Children and Young Persons Bill [Lords]

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Tim Loughton: I am grateful to the Minister for that explanation and also delighted to welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster, who has also made a mark with her expertise on the subject. She might want to elaborate on her point when we debate new clause 19, which we are about to do, as it is also germane to that proposal.
The Minister has helpfully given reasons why he thinks the amendment unnecessary, but perhaps it might find its way into the welfare checklist that the Minister for Children, Young People and Families graciously suggested might form the basis of the guidance that will be issued with the Bill to elaborate on what is meant by “appropriate accommodation”.
There is one point on which we do not want to be too constrictive, and it applies particularly to London and large metropolitan boroughs. There is clearly a strong practical case for keeping children close to their home environment in large rural counties, but there might be a case for transgressing the borders of London boroughs simply because of the lack of specialist accommodation available. A number of London boroughs have no children’s homes of their own, so rather than specifying rigidly that accommodation must be within a borough’s physical boundaries, it would be sensible to have the capacity for joint commissioning across London boroughs to provide a specialist accommodation provider or to commission from a private, independent specialist provider. I am sure that the Minister does not intend the Bill to be so constraining, but it is important to keep the child closer to the home and a familiar environment wherever possible.
The Minister gave examples of step-down accommodation and trainer flats, and further examples of that flexible good practice should be greatly encouraged. As with the Childcare Act 2006, which the Minister for Children, Young People and Families and I debated in Committee, it is the local authority’s duty to ensure that there are sufficient suitable child care places in its area. Quality is also a factor, as the local authority must ensure that child care places are of sufficient quality, just as it must do with regard to the quality of appropriate accommodation in this context.
The Minister has given helpful clarification and, on that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 19—Appropriate placement
‘When deciding the appropriate placement for a child in a children’s home the local authority must have regard to the proximity of other similar premises.’.
Tim Loughton: I shall kick off the debate by speaking to new clause 19 and then we can have a stand part debate. The hon. Member for Stafford will probably pick me up on a few things, as is his wont.
Typically, there tends to be some cheap accommodation available in those towns and, as has happened in Worthing, an independent provider will take over a residential house. If such a house has six or fewer residents in it, it does not require planning permission for change of use. So, we are seeing a big increase in the number of small independent children’s homes in places such as Worthing, Thanet and Fylde. If the place is suitable for the children and there are no knock-on effects of what I call clustering, that increase need not be a bad thing. In my constituency, however, unsuitability and clustering have had a negative effect.
I visited a children’s home, just outside Worthing, in an old farmhouse, which the estate had rented out to an independent children’s home company. It was looking after children from Somerset and London, and I think there was somebody from Newcastle. Children, most of them from an urban environment, were bunged down into a remote farmhouse in the middle of the Sussex countryside. A bunch of farmers came to see me to say that there had been a spate of crime and vandalism in the area, which was being attributed to some of the children from the home. When I visited the home it had been smashed up; there were lots of boarded-up windows and farm equipment had been damaged. At that time—things have since greatly improved, and the Commission for Social Care Inspection and others have inspected—the place was not properly monitored, and there was a serious question mark over the qualifications and calibre of some of the staff put in to deal with those children with particular difficulties. The children wanted an urban environment and found themselves stuck out in the country with no bus service. More sensitive placement consideration might have avoided that problem.
The following year, the chief inspector of police in Worthing approached me to say that 27 per cent. of crimes in the previous month had been attributed to a handful of young people who resided in children’s homes in Worthing. I do not in any way want to tar all children in care with the propensity to get into trouble—that is clearly not the case—but where they are not properly looked after there is greater propensity for them to get into trouble and fall foul of the law.
A lot of children’s homes of six or fewer children were springing up close to each other in residential areas, and there was a lot of mixing between the children in those homes, which was causing a problem. Again, it is down to ensuring that placements are appropriate and that the placed child is properly monitored by the social worker responsible within the placing authority. We shall come to some amendments on that. It is also down to ensuring that the homes are run properly, and that depends on inspection and quality of care.
In Worthing, there was an enormous backlash from local councillors and residents, who got up petitions and demonstrated against yet more such homes appearing in our town, particularly in a limited residential area. That produced an unfortunate backlash against children in the care system, who were perceived as having been dumped in Worthing and not properly looked after.
My hon. Friend the Member for Upminster mentioned placing authorities. I think that I mentioned on Tuesday that the head of children’s services in West Sussex says that 42 children from West Sussex have been placed in the care system outside the county, most in specialist placements. However, she estimates that we have at least 700 children from outside West Sussex in the county. The authority should be notified of such placements, but often it is not. We have tabled amendments to tighten up that procedure.
A delegation from Worthing went to see the then Minister, Lord Warner, about issuing stronger guidance to ensure that placing authorities properly notified the receiving authority that they had a child residing in their area who was the responsibility of another authority. That is clearly still not happening, because authorities can only estimate the number of such children, let alone know of any particular requirements and needs that they might have.
New clause 19 would provide that an authority, when placing a child in a residential home, could not just say, “Here’s a place.” It would have to have some regard to—the language could be even tougher—the fact that that home might be in an area where there were lots of other homes, and that that clustering might have a negative effect. A placing authority would have to have a proper discussion with the host authority, and the authority or council area could say, “Look, this is excessive for that particular area.”
At the moment, things are completely un-joined up. In places such as Thanet, Worthing and Fylde—and in many other local authorities around the country, I am sure—that is a problem. It is not in the best interests of the local communities to have to pick up the problems, or of the local police, who must deal with problems if they become a justice matter, or of the local social services, which must pick up the problems even though they are not responsible. Most importantly, it is not fair to the children and young people themselves, who are often placed in inappropriate accommodation far away from home but in proximity to other people in similar accommodation with whom it is not appropriate for them to mix in certain circumstances.
Stephen Hesford (Wirral, West) (Lab): The new clause might have the opposite effect. Has the hon. Gentleman not considered the fact that the language he has used might say, in the minds of some, “Actually, it’s a good idea to have them all in the same area; it keeps them all together.”? It might have the wrong result.
Tim Loughton: That is an interesting observation from the hon. Gentleman. That is certainly not the intention, and this discussion will send out a strong signal that it is not. All practical experience of such authorities shows that that is the last thing they want. They want a message that they have some power or leverage to say, “Hold on, we don’t think that’s appropriate here.”
At the moment, authorities cannot reject a home for six or fewer people on planning grounds unless there is some enormous change within the home. In terms of change of use, an application for planning permission is not required—people can just get on with it within the strictures of the inspection regime. I take the hon. Gentleman’s point technically, but from our deliberations the opposite must be true.
I do not like using the terminology “have regard to”, but as the Minister is always reassuring us that it is perfectly adequate, perhaps he will be more amenable, considering the wording of the new clause, to placing it in the Bill so that local authorities have some clout in resisting what has turned out to be a major problem for Worthing and other authorities.
Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): It is a great pleasure to serve on a Committee chaired by you, Mr. Williams. In plain English, I like your knowledgeable yet relaxed style of chairing proceedings.
The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham was absolutely right when he said at the beginning of today’s proceedings that, in relation to clause 10, the Government yet again deserve great credit for an excellent piece of new law. I give them a gold badge for that one, because accommodation is a key area of concern to everybody with an interest in the welfare of children in the care system.
As hon. Members know, I chair the associate parliamentary group for looked-after children and care leavers. I have been attending meetings for 11 years now and have chaired the group for about two and a half years. We have debated many times the shortcomings in local authorities’ ability to accommodate children in ways that are good for those children.
I shall give an example from as recently as March this year. We had a discussion about accommodation and, sadly, we still heard story after story of what went wrong. One story that sticks in my mind is that of two young care leavers in my audience. They were brothers who had been taken into care by the local authority at different times and ended up living in different placements. When their time in care came to an end, each was treated differently. The first one to leave care was found accommodation with friends; he knew them well and was comfortable and happy there. He settled in well and got a job, and there was a good support system around him.
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That young man’s brother was placed in a shared flat with someone who was well-known in the locality as a top drug dealer. That boy—he was still under 18—was put under immense pressure to take drugs, to sell drugs, to run and to fetch money for the drugs. In the end, he chose absolute homelessness rather than stay there. No one checked the accommodation before he went there and no one listened to his concerns when he was placed there. In the end, he had to make a stark choice and he chose homelessness, rather than being dragged into the drugs trade. Clause 10 tells us that local authorities must “have regard to” meeting the needs of children and have a suitable range of accommodation available for young people. That is most acceptable.
The explanation given for new clause 19 by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham reminded me that the starting point for the debate, on this clause and many others, is the immense range of quality services offered by local authorities. We have heard some superb examples—we hear of them also at meetings of the parliamentary group—of local authorities doing their utmost to keep families together.
If that is not possible, local authorities try to ensure that young children in care are placed somewhere that allows them some community ties—as close to home as they can manage—which perhaps allows them to keep in touch with grandparents, other family members and friends, and even to try to keep the same school, health services and so on, so that if the opportunity arises to rehabilitate those children back to the family early, the support systems are all still in place.
If that is not possible and children have to spend their time in care until it is time to leave—when they become adults—they still have connections with some people so that they can return to a community that still has some support for them.
At the other end of the scale, authorities such as the one alluded to by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham seem to be too easily persuaded to place children out of area and a long way from home. That breaks those community ties and, because of the distance involved, the chance of blood relatives thinking that the children might be rehabilitated. It also leaves youngsters cut off from everything they know, everything they are familiar with and the few supports that they have. No wonder we hear stories of youngsters going off the rails and misbehaving in those areas—they have been cut off from all support. That is bad practice, and the clause brilliantly puts local authorities under a duty to consider keeping children in area if they can. That will be important in driving up standards.
A couple of amendments to clause 10 that were not selected for debate, one of which was mine, would have drawn Ministers’ attention to those young people who have come to the end of their time in care because they are no longer children. Under the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000, the local authority will still have some obligation to have regard to their well-being afterwards. I hope the Minister says that local authorities will still be obliged to ensure that looked-after children who have left care are in suitable accommodation.
I shall tell of a recent conversation showing how important proper accommodation can be. Many Members who spoke on Second Reading mentioned the lobbying that day by the Fostering Network, and many foster carers were in Westminster. I spoke to a woman who had brought up a girl as a foster child for many years and who came to love her as a daughter. Despite all the obstacles that the care system put in her way, the girl flew through her GCSEs and A-levels, and finally got to university.
The foster mother was proud of all that the two of them had been through together, so many obstacles having been overcome to get to that position. She then learned that although the girl had accommodation on campus during term times, when she was not at university she was on her own—without accommodation and with no help. The foster mother was so outraged that she gave up being a foster carer and the income that it brought in, converted the girl’s flat into lodgings and rented it to her at whatever state benefit she was able to get to help to pay for it, so that the girl could use it during the breaks.
That went well beyond the call of duty on the woman’s part, and it was done because of the bond of love that had grown between the two of them. However, such events should not be happenstance. We know how few looked-after children get to university; it should not be down to one individual’s bravery and kindness for that child to continue there. That is a good example of accommodation going wrong for youngsters.
Because of my post as chairman of the all-party group, I hold myself out as willing to visit local authority services and meet users. I went to north Staffordshire—the county that I am from—to meet some recent care leavers. True enough, they were all still in touch with the leaving care team, and so were getting contacts, advice and so on. However, several of them told me that they were in a flat, getting housing benefit to pay the rent and did not have a job.
When three of those people had told me the same story about not having a job, I said, “Don’t you think that in this day and age you are in a bit of a dead-end position? You are in a flat, your rent is paid for you, but you have no job and you are not getting any skills. Wouldn’t you rather get skills at a further education college, get a job and make your own way in the world?” Each of them said, “My adviser advised me that the safest thing for me was to stay unemployed and have my rent paid.” That is the local authority that is looking after them advising them to do the opposite to what any of us would want for our children—certainly what I would want for my children—and what the Government want for our country.
There are poor services for people aged over 18 for whom we still have a responsibility. The clause deals with massive improvements in the situation of looked-after children in respect of accommodation. Will it apply to children who have left care but for whom we still have a responsibility, albeit perhaps not the full legal responsibility of looking after children? Nevertheless, that responsibility continues from their time in care.
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