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General Committee Debates
Children and Young Persons

Children and Young Persons Bill [Lords]

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairmen: Mr. Greg Pope, † Hywel Williams
Brennan, Kevin (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families)
Brooke, Annette (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD)
Foster, Mr. Michael (Worcester) (Lab)
Hesford, Stephen (Wirral, West) (Lab)
Hughes, Beverley (Minister for Children, Young People and Families)
Kidney, Mr. David (Stafford) (Lab)
Kirkbride, Miss Julie (Bromsgrove) (Con)
Loughton, Tim (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con)
McCarthy, Kerry (Bristol, East) (Lab)
Russell, Christine (City of Chester) (Lab)
Southworth, Helen (Warrington, South) (Lab)
Timpson, Mr. Edward (Crewe and Nantwich) (Con)
Turner, Mr. Andrew (Isle of Wight) (Con)
Waltho, Lynda (Stourbridge) (Lab)
Watkinson, Angela (Upminster) (Con)
Williams, Mark (Ceredigion) (LD)
Chris Shaw, Mick Hillyard, Committee Clerks
† attended the Committee

Public Bill Committee

Thursday 26 June 2008

[Hywel Williams in the Chair]

Children and Young Persons Bill [Lords]

9 am
The Chairman: Hon. Members may remove their jackets—I will certainly be removing mine.

Clause 10

General duty of local authority to secure sufficient accommodation
Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): I beg to move amendment No. 10, in clause 10, page 9, line 10, after ‘of’, insert ‘appropriate’.
I shall take my jacket off while introducing my amendment, Mr. Williams. I welcome you to the Committee—your liberal strictures are greatly welcome. We made quite a lot of progress on Tuesday, some of which you witnessed in preparation for today.
We now come to clause 10 and a small probing amendment in my name and those of my hon. Friends. The Government inserted clause 10 in Committee in the Lords to place a duty on local authorities
“to take steps that secure, so far as reasonably practicable,”
accommodation that meets children’s needs within the local authority area. We have debated at length the desirability of children in the care system staying as close as possible to their home environment, friends and family.
Before the hon. Member for Stafford jumps up, let me say that my party very much welcomes the clause, which is good and positive. However, we would like to add to it a requirement that the accommodation be “appropriate”. We go back to the principle behind the phrase “have regard to”. It is slightly woolly to ask local authorities, with all the pressures that they face, merely to fulfil a minimum requirement to
“have regard to the benefit of having...a number of accommodation providers”.
The Under-Secretary might say that everything will be covered in regulations, and it would be good to have that clarity, but we do not have the regulations before us, so we can only speculate as to their contents. It would therefore be helpful to add “appropriate” to new section 22G(4) of the Children Act 1989, which is inserted by the clause.
As we have discussed, continuity and stability of accommodation are important to a child from a traumatic background. If a local authority merely has regard to the benefits of making sure that there are a number of bed and breakfasts available in its area, that will not provide the stability and quality of accommodation that many of these young people need, particularly if they have special needs. A case has been made that children with acute and complex needs require the most appropriate care placements, but the wording of the clause does not suggest that local authorities need to—although obviously they would like to—go beyond simply ensuring that accommodation providers are available in their area.
Helen Southworth (Warrington, South) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend—sorry, the hon. Gentleman, although he is always a friend—give way?
Tim Loughton: I will.
Helen Southworth: Calling the hon. Gentleman my hon. Friend demonstrates that I have a lot of sympathy for his argument, but I would draw his attention to subsection (2)(b), which I was extremely pleased to see included, because it uses the words
“meets the needs of those children.”
I hope that he will press the Minister on what that means and what local authorities need to do to fulfil that duty.
Tim Loughton: The hon. and very friendly Lady makes an appropriate point. It is useful to debate a probing amendment to the clause to tease out exactly what the Government mean, because the phrase
“meets the needs of those children”
can be taken in different ways. Accommodation that meets children’s need to have a basic roof over their head might not meet their need to have accommodation appropriate to their disabilities, for example. Alternatively, children might have a mental health problem or learning disability that would be sensitive to the people accommodated around them, whether inside or outside the care system where they are placed. There is a need to meet not only their need for basic accommodation, but their needs relating to how they are to live in that accommodation and with the people around them.
I should appreciate the Minister’s interpretation of how local authorities will be required to do more than just have regard to the existence of sufficient accommodation, but will have to make sure, as far as is practicable, that the accommodation is appropriate for the young person—that it meets their needs and is appropriate to them in terms of the environment where they are expected to live, both physically and mentally, and in terms of the people around them.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Kevin Brennan): Diolch yn fawr—thank you—Mr. Williams. [Interruption.] Despite the sighing of the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham—perhaps I could call him my hon. Friend, if not my right hon. Friend, which would be out of order—it is a pleasure to see you in the Chair this morning.
The Government inserted the clause in the other place to place on local authorities a general duty to take steps to secure, as far as is reasonably practicable, sufficient accommodation in their area that meets the needs of the children they look after. In doing that, they must have regard to the benefit of having a number of accommodation providers in their area sufficient to enable them to perform their duty. That means that local authorities will have to be able to justify the decisions that they make to provide the sufficient accommodation without commissioning any from third parties.
I understand the sentiments outlined by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham, which inform the amendment, but the amendment is unnecessary, because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, South hinted, the clause already makes it clear that any accommodation provided for looked-after children must be capable of meeting their various needs, and must by implication be, in the words of the amendment, “appropriate”.
Indeed, the existing regulatory framework sets clear requirements for accommodation if it is to be considered appropriate for looked-after children. All children’s homes and fostering services must be registered under the Care Standards Act 2000. They must comply with regulations and meet the national minimum standards. All children’s homes are inspected against those national minimum standards by Her Majesty’ chief inspector of education, children’s services and skills.
Fostering services are responsible for approving individual foster carers and ensuring that they provide an appropriate environment. Standard 6 of the fostering services national minimum standards requires fostering services to make available
“foster carers who provide a safe, healthy and nurturing environment.”
A robust system is already provided in that way to ensure that all accommodation for looked-after children is of an appropriate standard.
On the hon. Gentleman’s point about specialist need, we recognise that it will not always be reasonably practicable for every local authority to make provision in its area to meet every type of potential need; but for those particularly complex needs that require highly specialised care, we would expect local authorities to work together to commission the necessary provision on a regional or sub-regional basis. We have been supporting such collaboration through regional commissioning pilots. I am sure that later in our consideration of the Bill we shall discuss some of those complex needs and placements of children.
It is, however, important to note that we are not saying that we believe that complex needs cannot be met by placements in area. Indeed, in the development of the short break pathfinders, there are several good examples of innovative solutions to problems of providing accommodation, albeit on a short-term basis, for children with complex needs. We expect the learning from commissioning and developing those to be shared and disseminated to help local authorities to develop provision for all children, including those with complex needs, within their areas, so that more children can stay in their area, if it is appropriate. We are setting up a programme of peer support for local authorities and children’s trust partners so that they can learn from each other about effective commissioning practices. I understand that this is a probing amendment.
Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Williams. I want to ask one question before the Minister sits down. It relates not to severe disability needs, but to those authorities that place large numbers of children outside the authority because of a lack of places. Will there be a time scale by which authorities will be judged on providing accommodation within their boundaries for young people who do not have complex disability needs?
Kevin Brennan: When the Bill comes into force, the sufficiency duty in the clause will come into effect. We will expect all local authorities, as far as is reasonably practicable, to be able to meet all the needs of looked-after children in their area. As I outlined, we understand that in some cases it may not be possible to meet all the complex needs of looked-after children within area; in such cases we will expect local authorities to work on a regional or sub-regional basis to meet those needs, and we have been piloting such arrangements. As for the time scale, local authorities should be doing that when the Bill comes into force.
Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): Bore da, Mr. Williams. The Minister has referred to co-operation between local authorities. From time to time in London authorities and perhaps elsewhere in the country, young people leaving care are given council tenancies in another local authority area without the knowledge of that local authority. Such young people may not have the social or life skills to sustain an independent home successfully, and often they get into trouble with the police. It would be helpful if the local authority and perhaps the police in the area that they moved to were informed, so that problems could be headed off, rather than dealt with reactively after they arise.
Kevin Brennan: I commend the hon. Lady on her able demonstration of the language of heaven. She makes a very good point. When good practice is followed, the scenario that she describes should not arise. Some of the Bill, along with the broader “Care Matters” implementation agenda, is about trying to effect the sort of change in practice on the ground that she wants, but that cannot be achieved entirely through statute. There is good practice around the country in dealing with people who want to live independently at a young age. We are trying to limit young people doing so further by giving them other options through the Bill and the “Care Matters” agenda.
Some local authorities are using innovative practices to avoid the situation described by the hon. Lady. I saw a very good example in south Gloucester, where a trainer flat is used when a young person is considering moving out into the community. They are given a short three-week tenancy in a flat owned by the local authority to try out living on their own. To be frank, some young people then realise the difficulties of paying bills, having to live with neighbours and the sheer loneliness of having to cope alone. Some accept wiser counsel and decide it is right to stay with their foster carers or wherever they have been living, just as many young people in other families would do. The average age of young people leaving home is 24, not 16, 18 or 21. That is the sort of good practice that we want to encourage.
9.15 am
In the clause, our aim is to ensure that young people are not placed a long way from their support mechanisms, friends and peers, and normal educational establishment, and that there is a lever to put pressure on local authorities to provide appropriate accommodation within area wherever practically possible, as the amendment emphasises. On that basis, I ask that the amendment be withdrawn .
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Prepared 27 June 2008