Previous Section Index Home Page

4.45 pm

As the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole noted, we are already seeking through clause 24 of this Bill to amend section 17(6) of the 1989 Act, which restricts the making of financial payments to “exceptional circumstances”. The amendment will give local authorities a wider discretion and enable them to provide financial support on a longer-term basis, where they are satisfied that doing so would safeguard and promote the child’s welfare.

Equally, however, we are concerned to ensure that local authorities do not have perverse incentives to rely on family and friends to avoid responsibility where a child’s needs are such that they should be met through the provision of care and accommodation. As hon. Members know, it is our policy that children should not cease to be looked after simply because they have been placed in the extended family. Clause 9 of the Bill addresses that issue.

However, we all agree that more must be done to increase the involvement of family and friends in caring for children who cannot live with their parents, and that one of the keys to achieving this goal is to improve the services and support for family and friends carers. That
8 Oct 2008 : Column 343
is why we have committed to developing a new framework for family and friends carers in order to address the current lack of local policy frameworks on this most important issue, the unacceptable variations in levels of support and services between authorities, and the need for transparency and equity in relation to services and support for these carers.

The framework will be issued as part of the revised Children Act 1989 statutory guidance, under section 7 of the Local Authority Social Services Act 1970. New clause 26 is intended to ensure that local authorities consider the needs of family and friends carers as well as the needs of the children whom they care for, which of course we support. However, we do not consider that the proposed amendment is a necessary or appropriate way to drive forward improvements, for the reasons I have given.

We now come to the three amendments—amendment No. 18, and new clauses 24 and 28—that relate to care leavers. In different ways, they are all intended to ensure that these young people get the support that they need. I shall deal first with amendment No. 18, which has to do with relevant children. In future, there will be a presumption that children will continue to be looked after up to the age of 18 and that there will rarely be good reasons for a local authority to cease looking after a child before he or she turns 18. Therefore, it is Government policy that relevant children will become a residual category of children. We shall set out explicitly in the new single set of care planning regulations that a local authority cannot move a looked-after child to independent living arrangements without first conducting a statutory review of the care plan and that, where such a move take places, it does not automatically result in the child leaving care. That is an entirely separate decision that must also be reviewed.

The role of the independent reviewing officer in each case will be to challenge local decisions to ensure that the social worker has made a proper assessment and that any decision promotes the welfare of the child. The IRO, for example, will want to be satisfied that the accommodation is genuinely suitable, and we will use statutory guidance to set out our expectation that the social worker and child should visit the proposed accommodation before the decision is made.

That will stop the current poor practice in local authorities that means that a child is placed in independent living arrangements without review and/or is automatically deemed to have left care at the same time. That poor practice is a misunderstanding of the current legislative framework. Clause 9 of the Bill, regulation-making powers and the revised Children Act statutory guidance, give us a review mechanism to correct that. So, in future, there may still be a small number of cases where a review of the young person’s case endorses the social worker’s assessment that that young person’s welfare would be promoted by the young person leaving care because he or she is ready and wants to take on the challenge of living more independently. In such cases, current legislation requires a pathway plan to be developed, following an assessment of need, and a personal adviser to be appointed to oversee the implementation of the plan before the child ceases to be looked after. The pathway plan must be reviewed at least once every six months, and more often if the personal adviser or child requests it.

8 Oct 2008 : Column 344

While we cannot accept amendment No. 18, as the independent reviewing officer has no statutory functions in relation to relevant children, we will set out in statutory guidance that the child should be offered an independent person to oversee the review. That could be their former IRO, or it could be an opportunity for the young person to conduct the review themselves with the support of an advocate—perhaps the independent advocate mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood. We will include in regulations a requirement that relevant children should be regularly visited where they are living by their personal adviser to enable identification—

Helen Southworth: My hon. Friend referred to a visit to be made to relevant children by their personal adviser. Will that person be a qualified social worker?

Sarah McCarthy-Fry: I mentioned earlier that we would consider suitability in relation to previous visits, and we will look at that issue when we consult on the guidance. I am sure that my hon. Friend will wish to contribute to that discussion.

When the personal adviser visits, they will be able to respond to any change in circumstance or need, including whether the accommodation remains appropriate. We will explore, with the help of stakeholders, how we could provide more definition of what constitutes “suitable” accommodation in the revised statutory guidance. I hope that the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole will accept my assurances on this point and withdraw her amendment.

New clause 24 specifically focuses on care leavers who have been looked after before they enter custody. These children are a very vulnerable group and we know that they can face many serious practical difficulties re-establishing themselves in their local communities when they are released from custody. In previous debates in this House and in the other place, we have set out how we intend to ensure that those children will get the support that they need, in exactly the same way as we will ensure that those in custody who are the subject of a care order and those in custody who are “relevant children” get the support they too need.

I am aware that, notwithstanding our assurances, doubts remain about the entitlements of children who were voluntarily accommodated and who ceased to be looked-after children once they were admitted to custody. I hope that what I will say on this subject today will allay those concerns once and for all. It is important to understand that the scheme of part 3 of the Children Act 1989 is that the duties of local authorities depend largely on the nature of the services provided. So the duties to children whose needs can be met while living with their families are different to the duties that the local authority owes to children for whom it provides accommodation, thereby to a greater or lesser extent assuming the role of the parent.

The particular duties around care planning, including arrangements for contact and to address the child’s health and educational needs, are all intimately related to the placement decision, and the Secretary of State’s powers to regulate the local authority's decisions in these respects are all part of those placement arrangements. This reflects the practical reality that once the local
8 Oct 2008 : Column 345
authority does not have the function of deciding where the child is to live, it has limited powers to make other arrangements for the child. Thus, in the case of a voluntarily accommodated child, the child ceases to be looked after as soon as the parents take the child home, a practical recognition of the fact that the local authority does not share parental responsibility for this group of children and that the local authority’s powers to be further involved in the child’s life are necessarily limited.

Once a voluntarily accommodated child goes into custody, it is the youth justice services that have statutory responsibilities to promote and safeguard the child’s welfare and to make appropriate provision to meet the child’s educational and health care needs while he is serving his sentence. However, we recognise that children’s social care needs do not cease when they enter custody. My hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, South (Helen Southworth) mentioned family contact. I shall get back to my hon. Friend, as I seem to have lost my notes on that point, but it is our intention to try to ensure that we have the maximum family contact. Many of the points she made were extremely valid.

Our youth crime action plan sets out our commitments to promote the positive development of young people in custody, to tackle underachievement in education, to promote family links and make sure that young people are prepared for their return to the community from the very start of their sentence. To improve the education and training of children in custody we have made it clear that we intend to legislate at the earliest opportunity to make local authorities responsible for securing the provision of education for all young people in custody, regardless of their background. That will help to ensure that young people’s education, so far as is practical, meets their needs and matches that of children and young people in mainstream education.

Tim Loughton: I am listening to what the hon. Lady says, but I should like more assurances to acknowledge that there are particular conditions when more intensive support provided by visiting social workers and other professionals is necessary, above and beyond what a prison or youth offender institute may be able to offer. That may involve judging the appropriateness of the youth offender institute or prison, which may not be the best place to cater for the special needs of a person coming out of care. They may have special educational needs or require various rehabilitation services. I understand what the hon. Lady is saying, but there is a specific role that the social worker and other people from the local authority could play if the status of looked-after child in care was kept while they were in custody.

Sarah McCarthy-Fry: The hon. Gentleman’s point is similar to the one raised by the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr. Timpson), who is no longer in the Chamber. His perception was that there was not a joined-up service and that there was a breakdown between the youth justice system and children’s services. We are determined to have effective co-ordination of services, with shared support, and we want to make sure that really happens. I shall come to how we shall do it a little later on.

The question we are addressing at the moment is the extent to which the local authority can contribute meaningfully while the child is serving their sentence
8 Oct 2008 : Column 346
and, more important, the best means of engaging children’s social services in effective planning with the youth offending team to ensure that the child’s needs are met on release, particularly where there are doubts about whether it will be possible or appropriate for the child to return to their family. I have already referred to the visiting duty in clause 16. We shall use the powers to prescribe the functions of the person making the visit, which will include assessing the child’s needs and liaising with the responsible youth offending team and youth custody services. The process will ensure that the local authority is aware of the resettlement services that the child will need, and of plans to ensure that the services are in place when the child is released from custody. We will make it clear through statutory guidance that the local authority must consider in particular the child’s needs for appropriate and suitable accommodation, and whether the child will need to be looked after again when they leave custody.

The approach we propose to the issues raised by the provision is proportionate and flexible. The local authority’s role in visiting former looked-after children in custody will be in addition to the role of the separate YOT worker responsible for planning how the child will serve the rest of their sentence in the community. The introduction of the visiting requirement puts in place an essential safeguard, so that former looked-after children in custody are not forgotten by the authority previously responsible for their care. During the period when they are in custody, even though they are not formally looked after, the authority will have to keep them in mind, maintain a relationship with them and contribute to planning for their future.

We are firmly determined to offer former looked-after children in custody the right kind of support to remove the cliff-edge approach to planning for their accommodation and support faced by some young people on release. I give the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham that assurance. I know he has already signalled his intention to push the provision to a vote, but I hope I may have—

Tim Loughton indicated dissent.

Sarah McCarthy-Fry: I tried.

The final amendment I shall speak to is new clause 28—I am sure Members will be relieved to know that there is light at the end of the tunnel. Many Members expressed concern about the age at which young people leave foster care. Our staying put pilots are designed to identify all the practical and financial barriers that inhibit care leavers from remaining with former foster carers, so that as far as possible care leavers have the opportunity to remain with their foster family. If, as we hope and expect, the pilots demonstrate improved outcomes for care leavers, we hope to take action in the next comprehensive spending review period, so that any care leavers who choose may have a reasonable expectation that they can remain in a family placement.

5 pm

We keep comprehensive data on all looked-after children up to age 18. We also have an established data set that is focused on the accommodation of care leavers at age 19 who had been looked-after at age 16. Those data sets are established statistical collections; local authorities
8 Oct 2008 : Column 347
already have systems in place to collect the information. We do not currently collect any information on the accommodation of care leavers at age 20. If the amendment were accepted, it would be necessary for every local authority to establish a completely new process to collect that information, which would represent a new, uncosted burden on every local authority at a time when my Department is reviewing the number of data collections.

I understand why there is a wish to collect data on the number of young people who remain with former foster carers, and it would be possible to analyse existing data sets to establish an indication of the number of 19-year-olds benefiting from that accommodation option. I can also confirm that we will give serious consideration to amending the categories in our existing statistics collection from 2010 to highlight placement with former foster carers as a separate accommodation option for care leavers at age 19, as it would undoubtedly be useful for each local authority to have information on the accommodation provided to all their care leavers, including information on the number remaining with former foster carers. I hope that hon. Members accept the difficulties that would be caused by introducing an uncosted new burden on local authorities by requiring them to contribute to an additional national data collection.

I have covered a great deal of ground. I hope that the hon. Members who tabled the amendments feel that I have responded to their concerns and that my arguments have persuaded them not to press them to a vote.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

New Clause 7

Registration scheme in England and Wales

‘(1) The Children Act 2004 (c.31) is amended as follows.

(2) In section 45(1) (power to establish registration scheme in England) for “may” substitute “shall within one year of the Children and Young Persons Act 2008 being passed”.

(3) In section 46(1) (power to establish registration scheme in Wales) for “may” substitute “shall within one year of the Children and Young Persons Act 2008 being passed”.

(4) Omit section 47 (expiry of powers in sections 45 and 46).’.— [Tim Loughton.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Tim Loughton: I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: New clause 13— Registration of foster carers with the General Social Care Council—

‘In section 55(2) of the Care Standards Act 2000 (c. 14) after subsection (2)(d) insert “or

(e) is a foster parent”’.

New clause 23— Foster charters—

‘Local authorities must publish a charter for foster carers—

(1) to establish the authority’s responsibilities with regard to the foster carers within its authority;

(2) to have special regard to the needs of kinship carers.’.

Tim Loughton: The last group took only just over three hours; let us see whether we can do a bit better on
8 Oct 2008 : Column 348
this group. We have also been through three Deputy Speakers. I am sure that you will be more resilient, Madam Deputy Speaker.

New clause 7 brings a severe sense of déj vu. I am sure that all hon. Members who have been involved in the Committee on the Bill, and in previous Committees dealing with children’s affairs, will agree. We debated in Committee the measure to promote a scheme for the registration of private foster carers. We tabled amendments that would have struck out what was then clause 15, which extended the time limit in section 47 of the Children Act 2004, which would have brought in a private fostering registration scheme four years after that Act came into force—in November this year, I believe. Through the Bill, the Government are extending by a further three years the sunset clause that accompanied the enabling provision. As a result, we may not see a scheme for the registration of private foster carers introduced until 2011—seven years after the coming into force of the 2004 Act.

New clause 7 would amend sections 45 to 47 of the Children Act 2004 to allow a scheme for the registration of private foster carers to be brought in forthwith, so that we do not have to wait yet more years for the Government to enable it to be introduced. Many Members from Opposition parties, including me—and indeed some Government Members—are genuinely confused by the Government’s continued dithering over bringing in a scheme that has been called for by many organisations and professionals involved with child protection issues.

I should like to echo comments that I made in Committee, and the countless speeches that various hon. Members, some present today, have made over the past few years on the need for a private fostering registration scheme. I refer the House to the 1997 Utting report “People Like Us”, which recommended a private fostering registration scheme. I refer hon. Members to the work of the UK Joint Working Party on Foster Care in 1999, which revealed the high potential for abuse and neglect and urged regulation of private fostering in a public awareness campaign. I refer hon. Members to the Laming report that was produced in the wake of the Victoria Climbié tragedy; it recommended a review of the private fostering system. I refer hon. Members to my own modest ten-minute Bill, introduced on 19 March 2003, which contained three provisions, one of which would have instituted a private fostering registration scheme.

There were also cross-party attempts to bring in the scheme straight away under what was then the Children Bill in 2004. The proposal was supported—and voted for, no less—by the then Labour Member for Lancaster and Wyre, Hilton Dawson, who was well versed in the issues. It is therefore inexplicable to many of us why the Government have avoided supporting a measure on which there is broad consensus; people involved in children’s issues, adoption and fostering have for some time said that it is highly necessary. We are confounded as to why the Government have still not gone through with it.

Next Section Index Home Page