Children and Young Persons Bill [Lords]

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Beverley Hughes: First, let me say how very much I welcome the responses from Opposition Members and their recognition that our intention is genuine. I am pleased that we can now move forward in the way that I outlined. I am also pleased that they acknowledged, as the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham intimated, the difficult tensions and dilemmas in maintaining effective immigration controls. No-one on this Committee is more acutely aware of those difficulties than I. It is important that our nation not attract organised traffickers shipping children across to England because it looks like being an easy place to stay for anyone who manages to get here. We must balance that with our desire to safeguard and protect children while they are here, although the majority will not end up with the right to remain here. Sometimes, that balance is genuinely difficult to strike.
We have moved forward. It is not that nothing has happened during the past four years. The BIA has a duty to protect children from harm and a code of practice has been developed to which the agency is now working, but as is often the case in politics, things have moved on, and it has become possible to take further steps because of a change in context. It is largely due to the effective way in which the Government have been able to reassure people about immigration control that we have a different context in which we can move forward and the immigration agency has moved forward. I am pleased that we have reached that point.
However, to answer another point raised by the hon. Gentleman, the right place to scrutinise the duty will be during consideration of the Bill that establishes and gives a legal constitution to a new UK-wide agency. The policy decisions about the constitutional form of the agency, what powers it will have and how those powers will relate to the powers that the Secretary of State will retain on immigration have not yet been finalised. The right place for hon. Members besides us to scrutinise the duty that we will introduce will be in the context of the Bill to set up the UKBA. However, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the duty will be equal and will establish parity in the obligations between the agencies that are now subject to the section 11 duty with a duty under the new legislation. In drafting the provision, colleagues and officials in the Home Office and my Department will, jointly, consult other organisations.
On the further delay and whether anything can be done in the mean time, which the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole asked about, it is important that we get the measure right. We are making a major commitment in establishing the UKBA, and as I have said, it is right to make this provision in the context of the Bill dealing with the UKBA and the relevant changes. However, we have the code of practice and the current duty and we want to ensure that we learn the lessons from the developments that they have already been brought about in terms of changing culture and practice in the agency dealing with immigration, and to build on those lessons as we move forward with the equivalent duty. Obviously, based on the commitment that I have given and in the context of current thinking, the setting up of the UKBA will take place in the knowledge that this statutory duty will be placed on it, and that will inform all the thinking and planning from this point onwards.
I hope that we can proceed in the way that I have outlined. I am not asking the hon. Members to disagree to the clause at this stage, but I will do so on Report.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 7 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 8

Well-being of children and young persons
Tim Loughton: I beg to move amendment No. 3, in clause 8, page 6, line 4, after ‘England’, insert
‘and persons over 16 years of age but under 22 years of age who have received services under section 23C to 24D of the 1989 Act in the past five years.’.
This amendment is tabled in my name and that of the hon. Member for Upminster, our indefatigable Whip, who, I failed to mention earlier, cannot be with us today as she is busy whipping somebody else somewhere else. She will be bringing her qualities and great knowledge of this subject to us shortly.
This is a probing amendment—it is difficult to get something that is not a probing amendment in respect of parts of certain clauses, but we are trying. It is designed to tease out more about the arrangements whereby the Government clearly recognise the ongoing responsibilities to children who have come out of the care system and to tighten up the terms of the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000, which was welcome, although too many of our children leaving care still have a tough time. I am sure that the hon. Member for Stafford, who does such an excellent job chairing the parliamentary group on children in and leaving care, will have some comments to make.
The statistics remain alarming. Nearly half of all the young people in the care system will leave it at 16 or 17, compared with an average “flying the nest” age for children living with their families of 23 or 24. Those children are leaving the shelter of the care system—albeit it is still inadequate and some of the outcomes are still woefully poor—at a sensitive, fragile period in their lives. At 16 or 17 they may be leaving school, going through important exams or, hopefully, going on to higher education or training of some sort. They may face the problems of leaving the support mechanism that the care system has provided for many of them and getting appropriate housing and accommodation, let alone moving on to a job. I know that the Government recognise that and that the thrust of the 2000 Act was to achieve greater support after children leave the care system.
The amendment is intended to place the duty for promoting the well-being of children on those who have been responsible for them in the care system during the previous five years. We need to achieve greater flexibility. There is a black and white situation in respect of children in care in the UK: they are either in care or with a family. I mentioned earlier the number of children who come into the care system on a shorter-term basis and return to their families, but many children in care are completely cut off from family background and family members.
About 18 months ago, I visited Denmark with colleagues; we also went to Helsinki. There is much greater flexibility in the systems there. While in Denmark, we visited an impressive care home outside Copenhagen. Proportionately, many more children in the care system there are in residential homes. Adoption is virtually non-existent—only 20 children had been adopted in the previous year in Denmark. Although the Danes use fostering, they make far more use of residential children’s homes.
The particularly impressive children’s home that we visited housed children ranging from under 10—I think the youngest was 7 or 8—right up to 22, which is an enormous range of ages. They were looked after by fantastic pedagogue social workers from whom, as was said on Second Reading, we in this country have a lot to learn. Those social workers develop a great empathy with the children and are seen as friends and confidantes as well as being the children’s guardians. The children there are not encapsulated in a children’s home and cut off from the outside world. Each week, there is a dinner evening to which relatives are invited—perhaps the birth parents or other members of the extended family—to spend as normal a meal time as possible with the child or other residents of the children’s home. The children may spend weekends back at home or with an extended family member. There is a degree of flexibility.
If a child has to be taken out of the home environment, that need not be the be-all and end-all—the beginning of a slippery slope to permanent care proceedings being taken and that child going into long-term fostering or, ultimately, a long-term adoptive placement. We need greater flexibility in our system, which is why the amendment acknowledges, in the spirit of what the Government are trying to achieve in the Bill, that there should be an ongoing duty to promote the well-being of children who been involved in the care system over several years.
Life, particularly for vulnerable children who have endured traumatic conditions, is not a nice, smooth journey. There can be problems at school or in training that result in their failing to get the exam results or training qualifications that they need, so that, all of a sudden, they are faced with an uncertain future and crisis. Another typical problem is the housing that they have been given goes pear-shaped for some reason. Somebody who might have appeared confident at 16 or 17 when leaving the formal care system all of a sudden returns to a rather more chaotic lifestyle and needs support. They need to be able to go back to the social worker who was their support when they were fully in the care system, or to somebody at the local authority, in the housing department or whatever, with whom they can deal on an understanding basis.
The statistics show that within two years of leaving care, of the 6,000 young people who leave care in a year, 3,000 will be unemployed—half of them will not have a job and will lack the stability that might put them back on the road to having some degree of permanency and sustainability in their lifestyle. No fewer than 2,100 will be mothers or pregnant. The propensity of girls leaving the care system either to be mothers already or to become pregnant is deeply alarming. When we simply cast those young girls off without some ongoing monitoring by a social worker or somebody from the local health service, a sexual advice clinic or other agency, we fail them, even though we know they are, for various reasons, far more susceptible to becoming teenage mothers. The Minister has rightly highlighted teenage pregnancies as a major problem: we still have the highest level of teenage pregnancies in western Europe. Of those 6,000 people leaving care each year, 1,200 will be homeless.
12.30 pm
I am sure that the Minister will say, “No worries, it is all catered for elsewhere in the Bill,” and I would be delighted to take her at her word, but I would like an assurance that that is the intention behind the legislation. One criticism of the Bill is that it is full of good intentions. It is certainly going in the right direction, but in some areas it lacks the force to produce the delivery, which, as the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole said earlier, is crucial. What matters is not how many clauses we pass, how many new structures we set up, or how many people with shiny new titles and nice smart lapel badges we create, but the effect that they will have on the children who desperately need their support. That is what the amendment is trying to achieve.
Annette Brooke: I have a great deal of sympathy with everything that the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham has just said. I am sure that all of us in this room have visited projects that have shown what can be done. I have had the privilege of visiting a “Make the Difference” project in Tower Hamlets. That was excellent for the young people who were participating, dropping in, meeting regularly, but it did not necessarily ensure that those who had dropped out at 16 would feel confident to drop back into the varying arrangements that are available for young people. This is an important issue. I am quite sure that there is good practice out there in particular local authorities, but the problem is how to spread that good practice and how to change the situation so that we do not end up with young people in custody, homeless and all the other very sad consequences that often befall looked-after children when, for one reason or another, they have left the care system. I would like to hear what the Minister has to say about whether there is more that we can do in legislation to give a bigger push to the spread of good practice.
Beverley Hughes: I am sure hon. Members are aware that the journey that we have been on over recent years, which culminated in the spirit within the children’s plan, has crystallised a process of developing a new way of working and looking at the needs of children and young people, putting them at the heart of everything that we are doing. What we want to do in the clause is to take the opportunity to reflect properly in statute the Secretary of State’s policy responsibilities for the well-being of all children in the country. Our intention in doing so is to demonstrate our long-term commitment to improving the lives of children and young people.
When we talked to children, young people and their parents during the children’s plan consultation, they made clear the positive value that they place on the experience of childhood as a whole. They talked about developing play, social and emotional skills and talent, for example, and how our young people can make an important contribution, as well as enhancing opportunities and building foundations for their success.
For many years the Secretary of State has carried out activities for the benefit of children and is already required by the Education Act 1996 to promote their education. The significant developments in policy over recent years under this Government, through the Children Act 2004, the Every Child Matters agenda and, more recently, the establishment of the new Department for Children, Schools and Families, mean that we want the Secretary of State to be able to look more closely at the needs of the whole child, and a wide range of matters affecting children’s lives, their health and their happiness. This is in addition to the educational needs that obviously remain very important.
Therefore, our commitment to children’s well-being recognises these changes to the Secretary of State’s priorities for children and is in line with similar duties on local authorities and, indeed, on schools too. It also reflects the Secretary of State’s general policy responsibilities in a manner that complements—I will explain this point in a moment—the operational responsibilities of local children’s services and brings a consistent focus on children’s outcomes at every level in the system.
We have considered carefully how this new provision will impact on care leavers. First, all relevant children who are 16 or 17 are children for the purposes of this provision and the Secretary of State will have the same duties to promote their well-being as he does to all other children. We also recognise that the Secretary of State’s responsibilities clearly extend beyond children to include some groups of particularly vulnerable young adults, such as former relevant children—that is, care leavers who are over 18. Therefore I think it is right that this clause includes explicit reference to this particular group, that the Secretary of State takes powers to make provision for them, and that this arrangement mirrors that of local authorities. We have actually modelled this clause on the parallel provision—that is, section 10 of the Children’s Act 2004—under which local authorities are required to co-operate with local partners to improve the well-being of children in their area. The same definition of well-being is used in this clause too, reflecting the five Every Child Matters outcomes.
In the same way as section 10 of the 2004 Act, this clause draws a distinction between the Secretary of State’s duties to all children and his powers to develop policies that promote well-being for particular groups of young adults. The way in which that was done in the 2004 Act, and the way we are replicating that now, is formally to recognise that the state’s relationship with a group of young adults is necessarily different from that which the state has with children who are wholly dependent and who have specifically little or no legal autonomy. It is clearly appropriate to use terminology in a sense that more closely reflects the partnership, in that context, that the state needs to develop with these young people—to ensure that services are provided in a way that supports their growing independence and recognises their right to exercise choice in whether to engage with these services or not.
I agree with all of the points that Opposition Members have made about the need to ensure at the local authority level that there is continuity for those young people who need it and I think—to answer the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham’s question specifically—the formulation of this clause and the power for young people over the age of 18, achieves the intention that he wants to see. It enables the Secretary of State to take action but it respects the transition that young people are making to adulthood.
It also reflects the current distinction that we have formulated for local authorities in section 10 of the current legislation and, indeed, in executing that power, we know that there has been a tremendous development in the extent to which local authorities now keep in touch with young people over the age of 18. In that group, 90 per cent of young people are in touch with local authorities, and the outcomes for them, whilst we are not yet satisfied with them, are clearly developing.
I hope that hon. Members would accept that, in formulating the clause in this way, we are reflecting what we have already decided in relation to local authorities. It is not in any way to reflect a lesser importance of these young people, but rather also to respect their position in life, moving into adulthood and reflecting the way in which we have framed the operational responsibilities of local authorities. With that, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw his amendment.
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