Children and Young Persons Bill [Lords]

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Helen Southworth: Will my hon. Friend specifically address the issue of whether new section 22C(6)(d) will be included under clause 10? If it is in the Bill, it should be included; if it is not necessary for it to be in the Bill, I would perhaps accept that it should not be.
Kevin Brennan: Yes, I was coming to that, but as my hon. Friend has given me the opportunity to mention it now, let me say that clause 10 will include the arrangements in new section 22C(6)(d). I hope that helps my hon. Friend.
Helen Southworth: Will there be a Government amendment to write that into the Bill?
Kevin Brennan: My understanding is that clause 10 does include new section 22(6)(d) without the need for us to make a further amendment, but I will return to that if I am wrong. Perhaps I can clarify the point later in my remarks if inspiration reaches me. [Interruption.] Indeed, it might well be on its way right now. Yes, proposed new section 22C(6)(d) is included in clause 10, but perhaps I can clarify the issue further for my hon. Friend later if I need to. On her other point, provision will have to be in area, where reasonably practicable.
The whole point of clause 10 is to give local authorities responsibility for providing sufficient placements in area, where that is reasonably practicable. Our aims is to ensure that the days of dumping—as the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham put it— looked-after children out of area are over. The Government want not only to send out the message that such practices are unacceptable, but to legislate to make it clear that it is the responsibility of local authorities to provide sufficient accommodation in area, where reasonably practicable.
The phrase “reasonably practicable” is not a get-out clause in any way, shape or form, and it obviously refers to some of the points that have been made relating to London, provision across boundaries and the need to take a sensible approach. As for the idea that it is acceptable to dump large numbers of looked-after children out of area, it is clear that the clause consigns that approach to history. I am sure that that will be welcomed throughout the Committee.
Mr. Turner: I refer—I hope this is the right provision—to proposed new section 22C of the 1989 Act, headed “Ways in which looked after children are to be accommodated and maintained”. Subsection (6)(d) specifies
“subject to section 22D, placement in accordance with other arrangements which comply with any regulations made for the purposes of this section.”
At what age does that cease to apply?
Kevin Brennan: I will refer to the hon. Gentleman’s remarks later, rather than attempting to answer now, just in case I get it wrong, although I think I know the answer to his question.
New clause 19 would require local authorities, in considering whether to place a child in a particular children’s home, to take account of the location of other children’s homes in that area. I understand the point that the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham makes, and his concern. He has obviously come across some pretty bad practice in his constituency experience and is concerned about the negative impact that the clustering of children’s homes could have with respect to antisocial behaviour or criminal activity.
We recognise that, statistically, children in care are more likely than other children or young people to be subject to a final reprimand or warning or to be convicted of a crime, largely because they experience many of the same risk factors as young offenders, including abuse and neglect, instability in their lives, poor educational outcomes, poor parenting and higher rates of mental health problems than the wider population.
However, it is important to remember and to emphasise—we should always do so when we are talking about young people and, in particular, looked-after children—that the vast majority of looked-after children do not get involved in crime. The number who are involved in criminal activity is still small. Nevertheless I accept the hon. Gentleman’s point and do not want to gloss over it at all.
The existence of other children’s homes in the area is not the key issue. What matters is that the placement meets the needs of the child and that the child’s welfare is paramount in decisions about care planning. In providing accommodation for children whom they look after, local authorities must determine the most appropriate placement on the basis of a comprehensive assessment of each child’s individual needs. Before taking any decision regarding the child’s care, they should as far as is practicable consider the views of the child concerned, as well as those of the child’s parents or other relevant people. The placing authority should be satisfied, in making the placement decision, that the placement is appropriate, capable of meeting the child’s needs and, where possible, in line with the child’s choice.
Where a looked-after child has been identified as having the risk factors that make them vulnerable to antisocial or offending behaviour, the system needs to work effectively to support them and ensure that the risk factors are properly addressed. The child’s care plan should set out how their needs will be met, and that is likely to include information that influences the type and location of their placement.
Where a looked-after child is placed in a children’s home, a key role for the home is to provide a supportive and structured environment with appropriate rules and expectations about behaviour. All providers of children’s homes are expected to comply with regulations and meet the prescribed national minimum standards for the operation of the home and the care provided. That should and does include the management of the children’s behaviour.
The chief inspector of education, children’s services and skills already has a range of enforcement powers that may be used in cases where children’s homes fail to meet the standards expected of them. We are including in the Bill measures to strengthen those provisions, such as allowing the chief inspector to restrict new admissions to homes that are found to be performing poorly. We are funding other steps to improve the quality of residential provision, such as the development of training and professional development standards for all residential care staff. It is not in anyone’s interest for children to be provided with accommodation in homes that are not properly equipped or organised to manage antisocial behaviour or to support each individual child to fulfil their potential. As part of the review of the national minimum standard, we shall consider also how best to encourage providers to engage positively with their local communities and with other agencies. It is very important that that takes place, for the very reasons that the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham mentioned: often in communities, there is a lot of misunderstanding about children in care and about the presence of children’s homes in an area.
Alongside such supportive placements and good care planning, we need a youth justice system that focuses on prevention—I commend my right hon. Friend the Minister for Children, Young People and Families on her work in that area—and provides appropriate sanctions to steer young people away from the criminal behaviour that concerns hon. Members. That is why the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 will introduce the youth rehabilitation order—a community sentence for juveniles that can be tailored to meet young people’s assessed needs—and why we in the Department for Children, Schools and Families are working closely with the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice to publish the youth crime action plan this summer, a central theme of which will be the prevention of youth crime. I shall move on to make some other remarks, but I hope that the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham feels that he does not need to press his new clause.
The hon. Member for Isle of Wight asked about age: 18 will be the appropriate age.
Mr. Turner: The hon. Member for Stourbridge made some important points, but I got the impression that they were in respect of post-18-year-olds, so the question is, what is happening to children post-18?
Kevin Brennan: The duty to accommodate looked-after children applies under clause 9 up to 18 years old. I referred to the “Staying Put” pilots that we are running to try to make it the norm for children to stay in their foster care placements up to 21 years old. However, many issues and questions—legal, practical and others—need to be addressed. Of course, young people can stay with their foster carers beyond 18, but foster carers have brought to our attention the practical difficulties with such accommodation, which we considered when developing the pilots. The right approach is for us to ensure that we understand all the issues before we roll out such a policy nationally.
Mr. Turner: The problem that the Minister cited was with girls—young women—who had taken up recommended accommodation and found that it was not foster care but an independent home because they were post-18. Are we now being told that that cannot be done? I get the impression that we are.
Kevin Brennan: I hope that I have not given the hon. Gentleman that impression at all. Local authority good practice when looking after the needs and interests of care leavers should not involve placements in the kind of inappropriate accommodation to which hon. Members have referred. I cannot emphasise that enough.
I was saying that the statutory duty in the Bill applies up to 18 years old, but that we are piloting approaches that will enable care leavers to stay, for example, with their foster carers beyond 18—with the appropriate practical support. I am not saying that it is good practice for any care leaver to be placed and not have the support of their local authority beyond the age of 18. They should not be placed in inappropriate accommodation, and it is absolutely part of the local authority’s duty to plan appropriate accommodation with the young person after they leave care, at whatever age.
10.15 am
Lynda Waltho: I welcome the “Staying Put” pilots, which were discussed on the Floor of the House when they were introduced. I would like the Minister to address further a point that I made then. There is evidence from similar schemes in Northern Ireland, which have been wonderful and successful. Given that evidence already exists, are we not hanging back a bit too much? I understand the need for evidence, but we need to move quickly. Does he have an end date in mind, or a time by which a decision will have been taken? It cannot be soon enough for those children.
Kevin Brennan: I sympathise and empathise absolutely with the point that my hon. Friend makes, but I should tell her that the scheme in Northern Ireland is relatively new, limited in scope and not universal in application. The evidence is still new and untested in terms of what has happened in the Northern Ireland context. Obviously, however, we are looking at it with interest, as we will look at the evidence from the “Staying Put” pilots.
I have tried to make it as clear as possible that as soon as we have the opportunity to evaluate the “Staying Put” pilots, which are commencing as we speak, we will look to seek the necessary resources to roll the scheme out nationally, provided that the evaluation shows that any legal or other practical difficulties that may have been thrown up can be overcome.
Kerry McCarthy (Bristol, East) (Lab): Bristol is one of the cities that have been selected to run the “Staying Put” pilots. I welcome that because I have been approached, as several of my hon. Friends have, by foster parents who have been in the difficult situation of feeling that they have to turn someone who is all but a member of their family out on to the streets when they reach a certain age.
I want to press the Minister further on evaluation. I am concerned that we will not necessarily always be able to assess until several years down the line whether the arrangements made for young people under the “Staying Put” pilots were appropriate and what was the impact on their lives. We cannot immediately arrange for them to stay with their family and say after several months that that is working fine. There might be longer-term consequences.
Will the Minister give us an idea of the time scale for the evaluation, or will it be a running evaluation with an assessment after six months? Will the evaluators then stay in touch with the young people to see how the arrangement has worked out for them?
Kevin Brennan: The assessment will not be about whether the arrangement is suitable for the young person. It will be about the practical, financial, tax, benefit and other issues that may be thrown up by the arrangement under the pilot to continue to pay foster carers for keeping young people in their homes beyond the age of 18, rather than using the supported lodgings approach.
The supported lodgings approach is often used, but it often pays a lower rate, which causes financial difficulty. If there is mutual agreement, there is no reason why foster carers cannot continue to accommodate young people leaving care. In doing so, they are entitled to supported lodgings allowance, but often that is inadequate.
Therefore, the issues raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East are not the issues that we are worried about. Where the young person and the foster carer both want it, it is often in that young person’s interest to stay in the placement beyond 18. We are, however, trying to address the often unanticipated difficulties that making such a change throws up.
The Government have occasionally been criticised, possibly rightly, for rushing to legislate and not trying to find out what the unintended consequences of legislating might be. It is right that we base our policy on clear and properly evaluated evidence, although we should do so without unnecessarily delaying a radical and appropriately progressive policy change, which is ultimately what the Bill represents. I hope that that reassures my hon. Friend on that point.
Care leavers over the age of 18 have a sole entitlement to mainstream accommodation, as do other vulnerable groups of young adults. Housing services in a local area are responsible for making those arrangements, but they should work closely with leaving care services to ensure holistic planning to meet the young person’s needs as identified in their pathway plan.
I have half an eye on the green screen up there, Mr. Williams, so I will try to deal with the rest of the points that were raised during this excellent debate. In relation to the duty to children placed out of area, the Arrangements for Placement of Children (General) Regulations 1991 require local authorities to notify the local authority for the area where the children are being placed, which meets the points made by the hon. Members for Mid-Dorset and North Poole and for East Worthing and Shoreham about local authorities often not being aware of that.
I hope, however, that clause 10 will significantly reduce the instances of looked-after children being placed out of area by providing local authorities with a legal duty to have sufficient accommodation within area.
The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham referred to a particular case about an isolated home. Clause 10 is specifically intended to help to tackle the issues of increasing provision of accommodation within the local authority area that the children are from, so that they can be looked after there, rather than dumped away from their homes.
The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole also asked how that statutory duty would bite on local authorities. Clearly, local authorities will be expected, under statute, to assess current and projected needs for looked-after children in their area, and we will ensure that it is clear that they have to do that. They will have to plan and design secure services that can meet those needs, and they will have to engage with potential providers and service users as necessary to continue, review and monitor those services. That role will, of course, be inspected and made absolutely clear during that inspection.
I will deal with one or two other issues. My hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, South raised an interesting point that we mentioned earlier. She will be fully aware that we are reviewing the whole question of the provision of adequate emergency accommodation, because she was closely involved in the young persons action plan. We absolutely acknowledge that children need safe places to go when they run away from home, until the reasons for their running away are addressed.
As my hon. Friend is aware, the review of the existing emergency accommodation is well under way to try to identify its strengths and weaknesses, and ultimately to address them. The action plan sets out a further commitment to support the development of the commissioning and provision of emergency accommodation for young runaways, including those who are running away from care. As she knows, we will consult local authority and partner organisations, as well as young people, to inform all that work.
On that basis, I think that clause 10 should stand part of the Bill and suggest that the new clause is unnecessary.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 10 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
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