Children and Young Persons Bill [Lords]

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Annette Brooke: I, too, congratulate the Government on clause 10, which is the result of excellent work in the House of Lords. I refer to it as “evolution”, which is sometimes a good way to reach the point that one wants to reach.
I am pleased to speak after the hon. Member for Stafford because he expressed the post-care concerns so well. All sorts of things may come along whereby a young person just needs to touch base as much as anything, so the provision is needed to get that extra advice. Sometimes, a small amount of support is needed, but, without it, somebody can start on a downhill path, which would be unfortunate if we were getting all the other building blocks in place. We want to ensure continuity.
I agree with the comments made by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham. I am uncertain about the wording of his new clause, but I think that the points he is making are valid. I have received representations from other parts of the country—the north, in fact—about local children’s services not being informed when children are placed in their area. We return again to the point that that may be in the guidance, but there is so much evidence of it not happening in certain circumstances that it and the guidance perhaps need to be looked at.
I am also concerned about placing young people a long way from home in residential children’s homes, if, unfortunately, there may be an element of antisocial or minor criminal behaviour—perhaps because the children are labelled and get judged more harshly. One way or another, a proportion of children end up in the local youth justice system. Multidisciplinary working between the youth offending team, where the children are placed and the local authority that has placed them is important. A lot more needs to be put in place to ensure that that is happening.
Finally, I return to the point of my intervention, which I obviously did not express well. My concern is about not the legislation kicking in for children with severe disability needs, but the fact that boroughs with little provision—few foster carers and no residential care—that place children outside their area could just go on saying, “We haven’t got the foster carers or the places. We haven’t even got them in the next borough along.”
I cannot see what will trigger the search for foster places nearer home, because boroughs that are not wholeheartedly signed up to the current agenda could hide behind the term “reasonably practicable”. I realise that that is the only phrase that can go in the Bill, but I was looking for the Minister to say that there would be guidance and that we would not prolong a situation in which large numbers of children are placed outside their local authority area. It is not that these children have specialised needs, but that the authorities that send them away are not doing enough to provide local accommodation.
Helen Southworth: I echo the comments of my hon. Friends and other hon. Members by saying that it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Williams.
I welcome the clause, which represents a radical change for children who are looked after by local authorities. I particularly echo the concerns about authorities placing children out of area. Warrington has a large number of young people placed from out of area, so I have considerable experience of young people who do not have access to the support that they need. Another issue is that local authorities that place looked-after children are unable to get the information that they need about the relevant networks and what is happening in and around care homes.
I have several points to put to the Minister. He will not be surprised to hear that, as the chairman of the all-party group on children who run away or go missing, I have received representations from a large number of children who have discussed their experiences. There is no question but that there is a significant need for local authorities across the country to provide emergency accommodation in their areas. How will the general duty on local authorities to secure sufficient accommodation address that need? I ask that particularly in light of the review on access to emergency accommodation, which he and his Department have established for this year.
The Minister will recall the “Stepping Up” report by the Children’s Society, which specifically addressed the issue through extensive consultation with local authorities. Of the 69 authorities that replied to the request for information on emergency accommodation, only 20 indicated that such accommodation was available for young runaways in their area. Of those 20, none felt that provision fully met the need in their area, while six felt that it mostly met local need and three that it partly met it. That is a fairly radical gap that needs to be addressed rapidly if local authorities are to meet the duty in the Bill.
I should remind the Minister that that duty will be valuable not only for those young people who run away from something that is a danger to them and who need somewhere safe to go because they cannot be returned home, but for the small number of looked-after children who need a breathing space because their needs or issues with the local authority placement must be addressed before they are given more long-term accommodation. Will the Minister also tell us how emergency accommodation meets the needs of children and young people who seek a safe haven from sexual exploitation or trafficking? How will local authorities address those needs under clause 10?
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I add my voice to that of my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford on the need for young people to have suitable accommodation on leaving care. Many of those young people are under 18 and will be given direct consideration under the clause. I refer the Minister back to clause 9, which inserts new section 22C into the Children Act 1989. Under section 22C(6)(d), in addition to placement in foster care and local authority children’s homes, a placement means
“subject to section 22D, placement in accordance with other arrangements which comply with any regulations made for the purpose of this section.”
Under clause 10, will local authorities have a duty to provide accommodation under section 22C(6)(d); and, if so, will that accommodation come under the requirements of new section 22G(2), inserted by clause 10, that it should be in the local authority’s area and meets the needs of the children?
Will the Minister discuss the issues relating to location of accommodation? A problem raised time and again by young people who have run away from local authority care, local authorities and police officers is that a local authority has placed them in accommodation in close proximity to known problems, such as drugs or sexual exploitation. Sometimes, children are placed in close proximity to a registered sex offender.
If I can beg your favour, Mr. Williams, perhaps I can draw your attention to new clause 36, which covers some of the questions that have been raised by other hon. Members. We hope that it will be selected for consideration later in Committee proceedings.
Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Williams. I would like to make several points about new clause 19. First, the distances between the foster home, the local authority and the family home should be taken into account. If the child has been plucked out of an adverse situation or, worse still, if legal action has been taken to safeguard the welfare of the child, a placement close to home may not be ideal. Conversely, where quick reassimilation into the family home is desirable, the child should not be placed too far away.
For many local authorities in London, placing children within the capital is not always ideal or possible. As a result, many children are placed in other counties. When that happens, it is much more difficult for a local authority to maintain the level of communication and support needed to help families through such a challenging process. We must also be aware that children’s behaviour can be different—I am not saying that it is good or bad—if they are moved to rural or coastal parts of the country from the centre of London. Finding the right placement is a hands-on job that requires the full attention of those in the local authority. If the child is moved too far away, they may simply fall under the radar, with detrimental consequences.
Since there are no geographical limits on where children are placed or where homes are set up, the chance of one street containing several homes owned by different individuals or local authorities is increased. That is not desirable and could spell trouble, as children in care are often damaged or vulnerable in some way. Pooling large groups of such children is not conducive to their emotional or social development. It might even exacerbate problems that should be in the process of being rectified.
Lynda Waltho (Stourbridge) (Lab): I echo the comments of hon. Members in welcoming you to the Chair, Mr. Williams, for this most important Committee on a Bill that, once enacted, will transform the outcomes of looked-after children for many years to come.
The new clause deals with accommodation—a matter on which a great stride is needed. As we know, many young people in care have experienced great disruption in their lives. I am particularly concerned about children leaving care and those up to the age of 21. Often they have experienced such disruption that everything breaking down at the point when they move on can sometimes mean the end. It can determine their future and their transition to successful adult life.
In a memorandum to the Children, Schools and Families Committee, on which I serve, Dr. Roger Morgan, OBE, the children’s rights director, drew our attention to the views of young care leavers who had had various care experiences. They described having to wait in bed and breakfast accommodation for months before any flat or suitable accommodation became available, but many of them—almost 300 young people were interviewed—were worried that their accommodation after leaving care was unsafe. They did not feel safe or secure when they were there.
It is telling that many of them had been put into accommodation shared with people whom they would never have been encouraged to be with while they were in care. That seems ridiculous. Some were given flats that were completely unsuitable or even dangerous. The majority felt that insufficient time and regard were given to their future welfare and that they had almost been disposed of—moved on and regarded as no longer a problem. One young person said that she had been living in a hostel with “a load of fellas” and drug addicts, and a group of three young women reported that when they left care, they were placed in a hostel well known for prostitution.
The Bill is important, and the clause is an important part of it. However, if we are not careful, we will miss a trick in extending safe and secure accommodation to such young people. Risking their success risks their safety. The protections that we want for young people must be extended to the older age group. That is why I support the comments made by both my hon. Friends. I hope that the Minister will take my considerations on board.
Kevin Brennan: We have had a good debate on clause stand part and on the new clause. It emphasises the fact that, as hon. Members have said, the Government are introducing an important new duty in clause 10.
Clause 10 places a general duty on the local authority to take steps to ensure that, as far as is reasonably practicable, there is sufficient accommodation in its area to meet the needs of the children it looks after. That is a reflection of our ambition to enhance the range and choice of suitable and quality placements for looked-after children, and goes hand in hand with our commitment to ensuring that more children are provided with accommodation in their local area, and are placed in a different area only if the reason for their being placed in a different area is to meet their particular needs. To take the point of the hon. Member for Isle of Wight, in fulfilling this duty, local authorities do not need to take into account those children for whom an in-area placement would be inconsistent with their welfare.
By requiring local authorities to consider the benefits of having a number of accommodation providers as well, the clause makes it clear that they cannot fulfil this duty simply by presuming that they can provide sufficient accommodation entirely by themselves. In addition, the clause highlights the need to have a range of accommodation that it is sufficient to meet the different needs of children who, as we know, have very diverse needs.
The new clause does say, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, West appropriately, astutely and typically pointed out, that
“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.”
As my hon. Friend pointed out, the drafting may be a little vague for the purposes of legislation, but I understand the intention behind the new clause and the hon. Gentleman’s purpose in proposing it.
I will return in a moment to the point about care leavers aged between 18 and 21 made by the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole and my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford. The aim of the amendments made by the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000 is to ensure that all care leavers between the ages of 18 and 21 have a personal adviser to provide ongoing advice and support, and the Bill extends that personal adviser beyond the age of 21, for as long as a young person continues in education or training started before the age of 25.
The personal adviser will work with the young person to develop a pathway plan which sets out the young person’s needs, including for accommodation and any assistance that they require with that. Importantly, the focus of the pathway plan and any local authority assistance is to enable and support the young person as an adult to arrange and secure their accommodation, rather than just to do it on the young person’s behalf.
We recognise that there is a lot more to do in relation to care leavers over the age of 18. As hon. Members will be aware, we recently announced—last week, in fact, with my hon. Friend chairing the meeting of the lobby by the foster carers alliance—the 10 local authorities that we have selected to pilot the “Staying Put” 18-plus family placement programme. The programme is designed to enable young people to remain with their former foster carers when they are adults, so that they can leave home in a way more typical of other young people, whose average age when they leave home is around 24, rather than 16, 18 or even 21. If the pilot demonstrates improved outcomes for care leavers, as we expect and hope it will, we are planning to take action in the next comprehensive spending review period to ensure that any care leavers who make that choice can reasonably expect to remain in a family placement beyond the age of 18.
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In addition to the “Staying Put” pilots, we are taking forward a range of proposals from the White Paper to improve support for the transition into adulthood. For example, those who have been in care and who go into higher education will be eligible for a personal adviser and a bursary of a minimum of £2,000, in acknowledgment of the fact that care leavers face greater financial difficulties than others.
Too many young people are pushed into independent living too early and without proper support. The “Care Matters” White Paper included a comprehensive set of commitments to improve the quality of care provided to looked-after children and care leavers. The Bill already contains a provision to ensure that local authorities can move looked-after children from foster care or children’s homes into unregulated places such as supported lodgings, which hon. Members have mentioned, only after a full review of the care plan. That will involve determining whether the child understands the implications of any suggested move and whether they will be provided with the support that they need.
We expect the legislation to reduce the numbers of looked-after children leaving care at 16 or 17, and that is desirable. It is therefore not sensible to require local authorities to develop long-term strategies to build up a stock of accommodation for what we expect to be a diminishing group of young people.
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Prepared 27 June 2008