in practice. The extent of independent advocacy varies around the country, as does the extent to which local authorities use it.
I have had several meetings with appropriate officers in Blackpool council to discuss that very issue. Earlier this year, they tightened their rules for contracting for
independent advocacy services, reducing the number of young people who had an entitlement to independent advocacy. Advocacy services of course have to be paid for, and it is important that we as legislators clarify the circumstances in which local authorities contract for such services, in order to ensure that as many young people as possible get the service that they require.
Mr. Kidney: That is why I thought it important that the Minister of State put on record in Committee the statement that she did and why I have repeated it today. I hope that it will help my hon. Friend to show those words to the officials in Blackpool and that they realise that they have to do better.
Mrs. Humble: I knew that my hon. Friend was right, but other people need to know that he is right and to hear the words of my right hon. Friend the Minister of State. I am currently in discussions with Blackpool council about producing a leaflet on the services that should be available for young people in care. I want included an explicit reference to independent advocacy, as well as guidance to young people about what that advocacy service should deliver for them.
My hon. Friend raises an important point about family and friends with his new clause 26. There cannot be a Member in the House who has not been approached by family membersespecially grandparents, but sometimes also the wider family, such as siblingswho have put themselves forward to look after a brother, sister or other member of the family. We have to remember, thinking back to the Children Act 1989, which was passed by a Conservative Government, that local authorities should be looking for good enough parenting. We are not asking for people to be super-duper marvellous parents; we are looking for parenting that is good enough.
More often than not, the grandparent or other member of the family, or a friend, can provide that good enough parenting. There are, of course, examples of where they do notsometimes the child is in care because of an entirely dysfunctional family, and that can include the wider family. However, local authorities should at least explore whether there is somebody in the immediate family network who can provide that good enough parenting and support for a young person.
I look forward to hearing my hon. Friend the Ministers comments about the amendments. The Bill is excellent as it stands and, in moving new clause 19, she has strengthened it hugely. The comments that we have heard from all parts of the Chamber were from individuals who care passionately about young people who are looked after in the care system. We want to ensure that by the time the Bill leaves this place, it is in its best possible form, to protect those vulnerable young people.
Joan Ryan (Enfield, North) (Lab): I join others in welcoming my hon. Friend the Minister to her new responsibilities. It is clear from the way in which she moved new clause 19 that she will not be lacking in commitment on these issues.
I spoke on Second Reading and want to refer back to that debate and to talk about new clause 28. The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) described it as a probing amendment. I listened
to her remarks in response to the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) and thought that they were well made.
I am sure that all hon. Members will remember a lobby by many foster carers on the day of that Second Reading debate. A number of foster carers from my constituency came to speak to me. Like me, they welcomed the Bill. I still hold that warm welcome for it and the measures within it, but it is right that we probe some of the issues.
I have been impressed by the contributions from hon. Members on both sides of the House who considered the Bill in Committee. It sounds as though it was thoroughgoing consideration, with a great deal of knowledge being brought to bear, and I am sorry that I was unable to be part of it.
On Second Reading, I raised issues about the staying put pilots and young people being able to remain in their foster placement beyond the age of 17. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State was very encouraging about those concerns, finding a more flexible way forward, including the Governments commitment to enable young people to remain in their placement and not have to move on at 17. All of us, I think, have had briefings on the fact that, apparently, the average age for young people to leave home these days is 24, although there are people with 30-year-olds still at home. However, that is clearly not the case for young people in care or in foster care.
We have been provided with statistics in various helpful briefings, and they are quite shocking. For example,
statistical returns suggest that no more than 280 young people are still living with their foster carers when they are nineteen...It is estimated that for 3,000 young people leaving care at 16 or 17, foster care is their final placement.
That cannot be a good way to help those young people to find the best way forward and fulfil their potential. I am pleased that the Government are committed to dealing with that, but I return to the issue that is raised in new clause 28.
It is important that we have good, solid statistical information that guides us in policy. I am sure that we will return to these issues in years to come if, as I understand they are, the Government are seeking in their guidance and through the pilots to extend young peoples ability to remain in their foster placement until the age of 21. As I said, the average age for leaving home is 24, so inevitably these issues will have to be looked at again as time moves on and as circumstances change.
If we are talking about young people staying in education and training until they are 18 and wanting to increase the number of young people in higher education, we want to do that as much for those in foster placements and in care as we do for all others. Statistical information is important in guiding policy, butthe hon. Gentleman made this point to the hon. Ladywe need to ensure that local authorities cannot hide behind the fact that there is not such information. This is a useful probing new clause, and I am sure that the Minister has some insights that she will share with us and that will reassure us on those matters.
I want to make another point that returns and is related to the issue of placement with family and friends, which has been raised by a number of hon. Members. I notice that a briefing refers to the 2005 Farmer and Moyers report to the Department for Education and Skills entitled Children Placed with Family and Friends: Placement Patterns and Outcomes. It tells us:
Evidence also suggests
that is a worrying phrase as it suggests to me that we do not have enough evidence
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